A Discussion with Daniel Roth, Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies

With: Daniel Roth

May 10, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in May 2016 student Remy Cipriano conducted an interview with Daniel Roth, who works at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel. Roth discusses creating a Jewish holiday dedicated to constructive conflict, the challenges of religious peacemakers engaged around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the importance of personal relationships as the foundation for interreligious dialogue.
Where do you currently work?

I really have two different roles. My primary employment is at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, where I founded and direct their Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution and focus primarily within the Jewish world. It is more my rabbinic position, if you will, since Pardes is a Jewish religious institution; Bar-Ilan University is an academic institution. My role at Bar-Ilan focuses on religion and conflict resolution in general and is part of their Program for Conflict Management, Resolution and Negotiation, not just the Jewish world. We're looking at Abrahamic faiths both in terms of texts and practice. There, the students are not only Jewish.

Can you share more about Pardes?

Pardes is a cross-denominational, post-college, non-degree granting Jewish studies program. So many will become rabbis and educators from different denominations—from Orthodox to Reform. Most of the work of my Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution is in working with teachers and schools through our Rodef Shalom (Pursuers of Peace) school program, and with rabbis and synagogues through our Rodef Shalom communities programs. In addition to these programs which seek to go deep into the culture of these communities, we also “created” a Jewish holiday, known as the ninth of the Hebrew month of Adar, which seeks to promote the value of constructive conflict known in Judaism as “Disagreements for the Sake of Heaven” across a very broad spectrum of the Jewish world. The project is called the 9AdarProject: Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict.

How did you create the Jewish holiday?

The theory was that in order to reach both broadly and deeply within the Jewish world, we needed to create an awareness day around the values of conflict resolution that would be indigenous to the Jewish calendar, so we arrived at the ninth of Adar. On the ninth of Adar approximately 2,000 years ago, there was a violent clash between the two major Jewish schools of thought over how to relate to non-Jews and whether to make peace or war with Rome. This is a powerful story for Jews across different divides today, especially since these two schools are primarily known as the Jewish model of healthy disagreement. The day therefore serves as an important wake-up call to learn the lessons of our past and turn this tragic day into a day of healthy and constructive conflict. However, about two years ago, with the increase in violence between Israelis/Jews and Palestinian/Muslims, we felt a pressing need to expand the scope of the initiative to include non-Jews. We therefore rebranded it as a week of constructive conflict awareness and not just a Jewish date.

What is the difference in content?

To be very specific, we are talking about the project of creating a national holiday and also a forum of organizations across different types of fields of conflict resolution. So it starts from the community mediation and dialogue centers around the country. There are 35 such centers today around the country, with many of them in Jewish-Muslim mixed cities. We partner with for-profit mediation and conflict resolution negotiation training programs, through intrafaith and interfaith organizations. I am happy to share that we have succeeded though in gathering over 30 NGOs engaged in intrafaith and interfaith dialogue to be part of the initiative. The challenge, and goal, is trying to get interfaith organizations—often in the fringe of where society and culture is at—to sit down and talk; mediation and conflict resolution type programs that are not focused on intergroup are often focused on school or corporate conflict, or classic court mediation. Getting all that work together is part of the huge challenge and opportunity.

We had to change a lot of content, because we had to make culturally appropriate materials for different population groups. So one of the major projects I've been working on to try to do that is advising a Muslim master’s degree student, who hopefully will be doing his Ph.D. as the first student doing Islamic conflict resolution in Israel. He's actually Bedouin, lives in South Jerusalem, and is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. He has been working on researching the culture of disagreement in Islam, known as thakeft ikhtilaf.

We have been trying to create parallel activities, programs, and resources that could be used in conjunction with our Jewish intrafaith work; such as for organizations, schools, or communities that are terrified when they see Jewish texts. It’s the same thing when we work with ultra-orthodox or religious Zionists here; the key is to make things culturally sensitive and super-familiar. I approach it with the theory of creating change for people and leaving them with the feeling that there has been no change at all. In this sense, you need to know the respective sources and cultures, and then you gain others’ trust.

