During a visit to an institute in Israel, I gained a new perspective on a belief that I once saw as toxic.
June 24, 2014
How probable is it to get ardent Zionists and pro-Palestinians to not just talk to one another, but love and respect one another? Not likely. That’s why the Shalom Hartman Institute launched a controversial but groundbreaking program to bring American Muslim thought and civic leaders to Jerusalem for a year-long fellowship. For many, the program was a hard sell given sensitivities and loyalties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I hesitated joining because Hartman is an unapologetically Zionist institution and, like all the participants, I have been committed to the Palestinian cause throughout my life. Other than posing an ethical dilemma, it also required putting our credibility with the Muslim community on the line and opening dialogue with Zionists, a thought once an anathema to our sensibilities.
Through the fellowship I learned that Zionism means something very different for Jews. The Jewish people’s longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption. As someone with years of interfaith experience I should have known all this, but I didn’t. For this, I blame both the exhaustive use (and some Israelis say abuse) of the Holocaust narrative from Zionists to win over Western populations, and also because in the U.S., interfaith work means talking about everything except Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It shows the deep flaws in current interfaith models when the most burning issue remains unspoken.
They are also an affirmation that there is still hope for dialogue and relationships that can actually make a difference. Until now, both parties have been speaking inside their own bubbles, safe in dialogue with people that agree with them. The walls have been built so high that breaching them to reach out to the other side is tantamount to treason. Hartman and the participants both took huge risks in being part of this program with hopes to forge a new way forward. This fellowship proves that building relationships between people who fundamentally disagree can uncover empathy and mutual recognition that despite differences, everyone deserves dignity, security, prosperity and self-determination.