Speaking for Peace
Other worldwide dialogue efforts also seem to be having an effect. For example, Weekend of Twinning organizers plan to expand their campaign into Europe this year and will include about nearly 100 synagogues and mosques, up from about 50 last year. Program coordinator Walter Ruby hopes to get even more pairs of Muslim and Jewish groups to participate. The theme for this year's Weekend of Twinning campaign, slated to take place from Nov. 13 to 15, is "Building a Common Agenda." Ruby said the Gaza invasion was a temporary setback, but most of the Muslims and Jews involved in the campaign expressed a desire to move forward even as the invasion was taking place.
"The people were really moved," he said of last year's Twinning participants. "There was kind of a joy of mutual discovery."
Ruby expressed hope that American Muslim-Jewish relations ultimately could serve as a model for residents of Israel-Palestine. In the meantime, many changes are happening across the U.S. on a smaller scale. Ramin Nematollahi, who has participated in New Ground, said he has been able to expand his perspective through participation in the group, which works predominately with Jews and Muslims in their 20s and 30s. He noted that he no longer has certain stereotypes of Jewish people. For instance, he did not realize the diversity of Jewish opinions regarding Israeli policies until he joined the group.
"Not only were my misconceptions shattered, but also the foundations were shattered," he said.
Such individual transformations may sound insignificant in light of the conflict facing Jews and Muslims in the Middle East today, but dialogue advocates hope these varied encounters will contribute to a more peaceful planet.
President Obama expressed those hopes when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. He said the U.S. must reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster peaceful dialogue regarding faith:
I don't expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish. But I do believe that if we talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding.
President Obama put that rhetoric into action on March 20 when he sent a Persian New Year message to the people and leaders of Iran.
In the end, it may not be possible to say quantitatively whether Muslim-Jewish dialogue events and groups enhance overall world peace, Loskota said.
Loskota maintains that someone needs to conduct a systematic analysis of the interfaith dialogue movement that tracks people after they have participated in peace-building programs. Nevertheless, she said she can cite anecdotal examples of people whose lives have changed as a result of their experiences with dialogue.
"The reality is (that these groups are) moving in the right direction," Loskota said.
Professor Gustav Niebuhr said the difficulty of quantification is one of the reasons that interfaith efforts tend to fly "under the radar." A shortage of journalists who cover religion in depth also contributes to the problem, he said.
It may take years for change to occur on a universal scale, and religious and cultural tensions continue to wreak havoc throughout parts of the world. Nevertheless, dialogue advocates remain optimistic.
"I think change is possible because I simply don't think people are beyond redemption," Niebuhr said.
Jonathan Partridge lives in Gilroy, CA where he works as a staff writer for the Gilroy Dispatch. He has spent an extensive amount of time in Israel and Palestine, including a year-long stint as a volunteer with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, where he became passionate about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Partridge studied news coverage of religion while earning his master's degree in specialized journalism this past spring at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.