On Sept. 30, a diverse group of students gathered for lunch at USF Hillel. But it wasn’t just the bagels that brought us together. The audience, composed of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, came to listen, learn, and initiate an inter-religious dialogue about peace-building.
Guest speakers Rabbi Ron Kronish, founder and director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), and Qadi Iyad Zahalka, the judge of the Jerusalem Muslim Sharia Court of the State of Israel, discussed what they call “The Other Peace Process” or “people-to-people track.”
Rabbi Kronish differentiated between two kinds of activities: peace making and peace building. The former involves drafting a political agreement. He defined the latter, which is the method taken by the ICCI, as “changing the hearts and minds of people to live in peace together.”
The peace-building model entails four steps. First, participants introduce each other as human beings, stripping down labels and getting to know their personal identities. The group then learns about each individual’s religion, focusing on the similarities between them. Afterward, they discuss issues from a personal, rather than political, perspective. Finally, individuals are instructed to take social and educational action and share their newfound knowledge with their communities.
The proceedings of the event mirrored this peace-building model. First, we mingled and got acquainted with one another over lunch. Audience members represented the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Christians United For Israel (CUFI), and USF Hillel, but rather than focusing on labels and the differences between our organizations, we identified ourselves by name and conversed casually.
Then, we had the opportunity to learn. Qadi Zahalka spoke about his role as a judge on the Sharia court and explained the inner workings of the Israeli judicial system. He discussed his legal training, revealing that he was required to study Jewish law in addition to Muslim religious studies. He said that he observed numerous similarities between the two religions, which share “humanistic values.”
Rabbi Kronish and Qadi Zahalka invited students to ask questions. Students raised various issues regarding religious interactions in both Israel and the United States, such as the obligations of a religious majority to treat a minority fairly, separation between Arab and Jewish students in Israeli schools, notions of extremist interpretations of Sharia law that have permeated U.S. society, and how to separate politics and religion while engaging in dialogue.
In addition, students inquired about the Israeli-Palestinian land conflict. The final question asked was, “do you think there will ever be peace?” In response, Rabbi Kronish answered a firm yes. “A peace agreement is the beginning, not the end,” he said. Now, students are encouraged to take action by sharing the success of this event with the campus community and promoting interaction between diverse student organizations. USF Hillel Executive Director Ed Rosenthal maintained that Hillel will continue to foster dialogue on campus and welcome students to convene and become familiarized with another, in efforts to break down stereotypes and forge relationships.
Though sensitive, complex questions were asked, in the end, we left the table without animosity. We left with more knowledge about one another than we had entered with and said farewell as friends. And we left with the promise that dialogue will persist.