Israeli interfaith group promotes friendship
MONTREAL — Little would please Yehuda Stolov more than to have Montreal become a source of support for an Israel-based interfaith group that eschews politics and fully embraces common humanity.
That’s how Stolov, a soft-spoken and articulate Jerusalemite, characterized the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), which, since he began it 11 years ago, has had only one real item on its agenda: to have Jews, Muslims and other faiths who live side-by-side in Israel and over the Green Line get to know each other as friends, not foes.
“When you live a few metres from another, prejudices can go away quite quickly,” Stolov recently told a small gathering at Chevra Kadisha B’nai Jacob synagogue. “It begins with starting to walk together along the same path.”
Stolov, who holds degrees in physics and wrote a PhD thesis on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, has no illusions that IEA has the elusive formula for political peace in a part of the world seemingly destined to be permanently beset by conflict.
But it’s not political peace that IEA, an Israeli non-governmental organization, seeks, he explained. Just the more human peace between neighbours that can, one tiny fragment of trust after another, set the stage for the “mechanisms of change” that peace requires.
IEA accomplishes this by holding “encounter” sessions, on an approximately monthly basis, with organized groups of neighbours of different faiths.
“It is an existential dialogue, where we talk from the perspective of our religious and cultural traditions,” Stolov said. “We talk about similarities between the religions, as well as differences.
“There’s an air of intimacy about it. The idea is that the relationship between all of us develops over time for the larger community.”
This is explained on IEA’s website, interfaith-encounter.org: “We believe that, rather than being a cause of the problem, religion can and should be a source of the solution for conflicts that exist in the region and beyond.”
Besides the interfaith encounters, IEA projects include weekend retreats, sports and artistic activities, as well as interfaith encounters geared exclusively for women, youth and even Israelis and Palestinians.
“We hold regular interfaith meetings and conferences in co-operation with Palestinian organizations, with the objective to build sustainable peace between two nations on a people-to-people level,” IEA literature says.
“Because we take an inter-religious, non-political approach, we are able to engage in the process people from all parts of the political spectrum and their respective societies and build deep and sustainable conversation and relations between them.”
Stolov acknowledged that IEA is by no means the only dialogue group for Jews and Muslims, but his organization’s focus is on dialogue, primarily within Israel and between neighbours, and that’s what makes the difference. The number of IEA groups in Israel is now approaching 50, with 200 programs and 4,000 participants in 2010.
At his talk, Stolov ran a brief video (also viewable on the website) showing the success of one encounter group of Jews in Carmiel and Muslims in adjacent Majdal Krum in northern Israel.
Says one Muslim woman in the video: “There is so much in common and differences are so little.”
Since its founding in 2001, IEA has won several awards, including one from UNESCO for working toward a “culture of peace,” and the Prize for Humanity from the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. Most recently, it won an award for “transparency” of its organizational structure.
Stolov said IEA, which has an annual budget of $100,000, receives no government support and derives its income mostly from private sources and individuals. It therefore faces ongoing funding challenges.
A couple of “friends of IEA” contacts exist in Chicago and Italy, but financial support from elsewhere is meagre. In the past, IEA has received nominal amounts from groups including the Church of Sweden, and in Canada, from the Networking for Peace Group funded through CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency).
“It is our biggest obstacle,” Stolov said, “but we are trying to do better.”