This related to what I was saying: I don't see myself working primarily in interfaith relations, I see myself working in parallel faiths. It is very different here than if you're dealing with a school in Boston or Washington, or at a campus that has a ton of different faiths. Here, we are such a divided society, and there is so much distrust that religion and peacebuilding are going to remain extremely fringe-level and not go deep or have an impact if we just facilitate interventions and bring people together. So what we’re trying to do is create parallel programming that would be culturally sensitive and would allow people to acknowledge: "Huh, so and so is very different from me, but they also share these types of values and have different texts and different ways of speaking about it, etc." It’s about relating to culture, and I think we have major issues of identity and culture.

Interfaith does play a role—I teach about it, I attend gatherings, we have brought together all the major interfaith NGOs to take part. However, I feel for actual change to take place, it won't be enough. It is like marriage counseling: if each side of the relationship has so much baggage, they can't work that out just in couple’s therapy; they have to each go to their own individual therapy as well.

What motivated you to enter this field?

I moved to Israel as a 15-year-old during the very end of the first Intifada. We lived in West Jerusalem, but there was quite a lot of violence going on. From that young age, I had this strange dream of having a stone thrown at my car. I had this recurring dream of jumping out of the car and going after the kid who threw it and saying "Why did you do that?" and strangely trying to build a relationship: going to his home, getting to know his story, etc. So it was part of my personal upbringing.

I grew up in Syracuse, New York, in a fairly interfaith community. I had friends of all different religions, and here I was in this other very divided situation. I think that kind of played a role for me. After high school, I also went to a yeshiva for 8 years, where I did my rabbinic studies, and the rabbis were relatively left-wing. This may seem to some as an oxymoron, especially in those days; however, the community in which the yeshiva was located had existed prior to the 1948 war and was therefore strongly within the Israeli consensus. In addition, the heads of our yeshiva had expressed a willingness to move if this would bring about peace. One of the heads of our yeshiva, Rabbi Yehudah Amital, even joined Shimon Peres’s government following Rabin’s assassination in order to show that this was a political disagreement and not a religious one, for it is possible to be on the left and also be a religious Zionist.

That also played a major role in my trying to understand sides and build bridges, and I would also add that the work of Marc Gopin had a very big impact. Gopin and Mohammad Abu-Nimer had great impacts on my work. I started reading their work many years ago. It is really through their work that I view religion and conflict resolution as not only interfaith-based.

How has your focus shifted over the years, if at all?

I started more from the interpersonal Jewish side of things—intrafaith work. Encouraged by Gopin and others, I started to take the plunge and say “Wait a minute, that’s not good enough, let’s try to broaden this." That has definitely been a marked shift in my theological thinking and identity as well. It’s not just a question of practice; practice here is also a reflection of identity. Many people get into the field from the opposite direction; they'll start with "The Conflict" (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). That’s not where I came from. I came from looking at religious/secular divides, and then started asking how we could expand that circle.

Do you think that has given you a unique perspective among your colleagues?

Well, you would have to define what you mean by colleagues. If you're talking about the people attending these sorts of conferences, within the larger field of religion and peacebuilding, then sure. I think many of the people that I work with come from more of a liberal orientation from the start, which I did not come from. I think the emphasis of always starting with the interpersonal relationship has helped me engage people that would otherwise be very skeptical. If I were to reach out to somebody who does not want to meet with a Palestinian or a Muslim or start doing interfaith, I would lose them before I had a chance to finish my sentence. But I start with, "We're talking about how this can impact your community." The conversation starts interpersonally. Then when they're ready, you move them beyond that. It's a very slow and delicate process. If it’s done too quickly, you're just talking to people who already share your values.

What have been your greatest challenges regarding peacebuilding and interfaith/intercultural dialogue and cooperation?

