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Interfaith Delegation Reports on Experiences in the Middle East

Ellen Gilbert

Three local clergy spoke about their experiences in the Middle East earlier this spring at a Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA)-sponsored presentation, “Listening from the Heart - Report From the Interfaith Delegation to Israel and Palestine,” last Tuesday at the Nassau Presbyterian Church.

Al Krass, a United Church of Christ minister who has served as CFPA coordinator in Bucks and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania since 2005, Abdul-Malik Ali, Imam of Masjid-ut-Taqwa in Trenton and a Board Member of CFPA, and Sandy Roth, Rabbi at Kehilat Hanahar, the Little Shul by the River in New Hope, joined a group of 20 clergy and human rights activists who traveled to the Middle East from late March through April 1 as the Delaware Valley Interfaith Compassionate Listening Delegation. The group interviewed Palestinians and Israelis about their perspectives on the conflict, and in their respective reports and the question-and-answer session that followed, they explored how the insights they gained might be acted on to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In her introduction to the program, CFPA Chair Irene Goldman described the speakers’ journey as an effort to find spiritual, rather than religious understanding of the people with whom they met. Describing “compassion, manners, and acts of kindness” as the Talmud’s definition of a good Jew, Ms. Roth seemed to concur, noting that she had come back “transformed,” and endorsing the value of listening to others’ experiences in the peacemaking process. “An enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard,” she observed.

Ms. Roth’s presentation included a description of a “bereaved parents circle” she had observed, consisting of both Israeli and Palestinian families who had lost children as a result of the conflict. Facing the question of “where do we go from here,” they were confronted with their own anger and desire for revenge, along with the knowledge that acting on their anger would not bring back their children. In the midst of their sorrow, they also wondered “what happened here”--what drove a young Palestinian, for example, to blow himself up in the process of hurting others. Ms. Roth described Israeli and Palestinian “brothers in pain” recognizing that the most appropriate thing to do at this point was to figure out how to prevent future tragedies.

Mr. Malik-Ali spoke at length about the difficult conditions in the West Bank City of Hebron, which is holy to all three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. He described the numerous check-points, the difficulties in negotiating blocked roads, and the disparity in living conditions between “H1” and “H2.” He remarked on his sense that the questions that he and his group posed were unusual and thought-provoking for the people they met, and that inhabitants of the region “want something to happen now.” Like Ms. Roth, Mr. Ali reported that he was glad to have gone on the trip.

Mr. Krass described the founding of a Muslim college in Israel by “people living the search for non-violence” who hope to “move from tradition to modernity.” He quoted a Muslim leader with whom he spoke as saying that “the real wall is in our heads.”

Listeners Tuesday evening may have been reminded of the work of Karen Armstrong, the religious commentator and author of such books as A History of God, Islam: A Short History, and Buddha. In Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, she speaks of using what she calls “triple vision” to comprehend the holy wars that continue to this day. Ms. Armstrong was the recent winner of a “TED (Technology, Environment, and Design) Talks” prize, and her proposal for a “Charter for Compassion,” to help make religion a force for harmony and to restore the Golden Rule as central to our existence, can be heard at http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/234.

“I was very happy with the evening,” said Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the CFPA, afterward. “It really opened a way of connecting with the long-standing problems of that region, but in a way that didn’t get everyone’s hackles up. I think that this approach, finding our common humanity, has a lot of potential, but it will take time.”

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