Scriptural Reasoning with Israelis and Palestinians

Miriam Feldmann Kaye [2]
Three Faiths Forum and Hebrew University


In October 2010 the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme (CIP) at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity, in conjunction with Three Faiths Forum Middle East (3FFME), commissioned the implementation of Scriptural Reasoning (SR) interreligious seminars for Muslims, Jews and Christians in Israel. The aim of this endeavour was to assess the use of the SR method in the Israeli context, and to offer recommendations for the continued use of SR in other public dialogue contexts.

SR began as a scholarly enterprise, practiced in universities, theorized in its own journal: since then it has developed SR programmes with prison chaplains, police, dozens of grassroots community groups and through international video-conferencing. It has also been adapted to educational settings by the Three Faiths Forum UK (3FF), where it is run across the UK in numerous schools and universities.

The Context

For the past four years, 3FF has pioneered an educational programme in Israel, translating and adapting its existing work to the Israeli/Palestinian setting. The intention of the year’s commission by CIP to implement Scriptural Reasoning was to focus and develop the programme and consider its use as a method of enhancing community cohesion in the region. Towards the end of this piece I will consider its implementation in Israel in comparison with other countries where SR work has been presented.

Israel, a country of around 7 million, comprises around five and a half million Jews and one and a half million Israeli Arabs. (The language I use here to describe religious groups is language that is accepted by most Israeli Arabs and Jews alike.) The original intention had been to develop seminars between those in mainland Israel and those over the green line (pre-1967 borders) in the Palestinian Authority sections of the West Bank. The Three Faiths Forum had been developing relations with an organization in the Palestinian Territories (area B) for a few years, yet due to technical and political difficulties the meetings could not be continued. It was therefore decided that the SR sessions would be run inside Israel focusing on relations between Israeli Arabs (some Christian; most Muslim) and Israeli Jews.

When discussing the application of SR to the context of Israel, the framework of discussion is immediately different from that in the UK, USA or Canada. In Israel there are continual violent outbursts marking expressions of difference—be that in terms of living conditions, opportunities, education, economic factors, and ultimately, narratives of ontology. What is at stake, if narratives continue to diverge, and are not countered by moves towards equality and shared narratives through citizenship, is human life. This makes the efforts at aiming to ‘resolve’ or manage the conflict through civilized discussion crucial in the experimentation of SR against this backdrop.

Educational Settings

The study that has been undertaken is based on a series of ten facilitated SR seminars for groups of students (ranging from twenty to forty students per group) over the course of the year 2010-2011 at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem, and Kaplan Medical Centre in Rehovot.

Our decision to trial SR in hospitals was in part a response to a public statement by the Israeli Ministry of Health encouraging all hospitals to train doctors and nurses in Cultural Competency. We were able to present SR to hospital authorities as an appropriate fit for that category. The resultant SR seminars now form a mandatory component of medical and nursing studies in three hospitals in Israel.

In addition to this, we work in universities, in particular at the University of Haifa, where a group has recently been established in conjunction with the Jewish–Arab Centre.

This programme has been developed in consultation with other interfaith organisations (Interfaith Encounter Association, Interreligious Coordinating Council for Israel, Peres Centre for Peace, Jerusalem Foundation, Jerusalem Centre for Ethics Mishkenot Shaananim, and Jerusalem InterCultural Centre).

The SR Approach

Purportedly ‘neutral’ Israeli institutions, such as universities and hospitals, are often held up as bastions of coexistence. However, when probed further with SR participants, such a presentation assumes the relinquishing of strong religious and cultural identities on the part of those entering the institution, and leaves religious differences unacknowledged and unaddressed.

Our hypothesis for this study was that SR would be useful tool in promoting deeper forms of engagement and cohesion between participants, by allowing them to engage peacefully and seriously with one another while acknowledging and exploring their respective religious identities.

SR is not intended to produce agreements about the texts studied, or conclusions about the relative worth of different texts (as with some forms of study where explicit comparison is the focus). Rather, it is intended to create a safe space within which participants can develop a deeper understanding of each of the religious identities represented in turn—and in which each participant can learn more about his or her own religious identity by exploring it with the help of others who differ.

SR and the Political Conflict

In order to create such a ‘safe space’, Three Faiths Forum Middle East has taken no official political position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as this would undermine their ability to work with Jewish, Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel who themselves hold political positions across the spectrum. Ideologically, the very notion of ‘taking a position’ makes it difficult to teach the understanding of opposing narratives.

