“In general, because of the occupation conditions and structural discrimination system in Israel, Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) are more interested in activities that produce change in such structures and less motivated to participate in dialogue activities that can be utilized by the Israeli government as a form or indication of normalization of the occupation. In addition, certain Jewish American and European organizations have often supported dialogue and peace work as a way to project the democratic and pluralist image of Israel. Such organizations tend to fund Jewish Israeli initiatives and organizations as opposed to Palestinian organizations that might focus on social justice or nonviolent resistance” (Mohammad Abu-Nimer, “Religious Leaders in the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict: From Violent Incitement to Nonviolence Resistance.” Peace & Change, Vol. 36, No. 4, October 2011, p. 562).
Interreligious dialogue – who could be opposed to it? Granted, one could take a very identity-based position and fear that one’s children will end up being less believing because they learned about other religions. Generally, however, dialogue sounds like baseball, mom and apple pie (or soccer, mom, and hummus, in this context.) As Professor Abu-Nimer points out, however, from the point of view of the disempowered intergroup dialogue can be dangerous. When one spends one’s time and energy understanding the other, one might be implying that this is where the most important work needs to be done. When someone is bulldozing your olive trees, you don’t sit down with that person and learn about their theological beliefs and sacred texts. You videotape the destruction, you link hands and sit in front of the equipment, you call the press, perhaps you begin a lawsuit. From the point of view of the dominant group, if they feel under attack there is a simpler reason not to talk. Abu-Nimer quotes an Israeli Jewish dialogue participant who says, “The Jews…who are suffering in their own way from the bombings and from the terrorism that is coming from these same towns [as the Palestinian participants] feel like talking with these people is almost traitorous” (Abu-Nimer, p. 567).
Given the above concerns, what if any is an effective role for dialogue groups in moving towards a just peace? To me, one point is clear – dialogue groups avoid the questions of everyday suffering and politically charged theological disagreement at their peril. Perhaps there is room for putting off those discussions until the second or third meeting, but every participant must know that both their most immediate and their deepest concerns will be discussed. Abu-Nimer quotes a participant of a strictly “learn about the others’ religion” dialogue group who reported that the Palestinians were frustrated they could not talk more about roadblocks and military occupation, and that the Jews were frustrated that the Palestinians kept trying to “only focus on what Jews, not Palestinians, should do differently” (Abu-Nimer, p. 571). Such frustration is the fate of groups who do not allow the conversation to move to topics of current serious import.
Putting those difficult issues on the table means that those in the conversation will be uncomfortable, and will have to answer questions for one another about what actions are justified or required by their religious commitments. This is all to the good. One cannot know, or be known, without challenging and being challenged.