Talk about religion, not politics, Israeli mediator advises

What do you get when you mix Jews, Muslims and Christians? If you're Yehuda Stolov, the answer is progress.

The Orthodox Jerusalem resident has been getting Israelis and Palestinians together to talk out their differences — and similarities — for years now, and he wishes more people around the world would take up this strategy.

Speaking of American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "if the regular reaction is a demonstration against one of the sides, for me, this is illustrated by two people fighting in the street and a circle of people around them. If what these people do is applaud one side, the fighting continues," said Stolov, the director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, who was in town last week for a San Francisco interreligious conference.

"But if the circle of people really care for one of [the fighters], they will try to separate them. The way I see it, just cheering one side or trying to twist the arm of the other is not helpful and doesn't have any impact."

Of course, Jews, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims must come to the table with some wildly differing political ideas. No matter. Stolov likens political camps to "being a fan of different football teams" and feels political discourse is an "extremely superficial, divisive and not so fruitful a topic of conversation." So, no politics. Dialogue groups focus instead on religion.

Stolov studied for nearly six years at the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, founded by Israel's first chief rabbi, Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. While the idea of interfaith dialogue dawned upon the curious student as a great way of learning about others' religions, it was only in the last couple of years that he began applying dialogue toward "peace-building."

In the past year and a half, more than 1,000 people have participated in Stolov's encounter sessions, ranging in political orientation from right-wing settlers to members of Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. Several groups now meet regularly in Jerusalem.

"The political approach always seeks as a goal the finding of an agreement, a document on which everyone can sign. The religious model is different," said Stolov, who led a dialogue group between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Yuba City during his brief stay in California.

"It teaches you to live in harmony with total disagreements. We can attract people because everyone,even someone who is not interested in the religion of the other, can be interested in meeting the other to find out who this person is."

A number of the Israeli and Arab participants in Stolov's groups may have never have had a meaningful conversation with the other in their lives.

"About a third of the participants in both groups said they are so surprised — they knew they always wanted peace and never knew there were such people on the other side," he said.

"How little dialogue we need to humanize the other."

As an example of this point, Stolov tells the tale of the former presidents of the Israeli and Palestinian student unions at San Francisco State. The two never spoke over the course of three years but were frequently paired against each other to debate on panel discussions.

The Palestinian left the Bay Area to participate in the first intifada and was ambushed one day by three Israeli soldiers, who began to beat him. But one of the soldiers pulled his comrades away from the Palestinian — it was the former head of the Israeli student union.

"They embraced each other, began to talk to each other and became the best of friends."

Dialogue, Stolov continued, "works, in reality. It is not a theory, it is a reality."