“How do we make those who make the decisions that derail the peace process understand that by doing so, Palestinians and Israelis are metaphorically sinking together in the River of Life?”
Rabbi Linda Joseph of Beth Chaverim Reform Synagogue posed this question to her congregants and interfaith partners at ADAMS-Ashburn Mosque. Luckily, the answer was right in front of the 78 attendees on the evening of March 3.
Tom Bar-Gal of OneVoice Israel and Wasim Almasri of OneVoice Palestine started out their Washington, D.C. speaking tour at this interfaith event, talking about the parallel grassroots work they do to push their leaders toward the two-state solution and an end to the occupation and the conflict.
As Israeli and Palestinian, Tom and Wasim can be thought of as “neighbors” due to their geographic relation to one another. So, too, are the members of Beth Chaverim and ADAMS. Quite literally.
Ray Daffner, Tikva Committee chair and member of Beth Chaverim, said that about a decade ago, the congregation had the opportunity – through a generous donation – to participate in interfaith cooperation. Loudoun Cares, a non-profit in the area, assisted with the outreach to others in the faith community. The idea was to build a vast network of the faithful in order to foster educational and spiritual growth, understanding, and respect between all participating members.
Not too long after their work began, Beth Chaverim was in need of a new space. They did find a building, and had some room to spare for a fellow interfaith partner.
“When we [at ADAMS] were looking for a place in Ashburn to establish a mosque, there was a synagogue in a new building that had a space to rent out,” said Syed Alam, chair of ADAMS-Ashburn. “They were very welcoming, the leadership and the congregation. I wanted to form an ADAMS branch to allow the community to come together. This was a history-making opportunity for me.”
The night’s event was also an historic one for the community. It marked the first time a discussion about the conflict took place between Beth Chaverim and ADAMS-Ashburn, overcoming any apprehension and signifying that the community is ready for the next step in their interfaith journey.
During the event, congregants asked the activists about the American media’s portrayal of the conflict, as well as factions in Israel and Palestine that are harming the opportunities for peace. Tom and Wasim had answers that were understandably familiar to the audience members.
“Most people are misinformed, but moderates,” said Tom. “It is our job to help break the myths from the realities on each side.”
Wasim concurred. “OneVoice represents the majorities. The other voices [extremists] will continue to be there no matter what happens, but we need to keep working toward our goals.”
Bumps in the road are bound to happen before sustainable peace can flourish, explained Mr. Daffner.
“There was some resistance from families in Beth Chaverim and ADAMS-Ashburn – stereotypes and fears on both sides,” he said. “The ADAMS Center’s move into our open space took about a year to go through. But as long as our kids go to the same schools, as long as we live down the street from each other, this type of cooperation must happen.”
While movie nights, Torah/Koran study sessions, potluck dinners, and teen programming work well for these partners, it’s not that simple for Tom, Wasim, and their respective communities.
Wasim spoke of his time growing up on the move. He was born in Lebanon and lived in refugee camps in Syria before moving to Gaza and then the West Bank, the latter of which has been home since the 2008 war in Gaza. Despite his hardships, he finds consolation in what he and his fellow youth leaders do at OVP.
“OneVoice gave me the tools, something to work with on the ground,” he said. “This is what’s great about the Movement: you see all these small ideas, small thoughts by the youth leaders that translate into actual activities to mobilize the people, empowering them to do something about the status quo.”
Tom spoke about living in Haifa, which he said feels untouched by the conflict. However, little by little, the long arms of violence crept into Tom’s life and he believed that he needed to challenge the problematic core of Israelis’ attitude toward the conflict – apathy.
“During my time at OVI, I’ve found there are certain types of Israelis,” Tom explained. “There are skeptics that say, ‘yes, I support the two-state solution, but Palestinians will never accept it and want a return to violence. Then there are the hopeless types that support it, too, but fail to speak up. We also have a problem with unmotivated political leadership. But we must address the needs of the people [by changing the status quo].”
While religion may be one ideology driving the conflict for some factions, who represent a minority of Israelis and Palestinians, there are also many other issues to be addressed in the conflict. This is why OneVoice focuses on pragmatic steps that can be taken to achieve a peace agreement and two-state solution. Nonetheless, religious leadership can play an important role in mobilizing their communities to take an active role in working to end the conflict.
During a stop in Philadelphia for another interfaith event on March 10, this time at the invitation of Media Presbyterian Church, who partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC), it was made clear that the prominent communal role of religion in the region can be used in a positive way.
“Although we are a political movement working on establishing a political agreement [between Israelis and Palestinians], the role of religious leaders and of the religious community in Israel and Palestine can be enormously transformative in terms of building a base of support for conflict resolution,” said IEP Director Rachel Steinberg.
The work that Wasim and Tom do in their respective communities is also a transformative one. Their efforts did not go unrecognized by the people they spoke to while on tour.“Those of us who deal with the public policy side of the issue are used to hearing talk that the peace process is stalled, and that certainly is the case,” said Rev. Bill Borror, senior pastor at Media Presbyterian. “[But] OneVoice members represent not hundreds, but thousands of young adults who want a different world…there are people who are working for hope in the region.”