‘Makes me want to bang my head against the wall’

‘Makes me want to bang my head against the wall’

Local rabbi decries administration defunding of Jewish/Muslim co-existence group

A meeting of the Interfaith Encounter Association in Israel.
A meeting of the Interfaith Encounter Association in Israel.

Rabbi Bob Carroll did not expect his program to run afoul of the Trump administration.

Rabbi Carroll, who divides his time between Teaneck and Jerusalem, chairs the board of the Interfaith Encounter Association. The association, based in Jerusalem, brings together groups of Jews and Muslims (and occasionally Christians) for dialogue. The organization has roughly 100 groups that meet across Israel and the West Bank, generally monthly. Each local group has two or three leaders — one from each religion. (There also are two dialogue groups under the association’s auspices in North America, one in Teaneck and the other in Gainesville, Florida.) Altogether, 4,000 people take part in these groups each year.

“We’re using faith and religion to bridge the gaps,” Rabbi Carroll said. He grew up in Oakland, in northern Bergen County, and was ordained at Yeshiva University.

The Interfaith Encounter Association began in 2001. It differs from many coexistence projects by putting religion front and center in the conversation.

“We study religious texts and religion,” he said. “We don’t usually bring in politics. We’re not the people writing the peace agreements, we’re just people, representing ourselves, not our countries.” Because the focus is on religion rather than politics, Rabbi Carroll said, Interfaith Encounter is able to recruit “a wide range of people who wouldn’t normally take part in the peace process du jour: settlers and supporters of Shas on our side, to sheikhs and imams on the other side.”

In fact, the association received good tidings from the Trump administration not long ago. For the first time in a number of years, it was informed this year that it had received a major grant to expand its programs.

The money was to come from a special fund under the auspices of the State Department’s United States Agency for International Development. In 2017 Congress allocated $10 million for peace-building exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians — a line item that has been steady since 2004.

“It’s been very hard to get this U.S. government money lately,” Rabbi Carroll said. “I was at a USAID meeting three or four years ago. It was clear the stuff they wanted to fund were things that would bring about the existence of a Palestinian state.” This was during the Obama administration.

“Coexistence was part of the formula but it wasn’t the main course” for the Obama administration.

The Interfaith Encounter Association is not political. “We’re the people you come to if you don’t want to sign on to any political program,” Rabbi Carroll said. “We’re the ones who accept anybody who feels they’re interested in meeting the other, coming to know each other as people.”

By definition, dialogue groups exclude people who are ideologically opposed to dialogue. “We don’t get Hamasniks,” he said.

The groups attract plenty of leftist peaceniks, he said, but “we get a lot of centrists and a good number of rightists.

Rabbi Bob Carroll

“There are some people I brought into the organization who were really quite sure there was no one to talk to on the other side. Understandably so — they were American Jews who made aliyah during the second intifada and their only exposure to Palestinians was negative. Some of those people came to our meetings and met Palestinians who are different than they had expected.

“They discovered that once you take governments out of it and the conflict out of it, if you put Jews and Muslims into a room, very quickly they find out they have a tremendous amount in common. From there it’s a short step to saying we’re cousins.

“We believe so many of the same things — why are we enemies again?”

Which is why Rabbi Carroll was stunned when the funding was withdrawn last month as part of the Trump administration’s policy of ending all aid to Palestinian civilians.

The cut-off to the Interfaith Encounter Association and other recipients of grants promoting Israeli-Palestinian coexistence followed the August cancellation of $200 million in aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and the cutting of $25 million budgeted for hospitals in East Jerusalem.

In a statement last month, USAID said it is “currently unable to engage Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the administration’s recent decision on Palestinian assistance.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has been charged with leading the administration’s push for peace in the Middle East, told the New York Times that “Nobody is entitled to America’s foreign aid.”

“This just makes me want to bang my head against the wall,” Rabbi Carroll said. “It isn’t a matter of supporting the Palestinian Authority. It’s not a matter of fungible moneys that are funneled through the PA that can be freed up for other purposes. It’s not a matter in any way of enabling a government that pays terrorists. It’s none of those things. It has nothing to do with governments.

“I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard Jews say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were Palestinians on the other side who really believe in peace.’ Well, there are. Some of the people I work with have been in Israeli prisons. Not a few have been in Palestinian prisons. I’ve come to know and trust them very well.

“The U.S. government is punishing exactly the people who are doing what they should be doing, who are saying, ‘Enough of this war, we want to figure out how to live together.’ To punish those people — I can’t imagine any rational thinking behind it.”

Rabbi Carroll said the USAID grant was “substantial. The largest grant we received in a number of years. It would have helped us to jumpstart things. It was to enable us to reach into communities where we have connections and form 10 new groups of teens and young adults and give them logistical support.”

Interfaith Encounter’s staff takes care of the logistics for the groups — which, when the dialogue partners are Palestinians, includes seeing they have the entry permits they need to enter Israel. When the partners are Israeli Arabs, there still is a need to arrange a meeting space and refreshments.

Rabbi Carroll said that Interfaith Encounter’s Palestinian dialogue partners “have absolutely turned their backs on violence — and sometimes paid a tremendous price for that. These are the ones who are doing what we want them to be doing to bring about a peaceful future.

“These are people who have taken serious risks for peace and proven themselves to mean what they say. It’s just so unfortunate that we’re denying them
funding now.”

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