By Sireen Tutunji and Gedalia Gillis

Sireen Tutunji and Gedalia Gillis are alumni of the Face to Face/Faith to Faith, annual dialogue and leadership programme for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth, planned and implemented by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, in partnership with Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Programme participants meet biweekly in East and West Jerusalem in order to foster positive relations and tolerance of "the other," and to develop dialogue and leadership skills. They also act together to benefit the Jewish and Palestinian communities in the city through volunteer work.
Sireen is an eighteen-year-old Palestinian Muslim girl who graduated from Beit Safafa High School in 2009 with high grades. After the second intifada -- a period of heightened Israeli-Palestinian violence that began in late September 2000 -- her family moved from Ramallah to Jerusalem, as it had become very difficult to pass the check points each day on their way to school and work in Jerusalem. Sireen's uncle was one of the many victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his death has shaped her outlook on life. Although she lives in a relatively closed, conservative, and traditional community, both of her parents are open-minded educators who work and coexist with Jews in Israel. Sireen is preparing for her future academic studies. In addition to her participation in the Face to Face/Faith to Faith programme in 2008, she returned to the 2010 summer camp in New York to participate in the Leader in Training programme of the Auburn Theological Seminary.

Gedalia is an eighteen-year-old Israeli Jewish boy. In 1994, his family immigrated to Israel from Australia for Zionist reasons. He belongs to an orthodox family that is open minded and accepts differences, but also has a clear view on education and values. Gedalia recently graduated from Hartman High School in Jerusalem and is currently studying for a year at the Ma'aleh Gilboa Yeshiva at the kibbutz of the same name. Afterwards, he will be drafted into the army. Although he does not currently reside in Jerusalem, he still considers it his home.

Gedalia and Sireen did not have any interaction or dialogue with young people from the opposite side of the conflict prior to their participation in the programme. This is a typical situation, since Jewish and Palestinian youths, for the most part, attend separate schools and do not interact in their daily lives. Despite this, both of them chose to join the programme and engage in dialogue. We present an excerpt.

Gedalia : I wanted to have the opportunity to talk and discuss things, not in order to reach an agreement but to reach an understanding while remaining true to my own ways and beliefs, and to achieve mutual harmony. I think the goal needs to be understanding and acceptance of the views and beliefs of others. In Israel, there are so many divisions and each group tends to judge the others and tries to prove its superiority. I felt it was a sign of maturity that I could make a decision that was right for me and true to who I am, with the belief that one can be religious and committed in different environments and frameworks. I decided to join the programme, mostly out of curiosity, to hear the other side's opinion without any media distortion.

Sireen: I started to suffer from the Israeli occupation as every one of my people has, which has played a big part in shaping who I am. I joined the programme because I wanted to become a new person who can communicate with the other side that I had never spoken to but always saw as soldiers killing my people in Gaza and inspecting me at the checkpoints. I knew that I couldn't live my life without communicating with the other side. Taking part in this programme was the hardest, yet most powerful, experience of my life. At first, things were difficult for me because I had never had the chance to sit down with the other side before. I knew deep down that both sides were suffering. Hearing each other's personal and collective stories made us learn and better understand the other. My uncle died, and his cousin died, too. We were able to learn how to respect the other's opinions, and how to share our stories and feelings with the others. We learned how to support each other, and how to listen carefully and reply cautiously without hurting anyone.

Gedalia : Dialogue itself is a very complicated and sensitive thing. The dialogue group we belonged to did not make it easy for itself. We were not ashamed to address the core issues; as a result I learned that true dialogue is more than urging both sides to find mutual ground.

Sireen : At first I couldn't sit in the dialogue group. Dialogue is a very complicated and sensitive thing. I felt so angry and couldn't discuss the conflicting issues with the people that I considered my enemies. But as a Palestinian girl living in Israel, I felt it was my responsibility to represent my culture, my language, and my family to the Israeli people both inside and outside of the programme. I participated to represent my people, my family, my uncle, and, of course, myself.

Gedalia : Participating in this programme forced me to take responsibility for my words and actions. When a terrorist attack occurs, or I read some terrible headline in the news, I do not let stereotypical or hateful comments leave my mouth, even when I feel the hate roaring within me. The dialogue sessions made me understand that the world I live in forces me to mature early and become an active part of the solution to the conflict. Today, I stand up to any hateful comments that I hear around me, and am determined to be a positive example to those around me.

Sireen: The Face to Face/Faith to Faith experience has influenced my whole life. I wanted to become another person, not in changing my ideas or my points of view, but in being able to discuss any subject with many different people, without hurting them. My friends didn't accept me after I participated in the programme. They thought that I would be a different person after sitting down and talking with Israelis. They were right -- I had changed, but it was in the positive way that I had wanted. While my friends may not have been very understanding, my parents provided me with the support that I really needed to continue in the programme. When I would come home from the dialogue still upset, my parents would give me the encouragement that I needed. They also set an example for me through their coexistence and positive relationships with Jews in the workplace and in the community.

Sireen and Gedalia: The main problem in the Middle East is the lack of respect on both sides. We live in Jerusalem, a mixed city where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side. No peace treaty can prevent violence in our city. The only thing that can bring change is by educating our generation to respect one another. The only solution is dialogue. It was a turning point for us when we acknowledged that we can build a relationship with someone who is different than us without trying to erase our differences, but by accepting them. Accepting the differences led to respect and mutual understanding. We are not happy with the situation in our land, but we feel that we can make it more liveable in the future for ourselves, our families, the people, and the country.

For us, tolerance is listening to and respecting opinions that differ from our own. We have learned that we do not necessarily have to agree with everyone about everything; however, we must be civilized and tolerant of the other. This involves allowing the other to behave and believe in what they want, and to avoid labelling their different views as wrong or evil. Participating in this dialogue has taught us that it is possible not only to sit and speak with the other side, but to actually be able to call them our friends. The true goal of interfaith dialogue is to create a community that contains all kinds of people living together and sharing ideas and conversations.