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The purpose of the Jerusalem-Hebron Religious Leaders Forum is to create a uniquely effective path toward harmonious co-existence. The main Forum continuously recruits leading community religious leaders (Rabbis of synagogues and villages, heads and teachers at Yeshivot (Religious Jewish Academies), Imams in mosques, community Sheikhs and others).
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The organizers

The project is co-coordinated and co-sponsored by the International Association for Religious Freedom and the Interfaith Encounter Association, one of its Middle Eastern member groups. The IARF, established at the beginning of the 20th century by Unitarians and European Free Christians, has since developed into a truly interfaith platform of exchange and collaboration between religious liberals of different faiths, represented at the UN and involved in a variety of projects in such diverse regions as Japan, Pakistan, India, Kenya, the Middle East, Europe and North America. These projects focus on interfaith dialogue and peace building initiatives, both local and intercontinental (such as our quadrennial Congresses), as well as human rights education and advocacy at national and international levels.

We are particularly proud of and excited about this cooperation with the Interfaith Encounter Association, our long-standing member in the Middle East. We have been greatly impressed by the passion and dedication of the local volunteers and have been supporting them as best we could since 2011. Still, their dreams and the needs in the region are far greater than our means, especially now that they lost an important funding source from the US when the Trump Administration terminated support of any such groups, which they previously enjoyed through a number of programmes.

Please consider supporting us in our strife to counter hostility and ignorance. You may read about the project below, at our website (iarf.net/projects/israel) and at the website of the IEA (interfaith-encounter.org).

The project

The purpose of the Jerusalem-Hebron Religious Leaders Forum is to create a uniquely effective path toward harmonious co-existence. The main Forum continuously recruits leading community religious leaders (Rabbis of synagogues and villages, heads and teachers in Yeshivot, Imams in mosques, community Sheikhs and others).

Currently the Forum consists of several Heads and teachers of Yeshivot, Chief Rabbi of the town of Efrat and several Salafi Sheikhs from Hebron and Yata. They are consistently exposed to each other’s teachings and practices through regular encounters of joint study and open conversation, while emphasizing mutual respect and sincere desire for understanding. The process leads them to get to know each other better and better, gain more knowledge about the religion of the other, and through that – become more respectful of the other and develop strong bonds of friendship and cooperation. Moreover, the process leads them to share their experience with their students, who are the future religious and social leaders of the Holy Land, and encourage them to form their own groups.

Out of the groups already formed, these are currently active: two groups with students of Otniel Yeshiva and young adults from Yata, students of Otniel Yeshiva and young adults from Hussan, and young adults from Jenin and Gilboa. In addition – a group was formed in Hebron and another group of families from Jericho and Jerusalem. Three branches of the Forum are now in the process of formation: a group of religious leaders in the Tel Aviv area, a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims and a group of religious leaders in the Galilee. With time, the Forum and students’ groups will develop into a regional forum whose voice is heard by the people who live in the region between Jerusalem and Hebron, and hopefully other parts of the Holy Land. In parallel the forum will work to recruit support from top leaders, who will also visit occasionally the encounters, even if their time will not permit regular participation.

Due to their position as community religious leaders, the ripple effect will be especially significant. They will convey the message of harmonious coexistence in two ways by incorporating it into their regular teachings, and in responding publicly and jointly to occurrences of xenophobia or prejudices.

Working in a region that is no stranger to conflict, we strive to use a grass-roots approach to facilitate lasting social change. The Forum incorporates the knowledge and experience of regional leaders who have lived their lives within the conflict. Participation alone is a powerful signal of the willingness of people of the region to move towards peace. It is also important to note that Jerusalem and Hebron themselves hold deep religious significance for Islam and Judaism. It has been the setting of ancient and recent conflict. It is essential to the future of both communities to work together to create peace since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only affects the citizens in the region, but is also used as a rallying point for tensions and even hatred all over the world. The Jerusalem Hebron Religious Leader’s Forum is coordinated by an energetic and resourceful pair, a Rabbi and a Sheikh. Each of the student groups is coordinated by a Jewish-Muslim team. The Forum meets on a consistent basis every 5-10 weeks, totalling 5-10 encounters during the year. The encounters includes 10-20 influential religious leaders of both the Jewish and Islamic faith who reside in the region around Jerusalem and Hebron.

After mutual greetings, each encounter will start with presenting the theme chosen for it from the Jewish and Muslim perspectives. In the second part, participants study the theme in depth for about an hour – in light of the presentations and the religious texts of both religions. The last part, of around 30 minutes (more/less as needed) is dedicated to identifying public issues that need to be jointly addressed and working to address them, and planning the next encounter. A few specific examples of possible joint projects to combat xenophobia are: making public statements, writing joint editorials, newspaper columns, etc. In parallel: the coordinators of the Forum work to invite more community religious leaders to join the Forum and to recruit the support of top religious leaders (such as the Chief Rabbis of Israel, heads of Islamic courts, heads of religious academies, heads of leading families in the region etc.)


