When the late Anwar Sadat made his historic dramatic trip to Jerusalem 20 years ago, he asserted the importance of bridging the gap between Arabs and Jews by breaking what he called the “Psychological Barrier.” existing between the two peoples. While real and objective problems need to be solved between Israelis and the Arabs as part of a peace settlement, certainly the psychological atmosphere existing between Israelis, and Palestinians is a factor which can either enhance or retard the possibilities for peace to develop. In this article we will suggest that the insufficiently explored commonalities between the Islamic and Judaic cultures can serve as a psychological bridge of the type which President Sadat spoke of, referring to concrete examples.

As educators of university students we would like to share our experiences as supervisors of a unique student dialogue which has been taking place for the last several years. The dialogue has involved students from Bar-Ilan University and Palestinian students from a variety of Palestinian universities. We believe that the experiences of the above-mentioned dialogue points the way and serves as an excellent head-start toward the possibility that both Arabs and Jews can achieve positive perceptions of each other. In contrast to the belief that religion only serves to fan the flame of conflict, the dialogue has shown that the religious cultural background of both Islam and Judaism can contribute to a friendly psychological atmosphere which will bridge the gap between the two peoples.

When our students met for the first time three years ago in Bethlehem, it wasn’t clear what common agenda could be found as a foundation for constructive dialogue. The answers though appeared to come from the students themselves. It began with an innocent question by a Jewish woman student to an Arab female student who asked if she wore the head covering for the same reason that an Orthodox Jewish woman would. This first exchange led to other questions and answers, for instance concerning similarities and differences between the observances of Ramadan and Yom Kippur, the Kosher and Halal food, the way the two peoples worship the same G-d, the teachings of the two religions, the belief of the Moslems and Jews in the same one G-d, the respect and belief of the Moslems of all the prophets and not discriminating between anyone of them, the belief of the Moslims that Prophet Abraham is the grandfather of all Arabs and Jews. As a result of the last-mentioned point, one of the most important things concluded was the idea that Moslims and Jews as descendants of Abraham could achieve improved perceptions of each other. Also they discussed the origins and similarities among the three monotheistic religions. A variety of topics were initially discussed. The way the Qu’ran and Prophet Mohammed recommended the good treatment of the neighbors. Even during war, the Islamic teachings advise the Moslims not to kill children, elderly people or women. In one meeting the story and significance of creation as presented in both the Torah and Qu’ran were compared; in another meeting, essential prayers and religious credos in both Islam and Judaism were explored as expressions of the faith which Arabs and Jews hold dear.

As students from both sides wished to continue their meetings, it became clear to us that a continued comparison between Islam, Judaism (and Christianity) served as a highly constructive foundation for dialogue. Many important issues were dealt with in a thoughtful manner such as the challenge of bio-ethics, or the ethics of life concerning both biological and social ecology; how the two religions update religious structure and observance in each era; and the manner in which prayer is performed by the two peoples. Students were pleased to discover almost identical terminology or concepts for many elements in the two religions, as reflected in culture and language (for instance such as the name of G-d). On several occasions high level student faculty delegations from Japan and India, who were interested in bio-ethics from a religious perspective and in conflict resolution, joined and enriched our deliberations.

Besides the intellectual stimulation, the experience of scores of our students can make an important contribution for conflict resolution. Experts in inter-cultural communication believe that when groups in conflict discover some elements of commonality in an opposing group, the way can be opened for a lessening of tension and new more positive mutual perceptions to emerge.

Again, the activity of the Arab-Israeli students can be instructive. After discovering commonalities in the two religious cultures in the semi-formal circle discussions which opened our meetings, students were then able to divide into their own informal discussion sub-groups, and over coffee and refreshments, to discuss freely and openly any topic that was on their minds including highly controversial political issues in a warm, friendly and respectful atmosphere.

Interactions between the Israeli and Palestinian students and faculty have not remained limited to the formal meetings. Personal relationships have developed which have survived the vicissitudes of sometimes turbulent current events; members have reacted constructively during tragedy and difficulty and have visited each other on personal occasions of both illness and celebration, thus creating a strong human bond for the dialogues to continue.

From our experience, we do not assume that achieving a formal Israeli-Palestinian peace will be easy. Both the Israeli and Palestinian members of the dialogue are proud members of their communities and have their respective religious and national principles. However we have found that we can enrich each other and together discover deeper elements such as our similar religious heritages which can serve to create a new atmosphere that would generate hope instead of despair, while the official leaders on both sides are summoned to arrive at a peace agreement ultimately to serve both of our peoples.

We sincerely hope that our efforts will be encouraged by the formal leadership on both sides and that other groups will follow our example. In recent years, courageous leaders have come forward to enable the peace process to develop. President Sadat understood the importance of breaking the psychological barrier between Arabs and Jews and building new bridges between them, and Yitzhak Rabin sensed new possibilities in the region. It is their legacy which we wish to honor and enlarge upon., as we tap into the cultural backround of Islam and Judaism as a basis for conflict resolution and perception change to occur.

Ben Mollov is a lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University and coordinates the department of Political Science at the Ashkelon Regional College under Bar-Ilan’s auspices.

Musa Isa Barhoum is an assistant professor at Al-Quds Open University. He is in charge of the Department of Educational Technology. He has taught in a number of Palestinian universities.