Last Wednesday, I went along with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC.  There, he gave an hour long discussion to the Rabin Fellows. This group of twelve young American college students from the DC/Maryland/Virginia were chosen by the Embassy to serve a year long internship focusing on peace and interfaith dialogue.  The recent terrorist attacks in India remind us that hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians have global ramifications.  The Mumbai attackers tortured and killed innocent Jews and justified these actions on the condition of Palestinians over the last sixty years.

A sense of insecurity has plagued the Israeli state since its inception in 1948.  Its small territory and population, its tradition of tit-for-tat violence with Palestinians, its proximity to unfriendly neighbors, and the regions rhetoric of religious hatred have all threatened and continue to threaten the existence of Israel.   But the Palestinians are Israel’s biggest challenge and the Muslim world’s greatest heartache.  Frustration, anger and hatred has spilled across the Middle East to Muslims in all 22 Arab states.  Their deteriorating condition has sucked in many of the 1.4 billion Muslims in the 57 Muslim states around the world against  not only Israelis but also Jews.  The conflict has reached such a high magnitude that the situation is no longer simply an Israeli-Palestinian one, but a Jewish-Muslim one.  Bringing down the temperature with the world of Islam, in fact, is Israel’s biggest challenge.  It all starts at home with the Palestinians.  So what are the solutions? There are three steps that could lead to a lasting peace.

The first step in easing tension between Jews and Muslims is dialogue. It may sound like a boring concept but it can lead to a working relationship if it is extensively repeated.  Dialogue commands a certain level of respect and assurance from the involved parties and it also forces people to be sensitive towards each other.  Finding common ground and similiarities between faiths in face to face meetings and  can lead to a more tolerant relationship. Intolerance and misunderstanding, in fact, is a slippery slope that can only lead to negative and often violent repercussions.

The second step is understanding.  Like dialogue, understanding is also a boring concept and it is by no means easy to achieve.  Understanding takes effort, plain and simple.  A lot of distrust between faiths stems from misperceptions and simple ignorance, so people must want to learn about each other.  In working towards understanding cultures, Jews and Muslims can help eradicate negative stereotypes.   Islam is often branded as the religion of terrorism but how many Israelis know of the passage in The Qu’ran that says ‘The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr’? Not many.  Palestinians, in turn, should meet with Israeli citizens that want Palestinians as part of the state.  From there, they can create a working relationship of mutual cooperation that hopefully can grow in influence as time moves forward.

The first two points lead to the third and final step of friendship. Israelis and Palestinians must feel for each other as humanists. A perfect example of reaching this level of respect is the Ahmed-Pearl dialogues.  Judea Pearl, a professor of physics at UCLA, witnessed a terrible tragedy.  His son Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.  So what did Pearl do in response to losing his only son?  He did something totally unexpected.  He searched the world for a Muslim to speak with about Islam. He eventually contacted professor Akbar Ahmed of American University and the two eventually began touring the country giving interfaith dialogue seminars to universities and institutions.  This powerful message was one of understanding, bridge building, but moreover, friendship.   This is the movement and environment needed to bring down the temperature and to bridge the chasm in the Middle East and in the world.-

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the one issue in the world that angers Muslims the most.  This three step solution cannot end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately but it can bring down the temperature in the Middle East and serve as a framework for lasting peace.

Moreover, the Israeli leadership in the 21st century must reflect the spirit and courage of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an army general who transformed himself into a promoter for peace.   Israel simply cannot afford to steer itself down exclusivist and oppressive policies.  If it does so, the plight of the Palestinian people will continue and anger from the Muslim world will only increase.  It is time for Israel to change its course.  It is time to convert enemies into friends.

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