By Salim J. Munayer, Musalaha Executive Director
We at Musalaha are always looking for opportunities to share our learning with new segments of society. In recent months, I have received several requests to share about Musalaha’s work of leading Israelis and Palestinians on the journey of reconciliation. One of these invitations was to teach in a unique training program involving Israeli school principals from Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds, coordinated by Israeli think tank, the Shalom Hartman Institute.
In one of these meetings I was asked to teach from a Christian perspective about God creating humankind in his image and how it relates to those in our local communities, as well as to strangers. I distributed passages to the group that included The Sermon on the Mount, The Good Samaritan, and The Samaritan Woman at The Well. It was fascinating for me, as a person who grew up attending various, segregated schools- both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian- to see these school principals sitting together, listening attentively, and reading from the New Testament.
Thirty years ago, a program of this nature would have never existed. Even in the context of Israel today, teaching about and promoting reconciliation is rare and arduous. And yet, the willingness of these Christian, Muslim and Jewish educators to engage with New Testament texts was remarkable. They showed signs of openness and did not feel threatened.
When we read about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman the whole group related to the fact that she was the enemy, belonging to the other side of the ethnic divide. It was apparent to them that she lived in dangerous territory. These female educators could easily identify with this woman, finding similarities to their lives in Israeli society today.
This story is known for Jesus crossing boundaries. The Muslim principals immediately recognized the shame this woman carried in regards to her marital situation. The Jewish principals recognized that she engaged Jesus in theological conversation, which was not allowed at that time, and is a prohibition that persists in some religious circles today.
This experience provided a unique opportunity to observe the insights of a group with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. I believe it encouraged the principals as it gave them a forum to practice how to ask questions and learn about another’s religious heritage. It was moving to witness how they engaged with the New Testament text, especially as it was an unfamiliar and strange reading for many, and one that might produce feelings of fear. I was very glad to see that they liked the exercise and wanted to learn more.
I left the meeting feeling a sense of encouragement that progress is being made in certain areas of society. Between Israelis and Palestinians in the country, the atmosphere is one of intolerance, isolation, and a refusal to listen to each other. Guiding these educators through the New Testament revealed a different reality from what the average local person sees in the news, and was certainly an uncommon experience for a typical person in society. Even more exciting is the fact that the principals are key influencers of thousands in their schools, and can impart what they learned to many more young people. There is no doubt that this experience was a source of encouragement for me, to see that what we have labored for and developed using the Musalaha curriculum over the years, can be shared and appreciated by a larger segment of our society.