The Washington Diplomat / December 2009
By Larry Luxner
Imagine getting a radical Hamas fundamentalist and a hardcore Israeli settler from the West Bank to sit down for a religious discussion and actually enjoy it.
Yehuda Stolov has done that, and more. In mid-November, the Orthodox Jewish activist from Jerusalem toured Washington to help promote Interfaith Encounter Association, the nonprofit organization he founded eight years ago.
Speaking at area churches, synagogues and the nonprofit Rumi Forum, the 48-year-old scholar said his group actively embraces religion through weekend retreats, women's meetings and informal "encounters" that take place all across Israel, from the Upper Galilee in the north down to Eilat in the extreme south.
"Many of these other 'interfaith' groups work on the premise that once we establish two states one for Israelis and one for the Palestinians everything else will be solved," he explained. "They are very secularized, believing that the farther away you stay from religion, the better you are. But religion does not go away just because you don't look at it. It's a powerful force and can also be used constructively as well as destructively."
Stolov studied physics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and has a Ph.D. from that same institution. He planned to become a full-time academic when he realized where his true calling lay. In 2001, Stolov and a group of other idealists established the IEA with the aim of promoting "real and sustainable co-existence" through honest religious exchange among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Stolov questions the conventional wisdom that religion is the biggest obstacle to Middle East peace arguing instead that it can and should be the strongest driving force for peace.
In its eight years of existence, IEA has conducted 700 programs, including 150 programs in 2008 alone that included participants from all social sectors. For its work, the group has been recognized by UNESCO, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and half a dozen other organizations and foundations.
"Interfaith dialogue is very effective for three reasons," IEA's executive director told The Diplomat. "First, it takes the conversation to a much deeper place. Even those who are not religious are somehow connected to their traditions. And even if they're completely detached, the discussion has deep existential values. So when people talk about their feelings, they're not quoting a book, they're sharing themselves."
Secondly, said Stolov, those who engage in interfaith dialogue discover "many commonalities among their religions," and third, "we end up developing friendships with people we disagree with."
The interfaith groups meet once a month for two or three hours, usually focusing on a specific geographic area or interest like health care or women's rights. Stolov said 2,000 to 3,000 people participate in Interfaith Encounter on a regular basis. Of the 31 groups that meet regularly, four bring together Israeli Jews and Palestinians from the West Bank.
The group has been particularly effective in the Israeli development town of Karmiel and the Arab village adjacent to it, Majd el-Krum. The two neighboring communities are featured in a video about IEA, which in 2006 was awarded the Immortal Chaplains Foundation's 2006 Prize for Humanity.
"Our goal is to provide each person a group close to his home and heart," he said. "Most of our activities are among Israeli Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. We even have a few groups where no Jews at all are involved."
But Stolov said 31 groups is just the beginning. v"If we want to transform a country of 10 million people, which includes the Palestinians, we need hundreds of groups," said Stolov, who has lectured on the role of religious dialogue in peace-building throughout the world in places as diverse as Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey and South Korea. "We live in the same land. We need to learn how to interact positively."
In addition to those groups, IEA sponsors the Middle East Abrahamic Forum, an annual event that has brought together Muslims, Jews, Christians and others from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and even Iran.
IEA operates on a $100,000 annual budget and is constantly seeking donations from private individuals as well as foundations.
In Israel, the interfaith encounters usually take place in Hebrew, because Israeli Arabs usually speak better Hebrew than Israeli Jews speak Arabic. Palestinian-Israeli encounters are more difficult to arrange, because travel permits must be obtained in advance. Despite the obstacles, IEA has managed to sponsor group meetings between young adults from Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron, and another group that brings together Jewish settlers from Ma'aleh Adumim and Arab residents of nearby Abu Dis.
"Extremists can also get along well," Stolov recalled. "Once, I organized a very small encounter between a Hamas radical and a local Jewish leader who was from the ideological core of the settlement movement. They got along very well. We were all shocked with how well their conversation went. But then the intifada broke out, and we didn't continue."
Stolov says his organization frowns on political debates, though it doesn't forbid it either. He declined to comment on Israel's current leader, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, saying only that "if we have two states, then they have to be two friendly states. And if we have one state, Israel, it has to accommodate all of its non-Jewish citizens. We're not advocating one type of solution or another just that we become more human."
The Jewish leader added that he welcomes not only open-minded, decent Arabs and Jews to participate, but skeptical and angry people as well.
"For me, it's enough that they come," he said. "If I required that only people with goodwill come, then our program would be less effective, because then I'd get only people who were good from the beginning."