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Interfaith Gathering Hopes for 'Ripple Effect'

August 6, 2009 By:
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She didn't know how her friends and colleagues would react to the news.

So for several days after Israel launched its incursion into Gaza last winter, Margalit Ziv -- an Israeli Jew who heads the early-childhood department at Al-Qasemi Academy near Netanya, a women's college where Arabs comprise the majority of the faculty and virtually all of the students -- said that she couldn't bare to reveal that one of her sons had been deployed to Gaza.

Finally, Ziv's longtime colleague, Hala Habayib -- an Israeli Muslim who also helps run the department -- sensed that something was wrong with her friend, and came right out and asked her.

"So I tell her, and she says: 'Listen, we are both mothers. As a mother, I feel complete empathy, and I want to know what is happening with you and how you feel,' " recalled Ziv.

Habayib, who at the time was worried about Palestinian relatives in Gaza, added: "We are working to know in order to learn how to feel empathy to people, and how to understand people, how to deal with people as humans, not as an identity."

Ziv and Habayib were two of eight Israeli women -- five Arabs and three Jews -- who recently spent 10 days in the Philadelphia region as part of the "Women's Intercultural Leadership Seminar."

The program was organized by Temple University's Dialogue Institute, with support from the U.S. State Department and the City of Philadelphia.

The institute was founded by Leonard Swidler, a Temple professor and Catholic theologian considered a pioneer in interreligious dialogue. It is an outgrowth of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, which Swidler founded in 1964 with his wife, Arlene Swidler. Though Swidler has overseen dialogue projects since the 1970s, it wasn't until last year that the Dialogue Institute became a fully independent organization with a full-time executive director.

The institute's goal is to translate the theories discussed in the journal into real, working collaborations in multiple countries, particularly in areas marked by histories of tension between ethnic and religious groups.

Such projects are based on the assumption that a better understanding of the other is essential for the process of reconciliation, and that peace is formulated at the grass-roots level.

"Dialogue is the opposite of debate. Dialogue means that I think I might learn something from you," said Swidler, whose father was Jewish.

Many of the Dialogue Institute's programs operate with funding from the Fulbright Interfaith Community Action Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State that provides study opportunities in dialogue and coexistence to leaders overseas, particularly in the Muslim world. Upcoming projects include a planned American retreat for a group of Saudi Arabian academics.

For the women who participated in the program here last month, the aim was to further opportunities to work together across Israel's Arab-Jewish divide. The group met with women here from a wide array of religious and ethnic backgrounds. They exchanged stories and ideas about leadership, promoting societal change and gender identity.

Six of the Israeli women who took part are affiliated with Al-Qasemi Academy, the Islamic women's college located in Baqa el Garbia, Israel, and supported by Israel's Ministry of Education.

'The Possibility for Peace'

Relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel have become increasingly strained in the past decade, with some Arab leaders calling for the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and politicians like Avigdor Lieberman calling for loyalty oaths for Arab citizens.

But Al-Qasemi is one of a number of places in Israel where Jews and Arabs work together every day.

"These are the people who will not only be the ones that create peace on the ground, but they are the ones that create relationships that enable the possibility for peace to exist," said Racelle Weiman, an Israeli academic tapped to direct the year-old Temple institute.

The group's stops in Philadelphia included a mosque in North Philadelphia; a historic African-American church in Overbrook; meetings with Jane Golden, the founder of the Mural Arts Program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; as well as with Rabbi Marcia Prager, who spoke about being a woman religious leader.

'A Big Ignorance'

For Asmaa Ganayim, head of the Information and Communication Technology Center at Al-Qasemi, the Philadelphia program was her first trip to the United States.

Ganayim, who wore a bright pink hijab, said that she has used the Internet and computer science to bring together students at Al-Qasemi, in a virtual sense, with students at several smaller Jewish colleges in Israel to solve problems related to technology, not politics.

"In our society," she said, "between Arabs and Jews, there is a big ignorance." But this group of women practices "empathy in our everyday lives. It's not some project here or there."

Ziv said that her decision to work at an Israeli-Arab college actually began at the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her doctorate more than a decade ago.

After focusing on the impact of the Head Start program on African-American children, Ziv said that, upon her return to Israel, she decided to work with an underprivileged population.

"I'm not a political person," said the Jerusalem native.

But through her work at the college and her participation on the Philadelphia trip, she's come to believe in the ripple effect of individuals working together: "Here in Philadelphia, we are getting a broader sense of what interreligious dialogue and pluralism can mean."

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