By Eric Garneau
Though it acts as a holy land for many different world religions, Jerusalem and its surrounding territory has been the center of violent conflict for well over a century. In 2000, a security barrier was erected between Israel and the Palestinian-occupied West Bank. To many, this act physically and symbolically cemented the fissure between these cultures. Many people currently see peaceful reconciliation between Israel and Palestine as an impossibility. Several groups of college students on both sides of the divide, though, are trying to change that.
For roughly a year, student collectives from two local schools - the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bethlehem University in the West Bank - have crossed that barrier to establish a dialog with each other. The two groups spend time in both territories, and typically opt for relatively neutral meeting grounds, such as the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem's Old City. They eschew political discourse, instead choosing to focus on religious and cultural commonalities.
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In a January 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, journalist Matthew Kalman reported on the fourth such meeting between these two groups, in which they discussed comparative uses of olives - olive trees, olive oil - in their religious traditions. The students use their meetings to plan projects to cultivate understanding and peace between the two groups. At this particular gathering, they decided on joint distribution of olive oil from West Bank farmers.
Although perhaps counterintuitive, the idea that a cultural bridge will arise via religion instead of politics is not new. American Jewish professor Ben Mollov, while teaching at the Israeli Bar-Ilan University, shepherded a similar program in 1994. He found that university students in the two groups related best by finding common ground amongst their cultural heritage. This organically led to the students exploring differences that arose with honest curiosity and respect. And so a genuine dialog was born.
The Current Climate
Of course, a lot has happened in the Middle East since 1994, and the Chronicle notes that the number of intercultural dialog groups has taken a significant plunge since 2000, from dozens to only six. Clearly, though, harder times haven't discouraged everybody from attempting to break down the walls. 'If guns and those ways had a point, they could have achieved something 20, 30 years ago,' one of the student participants told the Chronicle. Said another: 'I think that peace will come from us, from the people. Not from the politicians, not from anyone else.'
In Professor Mollov's paper reporting on his 1994 dialogs, he concludes that it's probably not enough for members of warring nations to simply understand each other's culture. Most likely peace cannot spring only from a grassroots movement; political leaders must spearhead nationwide efforts to see it through. However, fostering dialog between students in these two groups is not insignificant. It may be those youth who attain positions of political influence and make broad moves towards peace, or it may simply be that their attitude of openness begins to infect those around them. It's a slow process, certainly, but as Palestinian business administration major Sally Zaghmout remarked to the Chronicle, 'At least we're trying to do something instead of not doing anything at all.'