Confronting ‘the Other’ in Your Own Community

Interfaith Teaching Intrafaith

Interfaith dialogue between people of widely divergent faiths is challenging enough, but the tougher assignment is encountering a member of your own religion with whom you profoundly disagree. When that happens, knowing you share a common faith and tradition offers little if your vastly divergent beliefs appear irreconcilable. Perhaps you are secretly wondering if both of you are from the same planet. That is the precise moment – if you have experience as an interfaith activist – that you will want to apply the wisdom you have learned from encounters with people of other religions to deal with the real and present differences of someone from your own faith.

In some cases, you might be facing a member of your own family, making the situation more potentially explosive; even when the religious conflict retreats or is temporarily shelved, the personal relationship you have with that person is bound to be affected. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives have sometimes parted company for a lifetime because they could not find a way to reconcile their religious or political differences. Whether religious or political though, it is this clash in belief systems that we need to surmount.

So what can we learn from our inter-faith journeys on the high seas that will help us navigate troubled intra-faith waters?

Leaving the Movie

Several months ago I attended a screening of an Israeli film called “Lebanon.” The prize-winning anti-war film recounts Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon through a soldier’s eyes and explores the chaos and confusion of a handful of Israeli soldiers aboard an armored vehicle, trying to comprehend their mission.

When the lights went on, I was surprised to discover Sonny in the audience, a man in his forties from the Los Angeles Jewish community whom I know to be uncompromisingly pro-Israel. The film was so obviously critical of Israel’s military objectives, I hadn’t expected to see Sonny there.

He was accompanied by a heavy-set bearded Orthodox Jewish man in his fifties.

I greeted them and we left the theatre together. I wasn’t quite sure how our conversation might develop. Sonny knows I am a committed Jew and also an activist in the interfaith community. He knew that I had long-standing friendships with Muslims, which made him uneasy.

Once outside Sonny told me about his companion in greater detail. Avraham, a Rabbi, was a settler living in Israel – for some people that would be another way of saying he lives in “occupied territory” – but for Avraham it was territory God promised unequivocally to the Jews, as documented in the Bible.

Avraham, Sonny told me, was vehemently opposed to a two-state solution in the Middle East or returning territories Israel won in previous wars, but he also thought Israel should be promoting a different policy in handling the thorny situation.

Then Avraham spoke up on his own. “As far as I am concerned, we should bus all of the Arabs out of Israel, biblical Israel,” he said emphatically. He saw the horrified look on my face as he continued describing his solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “There are more than enough Arab lands and nations around us. All of the Palestinians living in Israel should be sent to those countries. We Jews have had enough suffering. What we have endured in the Holocaust no other nation has ever endured. Nobody will care for us if we are in need, and nobody cares about us anyway. We finally have a homeland of our own, and we need to protect it. We will never be safe if we have Arabs living among us, so let’s get rid of all of them.”

The prospect of ethnic cleansing to protect Israel is anathema to me. Still hovering nearby for Jews around the world is the memory and horror of the “final solution,” the ultimate Third Reich plan for ethnic cleansing of the Jewish people from the face of the earth. Of course, Avraham was not suggesting that we kill Arabs or Palestinians. But I was still aghast at the idea that Jews would consider mass “exile” of Arabs from Israel as a viable solution for the Middle Eastern dilemma.

Sonny turned to me: “Well, Ruth, you are Jewish. You care about Israel. What would you say to Avraham? Is there any way you could ever agree with Avraham?”

The next five minutes seemed overly long and protracted. I was studying Avraham’s face. I saw the lines and caverns of pain carved from the indelible experience of Europe’s legacy of the Holocaust. I was aware of his dearly-held beliefs – borne out by historical record – that few people or nations came to aid the Jews when we were being systematically murdered. Avraham was committed to fully protecting Israel, and the methods he was suggesting were justified in his mind because of what Jews had suffered not just in Europe, but through thousands of years of persecution, exile, torture, and forced conversion.

I didn’t speak for a long time. I was looking for something to say that would not compromise my own beliefs and that at the same time would not alienate me from two fellow-Jews. They looked at me, waiting for a response. It was not an easy question for me, and I had no easy answers.

I thought about past difficult encounters with people of other religions. It was easy to recognize the differences between us, but I always looked for what we had in common, at least as a starting point for dialogue.

