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Gaza crisis tests interreligious relationships

In the midst of conflict, hopes for peace
In the midst of conflict, hopes for peacePhoto by Scott Olson/Getty Images

At last there is a ceasefire in Gaza. The rockets and shells are quiet for a short while, anyway, but in their wake they leave the rubble of thousands of houses, 1,800 dead among the Palestinians, 65 dead among the Israelis, and traumatized communities on both sides.

Who can find a way to peace? Peacemakers in the interfaith movement have sought for years to build relationships of respect and appreciation among people with profound differences, and one could not be blamed for wondering if anything has been accomplished.

In situations like this, where opposing viewpoints are vehemently argued, and anger and dismay not only affect the discussion but lead, as they did in New York and in Paris to violent attacks against Jews and Muslims in places far away from the Gaza strip.

Facebook, Twitter, and the world of instant "communication" have made it easy to post one's opinion without much thought, and those opinions, stripped of subtlety or context and hiding behind new anonymity have too often amplified the anger and made rational discourse impossible. Writing at HuffPo, Rabbi Joshua Stanton warns against the tendency to "weaponize" language: “…to weaponize our words only reinforces the conflicts themselves and increases the harm that they do. Our opinions might rightly be deeply held, but our choice of words can be one of our most important deeds.”

People in the interfaith community world-wide have called for a continued dedication to relationship-building and dialogue that are based on the fundamental skills and attitudes that people have been able to develop during less tense times.

Those attitudes and skills were laid out some time ago in the Dialogue Decalogue, developed by Leonard Swidler out of his work in Jewish/Christian dialogue. Understanding comes, he argued, when people are able to encounter one another with the intention to learn, not simply make declarations, and work towards trust, not suspicion of one another’s intentions. It requires measuring another’s actions with a self-critical awareness of one's own failings, not holding the other to ideal standards that one does not observe. It means that one does not assume to know where conflicts or differences exist before listening carefully to the other. Above all, it requires that one make the effort to understand the others’ perspective, never losing sight of the fundamental connection of shared humanity.

Nowhere does this seem to be more essential than in Israel and Palestine itself. In a briefing call this morning, Linda Gradstein, Mideast Bureau Chief of The Media Line, and regular contributor to NPR, observed that people on neither side of the Gaza conflict are aware of the suffering of the other side. Over the past many years, opportunities for Palestinians and Israelis to get to know each other have become few and far between. The younger generations on both sides have grown up without a chance to understand or work with the others.

And so, where does the interfaith community stand? When lines get drawn so vividly and absolutely, it sometimes seems that there is no alternative. One is either for or against; one is either right or wrong; it is a forced choice: which side are you on? Perhaps the challenge is both to discover a third way and to lift it up. To stand in the middle and listen to both (all) sides. To live in the tension of unresolved conflict, seeking to live into a new way of being human that encompasses both.