The focus of the SR project on religion rather than politics has manifested itself in the encounters between participants, allowing them to momentarily shelve political differences without denying them. The significance of such an exercise is the invitation to participate in a fruitful and friendly exchange of religious ideas, values and precepts in order to strengthen interpersonal tools of listening and learning, and deepen mutual understanding and self-understanding. Our politically ‘neutral’ position has allowed participants actively to discuss issues close to their hearts without feeling that a common political position needed to be reached as a precursor or as a result.

Nevertheless, religion and politics can’t simply be separated. On the one hand, many high-level interfaith meetings in Israel proclaim the need of religious leaders to be the ones to ‘make peace in God’s name’. On the other hand, the reality is often very different, and religion is seen to be the cause of the conflict and not the solution to it.

The SR programme seeks to promote a different perception of how religion may play a role in the pursuit of peace. It pursues the possibility that religious practices of scriptural interpretation can be used to help participants explore each other’s religious identity (and explore their own religious identities) in a way that does not reduce to politics—and that it is therefore possible to find practices of coexistence in which religion is acknowledged, and in which explicit attention to religion helps make the coexistence possible.


The analysis below draws on feedback from directors of educational institutions and participants as presented in written questionnaires and spoken feedback recorded in transcript. Questionnaires were completed immediately after the seminar and were semi-structured. All feedback has been translated from written or spoken Hebrew from recorded notes over the past twelve months (December 2010-December 2011).


1. ‘Shared Reasoning’ and not Comparative Study

At the outset, the participants expressed relief that they were not expected to compare religious texts. It seems that this has been a central point of success for SR in the region—that the focus was on exploring how each text, and thus each religion, is seen through the lens of personal interpretative frameworks. The language used during the seminar encouraged multiple opinions to surface, against the notion of a singular or preferred viewpoint: ‘the way I understand this text/the way this verse is taught in my community’ versus ‘your version leaves out the important part about X/this section preaches peace even more because…’. Resistance to setting one’s religion above the others comprised a theoretical and practical ground rule for the conversations. The study of the texts alongside each other yet on the terms of the religious believers as protagonists of their own faiths allowed for the presence of different interpretations to be exciting, and not competitive. I will term this interfaith motif as ‘shared reasoning’.

Whilst certain other dialogue programmes present prepared sheets of religious texts to groups with participants from Israeli and Palestinian backgrounds, this aspect of the SR approach has been found to be unique by the participants:

I have never studied Torah with Christians and Muslims, even though they are good friends of mine. It was difficult but in the end eye-opening, challenging, and the role-plays were great fun—I am now rethinking the way I view others in Israel, and my interactions with them in hospital when I become a doctor. All in all it was completely new, enjoyable, and surprising—every student should do this. (Uri, 28, Jewish, Rehovot)

The absence of any expectation that participants should compare religious texts (rather than giving time and appreciation for each on its own) meant students were less worried about speaking using their own hermeneutical frameworks. Discussion of scripture ‘for its own sake’ was seen to reduce the expectation that they might be required to give up, or defend against attack, their individual tools of theological understanding. In terms of intra-faith relations (relations between participants of the same faith), the need to present a unified stance on a single text was lessened. Participants commented on the simplicity of explaining religious texts and how one understands them, without having to justify or engage in a broader comparative discourse, which students often find intimidating:

I had the feeling that I could talk about Mark 2 (New Testament) and the way we interpret it in the Armenian community, without the fear that one of my friends from Catholic or Orthodox understandings was going to counter what I said. I could just speak freely. (Marion, 23, Christian, Old City of Jerusalem)

What I think was important for the students is that in their studies they are normally discussing what is right and wrong practice in the hospital environment. What they were doing here was still discussing practice in hospitals, but from their own personal perspectives they learn from their religions. It was tremendously important for me to see that their personal views on how they practice medicine or nursing could be accepted for what they are and not as if they are some objective thing. (Ronit, Head of Nursing Studies, Hospital X)

2. Objectives of encounters

Study of religious texts was not a means to an end: the discussions were not designed to resolve the conflict, as some believed was the purpose of many interfaith projects (even though the vast majority of the participants (97%) had not taken part in or even were aware of interfaith dialogue programmes). Rather, the practice itself was an end: dialogue undertaken peacefully by diverse groups of people. Many found this to be a relief:

What was great was that I was not expected to deal with all my issues with the Israeli Jews. I could go into that meeting with my suspicions, come out with suspicions, but the difference was that I was able to sit and talk with them and gradually erase the hatred I have been taught to feel. (Mahmud, 25, Muslim, Jenin)

