By Rabbi Michael M. Cohen
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and appears here with the permission of the author
Like a sand dune slithering across the desert landscape covering and swallowing anything in its way, the Arab Revolutions have tenaciously spread across the Middle East. In the midst of that dramatic change I found myself earlier this spring in Dubai. I had been invited to attend the United States-based World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists as a representative of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The Institute brings together Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Jews, Christians, Muslims and other college students from around the world to Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border to train them as environmental leaders. What I discovered in the United Arab Emirates was a confirmation of what we teach and model in Israel at the Arava Institute.
I have traveled most of my life, including a two year trip around the world while in college, and more recently to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan for my work with the Arava Institute. I cross from Israel into Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, in some ways with the ease of crossing from my home in Vermont into Massachusetts, but in other ways deeply aware that I am crossing a chasm of cultures, politics and history. Anticipating travel to Dubai, I was excited and at the same time not exactly sure what would be my reception.
Rising out of the desert of the northern Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai’s skyline presents a stunning sight of sleek modern architecture. Only 20 percent of the people who live in Dubai are from Dubai; the other 80 percent are from India, Pakistan, Thailand, Morocco, Jordan and the rest of the world. I quickly realized that within a sea of different faces, different religious and ethnic head coverings, and different religious and national clothing styles, I blended right in.
At the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists I was welcomed by everyone I encountered, whether sitting next to a couple from Pakistan, talking with someone from Iran, sharing a table with a delegation from Saudi Arabia or having breakfast with someone from Egypt. While the Congress provided an arena for NGOs to mingle with and be exposed to foundations and corporations, the Congress had another agenda that, as a theologian, I found fascinating. Both Judaism and Islam are guided by religious law (in Judaism called halakha, in Islam called sharia). At the Congress they explored the relationship of sharia to charity — zakat in Arabic, which is similar in sound to tzedakah in Hebrew. Between sessions, as delegates discussed the parameters of Islamic law and charity, it was not unusual to be asked how Judaism deals with charity and other related issues.
A few days after the Congress I gave four lectures on Zionism, the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the Arava Institute to Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians,and other students from the Middle East at the American University of Dubai. I originally was only going to speak in one class, but as more professors heard I was going to be on campus invitations were extended to additional classes, and as students from other classes heard that a rabbi was speaking on campus they would come to my talks. One of the classes I was invited was a religion class where I discovered that the students knew more about Judaism than many Jews I come in contact with. When it came to questions about the Arab-Israeli Conflict, I was asked questions that were probing and thoughtful, and it was clear that for these students the Arab-Israeli Conflict is black and white.
At the Arava Institute we face the conflict through the lens of the dual narrative; that is to say, there are two narratives involved in this conflict, each with its own perspective that needs to be understood. It was through this approach that I answered their questions, guiding away from confrontation and clarifying within context. While the questions were sharp, they were always asked in respectful manner. While an intense experience, it was also uplifting. I discovered that students were interested to find out more about how they could study at the Arava Institute, including a Lebanese student who had some of the toughest questions. Often, when I talk about the Arava Institute transforming students in how they understand the conflict, I am told that is because they are self-selected so they are more open to such an approach. The students I met in Dubai were by no means in that category, yet, they too longed to better understand the “other.” At the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists there were two women — one was Palestinian and the other Israeli. They had never met before and yet as they sat next to each other their body language made one think they were either sisters or best friends.
After I left the American University of Dubai, I went to watch Alain Robert, “spiderman,” climb the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The event was part of the Education Without Borders Conference. Our motto at the Arava Institute is “Nature Knows No Borders.” In Dubai, I experienced what we teach in Israel at the Arava Institute, a reminder that the human desire to connect with the other, to better understand our similarities and our differences, and breach our disagreements knows no borders.