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Turning Enemies Into Friends in Israel and the Palestinian Territories

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In early Jan. 15 senior rabbis, ministers and imams traveled together to Israel and the Palestinian territories. We are from among New York City's leading religious institutions. Collectively, our houses of worship are home to tens of thousands of prominent New Yorkers.

Anyone who appreciates the hectic schedules and unique demands upon congregational clergy realizes that it is no small matter to bring 15 spiritual leaders together for five days. So why did we leave our congregations for a week? Why did our congregants insist that we go and even pay for our mission?

In the post 9/11 world, religious rapprochement is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. To ignore dialogue is to invite destruction. If we do not find ways to live together in dignity we will die together in agony. Religious moderates must build new bridges of coexistence or religious extremists will burn the last bridges of peace.

Our presence in the Middle East was intended to broadcast that we can live together, work together, travel together, dream together and build together. In a world awash in religious conflict, we wish to model a different way: the way of coexistence, respect and peace.

It was a tough trip. We did not paper over our differences. We visited the heart of the conflict. There were moments of despair. We met with presidents, prime ministers, members of parliament and mayors on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. We met with priests, imams and rabbis. We met with journalists, academics, students, villagers and farmers.

Daily headlines do not begin to tell the story. None of the people we met -- not one -- believed that the Middle East is closer to peace today than ten years ago. If this is the truth, we need to hear it. Progress rests upon the solid rock of reality, not the shifting sands of fantasy.

Despite it all, many of us returned to New York guardedly optimistic. None of the people we met -- not one -- felt that the status quo was sustainable. Everyone understood that a way must be found to break out of the suffocating reality. There is broad agreement that the present is not working and that a new future must be forged.

People of faith have a unique role to play. Both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad urged us to engage. Both of them emphasized that religion could be a source of enormous support as the politicians seek a political solution. We can help to create a context that is conducive to peace.

Religion specializes in hope. We are good at articulating our common humanity and giving voice to the better angels of our nature. We were also cautioned that if we do not step up the forces of religious intolerance will continue to drag the rest of us towards war. Our era has placed a sacred obligation on the forces and figures of religious moderation to speak out and act out.

There are many good people working to build bridges. In Haifa we met Christians, Muslims and Jews who have built a true house of coexistence. In Tel Aviv we met doctors, nurses and hospital staff who treated illness without regard to race, religion or creed. Even on the Gaza border, in Israeli towns that were fired upon in a barrage of missiles, there were people who were reaching out to the other side.

Peace is made piece by piece, from the bottom up. Progress is advanced day by day, person by person, each laboring in their own corner of the universe, connecting with others who together create an irresistible force. We should connect with those people and strengthen their hand. This daily labor is heroic work.

Jewish sages ask: Who is a hero? They respond: He who turns an enemy into a friend.

This is our task: person by person to help turn enemies into friends.

WISE VIDEO • FINAL DAY from Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Vimeo.

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