In a small apartment unit in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, I met with Dr. Yehuda Stolov, the Executive Director of Interfaith Encounter Association. IEA works across the country creating dialogue in order to promote positive relations within and between communities as an infrastructure for peace.

In the summer of 2001, Dr. Stolov thought of creating an organization that brings people together for two reasons: firstly, interfaith dialogue, although it existed, did not attract many people since it usually consisted of people lecturing to an audience about dialogue, and secondly, there was a lack of non-political based NGOs. He felt that, even if an agreement occurred, it would never be sustainable if there was still such social, person-to-person separation.

“We live in the same neighborhood,” Yehuda describes, “We have to overcome all of these prejudices and negative stereotypes that compose our image of the other.” Even as he admits that people have fear and hatred of the other side, he quickly flips the coin to optimism. “All of these negative images we have are just assumptions,” he says, “they have very little to do with reality.”

Dr. Stolov decided to take it into his own hands to bring people together. “If we organize encounters between Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze of the Holy Land and these encounters will be deep and positive, people, through them, will get the opportunity to really know the other…then they will build relationships that can be later used to build upon the arrangements on the political level.”

Encounters can occur in groups as small as four or as large as 70 people, from six years old to 92 years old. From children’s groups, university groups, and adult groups, to groups for elders, 38 groups have been formed spanning from the upper Galilee to Elat. Each group is run by an Interfaith Coordinator who is responsible for the ongoing activity of the group. They have eight Israeli Palestinian groups, and often these are the most challenging since both parties cannot travel freely to areas.

“The main challenge is technical…What you would expect to be the biggest challenge is not the challenge at all: which is finding people to participate, both Israelis and Palestinians. For me, it is a very positive sign of the maturity of both societies.”

Facilitators ask participants to simply represent themselves, rather than their political viewpoints or religious beliefs. Instead, participants speak of an array of topics: life, death, mourning, traditions, and more. “People connect very strongly, very quickly, once you put politics aside and invite people to speak from the heart and to listen to the other in the same way.” IEA hopes these groups will act as a mechanism of change and that the more people that go through the process of encounters, the more the communities as a whole change.

Even with relentless optimism, Dr. Stolov does not close his eyes to the reality of the situation and why the conflict remains unsolved. “Most people are trapped with the political model,” he says. “It will take time to bring people together and most people don’t want to wait this amount of time, so they look for shortcuts. And the political way always looks short.”

Stolov, who has seen nearly the entire history of the conflict unfold, pleads caution to those forming quick and one-sided opinions: “If you form your opinion about the situation here just from the news flashes, you can be sure that your opinion is very, very far from the truth. The news tends to focus on violence and on clichés. There will be some issues that always attract the attention of the media. The situation is much, much more complex.” Stolov recognizes the need to see both sides, and stresses how important this is for foreigners who come to the Holy Land to learn about the conflict. “In the good programs, people come out totally confused. I say that means you got a taste of the variety of views and components that need to be put into the equation in order to find the solution. Of course if you hear only one component of the issue with one point of view, then it is very easy! But there are maybe twenty other points of view that all need to be part of the harmony that will be built at the end. You have to understand the complexity.”

But it is clear that deciding on the model for peace is not up to him and his organization. All he knows for sure is that dialogue and breaking down the walls of stereotypes and assumptions are essential for a better future. “We will stop being afraid of other people. We will welcome other people, we will have good relations, we will have friends from other communities with whom we visit. We will go to their weddings; they will come to our weddings,” says Stolov. “All we need to reach from the present to this utopia future is a change of mind, a change of understanding, a change of awareness.”

To learn more about Interfaith Encounter Association, visit: http://interfaithencounter.wordpress.com/

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