Coming from the ‘national-religious’ community of Jewish Israelis, my family would have been disappointed that I was engaging in an empty, supposed-to-be-peace-making initiative with people who in honesty we view to be our enemy. (Dalia, 24, Jewish, Kfar HaRoeh)

Seemingly in light of this, the ways in which the political conflict played out were manageable. Participants were surprised to learn that in order to sit down and discuss the identities and perceptions of each other, they did not have to hold left-wing views of the conflict. The SR process gave the participants the opportunity to encounter a positive dialogue opportunity without having to resolve the painful topic of the conflict. Conversations about scripture had a personal impact on the experiences of the students because the experience was emotional and personal; however, this was positive and not negative:

When she came in I thought we would have to talk about politics and peace and stuff like that. I just don’t think I can do that with the Palestinians yet. I have a brother who was badly injured in a terrorist attack and I know that I would have just got too emotional and blocked up having to talk about that. It was good to speak about my religion and where I come from instead. (Eliraz, 26, Jewish, Rishon LeZion)

Actually as coursemates we ignore all this stuff about the conflict like the political and religious feelings that put us at war. It was hard to admit that those feelings were really there simmering underneath our pretend friendships. I definitely could not deal with all that in one session, just too much really. (Farouk, 21, Muslim, Bet Hanina [East Jerusalem])

I was really nervous that we would have to explain why we are right in our positions due to what our religious books tell us. Lucky for us that did not happen, it was just for the fun of it really! And surprisingly it was not serious stuff about the problems here, but actually about just games, sharing and listening. (Gila, 24,Jewish, Gan Yavne)

The encounter with Three Faiths Forum was fascinating: it enabled me to get to know my friends not only as course-mates but also their religious identities and beliefs. We could not discuss this before, and we had really needed this in our group but we have not yet had the opportunity. We need this. Thank you. (Marura, 25, Christian Shfaram [Galilee])

My family comes from Jenin. I have two uncles in prison. I was really not prepared for this. It was good to speak positively about my culture and religion and get off to a good start with my fellow students as opposed to arguing about why they are still in prison. (Rima, 28, Muslim, Baqa al Gharbiye)

What much of this feedback hints at is that, although there appears to be a level of coexistence that is sustained at these educational institutions, there are strong feelings of resentment harboured within many individuals. Whilst many of the students were in fact on good terms on a social level, engaged jovially in the role-plays and reading, and listened attentively to others’ interpretations of scriptures, the sense of conflict is palpable in the feedback. It has therefore been significant in analyzing the programme to examine the extent to which the SR session could really have an impact on the individual students’ perceptions, as well as on the general feeling at the end of the session.

The feedback in this regard shows that whilst interpersonal relationships are maintained, they are of a somewhat superficial nature. According to much of the feedback, the ‘real’ issues are not up for discussion as there has been no safe way to ease the underlying tensions. On the surface relations are good, yet when the nature of those relations is explored, and the façade of coexistence is revealed, the civilities are seen as a cover of fear for the reality of the conflict.

3. ‘Respect’ as Ignorance

The term ‘respect’ arose numerous times in the students’ perceptions of each other’s faiths and backgrounds. It seems that this so-called ‘respect’ is not based on knowledge or experience of the culture of the other, but rather on an expectation of ‘respect’ as a ground-rule for civility in the workplace. Once we engaged in questions of knowledge about the other, students often had very little to say and were afraid to ask their fellow students. The respect was, therefore, simply not sufficient —as was shown in descriptions of inter-faith relations in the classroom prior to the SR seminars. In those seminars we ended up working ‘behind’ slogans of ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’, which, when scraped away, stood for little knowledge and engagement with the other.

It was so interesting, I learnt so much about people of other religions in Israel through my friends on my course. Personally I respect everyone and their faith but I did not know much about it and now I feel better informed. We have not had workshops like this until now and it is something that can really enhance our working in hospitals, to know about what people believe in and how they express it. It is our duty to participate in such things as they make life more beautiful and this is especially necessary in Israel. (Maysalun, 26,Muslim, Shfaram [Galilee])

I respect everyone from other religions and backgrounds. It is important in my religion that even though not everyone is of my religion we must respect each other and be tolerant. People need to be more respectful. I am opposed to the Muslim violence and so are most Muslims, and to the Jewish zealotry of the land. (Rima, 22, Christian, Nazareth)

