Interfaith Peace Building Could Be Key in Ending Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Abraham Fund's efforts, led by Jews and Muslims working side-by-side, represent a ray of hope in a region that too often lacks hope.
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Across the globe, diverse people watch with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and even anger as violence once again escalates in Israel.

The co-directors of The Abraham Fund traveled this past week from Jerusalem to Pacific University in Oregon to present on their efforts at peace building between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The Abraham Fund's efforts, led by Jews and Muslims working side-by-side, represent a ray of hope in a region that too often lacks hope.

There are two basic truths that must be accepted for any peace to emerge in the Middle East. First, the people of Israel - both Jewish and Arab citizens - deserve to live in a homeland free from violence and discrimination.

Second, the Palestinian people deserve their own nation free from oppression and where people can thrive economically and spirituality.

The two-state solution, as President Obama wisely re-stated this past week, remains the only viable option for peace. There is much that remains in the way of that goal.

Both Israel and Palestine lack political leaders committed to peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled using the politics of fear and used military might and inflammatory rhetoric that has diminished Israel's security and moral standing in the world. Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been unable to rally popular support, with Hamas capturing more and more backing, leaving the Palestinians without an effective advocate.

The occupied territories have been the cause of a humanitarian nightmare. It is a situation that breeds terrorism and violence out of a sense of hopelessness. We should never excuse terrorism, but it is unimaginably mindless for Israel to continue an occupation that violates human rights norms and causes people to give up on a political process to resolve fundamental questions concerning the future of Palestine.

An action alert from the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ circulating this week is calling on the Obama Administration to intervene with a sense of urgency to restart the peace process:

A peace process must be established that seeks to end the occupation. Daily life under occupation leads to desperation and many Palestinians have lost hope in political peace promises... The U.S. must remain committed to creating a framework and timeline for seeking a peaceful end to the occupation for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians.

At the same time, peace-building efforts by groups such as The Abraham Fund should be expanded with support from the United States, other governments, and corporations from the U.S. and Europe doing business in Israel and Palestine.

The Abraham Fund Initiatives is a not-for-profit organization working since 1989 to promote coexistence and equality among Israel's Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens. Named after the common ancestor of both Jews and Arabs, The Abraham Fund works toward a prosperous, secure and just society by promoting policies based on innovative social models, conducting large-scale initiatives, advocacy and public education.

In September, two of the most important holy days for Jews and Muslims - Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha - took place on the same day. The Abraham Fund launched a television campaign calling on Jews and Muslims to be respectful of one another during this important time as part of their on-going commitment to building bridges between Jews and Muslims.

U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey was in Israel in the days leading up to Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha with other officials from the State Department. He met with leaders of The Abraham Fund, among others. Afterward, he wrote:

Special Representative Zafar, Special Envoy Forman, and I met with interfaith groups doing important cross-border work to improve understanding of the religious beliefs and customs of their Christian, Muslim, or Jewish neighbors. We were heartened to hear of the public condemnation following the desecration of religious sites. It was also inspiring to witness the expressions of solidarity with the communities targeted by these acts. We visited the Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand School in Jerusalem -- itself a target of vandalism and arson -- whose students are a diverse ethnic and religious microcosm of Jerusalem. In Hand-in-Hand schools in Jerusalem and Israel, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian children engage daily in a bilingual and multicultural environment where inter-religious literacy is a driving force to promote peace, not division, and where they engage in what they describe as the "daily practice of togetherness..."

Groups like these will be the source of the conflict's end and will help establish a diverse, cross-border community that espouses mutual respect, understanding, and nonviolent community engagement. In places like Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel, interfaith dialogue is not merely a conversation; it is a practice of mutual empowerment for people of varied faith traditions that can bring about a culture of peace and effect positive change in society.

Today, too many progressive Americans are less focused on interfaith peace building and more focused on boycotts of Israel (or companies that do business with Israel) that drive many progressive Israeli Jews further into alliance with Netanyahu and right-wing parties. This includes, to my frustration as a UCC minister, the United Church of Christ. Some in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement reject a two-state solution and even question that right of Israel to exist. The UCC is certianly not in this camp, but some BDS advocates are and often employ anti-Semetic rethoric.

Funding Netanyahu's settlement expansion, a clear violation of past peace agreements, often comes from conservative U.S. Christian bodies not interested in peace. As NPR has previosuly reported regarding this financial support from evangelical Christians: "Ardent followers also embrace literal interpretations of the Bible that a thriving state of Israel is a prerequisite for an apocalyptic end-time and the return of Jesus to earth."

Leading ill-advised boycotts and funding settlement expansions feed into the sense of hopelessness and culture of violence that all should be working to avoid.

For people of faith, the focus ought to be on putting pressure on all parties to seriously re-engage the peace process and supporting Israeli and Palestinian organizations committed to a two-state solution, human rights, and inter-religious dialogue that build relationships that can be the foundation of a new peace.

The Abraham Fund's programs provide a model of peace building that should be expanded.

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