Interview with Emil Shufani : 'The human being must be considered the essential element in any conflict, so he has to guide our position.'
in SHS Newsletter 02
Arab Israeli, archimandrite of the Greek-Catholic Church and principal of St Joseph’s College in Nazareth since 1976, Father Shufani strives to include democratic values and dialogue in his teaching. His project “Memory for Peace” recently earned him the 2003 UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.
In 2002, you launched the project “Memory for Peace”. How did the idea come to you? The idea of this project came from the contact we have had over the past 15 years with The Secondary School next to the University of Jerusalem (Lyada School) in Jerusalem. After the Intifada we realized there were far deeper issues to be dealt with than merely talking about the conflict. What we wanted was to understand the other better. The Shoah happened in the West but it had repercussions on our daily lives in the Middle East. Jewish history is not simply a matter of the past, it is present today inside the whole movement and thinking of the Jewish world. It is not enough to learn from books or to try and intellectually understand Jewish history and the Shoah. You have to listen to Jewish people telling you what their history is and just how much influence it has on today’s society and on our common past.
This journey was above all a symbolic gesture. What purpose did it serve in practical terms?
The constructive element in this project was not just the visit to Auschwitz, which in itself was both important and symbolic. But it was also all the preparation and the listening that preceded the journey and helped us to learn the history directly from Shoah survivors and Jewish lecturers and particularly to learn together – Jews and Arabs together. Through this process there came about a great change in the way people listened and in the way they were with one another. And then, you are not the same person when you come back from Auschwitz. The feeling of unity, of communion and solidarity which was apparent during the visit, the emotion and expressions of humanity one feels in that place of inhumanity changed people. They realized it was about human life being at the centre of any conflict. All the seminars and meetings helped us to learn to know the other and to listen to the other and take on ourselves the responsibility of the other – all of that was very important for me.
What was special about the journey for the Jewish participants?
The most frequent reaction I hear is that the fact of going to Auschwitz with Moslem Arabs and Christians was something else. There was a feeling of new solidarity. And then the fact of discovering that the potential enemy is a figment of the imagination was a liberation to all of us.
Do you think the journey will have an impact?
Yes, it already does. Reactions in the general public and the media are very positive on the Israeli as well as the international plane. There is a will to continue this experience and change mentalities in order to arrive at a new way of looking at the whole of society instead of merely seeking political solutions to the conflict.
Last year you launched an Appeal, in which you say dialogue must be “disengaged from all accumulated suspicion” over recent generations between Jews and Arabs. What do you mean by that?
We live today in total ignorance of each other. What is emphasized is the conflict with its pain and suffering. Relationships and language have been severed: we no longer understand one another. The idea that the other will kill me if I don’t kill him, in other words that to keep on living I have to kill the other, is the greatest suspicion existing today. It is because we don’t know about each other and because there has never been dialogue beyond weapons that this idea keeps feeding the conflict.
In your opinion, can the Shoah be put on the same level as the suffering of the Palestinian people?
I don’t know where this idea came from, always wanting to compare suffering. Suffering is something the whole of humanity has in common. The idea of wanting to compare and say “I am far more of a victim than you are”, the struggle within the cycles of death and violence, and the violence which shows that even in suffering we want to come first, there’s no sense in all that. The Shoah is something different insofar as it was based on an ideology and a method of extermination of a whole people wherever they were living. It is the ideology behind the extermination of the Jewish people – not simply the methods used – that made the Shoah inhuman.
How can the participation of people from other countries contribute to peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerns the whole world because it is a geographical and historical area that spiritually affects all peoples. We want there to be a beginning of dialogue among the different religious, ethnic and cultural communities the world over. Participants of other nationalities have an important role to play in the relations of the different communities in their country. They have to make it clear that in this field one cannot be for or against, we must be for everyone. It is a matter of guaranteeing the dignity of all peoples, their right to life and to security. The human being must be considered the essential element in every conflict and therefore our position must be defined by the human being. In conflicts we always try to make people take sides. But taking sides with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never accomplished anything.
You have also said that this conflict is not a religious conflict…
It is not a religious conflict between Islam and Judaism. It is a conflict which takes up religious references and that is where the danger lies. In fact, it is a question of rights: the right of the Palestinian people, the right of the Jewish people, the right to dignity and to live together.
Your philosophy is based on the idea that religious and cultural diversity is a source of dialogue rather than conflict.
This diversity is a fount of richness that will help humanity develop if we don’t consider it in nationalistic terms, but more in terms of belonging. We belong to several worlds, so there can be a place of sharing. Identities create a place of belonging. For me, it means the place of my being and the place of my future because I belong to all of this. That is why I launched the Appeal to encourage people to put the present-day to one side. To avoid talking about politics for a month or two does not mean denying the situation exists. It only means that we also belong to other worlds. In that way I don’t neglect my suffering nor the suffering of the other, I am merely trying to grasp from within the deep reality of the other or of the being. Intercultural and interreligious dialogue is the future of humanity. Going towards the other and accepting and sharing his or her suffering is a way of knowing one another better. Knowing the other is knowing oneself.
