While the class was discussing models of Arab-Israeli dialogue based on religious similarities, I couldn’t help but remember two instances in the last three years when I myself attempted such dialogue and learned a valuable lesson. Both occurred while I was studying in England at a university known for its religious dialogue and tolerance center.
The first time, I was part of an attempt at a Muslim-Jewish dialogue located on campus, supported by both the Jewish and Muslim student unions on campus. We were split into pairs, each pair consisting of a Jewish member and a Muslim member. My partner was a 24-year-old engineering student from Saudi Arabia (his name escapes me). We began the discussion awkwardly, introducing ourselves and our backgrounds. There was some candy at the meeting, and I offered him some, to which he replied by requesting to see the packet. He quickly scanned the ingredients and then asked if the candy was kosher. Taken aback, I said yes, and he finally allowed himself some. He saw my face and responded that if food is kosher, it generally means that it is ‘kosher’ enough for halal-observing Muslims as well. From there, both of us eating the candy together, we embarked on a path comparing the tiniest religious dietary laws we observed to see how many were similar. Indeed, we had so much in common concerning eating milk and meat, the way we slaughter our meat, the dishes we use, and more. This was the beginning of a real eye-opening experience for both of us, and we continued the game of mutuality into other fields of religious observance.
After discussing an array of topics, we both stopped and I think we both realized what was left to discuss at the same time. We hadn’t yet touched the issue of Jerusalem, where we knew we’d both remain at a standstill. He finally came forward and said the obvious: Jerusalem is also important to both of us, but we’d probably never agree when it came to our modern-day problems surrounding Jerusalem and Israel. I agreed, and the conversation became awkward, reverting back to our studies in England and then awkward silence.
The second instance occurred with a girl named Fatima from Pakistan who was living in England. We met and I asked her to join me for lunch for some conversation that might settle my then-curiosity to learn more about Islam. The conversation came easily since both of us experienced the same thing when ordering lunch at a non-kosher and non-halal fast food joint on campus, where we both opted for vegetarian meals. This kicked off a conversation about how we both dealt with being practicing participants in our respective religions and the challenges that presented for both of us in the greater secular worlds we found ourselves living in. Again, as in with my former conversation, the path led to the topic of Israel. Fatima was more vocal, and did express her anger and support of the Palestinian cause and her problems and even loathing for Israel and the people supporting that cause. As the food had long been finished, and the conversation was getting heated (far-removed from the initial intent), we both decided it was lovely to have met and that now would be the time to move on.
I don’t want to be skeptical of religious-based mutuality dialogue; those were two experiences a few years ago and perhaps there are different ways to approach the conversation I haven’t been exposed to. However, the conversation-killer called ‘Israel’ does present a problem for these types of meetings. A way must be developed to handle the inevitable halt that comes when trying to bridge a gap that is only widening nowadays because of the issues of Israel and the modern-day conflict.