University of Haifa’s Laboratory for Religious Studies identified a need for inter-religious dialogue in the wake of the October 7 Hamas massacre and now during the Iron Swords War. Credit: University of Haifa.

(University of Haifa) — University of Haifa’s Laboratory for Religious Studies, in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Department for Religious Communities, issued a statement from 20 prominent leaders from across the religious spectrum in Haifa, calling for cooperation between their religions. The statement marks the first time such a diverse array of religious leaders publicly backed such a partnership, and is a testament to the rich tapestry of coexistence in Israel’s third-largest city.

“We, representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze religious communities in Haifa, gathered in recent months at the behest of the University of Haifa’s Laboratory for Religious Studies and the Ministry of Interior Affairs department for religious communities in order to become better acquainted with each other and each person’s religious beliefs,” the statement begins. “During this difficult and tense period, we saw how critical it is to establish a group of religious leaders of various faiths who could promote being respectful neighbors for the sake of upholding the diverse fabric of life of our city.”

In addition to the statement, the group formed a steering committee that will work on putting their words into action by expanding the reach of this network and being a resource for communities who may experience flare-ups of tension. The Laboratory for Religious Studies hopes that if this formula succeeds, it can serve as a template for other mixed cities across Israel and beyond, where religious leaders can act as ambassadors of peace and dialogue. Moreover, the laboratory hopes that the creation of this committee will enable leaders to respond to conflicts as well as devise means for enhancing and broadening the scale of collaborations across religious divides in an unprecedented display of collaboration.

The statement comes after six intensive sessions of dialogue spearheaded by the university’s Laboratory for Religious Studies that were facilitated by the nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground. The laboratory, which offers research initiatives and public outreach to facilitate inter-religious dialogue and understanding, identified a need for such critical discussions in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and now during the Iron Swords War. The laboratory was also inspired by the fear that violence would spill into the streets of mixed cities in Israel as it had in May 2021 during Israel’s last confrontation with Gaza.

As such, the statement acknowledges that “trust between the members of the group grew incrementally, meeting after meeting, and served as a basis and model for religious communities that each of us represent. The personal security of all of us rests on our internal cooperation, our ability to reduce friction and be a source of inspiration for respectful discourse which strives for being agreeable between neighbors.”

The Laboratory for Religious Studies is part of the University of Haifa’s broader effort to pioneer a model for shared society in Israel’s most diverse major city. Arabs comprise 40 percent of the school’s student body and the institution also plays a key role in creating the country’s middle class; 47 percent of its undergraduates are in the first generation of their family to enroll in higher education. Moreover, 84 percent are from the northern Israeli periphery, positioning the school as an educational, economic and social anchor in that region.

Uriel Simonsohn, head of the laboratory and senior lecturer at the University’s faculty of humanities, said, “This is a statement where close to 20 leaders — men, women, Jews, including Orthodox, Chabad and Reform, Muslims, Christians and Druze — all expressed how they value working together and how they would like to treat each other with dignity and tolerance in order to maintain the kind of peace you see in mixed cities in Haifa.”

To that end, the statement conveyed: “Haifa, our beloved city, is defined by its different groups and communities, which is a mosaic of diversity that sits between the Carmel Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. We are all interested in the prosperity of this city and its residents, which stems from a deep commitment to the State of Israel and its laws.”

Simonsohn said, “From my perspective, this is the greatest achievement of the laboratory thus far. A short while ago, it wasn’t even possible for many of these people to be in the same room together, but now they’re willing to listen to each other with respect and be patient.”

The statement added that the notion of fostering understanding is a value upheld across all the Abrahamic faiths. “The dialogue shared between us where we uphold tolerance and mutual respect is anchored in our respective traditional scriptures that we all share. The Bible says we are all God’s creation. Psalm 24:1 states that, ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world; and they that dwell therein’.”

The religious leaders who signed the statement included:

  • Imam Rashad Abu al-Hijaa, imam of al-Jarina Mosque, old Haifa
  • Father William Abu Shkara, priest of the Catholic Church and head of the archbishop’s bureau in Haifa
  • Rabbi Eli Blum, rabbi of Rambam congregation, Newe Shanan
  • Ms. Rabi’a Bsis, Druze social and political activist
  • Rabbi Ne’ama Dafni-Keln, rabbi of Or Hadash congregation
  • Rabbi Ben-Zion Gagula, director of Chabad House, the German Colony
  • Sheikh Tawfik Halabi, imam and member of the Druze religious committee, Dalyat al-Karmel
  • Mr. Muhammad Ijbaria, muadhin (caller for prayer) – Haj Abdallah Mosque, Halisa
  • Ms. Christin Khazen, member of the Catholic Church in Haifa
  • Sheikh Jaber Mansur – Druze imam, Isfiya
  • Amir Muhammad Sharif Odeh, head of the Islamic Ahmadiyya Community, Kababir
  • Ms. Du’a Odeh, head of the women’s council in the Islamic Ahmadiyya Community, Kababir
  • Ms. Avital Peleg, principal of the Amit Ulpana
  • Father Demetrius Samra, priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in Haifa
  • Rabbi Shemuel Sasson, head of the Garin Torani (Torah Nucleus), Hadar
  • Ms. Hiam Tannous, member of the Christian Forum and the Catholic Church in Haifa.