Saturday, January 7, 2017

Love and Terror in the Middle East

I recently had a chance to interview Dr. Frank Romano, author of Love and Terror in the Middle East about his book, and interfaith efforts in the MIddle East.

What was the inspiration behind writing the book?

My inspiration to write the book is to encourage people to in some way make their corner of the world a better place.

I do this by sharing the stages I followed to find my passion, then to put words to actions in order to inspire readers to do the same.

I recount that my greatest motivation follows a vision I had during a dream years ago which indicated I would somehow be involved in the peace process in the Middle East. I’m just being faithful to that vision. While marching in Israel and the West Bank, I’ll recite Jewish, Muslim and Christian prayers that advocate similar ideas, such as the belief in one God, helping the poor. When I’m in the West Bank, some Muslims will contest my reciting a prayer in Hebrew, even if it is similar to a Muslim prayer.

There begins the dialogue. Much of the peace process is connecting with people and reprogramming them to focus on similar values in the three major religions, manifested by similar prayers and not the differences as their religious leaders do to polarize the people in the Holy Land instead of bring them together by discussing common grounds.

All that is chronicled in my book for the purpose again of encouraging others to become inspired to follow their passion.

Why is an interfaith approach to peace important? Why do people need to learn more about the efforts for peace in the Middle East?

I sincerely believe that one of the keys to peace in the Middle is through grassroots efforts to organized interfaith dialogues, to bring people together when politicians, many religious leaders tend to tear them apart chasing their silver linings. The success of these efforts is directly proportional to the results of the dialogues which are designed to open up people’s hearts to each other, to help them overcome years of negative programming derived from the fear and hate exacerbated by ignorance of each other’s culture and religion. To illustrate that, I use an example of a typical interfaith dialogue I lead that could take place either in Israel or in the West Bank:

During one session, Jews, Muslims and Christians (sometimes they are orthodox, sometimes liberal practitioners) are sitting next to each other in a circle. They were breaking bread together and drinking tea or eating humus. After an hour, I asked Jacob the Jew to tell me about Muhammad, his orthodox Muslim neighbor or visa-versa. He responded by saying they are talking which, coming from isolated unmixed villages in Israel, is new to them. He added that they have something in common in that their children go to the same school in a third village. The Jew and the Muslim, in their discussion, instead of talking about divisive subjects like religion or politics, they talk about everyday things, like the price of lunch at school has increased, or the history teacher is weird, etc. They were really bonding, becoming friends. Then I asked Sam the Christian what he thought about the group and he responded that he had invited Jacob and Muhammad to experience Christmas with him and his family in December, that they were all going to break the Ramadan fast at Muhammad’s house tonight and would attend Chanukah festivities with Jacob.

However, he said there was a problem. Jacob’s and Muhammad’s religion are taking him down the wrong path because they don’t believe in Jesus as their savoir. That opened the “Pandora’s Box” on the topic of religion. Muhammad interrupted and stated that the Jews and Christians didn’t accept Muhammad as an important prophet and then Jacob opened up his Torah and claimed non-Jews don’t accept the importance of Moses and Abraham as the principle prophets. During the discussion that followed, they implied that they don’t share the same God and that they were going to heaven but not those from other religions.

As the facilitator of the dialogue, I didn’t judge any of them. I opened up my Torah (first five chapters of the Old Testament), the New Testament and the Qur’an and lead the following discussion on comparing the main principles and philosophies found in those writings. After an hour discussion, most of the members of the dialogue are surprised to learn that all the texts reflect many similar principles, such as the belief in one God, thou shalt not kill, the obligation to help the poor, treat your neighbor with respect. . .etc.

After an hour discussing that, I asked the group another question, this time focusing my attention on the Christian as he views his Jewish or Muslim neighbor.

“Since there are so many similarities among those sacred writings, do you think it is possible you may share the same God?  After a short discussion, many members now say it is possible.

Then I close the dialogue with one last question:

“Does it make sense to kill in the name of God if you share the same God? You don’t need to answer that now. Think about it and we’ll resume the dialogue in a month or so.”

After we agree to continue the dialogue, I left them to ruminate over the last question without expecting an immediate response and then I returned two months later to the Holy Land to continue the dialogue.