There are great friendships amongst the students. Everyone respects everyone else and works together. Even though they do not know each other well they have a great respect for each other as human beings and future fellow doctors… In breaktimes (recess) they tend to sit in groups of their own religious/cultural communities. (Joyce, Head of Cultural Competency for Medical Students, Hospital Y)

In the above quotations, there are contradictions. On the one hand, ‘respect’ is stated, but on the other hand, it does not feature in the daily lives of the students. The ‘respect’ that the participants speak of for individuals of other faith backgrounds has a reverse meaning. From our findings we can see that ‘respect’ represents an accepted way of speaking about others whilst simultaneously dis respecting their worldviews and beliefs. ‘Respect’ has come to be a soundbite of civility—a civility we can identify as a cover that can be easily unravelled to reveal dis respect.

This has become a central point in working with groups who already ‘know’ each other, at least on the face of things. Whilst many other inter-faith programmes successfully bring together diverse groups from different places in the country, very few work with groups already working together. Many programmes are open to those who wish to participate in dialogue with others, yet this is criticized as ‘preaching to the converted’.

The niche that the SR programme has found is working with groups of young people who include Muslims, Christians and Jews in contexts where a sense of superficial coexistence already exists—where the assumption is that their being together every day implies that they are integrated. Yet in these spheres there remains a cognitive segregation where, even though professional integration is desirable, anything deeper than this rarely occurs.

4. Compulsory Engagement in SR as Students

Dialogue is often considered, by the naysayers of peace-work, as succumbing to an ’empty liberalism’. Cynicism has, for many Israelis—Jews and Arabs, as well as Palestinians, come to typify attempts to enact meaningful conflict resolution in this region. One distinct sentiment is that of reluctance to engage in dialogue. Dialogue is perceived as sitting down with those already convinced that dialogue is important; or as ‘preaching to the converted’ (a term so often used), and there is an expectation that both ‘sides’ consist of those already on the way to a consensus on the subject up for discussion.

There is truth in this stereotype, but the SR seminars avoid it in two ways. On the one hand, there is the refusal to prioritise consensus, already discussed. On the other, there is the fact that participation in the seminars was non-voluntary, and so inevitably drew in a wider cohort than those already convinced by the idea of dialogue. One of our tasks in the seminars has therefore been to take responsibility for sceptics whose negativity towards the methods of dialogue available contributes to their non-participation in existing groups.

5. Self-Understanding

Since the very task of getting people of different backgrounds to have a positive experience of engagement with one another is so complex in the Middle East, it was an achievement to see encouraging feedback come through. Much of the sense of enjoyment came through an experience of having learnt about one’s own faith as well as that of the other. In this way, SR goes beyond, and builds on, the ‘shared reasoning’ described above: it does not simply allow participants to learn more about each other and about the differences between them, but allows them to discover more about themselves with the help of all these others.

It was very interesting, I loved it, not only did I learn about my fellow students and their religious values, but also how to relate better to Jewish and Christian patients in hospital. I did not expect I would learn more about my own faith through studying with others, but reading and discussing the Qur’an with fellow students opened my eyes to the way I understand the Qur’an. I love to be around people of other cultures. Thank you! (Inas, 25, Muslim, Tira, Central Israel)

I learnt lots about other people’s religions and cultures, and I could really see what gets people talking. Once we were talking, I felt I could really get to know my coursemates personally, and therefore respect them more as I will no longer stereotype them. I want to learn more about other people and to share with others, in particular about the Qur’an and how it informs my life. Thank you for this. And thank you for providing materials in Arabic—it was great to learn Qur’an in our own language. (Rania, 21, Muslim, Umm-al-Fahm)

It is rare that I get to sit and study and explain my own religion without my imam explaining its real meaning. (Amjad, 24, Muslim, Jaffa)

Normally study is a very serious matter in my religion, it was quite new to do role-plays in conjunction with the study, a new sort of thing. (Bulus, 29, Christian, Nazareth)

6. Developing the Theological Methodology: Informal Education, Drama and Role-plays

After the first two seminars in the first six months, it was decided that an element of ice-breaking would serve to loosen up mental barriers between participants. This insight has now taken the form of playing games, miming and role-plays appropriated to the hospital context. It has served, in a context of suspicions, to relax an otherwise serious situation, to encourage involvement from all participants of both genders, to foster good-feeling between fellow students, and to become aware of the dynamics at play within the group.

