Bridging Divides in Israeli Society
The past year brought tremendous highs and lows for Israel’s interfaith relations. On one hand, Israel signed the Abraham Accords, normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco aptly named for our common ancestor. On the other hand, the country was rocked by the violent riots unleashed in Israel’s mixed cities in May.
On the backdrop of heightened emotions regarding these and other related issues, Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue – launched in October 2020 to cultivate an understanding of other religions among Jewish leaders – has been working tirelessly to bridge differences and increase understanding.
At the center of the Blickle Institute are the eight Jewish community leaders who served as Blickle Fellows in this inaugural year of the program. They came together weekly to engage in intensive study of the religious underpinnings of interfaith relations, to expand their own knowledge and to explore how they can use what they have learned in their roles as educators and leaders.
During the sessions, they discussed some of the most “hot button” issues, from Muslim and Jewish interpretations of each one’s relationship to the Temple Mount, to the place of Islam in modern Israeli society. They met with Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars to gain an appreciation for different perspectives and explored Jewish sources on relations with other religious groups.
“In our daily lives, we are all very busy and don’t often stop to think, learn and work on important issues,” noted prominent Israeli lecturer and Jewish social/Torah project initiator, Rabbanit Dr. Yaffa Gisser. “The program gave us an opportunity to learn and explore a crucial area, relations with our neighbors; and to reflect on how we can take responsibility for improving these relations.”
Moving Beyond the Tensions
A visit by the Blickle Fellows and the four fellows in OTS’s Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity to Imam Gemal Al-Abra, head Imam of the Bedouin city of Rahat, came at a very sensitive time – just after operation Guardian of the Walls in response to Gazan hostilities and the Arab rioting that took place throughout Israel’s mixed municipalities. The Imam thanked the group for coming to Rahat, expressing how much the visit meant to residents as an expression of interest in working together after the violence of the previous week.
“As a community rabbi, it was very moving for me to meet with Muslims, particularly Islamic religious and community leaders,” said Blickle Fellow Rabbi Eyal Vered. “I realized that we share many of the same challenges and many of the same values, and that it is imperative that we work together to strengthen society.”
The program concluded with a discussion on relations with Palestinians and a meeting with Khaled Abu Awad, a resident of the West Bank town of Omar, who shared his story of growing up in a prominent Palestinian family which lost their property in 1948 and again in 1967. He explained his family’s decision in the wake of the intifada to choose a path of peace and coexistence with their Jewish neighbors, acknowledging that Israel is home to both Palestinians and Jews. The group was incredibly moved by his story and the pain and empathy it embodied.
“This was perhaps the most important session of the entire program,” Rabbanit Gisser remarked. “The Palestinian-Israeli issue is so highly charged, but we saw that there are like-minded people who can be our partners.”
Impact on the Blickle Fellows
Rabbi Yakov Nagen, Director of the Blickle Institute, relates that “the fellows gained knowledge and insights into an area they had never previously explored on this level. Most had never met Christian leaders who could speak to them in Hebrew, or visited a Muslim city in Israel. Not only did they build their own knowledge and understanding, but they are already making a difference through their own professional leadership.”
Fellows are using what they have learned in classes and informal discussions with their students, in conversations with political leaders and in articles that have been published in the Israeli press.
“We must begin to develop a language focused on connecting with others despite our differences,” stated Rabbi Vered. “Such a language is not only important in our relations with other groups, but in our relations with other Jews, as well.”