In spite of the bonding going on among the members of different religions in the above dialogues, they are useless without follow-up actions, which are occasions were the participants walk the talk working on peace projects. Working together, sweating together with few words is when the true profound bonding takes place. I believe those interfaith dialogues and peace marches in Israel and Palestine are thus taking steps, but those are just the first steps. In sum, our work doesn’t end there. The same mixed group, with my participation, continues bonding by rebuilding buildings destroyed during the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians. But the rebuilding, for the moment, has only taken place on the Palestinian side and should include buildings on both sides of the wall, including the Israeli side.

Interfaith activists also engage in the replanting of olive trees that have been uprooted to make way for the walls and part of the confiscation of land engaged in by Israel in the West Bank. Olives are the most important crop for Palestinians who often have difficulties harvesting them due to attacks by Israeli settlers who often steal the olives, even set fire to Palestinian olive trees, some hundreds of years old. In addition, many of the Palestinians who normally help their families harvest the olives are in jail or have left the lands, so there is a serious lack of farm workers to help in the harvest. As a result, I, along with many other activists, join the Palestinians in the fields to help them harvest olives in October.

A final goal of organizing these interfaith groups and engaging in projects discussed above is to create a massive non-violent peace movement among Israelis and Palestinians, and world activists. We then encourage the activists to exert pressure on their governments to lobby the return of Israel and Palestine to the negotiation table in order to find a solution to the conflict. Only then will the people be finally free and prosperous.

In conclusion, the Holy Land is the epicenter of world conflict, and until a durable peace is found there, the world will remain at war.

How does the book relate to peace and conflict domestically?

To best answer this question, I’ve reproduced here the epilogue of the book:

I wrote this book to share with a wide audience my belief in the possibility of peace through grassroots activities in Israel and Palestine. A lot of the Middle East conflict is due to misunderstandings and lack of communication, notably among religious groups. As such, I strive to encourage people to organize interfaith dialogues in their own communities to help break down those barriers.

These will give rise to breaking down the stereotypes attributed to Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as learning about other cultures, notably religious cultures. Here are my suggestions on how to do it:

        Schedule interfaith events in your community centers, schools, churches, synagogues and mosques or just invite members of other religions to speak at those venues.

        At the beginning of an interfaith dialogue, someone should talk for a few minutes about the main elements of Judaism, Islam and Christianity— since many people are unaware of their common aspects—without ignoring their differences.

        During interfaith events/dialogues, lead meditations on peace, love and understanding in a way that people of different faiths would be comfortable. Perhaps avoid leading a communal prayer session as some orthodox Jews, Muslims and Christians prefer not to pray with members of other faiths.

        During interfaith meetings, some groups like to engage in channeling, where a person is selected to channel the words of God in the presence of the interfaith participants. Afterwards, they sometimes break down into groups to discuss God’s words. Perhaps one should avoid channeling in an interfaith event as many people, in particular orthodox Muslims and orthodox Jews, do not feel comfortable with a person acting as mediator between God and individuals.

        During the events, try to avoid discussions of a strictly political nature or current events in the Middle East since they often lead to arguments, often curtailing the interfaith event.

        Knowledgeable and compassionate leaders need to take the lead in developing a true discourse of peace and understanding which will result in a true dialogue, and not a debate dominated by religious leaders, politicians or others intent on imposing their ideas. Knowledgeable and compassionate leaders can also help participants understand sensitive terms such as Zionism and Jihad.[1]

        Serve refreshments during events as barriers tend to fall more quickly when participants break bread and/or drink together.

        During the events, it also helps to break down barriers by sharing an international, cross-cultural song or music, whether it be live, CDs or from other sources.

        Avoid organizing events in fancy hotels, as it’s essential to bring the dialogue to all people, not just to the privileged few.

        Town-hall styled dialogues, notably between Muslims and Jews—such as those led by Judea Pearl and Dr. Akbar Ahmed of the Daniel Pearl Foundation—are good examples of an effective way of bringing the word to the people…to all people.

        Many people are unable to attend interfaith events. However, they could greatly contribute by forwarding invitations to interfaith events they receive to family and friends. They could also help promote them by sending blurbs to those coordinating the event sections of TV and radio websites. They can also organize and engage in dialogue through email chat groups.

[1] The term “Zionism” originally revolved around the concept that Jews have a right to a homeland. Jihad, meaning struggle in Arabic, is a term used in a religious sense to mean struggle to maintain one’s faith, to defend Islam and/or to improve Muslim society. Definitions of Zionism as well as Jihad have often been misconstrued.

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