I have been blessed and haven't had challenges yet that have majorly set me back. I finished my doctorate a couple years ago. It's all been encouraging so far. I will say that a major challenge is in trying to do this work in a serious way; there is a very serious and unfortunate lack of parallel partners within the Islamic, especially Palestinian, context, which makes it really hard.

I'll share one story. It's sad that there are only a handful of religious Muslim-Palestinian peacemakers. The last couple fled for their lives in America, after either their children were beat up or their cars were blown up. Just to illustrate how challenging it is, in May 2016, I was teaching my 40 master’s degree and Ph.D. Israeli students of conflict resolution, and that session was focused on interreligious peacebuilding and interfaith work. After studying a lot of the theories and texts, I wanted to bring in two pursuers of peace—one Jewish, one Muslim—that have been working together as part of what is called the Abrahamic Reunion. One is very well-known; his name is Eliyahu McLean. He has been doing this type of work for many years. I asked if he could come with somebody that would identify as a Muslim religious leader and peacebuilder.

He came instead with a very young secular Palestinian...lovely person, 25 or 26 years old. But my students immediately asked, "Are you religious?" And he said "No." There was skepticism; the group then was entirely Jewish. They were left-wing, right-wing, religious, secular—but they were all Jewish. Their skepticism regarding if any “sheikhs” would come reflects the fact that religious peacebuilding in this country is unfortunately becoming composed of more religious Jewish peacemakers and secular Palestinians. So that’s a huge challenge, and in parallel to that is anti-normalization. Our attempts at trying to create parallel programs have been immediately shot down because of the fear of anti-normalization. Those are the huge challenges.

Do you see particular reasons why this disparity between Jewish and Muslim peacebuilders has been increasingly fortified?

Not sure. I think that part of it has to do with the fact that there is not as strong a culture of NGOs and organizations; we don’t have the same kind of privilege right now to have NGOs that are sitting and doing the work that the Salaam Institute does regarding Islam and conflict resolution. It's just not happening here. Again, partly because of what is happening in the civil society under occupation, which is difficult. But secondly, I think just culturally it’s all connected; my concept of parallel play is heavily challenged.

Do you see ways in which Pardes or you as a professor can build these parallel structures?

Yes, that's exactly what we’re doing. I’ve had many conversations with professors in Washington who I see as my colleagues and mentors. Their answer—because I keep on asking if there is anybody out there doing similar things—is that there are no organizations that are doing Islamic conflict resolution in the area. There are two Christian organizations that we work with that do conflict resolution and are in Palestine, but they're very little, and that is why I accepted to advise this Bedouin student. I want to invest in that research. I want to invest in him. If it doesn't exist, I’m going to do whatever I can, almost behind the scenes in a certain way, to help build that, with the hope that if he and other students are successful, they won't trace it back to me or to a Jewish or Israeli university. I'm not giving up, we are trying to do whatever can be done, but it is hard. The vision, as I see it, is to start producing materials appropriate for Islamic schools and others that would be very safe and non-threatening.

What relationship does your organization have among other similar organizations in both Israel and Palestine?

We’re working hard to try to create this network of organizations to start working together, which is full of challenges, because we are constantly trying to create common denominators and converging needs and interests. It is really tricky to expand that properly when you see Palestine, because, again with the parallel play theory, there will be some left-wing organizations that won't work with NGOs that are in Palestine because they're trying to create civil society within Israel, and there’s a lot of one-state, two-state confusion going on. There aren't parallel organizations of conflict resolution focusing on religion other than Bethlehem Bible College, Holy Land Trust, and a couple of others. We were trying to do stuff with Bethlehem Bible College through the [Quaker-led] Friends in Washington. We have a personally good relationship, and I invited one of the heads of the college to speak at a conflict resolution conference last year, and it went very well.

Have there been attempts by Palestinian organizations to cooperate with yours at all?

Not yet. Keep in mind, in terms of this initiative, it is only eight months old. It’s not like this has been going on for 20 years. It’s quite a new initiative, and October was our first attempt of having a gathering of these different organizations. I have organizations involved in interfaith work that might have a Palestinian branch, etc.

