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The Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) based in Jerusalem works to promote genuine coexistence and sustainable peace using interactive interfaith dialogue as its vehicle. The IEA runs dozens of ongoing community groups of interfaith encounter – from the Upper Galilee to Eilat, including many groups that bring together on a regular basis Israelis and West Bank Palestinians. Thus building a true grassroots movement which constitutes the human infrastructure for peace in the Holy Land. https://interfaith-encounter.org
On the 28th October 2020 over 40 supporters of TalkMatters joined IEA’s Director Yehuda Stolov and Group Co-ordinators Carolina Frimer, Fatima Amer, Albert Groothedde and Taleb Al-Hirinthi. They talked about their backgrounds, culture, religion and their work for the Interfaith Encounter Association. After the presentations, there were three break-out groups. Mohammed Amin was one of the participants. Here he reports on his group.
I was in the group led by Jenny Nemko. There were 12 participants, one from Israel, one from Ireland and the rest from the UK with one Muslim (myself) and most being Jewish with probably just one Christian.
The Interfaith Encounter Association speaker was Taleb al-Harithi, a Palestinian who is a retired Professor of Geology and who lives in Hebron. He explained that he has been involved with IEA since 2003, and with interfaith dialogue more widely since the early 2000’s.
Below is a summary of some of the question and answer session in the break-out group. All of the questions are addressed to Taleb Al-Hirinthi and the answers are from him, although I have written them in the third person, not least because they are paraphrased.
What do your family and friends think about your IEA activities?
When his home was threatened by the Israeli army with demolition due to building permit issues, his Peace Now friends defended him from the bulldozers. His credibility with his Palestinian friends was improved both by the fact that he had been threatened by the Israeli army with demolition and that “Good Israelis” had stood up for him.
While speaking, Taleb mentioned how surprising he found it that there were two synagogues quite close to each other, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi. In Israel or Palestine one would never find two mosques so close together, as the Muslims would just choose to attend on bigger mosque together.
In response, I explained the diversity of Muslims in Manchester, both theological and ethnic origin which led to many different mosques within a relatively small geographical area. I believe that the difference was that Palestinian Muslims were almost all Sunnis and of course from one ethnic group.
How do you relate Interfaith Encounter to the wider problems of peace, the occupation etc.?
Taleb explained that the IEA is not there to discuss politics. It is about people getting to know each other, and to learn about each other’s beliefs and religious practices.
How is the IEA progressing?
Rather than people staying within it forever, there is a steady turnover in attendance. To a significant part, it depends upon the discussion topic, so different people will attend depending upon the topic.About 35% of meetings have some Christian participation. Meeting locations are chosen to be places which are easy for Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians to meet up. Hence, they are more likely to meet in Jerusalem rather than trying to meet in Hebron.
How do you move people from knowing each other to solving the problem of peace?
Taleb gave the example of his son who brought many of his Israeli Jewish college friends. They were able to see how people lived and to have the Palestinian point of view explained to them in a peaceful way. It is important to help “the other” develop their understanding to a position where they want to help Palestinians to achieve freedom.
How do you feel about Palestinian children learning more about Jewish children and vice versa?
Such learning is important. However, the best way to achieve it is not theoretical classroom instruction but for children to meet each other in person and talk.
One participant made the comment that Arab children are not taught how the other side feels, and vice versa.
What kind of Jews do you meet with locally in Hebron?
The IEA meetings are not local to Hebron but rather mainly in Jerusalem which is also where the Jewish participants come from. Many friendships have been created by the IEA.
What language is used to conduct IEA discussions?
The discussions are mainly in English. However, people are free to use their own language with translation being provided by him (for translation from Arabic into English) and by his Jewish co-organiser (for translation from Hebrew into English).
What is the greatest achievement?
People come to the IEA with stereotyped views of “the other.” After a while, they stop being afraid of “the other”. It is an achievement to learn “the other’s” fears, concerns and ambitions. Many come to trust the other and become friends who visit each other in their homes. Some go on to give each other practical help, when catastrophes such as floods, house collapses, threats of house demolition etc. arise.