Taking Steps Toward Greater Understanding

Taking Steps Toward Greater Understanding

When it comes to building meaningful, respectful relationships and bridging differences, there is no substitute for face-to-face encounters. With this in mind, the 11 current fellows from OTS’s Blickle Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, several of last year’s Blickle Institute fellows, and the current fellows of the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity spent a day in Kfar Qasim, a Muslim Arab-Israeli city 12 miles east of Tel Aviv.

In the mosque at Kfar KassemKfar Qasim holds great significance for interfaith relations. It is the birthplace of the Islamic Movement, founded by Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, an advocate for peaceful relations with Israel and integration with Israeli society.  Previously imprisoned for organizing violent acts against Israel, Darwish left prison a changed person, committed to peaceful relations. However this shift in perspective led to a split within the Islamic Movement and while today, the northern branch is outlawed by Israel for its violent approach, the southern branch – represented by Darwish – seeks coexistence and integration.

In addition, the founder and much of the leadership of the Ra’am political party also hail from Kfar Qasim.  With inclusion of Ra’am in the current governing coalition of Israel being the course of tremendous controversy, it’s important to understand where the people who represent the party come from – both literally and ideologically.

A Religious Imperative to Work Together

Participants heard firsthand about the challenges of being Arab and Israeli; as well as the residents’ hopes for themselves, for the town and for Israeli society.

Local leader Imam Iyad Amar recounted for the group one of the most painful parts of Israeli history: the massacre in Kfar Qasim on the eve of the Sinai War in 1956, as 48 residents who unknowingly violated curfew were killed by Israeli Border Police. Amar shared how, despite this difficult memory, he and the city as a whole embarked on a path of integration with Israeli society. In fact, he shared, he works together with former Blickle Fellow Rabbi Matanya Yedid (2020-21) to build bridges between Muslim and Jewish leaders in Israel’s mixed cities through in Mosaica: The Religious Peace Initiative.

Sheikh Raed Bader, also active in Mosaica, is the primary arbiter of Muslim religious law for the Islamic Movement in Israel. He discussed his work to establish religious legal grounds for making peace with Israel, emphasizing the importance of balancing religious texts with current realities. He noted how his work in this area is parallel to that of the fellows in the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity, who are engaged in researching and compiling halakhic sources regarding Israel’s responsibilities to minority groups in its midst, as well as the halakhic guidelines relating to interfaith activity.  Both sides are working to help their own people appreciate the religious imperative to work together.

“The visit to Kfar Qasim helped us better understand both the challenges to creating a shared society and the potential we have to live together,” summarized Blickle Fellow Rabbi Yitzchak Ben David, a community rabbi in the Israeli town of Tzur Hadassah. “There is no substitute for meeting with key figures in Muslim society as we strive to live as neighbors.”

Opportunities to Make a Concrete Difference

Kfar Kassem high school teachers speak to the groupThe last stop on the group’s visit was the local Kfar Qasim high school, where the group heard from two teachers who shared the challenge of teaching citizenship in an Arab-Israeli city.

The educators described the portrayal of the Kfar Qasim massacre In Israeli textbooks, pointing out that it would be more sensitive to address what happened in terms of Israel’s treatment of minorities, rather than the way it’s addressed at present, with a focus on the appropriateness of the military orders.

Dr. Assaf Malach, a second-year fellow in the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity, listened intently along with everyone. However, as the Director of the Committee for Citizenship Studies in Israel’s Ministry of Education, he is in a position to potentially incorporate such suggestions into the educational curriculum.

“The Blickle Institute and the Beit Midrash are revolutionary programs in the Orthodox Jewish world,” states OTS President and Rosh Hayeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander. “For the first time in 2000 years we have a Jewish State, and the fellows in these programs –all of whom are Jewish community and organizational leaders from the Haredi and Religious Zionist sectors – are honing in on our halakhic responsibilities to the minorities within our midst, while simultaneously working to create a climate of change with an eye toward a harmonious future. Meetings such as these can have lasting effects.”

Rabbi Brander added, “If we don’t invest in these issues, our differences can drive us apart. That is not only an ethical issue, with which we should all be concerned, but it can also fan the flames of existent security issues and compromise Israel’s future.”

A Clear Desire for Warm Relations

Rabbi Yakov Nagen, Director of both the Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity, related how he had recently attended an awards ceremony at the Kfar Kassem high school for students who had volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The students were so touched that a rabbi attended the ceremony that they all asked to have their photos taken with me,” he recalled.

Amazingly, during this visit with the Blickle and Beit Midrash fellows, the group noticed a collage at the entrance to the high school building incorporating some of those photos. “The collage included photos of many Jewish rabbis and leaders who had visited the school,” Rabbi Nagen recounts. “The message that the students have chosen to share with everyone who enters the building is their clear desire for warm relations.”

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