A Discussion with Javier Gelbwaser, Coexistence in the Middle East Initiative

With: Javier Gelbwaser

August 24, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Melody Fox Ahmed conducted an interview with Javier Gelbwaser, who is the founder and director of the Coexistence in the Middle East Initiative at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Rothberg International School. Gelbwaser discussed his work promoting coexistence through exposure to human diversity, how fear reduces opportunities for collaboration, and the importance of people-to-people interfaith initiatives.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

I am the founder of Collectiveness and the initiator and director of the Coexistence in the Middle East (CME) and InnovNation programs at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. CME is an intercultural study abroad field program in Jerusalem that seeks to promote coexistence by exposing future and current leaders from around the world to the narratives and realities of different religious, political, and national groups that converge in Jerusalem, a crossroads for humanity. CME is
organized in collaboration with the Israel National Commission for UNESCO and offers participants the opportunity to experience the challenge of human diversity while earning academic credits at one of the world’s top universities.

Collectiveness enables large groups and communities to express themselves and promote different causes though collective artworks created by their members. In a world where we are stunned by extremists who express themselves through violence, Collectiveness seeks to give a voice to the silent majority.

Prior to my participation in the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum in 2015, I didn’t realize to what extent interfaith efforts are essential in our world and the work we do. Following this realization, we have decided to focus on interfaith efforts by starting the FaithInPeace global collective art initiative through which we hope to give a voice to moderates around the world who believe that religion calls for peace and to respect each other’s right to be different. We have also incorporated a new CME course called Religion in the Holy Land: Faith’s Role in Peace and Conflict, which was first offered this summer as a response to the Campus Challenge from Jerusalem.

How do you define interfaith service, and what are the essential components of interfaith service work?

I believe that every faith requires the humility to accept that there are things beyond our human understanding that should be appreciated and respected even if we cannot prove, understand, or agree with them. For me, interfaith service is the ability to recognize that this same humility requires us to acknowledge that other beliefs, views, and faiths are as valid as ours and therefore should be respected.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

As an immigrant who moved to Jerusalem motivated by my Jewish heritage and has dedicated my life to promoting coexistence, interfaith service has a huge importance in my life and work. Living in Jerusalem, a cradle of monotheistic faith, has allowed me not only to understand the challenges posed by diversity, but also, importantly, to appreciate the values and similarities shared by all faiths, which proves the importance and potential for interfaith service. In addition, as someone who grew up as a Jew in Mexico and now lives in Israel, I have personally experienced what is to live as part of a cultural/religious minority. Now that I am part of the majority, I can better understand the importance of respecting the collective identities of the different minorities.

Can you share some highlights from your academic and professional background? In your opinion, what is some of the most important work you have done in terms of interreligious studies or efforts?

We take pride in the fact that our CME program, for many years now, has been among the most popular study abroad programs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We have hosted hundreds of students, educators, activists, policymakers, and religious leaders from prestigious academic institutions and organizations across six continents, all coming from different cultures. However, the real highlight and impact of our work can only be assessed through the work that is and will be done by our alumni network. Many of them are now in decision-making positions all around the world and have mentioned that our program has allowed them to recognize humanity in others and has left an important impact on their work.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

Higher education seeks to prepare the future generation and helps create a better world by addressing our challenges and leading positive change. In an increasingly global world where borders and distances are less and less important, intercultural and interfaith relations become more and more important every day. In light of their increasing significance, I believe higher education institutions should play an active role in interfaith relations.

What kind of support have you received—from your government, friends and family, institutions, organizationsin pursuing interfaith service related work?

Despite the fact that we operate in a polarized and complex context, people from conflicting views and opinions do recognize the importance of the work we do. We receive a lot of moral support from different organizations and institutions. Unfortunately, we don’t receive any funding or material support that could help us leverage the impact of our work. Sadly, this is the situation of most of the entities that work in this field.

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

We live in the middle of a conflict which, as time goes by, an increasing number of people believe has no solution. Unfortunately, people on both sides, and also in the international community, are becoming more and more polarized. In this context, the greatest challenge we face is the growing lack of contact and collaboration between communities motivated by fear, or even as a strategy to defeat the other side. Sadly, today many Palestinians only meet Israelis as soldiers at checkpoints, and many Israelis only see Palestinians on the news as terrorists. This lack of personal connection only feeds the demonization of the other and prevents us from appreciating our common humanity, which is the base to building trust and peace.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

I enjoy my work because I believe that there is nothing more important I could do in order to leave a better world for my daughter and her generation. What I enjoy the most is to see how people can change their paradigms and ideas by meeting and engaging in dialogue with the other, witnessing that change is possible.

What is one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

Willingness and openness to meet and understand others, and realizing that their beliefs are as valid as ours and should be respected.

What are some best practices you have seen or heard of for interfaith work that you would like to share with others in your field?

I believe people-to-people initiatives that connect opposing groups are the most important ones. There are amazing organizations bringing together victims from both sides who have lost their loved ones, and other initiatives that promote dialogue between settlers and Palestinians. In our programs, we try to expose participants to many of these grassroots organizations that we believe are doing an amazing and important job but unfortunately don’t receive enough attention from the media, which focuses mainly on the violence and extremists.

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