To be exposed to different cultures—not just to the ideas but the people!—of different faiths was very challenging. It raised my temperature! It was a fantastic seminar, and the discussion in particular was warm and fascinating. (Jaris, 26, Christian, Kfar Ba’ani [Galilee])

The seminar was so interesting—I heard and learnt things that I have never encountered before. It was to come face to face with my friends of other religions and cultures in Israel, my country. (Hodaya, 26, Jewish, Ramot [Jerusalem])

7. ‘Secular’ Theology and Participants

It has been observed in the seminars that the vast majority of Muslim and Christian participants, regardless of their personal religious commitments, have demonstrated fluency in the reading and interpretation of their respective scriptures.

Jewish participants often consist of a mixture of self-identified ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ worldviews. The more religious ones are reluctant to study with non-Jews (in particular those from more traditional communities such as ‘Hardalim’ Haredi-Dati-Leumi—and those from Orthodox Ethiopian traditions) due to a perceived lack of Halakhic credence to engage in such an activity, and possibly a fear of accidentally disseminating discrepancies in the text, and in Judaism as a whole.

The other side of the coin is that of the secular Jews, who, if they classify themselves as Jews at all, pronounce the irrelevance of scripture altogether.

It was really nice reading stories from Talmud (Torah commentary) but it is not that important in addressing the things we really need to address. Having said that it was good to just have a starting point of discussion. (Bar, 28, Jewish, Ramat Gan)

The main part was the drama and the fun. I just wanted to say that the texts didn’t really interest me as I am a secular Jew, but everyone else seemed very interested by them, so it clearly worked in getting us to explore things about one another. Basically, we do not have other opportunities like this, so it was useful. Even if I do not think the Tanakh is divine, if there is such a thing, they can be used as stories and legends to get us talking. (Erez, 25, Jewish, Mevaseret Zion)

The role of ‘secular’ participants must be reconsidered in light of the SR focus on religion, even in places where religion is disregarded. Those who valued religion certainly engaged more in the seminar, and the role for those who self-identify as ‘secular’ must not be perceived as less important. Our interim suggestion, which demands further attention, but which appeared to make secular participation possible, has been to suggest to those secular participants that they view the scriptures as they would any piece of high literature—worthy of serious discussion, without any commitment to ideas of divine revelation or religious authority.

8. Points for Further Consideration

  • The limitations of the research over the past year must be considered. Some examples of these would include the limited age range (all participants in the seminars were in their 20s) and limited professional range. It is hoped in the future that the programme will be delivered beyond the medical and university contexts to businesses and government offices.
  • There were also limitations in the number of seminars participants were able to attend. The seminar should really comprise a weekly component of the cultural competency course, yet the students are also expected to work on their own ‘projects’ that address these issues. This year (2012) we hope to utilize the SR programme in consulting with students on their individual projects to help them broaden the scope of their research in hospitals to include interreligious as well as intercultural spheres of interaction.
  • Various other questions were raised by the specificity of the context for this study, which might be answered by means of studies in other cultural contexts. Is the success of the programme in the Israeli context related to the decidedly secular nature of the university or place of study? Must there be a majority of religiously-affiliated participants in order for a study of scripture to be experienced as engaging and exciting? Since presenting about SR in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and visiting a Serb-Croat dialogue centre, I have written a journal article that compares and contrasts intercultural methodologies between Israelis and Palestinians, on the one hand, and Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims on the other. The article addresses contemporary Bosnian concerns about ridding religion from the public sphere in light of past conflicts, and the experimentation of SR in Israel as highlighting the role of religion in the public space and acknowledging its prominence.
  •  To ensure the development of the programme, those participants who demonstrated enthusiasm about the seminars should be invited to take part in a professional training in how to facilitate SR sessions within their communities and beyond. The expertise and knowledge must be disseminated to the students in order that they can present it at staff meetings and more niche professional settings where it is not the norm for external organisations to be present.

9. General conclusions

SR practice has successfully allowed for the exploration of the identities, ideas and practices of participants from each religious community—and, as we see repeatedly in the feedback, participants have gone more deeply into their understanding of each other and more deeply into their understanding of their own traditions. By promoting better understanding of the other, and by learning more about oneself from the other, the programme has contributed to the development of a deeper form of community cohesion.

The lesson that might be learned from the experience of organizing and facilitating these seminars is that participants must each speak from a particular place. This is how tendencies towards pretentious homogeneity can be unravelled.


[1] This article was previously published by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme.
[2] The author has submitted a Ph.D. at the University of Haifa, is a Lady Davis postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is Founding Director of the Three Faiths Forum Middle East.