For ten years now there has been much talk of the “clash of civilizations”. What do you think about that notion?
I reject the term. I prefer to believe in the joy of encounters of civilizations. It is a joy to be able to meet others, to see the difference in their thinking, their cooking, their clothing or their religion and to be able to share their culture. During the journey to Auschwitz, Moslems, Christians and Jews shared their prayers. There is a divine particle in man which can be shared through the different religions and thus make communion possible. Instead of being prisoners of one and the same idea, we can be pulled out of that monotony through encounters which can bring us the wealth of diversity. The challenge humanity faces today is: do we want to accept the difference and diversity of people’s lives or do we all want to be the same? Being the same is hell.
What are the important elements in your personal life that inspired your philosophy?
As a Palestinian I experienced the drama of being expelled with my family in 1948. My grandfather and my uncle were killed by the Israeli army. I lived through that period, that drama, with the help of my grandmother’s extraordinary spirit of forgiveness. She was a very strong woman, guided by her faith and by the idea of not bringing hatred into the family. Contrary to the generally accepted view, forgiveness is not a service one renders to others: it lets us live not in vengeance but in peace with ourselves. It is with that frame of mind that I was brought up by my grandmother. When I came to France at the age of 17 to study philosophy and theology, I discovered the encounter between East and West and I had the impression I was discovering a great richness to which I already belonged. It taught me to have a better understanding of my own Eastern roots.
During your studies you were introduced to the non-directive method. How did it influence your work?
This method greatly inspired me. It consists of developing personal thought on the part of the student through dialogue. It is not a question of making students think but of helping them to discover and express what they are individually and what they think via a personal approach which transforms each one of them. The traditional teacher-student relationship does not exist in our school. It is a matter of reaching out to the other, towards the one who is learning in order to become himself or herself a place of learning which is no longer outside but within. Instead of having knowledge, knowledge becomes personal. We try to be something, not just to have it. That is the successful feature of our school. This success is not seen merely in the rate of exam passes but in the dynamism that makes people capable of producing ideas, thoughts and new initiatives, and people who can be, otherwise.
How do your students react in those moments when the crisis worsens?
You always have to be prepared for very active, very violent reactions. We stop classes to give pupils the opportunity of talking to their teachers. That way they can express the hurt and the fear they experience, and try to transform that expression into thinking and responsibility instead of staying inside violence. Education for peace is directed towards responsibility. It doesn’t mean just singing about peace but developing a way of thinking and a responsibility in relation to the conflict in which we are actors.
In speaking of the situation in the Middle East one often uses the term “impossible peace”. In the current context, do you believe that this so-called “impossible” peace will become reality in the near future?
There have been moments when we have held the dove of peace in our hands. We want peace. But peace is the agreement between two parties. And in this conflict the two parties do not know each other. It is impossible to make peace without this knowledge of the other which on its own lets you understand the elements needed for establishing a dialogue and finally reaching a solution. And there aren’t umpteen solutions. It is the recognition of both peoples and the two States, one alongside the other in a spirit of cooperation, of peace and of rights to security and to dignity. On this plot of land, there are no other solutions possible.
Are you saying in fact that peace does not depend on will and international initiatives, so much as on changing mentalities?
Exactly. And anyway, it is easy to see. No external pressure has ever succeeded in bringing about peace. The populations have to meet. That is where there is tremendous work to be done.
You have been awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. What does that mean for you?
It means recognition on the part of the highest authority on education, culture and knowledge and it confirms my idea that this movement towards dialogue must be continued. Education must be a priority for humanity. It is education that removes ignorance, source of fear, source of death and conflict.
Interview by Jeanette Blom
Emil Shufani’s project: “Memory for Peace”
At the end of 2002, Emil Shufani launched an Appeal which was the starting point for his project “Memory for Peace”. Five hundred people of different nationalities and faiths, among whom were 300 Israeli Arabs and Jews, responded to the Appeal which announced the plans for a “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2003. This unprecedented initiative caught the attention of the media and was supported by many intellectuals in Israel and elsewhere.
“I appeal to my Arab brothers to join me in a powerful, unforced and resolutely audacious gesture. We will go to the place that embodies the atrocity of genocide, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there we will proclaim our brotherhood with the millions of victims… This commemorative gesture will be a sign of our complete rejection of such inhumanity. It will testify to our ability to understand the wounds on the other side.”
“I appeal to my Jewish brothers to realise that for the greater part of the Arab-Moslem world, this conflict that is tearing us apart is not in the least a matter of religion, and still less one of race. Arabs are not the new incarnation of those who wanted to wipe out the Jews as Jews. They are fellow inheritors of the faith of Abraham, and fellow defenders of enlightened values.”
“… This side trip to look down into humanity’s abyss will in no way relativize the suffering of other people in other places and at other times. It will on the contrary bring us face to face with our own responsibilities for the present, and our vocation to be human beings who are progressing toward being able to live together.”