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The election of a new administration in the U.S. seemed to raise hopes in talks between three internationally known religious leaders concerning peace in the Middle East. Rabbi Marc Gopin, Archbishop Elias Chacour and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America, spent a day in public dialogue at the Morikawa Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
All three are famous for encouraging dialogue between their faiths in pursuit of peace, so it wasn’t surprising that they found common ground in their talks.
What will intrigue ReadTheSpirit readers is the attention all three paid to the importance of grassroots, individual, person-to-person efforts around the world. We share these ideas in our own core principles at ReadTheSpirit.
Chacour, a Palestinian, a priest and a popular author, drew warm laughter from the audience of 150 men, women and young people, when he chided them, saying: “You are Americans so, of course, you want to do something.”
He paused a moment and then said, “But it’s not so much about doing something as it is about being someone.”
This may sound naive, Chacour said, but “ten years ago, who would have thought that the Americans would have elected a black man as president?” Fundamental changes in human attitudes are possible, he said, but change requires people to take personal risks. As an example, he described how he took up residence in Haifa when the city was a target of rockets from Lebanon during the 2006 war. He contacted Jewish clergy and told them that he would live in harm’s way with them as a protest against the attacks.
All three of the speakers urged Americans to take both a more sophisticated—and a more person-to-person—approach to peacemaking. They encouraged efforts as basic as urging legislators to travel to the region and supporting grassroots interfaith programs.
At one point, Chacour emphasized his overall message by addressing those Americans who support his own Palestinian cause. He said that they can do more good by encouraging grassroots dialogue than by zealous activism on behalf of only one side in the conflict. He bluntly declared, “If you are going to become a one-sided supporter of even the Palestinian cause, we do not need you.”
Far more important, he said, is working to meet, learn about and understand Jewish, Christian and Muslim people—Arab as well as Israeli people—to build a growing global community of people who understand the human issues on a more personal level.
Gopin said that, for too long, international relations have been pursued largely by blunt force—distributing weaponry and lobbying exclusively for one side or the other in Middle East conflicts. That approach to the conflict is not fruitful, Gopin said. “People-to-people stuff has to become central to the peace process—not tangential.”
The rabbi said, “There is room for a tremendous engagement of the world today in Israel, in Palestine, in Syria and even in Saudi Arabia.”
How can such people-to-people relations work? He said, “There are so many people in the United States who have individual relationships with people in this region, people who are a part of this conflict. I’m convinced that we, who are mainly bystanders in the United States, need to become more focused on justice and on compassion between people.”
Gopin offered a long list of issues on which people can overcome entrenched enmity, including the need to improve education and health care. In some cases, very specific concerns, such as organizing weight-loss programs, can be the key to bringing together diverse men and women.
“We need an arithmetic of building relationships people to people that can add up to serious social change,” he said.
Mattson said that, since rising into leadership at the Islamic Society of North America, she has been surprised by the lack of understanding in Congress about life in the Middle East. Many elected members serving in Washington D.C. have never visited the region. The matter is made worse when grassroots Americans give up on even trying to shape more nuanced U.S. policies in the region.
“To many Americans, Congress seems like this big black hole,” she said. “It’s confusing. People know there are many more powerful groups there already with so much money. They don’t think they can do anything. So, people don’t even try to make a difference.”
She said that Chacour’s and Gopin’s call for more person-to-person strategies isn’t naive. It’s a call toward very difficult, often painful work.
“We’re talking about people who are trying to overcome deep traumas that can drive people toward extremist views,” she said. “This is difficult work. Love isn’t just a mushy emotion. Talk to people who have worked in hard-core peace negotiations between people and, when you hear them telling you that what we need is love—we’re talking about a deep compassion that shows people a different way of living with each other.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
MORIKAWA CONFERENCE SITE: The site provides an overview of the Ann Arbor conference and ongoing news resulting from the meetings. Eventually, video streams of the major talks will be posted online, so you may want to bookmark this page and check back.
ARCHBISHOP ELIAS CHACOUR’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE: It’s a good overview and starting point for exploring his work online.
DR. INGRID MATTSON: Her faculty web site at Hartford Seminary offers links to two dozen of her articles (downloadable in PDF in most cases) as well as Podcasts of several of her talks.
RABBI MARK GOPIN’S WIKI PAGE: Again, his Wiki entry is a good starting point. Also, if you’re intrigued by his viewpoint, check out his personal blog. There’ an intriguing Nov. 6 post on the significance of President-elect Obama’s election.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)