Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Strangers Into Friends

With roots in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, hospitality provides a paradigm for peacemaking in the Middle East.
By Miriam Schulman and Amal Barkouki-Winter

According to theologian Henri Nouwen, hospitality is the creation of "a space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy." How apropos this goal seems for the very part of the world that originally gave birth to this concept—the Middle East. (See "The Extra Mile").

Is it possible that this region, riven as it is by religious and cultural divisions, might draw upon its own traditions of hospitality to begin creating the safe space Nouwen envisions? That question was on our minds as we embarked in 1994 on an unusual project to assemble Arab, Muslim, and Jewish Americans to explore what we might accomplish together.

It was not a high point in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Indeed, the impetus for the first meeting came from the 1994 massacre by right-wing zealot Baruch Goldstein of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Among the Jews who attended the meeting, the desire to dissociate themselves from such an act was a prime motivator. Someone claiming to be acting out of religious conviction had perpetrated this atrocity. They wanted to do something to show that his interpretation of the tradition was not theirs. Most of the Jewish attendees at the first meeting envisioned a group that would either discuss possible avenues toward peace in the Middle East or support various peace-making activities there.

On the Arab/Muslim side, few felt the fledgling group was ready to plunge into issues such as the fate of the settlements or the final status of Jerusalem. They were also unenthusiastic about adopting a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to support.

In part, their rationale was efficacy: They shared a belief that the United States held the key to solving the Arab-Israeli problem but that it would not exercise legitimate pressure for problem solving. In this context, they felt untangling Arab, Muslim, and Jewish American relationships from the debacle of American foreign policy in the Middle East was the only goal to which they could realistically aspire.

They also pointed out that we had no shared context from which to explore the problems between Israelis and Palestinians. In Nouwen’s terms, we had not yet created a "safe place." How could we address the highly charged questions of Middle East peace when we did not know one another as people? Wouldn’t it be better to start by finding common ground?

JAMAA Gathering

Ultimately, we decided to adopt this approach though none of us was sure exactly what course it would take. That our direction would involve hospitality was indicated in the name we chose for ourselves: JAMAA, an acronym for the Jewish-Arab-Muslim American Association, but also the Arabic word for gathering.

In the beginning, our gathering involved mostly eating; as the Muslim scholar Ibn Majah says, "Eat together and not separately, for the blessing is associated with company." In the hospitality tradition, our first meetings were simply long, shared meals, alternating between Jewish and Christian Arab or Muslim homes.

This was by no means a trivial accomplishment. For example, both Judaism and Islam have dietary codes—kashruth and halal, respectively—that can limit this kind of sharing. Choosing food as a focus forced people to learn about each other as members of overlapping groups. What do you serve a vegetarian Jew with wheat allergies or a Muslim teetotaler who likes mince pies?

Insisting that people cooked the meals themselves increased their investment in the group. It also leveled the playing field—allowing those who might not contribute to the conversation to shine in the kitchen and not allowing those with a lot of money to hire expensive caterers and outshine the rest.

In essence, we forced people into pleasant and polite behavior and let them delve into more sensitive issues only after they came to identify each other as people rather than strangers (i.e., representatives of groups that were alien, at best).

We moved slowly—always within the enforced togetherness demanded by the rules of hospitality—from "What is your favorite folk tale?" to "What did your mother cook best?" to "What does Ramadan/Hanukkah mean?"

When we heard members of both subgroups referring to JAMAA as "we" and to everyone else as "they," we felt we had established a safe environment to begin exploring more sensitive issues.

An Emerging Agenda

Ironically, one thing we found uniting us was adherence to certain cultural and religious practices that set us apart from the mainstream in the United States. Out of this realization, an agenda began to germinate that focused on our shared experience as Americans from non-mainstream backgrounds. In 1994, we issued a joint resolution urging the defeat of California’s Proposition 187, the anti-immigration initiative. Later, we held a press conference about media coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, which had jumped to the immediate conclusion that the perpetrators were Islamic terrorists.

We also began to educate ourselves, with sessions on peacemaking in Judaism and peacemaking in Islam. Eventually, we took on a community education project, with a full-day conference (including lunch, of course). Our program, "When Jews and Muslims Got Along," focused on Spain under the Moors and modern-day Bosnia. The project attracted many community participants and was hailed as a beacon of inter-group relations by the press.

But events in the Middle East came back into our conversation, and the timing was not of our choice. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 had such profound implications that, as one member put it, meeting without mentioning the event would be like having an elephant in the room that we refused to acknowledge.

Signficantly, these were not acrimonious conversations. Instead, though there were predictable differences about the peace process Rabin and Yassir Arafat had initiated, there was none of the hostility that might have accompanied these differences had we discussed them at our initial meetings. At least within our group, through hospitality, we had begun to create Nouwen’s "space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy."

Failures and Possibilities

It would be lovely to end on this success, but it would not be a completely truthful account of our group’s experience—because, as a group, we eventually did founder on the next steps. We had been drawn prematurely into addressing problems in the Middle East. In the wake of Rabin’s death, Arab terrorist attacks and Benjamin Netenyahu’s belligerence put a virtual halt to building a viable peace between Arabs and Israelis. The region was plunged back into the suspicion and fear from which it had so painstakingly begun to free itself.

Still, our group, which had arisen from the Hebron massacre, might have survived. We might have limited ourselves to the original aim of creating an alternative to the monolithic and polarized positions of our respective subgroups. But in the midst of escalating tensions in the Middle East, this goal seemed to many members of JAMAA overly modest.

The problem was that we could not figure out how to translate our own experience of safety into a process that could work on a larger stage. The fact that—through hospitality—Amal and Miriam, Ziad and Marc, Carol and Hana had come genuinely to like and trust each other seemed to bear no relation to events in the Middle East. Would it help to try rippling outward with more community education? Should we use the goodwill we had built among ourselves to confront our very serious differences on the peace process? How would any of these activities impact hostilities between our co-religionists many thousands of miles away? Ultimately, we could not find the path from taking care of each other to changing the world.

Yet our failure contains within it some possibilities. For one, the two authors of this article are confident that, were we the only two people involved, we could sit down together and create a just peace in the region. We feel this way because we know each other, because we trust that neither of us would try to hog all the water, or shoot at innocents, or prevent the other from worshipping at her holy sites. And we believe that if the majority of Israelis and Arabs came to break bread together, they might discover the same things. Then, maybe they could figure out what to do about their respective lunatic fringes.

Again we do not imagine that such peace discussions, even between ourselves, would be easy. While this region of the world may have initiated the hospitality tradition, it is not a hospitable environment. It’s problems are very ancient: There was never a glut of food, water, or arable land. Yet out of this environment, the hospitality tradition evolved. That it has always been connected to peacemaking is evident in the greeting these peoples—Muslim, Christian, and Jew—have always bestowed on friend and stranger alike. Salaam Aleikem. Shalom Aleichem. Peace be with you.