This week, I intend to give a brief presentation to an international audience about an organization that is very near and dear to my heart – the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, or JIDS. It’s an odd time to write this blogpost, because the JIDS website is in a time of transition, but you can still access it by going to www.jids.org.
Below is what I intend to say about JIDS, explicitly. Implicitly, though, my point is that I would encourage efforts to replicate it, or build upon it, in creating Jewish-Islamic dialogue societies in other American cities and around the world. If any of you would be interested in setting up such a society and would like a sounding board for your ideas, you can e-mail me at email@example.com.
JIDS has met monthly from about the time Barack Obama became President. We have sponsored a range of activities in addition to our monthly dialogues, including lectures, film viewings, and various social action events. For example, during each of the past few years, we have brought together dozens of Jewish and Muslim teenagers from several local synagogues and mosques to clean up public parks or help the homeless. On one other occasion, we turned over the microphones to a small group of teenagers and let them serve as the rabbis and imams for an entire session.
JIDS is devoted primarily to the idea that Jews and Muslims are first cousins in the family of Abraham, and that we can’t fully practice our own faith unless we steep ourselves in the wisdom of our cousins. We are proudest of the fact that we have formed a true community. The members of JIDS provide a safe space where people can speak their minds. We have matured together as a group of friends, even though we represent a wide range of ideas on matters of faith and of politics.
So, how did this all come to be?
First, the group was started by laypeople – not professional clergy. We didn’t have to worry about losing our jobs if we offended anyone. We could just speak from the heart.
Second, we were started by people with shared passions. Especially in a society where so many people have given up on the Holy Name, it was critical that JIDS was formed by folks who adore that Name. Our founders had a common beloved that was under siege, and that brought us together. But we also have a number of members who are atheists, and they too are treated with complete respect, because the one thing more important to our founders than honoring the Name is honoring God’s world by dealing with people civilly and warmly.
Third, our founders were mainstream enough within their faiths that nobody has questioned whether our group authentically represents Jews and Muslims. I can’t imagine JIDS being led by Muslims who didn’t care deeply about the plight of the Palestinians, say, or Jews who weren’t ardent Zionists. So even though our membership falls within a wide spectrum of philosophies, our founders had to be within the mainstream of the communities we represent.
Fourth, we keep it real. We didn’t want to be just another interfaith group that speaks on a level worthy of children. We aim for intelligent high-level dialogue at all times. And we don’t whitewash differences between our communities – we embrace those differences.
When our group started to meet, it wasn’t easy to keep it real. We realized that we had to build some trust in each other. So we took on some less controversial topics for a little while, and gradually we worked up to taking on topics like God and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Right now, we’re going through a series of dialogues entitled “What Unifies Us/What Divides Us.” And you can imagine that has led us to study our philosophies of God, our views about Zionism, and other big issues. But even when we’re taking on the topics that divide us, we remind ourselves about the many things that bring us together as a family. For example, we point out that the words Jihad and Israel mean the same thing – spiritual wrestling.
Ultimately, our success is about playfully challenging one another – “You think God is great? Well think about THIS way of praising God.” “You say you believe in peace and justice – well I bet you haven’t considered THIS perspective?” We play with our differences as if we realize that variety was the spice of life -- as if we take to heart that line in Surah 49 about how God made us into different tribes so that we may know each other and not despise each other.
At JIDS, we learn that the Jewish and Muslim tribes are indeed part of a larger Tribe – more akin to the 12 Tribes of Israel than to being a pair of “enemies.” Perhaps our group’s proudest accomplishment is in the way it prepares members to work in the struggle for Middle East Peace. Whereas so many non-JIDS members lose patience, can’t handle being around people with whom they disagree, and end up fighting only for one side of the conflict and not the other, we at JIDS are patient enough not to quit in the fight for peace.
JIDS forces us to be able to hold both the Israeli Narrative and the Palestinian Narrative in our hearts and in our minds. We have to do that, because the most important thing for a JIDS member to be able to do isn’t to talk but to listen. If you come to our meetings, you’ll realize that the presentations don’t go on for very long, and most of the time is spent letting the community members talk. We’re a dialogue society, not a speaker’s bureau. We already have enough self-important people in Washington D.C. – we don’t need to encourage that at JIDS. Believe it or not, we have more important things to consider even than our own intelligence.
I hope that gives you a bit of food for thought. We need these types of organizations to build trust throughout our world. If you form one, there will inevitably be growing pains, but as long as you have a committed and supportive core group, you should be fine. And once you start rolling, I think you’ll find that the meetings are incredibly fulfilling.
So give it a shot. Please. For all of our sakes.