You can find more stories and extensive reporting at the website of the IEA. 

Abdallah Abu Ghanem
I grew up in a single-parent family after my dad had left us and my mother, who is illiterate, raised us by herself.I was born in 1967 in Jerusalem, which means that I grew up after the Six-Day-War and I was taught to hate the Jews (due to the consequences of that war). In elementary school I started learning Hebrew and our Jewish teachers were very kind to us. This caused an internal conflict in me because on one hand I was taught to hate the Jews but here I witnessed how nice and kind the Jewish teachers were behaving towards us. After I graduated from High school I applied to the university but the first Intifada broke out in 1987 and the universities were shut down. As a result I started working and developed relationships with Israeli Jews. I discovered wonderful people (just like those Jewish teachers) – unlike what I had been taught about the Jews till then. This revelation motivated me to start reading about “the other” and engage in conversations with “the other” in order to get to know Jews by talking TO them and not ABOUT them. Then I discovered the Interfaith Encounter Association, started attending encounters and found the place I had been looking for. I believe that G’d created nations and tribes so that we would strive to reach out and get to know each other, as it is mentioned in the Quran. Otherwise, He would have made us all one nation.

Nurit Shoshani-Hechel
Two years ago I joined encounters between Jews and Muslims through the Interfaith Encounter Association. I am currently a part of a group of Jews from Jerusalem and Muslim-Arabs from the Hebron area and we get together once every three or four weeks. During the encounters wonderful friendships were formed between the participants. I discovered over time that even though we had and still have disagreements about politics, we have plenty of similarities as well. Close ties and fondness were forged between the participants from both sides and I have to admit that on a personal level I became more tolerant and understanding towards the Palestinians and the difficulties they were facing and I think the same process took place on the other side as well. Nowadays we are all looking forward to the encounters and upon one of the participants’ suggestion we started teaching each other Hebrew and Arabic. I find myself trying hard to learn new words in Arabic and the motivation to get to know each other grew tremendously. We sometimes had difficult conversations that challenged us to think deeply but then more peaceful conversations followed that allowed us to feel connected and develop our friendship. I would like to express my deep respect and appreciation towards the Interfaith Encounter Association, in which no matter who you are, whether you are religious or secular, left-wing or right-wing, a settler or a staunch opposer of settlements, a supporter of normalizating relations with Israel or opposes normalization – the door is open to all. I believe that the Interfaith Encounter Association is truly unique in its openness and tolerance. It does not require any prerequisites from any of its participants but rather provides a platform for people who are willing to listen and express their views and find the similarities. I hope that the association’s activities will continue and the organization itself will grow and expand because I have no doubt it is of high value and importance.

Endorsements from Unitarians

Elizabeth Darr

Since 1975 I have been a member of the First UU Society of San Francisco, with whose support I became a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master Level (now retired). I have been a member of the IARF since about 1988, when our congregation was tapped for volunteers to work at the IARF World Congress held on the Stanford campus. Having served as Treasurer on the IARF international council for the immediate past term, and currently serving as co-chair of the US Chapter, I feel deeply connected to the projects that our modest organization is able to support.  Among them, the IEA may be the one I feel is most directly contributing to peace, to a diminishing of violence. When I think of world community, with peace and justice, I think that supporting this project is just about the most direct way I live that principle.

Robert Ince

As President of the International Association for Religious Freedom and as former Convenor of the General Assembly of Unitarians in the UK, I very much endorse the work of Interfaith Encounter Association. For me their work is entirely within the spirit of the 6th Principle of the UUA: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. The IARF and many Unitarian and Universalist communities throughout the world have supported this work over a number of years and, given the demonstrable success and growth that the IEA has shown, it seems to me to be essential that we encourage and publicise their work as a shining example of how to combat fundamentalism and bring peace in the Middle East closer to becoming a reality.

Rev. Dr. Richard Boeke

I add my name to those w ho support the petition to “Faithify” for support of Interfaith Encounters Association.
The IARF has given birth to both the Partner Church Council and the ICUU. To my mind it still deserves the support of UUs and other Faith Communities. If Faithify takes up the cause, I will contribute to support IARF Colleagues leading the Interfaith Encounters Association. Unitarians of Horsham gave £1,000 after Dr. Yehuda Stolov spoke at our Sussex Church. Shalom, Salaam Alaykum

What your donation can do

30$ – covers printing and communications costs for one encounter session.
60$ – buys food for one encounter session.
100$ – enables a Palestinian youth to come to Israel for an encounter session.
250$ – allows us to retain trained coordinators of one encounter session.
500$ – covers all the costs for one Palestinian and Israeli Encounter.
1,500$ – pays for one retreat.
‍5,000$ – can sustain one ongoing dialogue group for one year.

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