Finally I spoke, looking directly at Avraham, into his eyes, hoping that my words would fly directly into his soul with no shortcuts, no semantic detours.

“Avraham, where you and I come together is in our love for Israel. I share that love, and I want Israel to thrive and prosper and remain a homeland for Jews, just like you. But you and I differ vastly on how to go about that. I would never consider bussing all of the Arabs and Palestinians out of Israel. I do not prize land over human life, and I would seek high and low to find a solution that would safeguard Israel’s existence and also respect Arab and Palestinian rights.

“Bussing or ethnic cleansing is not an option for me. It would be egregiously wrong for us to engage in anything like that, considering our own history. Yes, you and I have widely divergent ideas about how to resolve the conflict, but one thing is for sure. You want Israel to survive; I want Israel to survive. You love Israel; I love Israel. You want to protect Israel; I want to protect Israel. That is where you and I meet and that is where our hearts are of one accord.”

I stopped speaking. There was another long silence. Neither Sonny nor Avraham replied. There seemed to be no space left for debate or argument. I had listened to Avraham’s heart and his fears, at the deepest level, and he experienced being heard. We walked the remaining few steps in silence before we said “good night.”

Between every two people in the world is a unified field. The role of the interfaith activist has been to explore and cultivate that field and, in the process, to appreciate and emphasize the commonality – but not ignore the differences – of our faiths and beliefs.

Locating a field of shared love and concern is the key to both interfaith and intrafaith harmony. Rumi, the Muslim mystic poet, said,”Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, called this the I-thou place where there are no delineations between God and an individual but only a shared oneness – an elusive, but equally noble goal between any two people in the world.


Reader Comments (6)

Your loving, commonality-seeking heart is supported by your sharp mind.
Good job, Ruth!

June 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarion Weil

Ruth, Your essay is very timely for me. I, too, have been engaged with other Jews who have very different views than mine about Israel and about inter-faith engagement. I, too, seek always to find common ground, although, in the heat of the moment I cannot always call up the peace-building words. I will think about your essay as I struggle to respond in a way that builds unity and understanding, not escalating anger and misunderstanding.

June 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJean Katz

I think your approach is great as far as it goes. I hope you will be able to build that fellowship into a friendship and, as a friend be a modertaing influence. I fear I would have taken a more confrontational line and would have pointed out that the genocide perpetrated against the Jews in Europe has many parallels (The Alibuigensian crusade against the Cathars, the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman empire, The attempted extermination of the Nama and the Herrera in German South-West Africa, the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia to name but a few) and has indeed been surpassed where genocide has been accomplished (for example in Tasmania and possibly in the extinction of the Neanderthals). In that I would have been wrong. That would be another discussion for another day. I hope you can build bridges, they are sorely needed.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill

Thank you for this very helpful essay. In my interfaith work I have found some of the greatest challenges not from those in other traditions, but from those within my own in evangelicalism as Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. I must admit that I also struggle more with intrafaith work than interfaith engagement. Your essay provided some helpful ideas to reflect upon, which addresses some of the most significant obstacles to interfaith work. Thank you again.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn W. Morehead


The moment you chose to listen with your heart and mind, you made the first big move. Then you looked into his eyes and told him the full truth which is the second big move. The third big move is to meet again and do it together again. Do not end your trust-building engagement even though the contest is "unresolvable". John Gottman has studied successful long term marriages. 67% of the conflicts in those marriages are never resolved. They are engaged respectfully from time to time (not all the time!) allowing the partners to love each other in their full integrity of difference. When this happens with the Arabs and Israelis too, then hearts and minds will find a new place of trust that will change the current situation. How will it turn out among rival visions? We do not know. But keep up your good work of eye to eye contact with your "trustworthy rival".

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterC. Randall Paul

I appreciate all of your thoughtful responses. There is no formula or magic in this process. I have discovered that when I can detect the pain or anguish behind someone's words, as aggressive as they might be, and when I can relate to the humanity of the person with whom I am at the moment facing, rather than engaging in serious intellectual arguments, I find that I have the ability to slow down my knee-jerk reactions and move out of my warrior stance. Then, and only then, I can answer from a place of understanding and respect for someone's vastly different point of view. Whew! I acknowledge that most of the time it ain't easy.

May 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Broyde Sharone

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