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Mideast Violence Tests The Relationships That Interfaith Groups Work Hard To Build

Sheryl Olitzky (left) and Atiya Aftab founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in 2010. It has since grown to more than 150 chapters across the U.S. and in Berlin.
Callie Barlow
Courtesy of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom
Sheryl Olitzky (left) and Atiya Aftab founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in 2010. It has since grown to more than 150 chapters across the U.S. and in Berlin.

The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is holding for now, but it's fragile. And in the U.S., Jewish-Muslim interfaith groups are trying to figure out how to navigate this moment. The conflict is testing the relationships they've worked so hard to build.

Like a lot of Palestinians in the U.S., Aziza Hasan has been hugely affected by what's happening in her homeland.

"Right now, I'm in a world of pain," Hasan says. "And it's people reaching out to me, and me reaching out to people, that helps us figure out what we can do together."

She leads NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Like many interfaith groups, it works to build relationships. Based in Los Angeles, the group hosts fellowships, high school programs and community events. It's not about sermons from imams and rabbis. It's about individuals: programs, trainings and events where over the years tens of thousands of people have talked, found common ground and learned how to disagree but still hear each other — which can be messy even in the best of times.

"It's just really hard work," Hasan acknowledges. "Especially right now. We have people who are saying, 'I'm done. I need space.' "

Professor Sheila Katz, who teaches Middle Eastern history and contemplative studies at the Berklee College of Music, looked at over 500 peace organizations for her book Connecting With the Enemy: A Century of Palestinian-Israeli Joint Nonviolence. She documents how these kinds of groups struggle.

"To listen to someone whose narrative feels like an existential death to you is not easy," Katz says.

She saw groups that flourished and groups that floundered and groups that were divided by external events and then later came back together. She looked at groups working to apply the tenets of their faith, especially the imperative to take care of each other, to a difficult situation.

Atiya Aftab is one of the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which has over 150 chapters across the U.S. and in Berlin. Like several interfaith groups, it specifically avoided addressing the situation between Israelis and Palestinians at first, because it is so divisive.

The group started with a program it called "building bridges of peace." It emphasized participants getting to know each other and each other's traditions and then finding common threads in their lives and beliefs.

Aftab says the idea was to focus on the long history of Muslim-Jewish peaceful coexistence before addressing more fraught topics such as Israel and Palestinians.

"Let's build the relationship first, and we'll get to that when we're ready," she says.

It took about 10 years to get ready. During that time, with the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism, the group took a more active role in standing up for Muslims and Jews. It issued statements on synagogue attacks in the U.S. and on Muslim Uyghurs in China. But it didn't address the situation between Israelis and Palestinians until last year, when its annual trip took members to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Where we literally stood in front of a wall, where we literally went through checkpoints," remembers Aftab. "And it became clear to us that we could not not talk about Israel and Palestine anymore."

With a lot of talk and a lot of tears, the group wrote a statement supporting nonviolence. And more recently, it wrote another statement condemning the Israeli police attacks against worshippers in East Jerusalem, the evictions of Palestinians from their homes and the violent responses from Hamas and the Israeli military.

Some members thought the group went too far. Others, not far enough. But they continue coming together to talk, to cry and to pray.

Other groups, like New York's Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, are having a harder time finding that common ground. The group has also hosted leadership trainings and events, which have reached tens of thousands of people over the years, says Executive Director Michelle Koch.

"We've been doing all this work for five years — trying to create dialogue, trying to create openness and hoping that when we get to these moments, people will somehow hold hands and, you know, bring peace," she laughs ruefully. "But, you know, that's not necessarily the case."

Koch still has family back in Israel, and she knows people are hurting. But still, she's disappointed.

"I thought that people would be more willing to talk. And some are, but a lot are not."

They're trying to figure out what's next, coming up with guidelines to get people back in the room together to talk and really hear each other.

Other groups are having success building upon the groundwork they've laid, even though tensions are high. Kids4Peace, which was founded in Jerusalem but operates throughout the world, has spent countless hours working on what global program director Hannah Hochkeppel calls "the basic stuff that is not so basic."

"I mean, literally down to how do you ask a question that is trying to better understand, not trying to persuade someone that your opinion is correct?" she says. "How do you sit and listen and reflect back what you heard to make sure that you heard it correctly? How do you name your feelings in a moment but also ask how are you feeling?"

Hochkeppel says this work has paid off, as kids around the U.S. are checking in on each other, having conversations, sharing feelings and fact-checking each other.

At NewGround, Aziza Hasan is also returning to these basic lessons. She's trying to reach out one-on-one and rebuild relationships, make people feel heard and figure out where they go from here. And, Hasan says, the way to protect those lives is by working together.

"When we stand together and we try to make the world see each other," she says, "maybe, just maybe, we can stop at least ourselves from hardening our hearts and allowing that cycle to continue."

A heart that's open is also one that can break. But Hasan hopes that hearts break open to others' stories, to understanding and to peace.

"Because I believe that Palestinian children's lives are sacred and I believe Israeli children's lives are sacred," Hasan says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deena Prichep