Would you say that difficulty stems with some Palestinian organizations pushing away these dialogues because of the association with and creation by Jews?

It’s more complicated than that. We entered into a strategic partnership with an organization called Mosaica, led by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the leader of internship dialogue in Israel. They have a chapter in Ramallah and Gaza, and they work seriously with the Muslim Brotherhood. They also oversee the 35 mediation centers.

It’s not like it comes out overtly Jewish, it’s just really strong anti-normalization right now. So, organizations doing peace work together are immediately targeted, and it’s really difficult. I see anti-normalization as part of it, and I also see the fact that there aren't the same type of civil society NGOs that are parallel, doing work on religion and peacebuilding. There are interfaith organizations that I would say are stronger on the Jewish side than on the Palestinian side right now. Getting Israelis to think deeper about their culture and move towards more pro-social behavior, more inclusive thinking, and more curiosity about understanding narratives—that work should and must continue right now, whether or not Palestinians are going through that work in conjunction. They have other problems they are going though, just dealing with justice and different issues. Trying to create an only parallel situation is sort of a fictitious attempt to reshape realities to mold them to certain theories that are not appropriate. The problems here are very deep, very cultural, very identity-based, and that's what I want to work on.

Do you share these takeaways and challenges with your students when discussing how to engage difference and promote dialogue and understanding?

Let me share a little bit about what I do with my grad students at Bar-Ilan University. A good amount of them are in the secret service, or military, or are businesspeople. These are the mainstream Israelis, which is what excites me. This is not happening in the fringe—in the artsy, liberal area where a lot of the interfaith stuff happens. This is wonderful, and I love to drag my kids to support it. But when I take my 11-year-old to some of these gatherings, she says to me "Abba [Father], you know this is not going to solve our problems," referencing 10 or so people that already know each other and are praying together. So what I'm trying to do at Bar-Ilan is to create a center for religion and conflict resolution that would also do interfaith work, starting with a mandatory course on conflict resolution, focusing on Judaic, Christian, and Islamic texts on conflict resolution. So we are studying Jewish models of pursuers of peace, and then we'll study parallels models within Islam and Christianity. Then we'll bring in practitioners and scholars that study them. So, for the students, as I’m telling them the theory, I'm doing it with them. We're starting with interpersonal relationships, so I'm getting people to put down their defenses, political biases, and fears. We start off very practically and slowly build up towards instances such as what would happen if we applied these theories to the context of how Judaism, Islam, and Christianity tell us how to reach out to an enemy. If the students are not ready to deal with those issues, we can pull it back to something more family-oriented, or intra-communal. Everything is constantly heavy on the text and conflict resolution theory, looking at Jewish, Muslim, and Christian texts with a strong eye towards practice.

I also have been supporting a doctoral student who is writing the first research on “Religious Settler Peacemakers.” We're looking to have our students do field work with NGOs that are doing interfaith work and have conferences. We're just starting to raise money and create a much more significant space, but the university I teach at is known to be the most right-wing university and religious university, even though 80 percent of our students are not religious. There are religious Muslims in hijabs walking around campus openly and freely. Still, its orientation is right-wing religious Zionist, and we have received great support and trust from the heads of the university. It’s tricky, but I think this method of grounding the teaching in text and interpersonal relationships is a way to non-threateningly expand and broaden the dialogue towards interfaith.

So you're trying to build personal relationships first and then go from there. You are accommodating to the interpersonal response of your students; if they aren't ready, there's no pressure to move on.

If they're not ready, the door is still there. It's like going from room to room, within the sulha process, as opposed to Western mediation theories in conflict resolution, in which you bring everyone together and they have dialogue. That is very Western thinking, and doesn't cut it in Islamic, Jewish, or Middle Eastern thinking. Here, the jaha (the third party in the sulha process) goes back and forth and meets separately with each group until they are ready to have reconciliation. I think a lot of the American cultural assumptions are that interfaith is the way to go—which is great, but it’s a process.

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