Yesterday I was privileged to meet with an extraordinary group of Jewish and Muslim students at Tel Chai Academic College (המכללה האקדמית תל-חי) in Kiryat Shmonah, located at Israel’s northernmost border with Lebanon. They meet regularly as a Jewish-Arab dialogue group. The group is staffed by Dr. Yousef Jabareen, a scholar and human rights activist who specializes in building bridges between Arabs and Jews and lobbying for justice for minorities.
I spoke to the group about my almost fifty years of experience in interfaith dialogue in the United States, about how much I have learned from Jewish tradition about respecting religious diversity, and about how potent interfaith cooperation can be in speaking up for issues of human rights, justice, and peace.
I shared with them how much I have learned from members and leaders of other faiths, how precious to me are the friendships that have flowed from interfaith contact, and how much can be accomplished when faith groups join together in common action based on shared values.
The reaction of students and their advisors was stunning to me. They were emotional. They seemed so eager to hear messages of moderation and acceptance based on religious values. Too often the teachings of religious leaders have been polarizing. Their questions were penetrating and compassionate. Is it really possible to find religious messages that are fully embracing of the other? Can people in dialogue really act with civility and compassion with one another even when they continue to disagree? Can religion and politics be separated from one another, especially in the Middle East?
“They seemed so eager to hear messages of moderation and acceptance based on religious values.”
Tel Chai Academic College is off the beaten track. It has about 3,500 students. It attracts Jewish and Arab (both Christian and Muslim) students from all over Israel. It is truly a place where students can learn to know each other and to explore each other’s culture and faith.
After departing, I felt that this is a place where the infrastructure of peacemaking is happening apace. Peace accords between governing bodies are crucial, but here in this distant place, the hard work of building interpersonal trust and friendship is underway!
My visit to Tel Chai Academic College was arranged by the US Embassy. I am very grateful to their staff who feel that religious lenses for reconciliation should be explored.