Nation World Briefs: Peace Process, Interfaith Campus

American Jews Want U.S. to Engage in Peace Process, Poll Reports

American Jews favor an active U.S. role in the Middle East peace process even if it means exerting pressure on Israel, according to a poll.

The survey by J Street, which backs assertive U.S. engagement in the peace process and markets itself as an alternative to the more hard-line views that it claims dominate many other pro-Israel organizations, also found that Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman is not popular among American Jews and that President Obama and his policies on the Middle East garner more than 70 percent approval in the American Jewish community.

The survey of 800 self-identified American Jews by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications was conducted Feb. 28 to March 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

One issue on which the community was evenly split was how to deal with Iran. Forty-one percent did not favor a military attack on Iran “if they are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons,” while 40 percent supported such a strike. And 39 percent favored “direct negotiations” with the Iranians while 37 percent supported international sanctions.

According to the poll, 88 percent of respondents favored the United States playing “an active role” in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with 64 percent of those favoring an “active role” saying they would continue to back it even if it meant “exerting pressure on Israel.” Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed would support such pressure.

In addition, 69 percent said that if Hamas and the Palestinian Authority form a unified government, it would support the United States working with such a government to achieve a peace agreement with Israel.

The poll also found high name recognition for Lieberman, with 62 percent of American Jews saying they know who he is. After being told that he has “called for the execution of Arab members of Israel’s parliament who met with Hamas and whose main campaign message called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state in order to prevent their citizenship from being revoked,” 32 percent said that their “personal connection” to Israel would be weakened because Lieberman’s positions “go against my core values.”

During the election campaign, Lieberman called on all Israelis to sign the loyalty oath, but it was not part of the coalition agreement he signed with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents backed Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza, although just 41 percent said it made Israel more secure. And 60 percent did not support the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Coalition Plans Interfaith Campus in Omaha

An interfaith coalition in Nebraska is testing the viability of what is believed to be an American first: a joint campus to house a Jewish, Muslim and Christian house of worship.

The plan, under development by a local nonprofit called the Tri-Faith Initiative, would join a mosque, a Reform synagogue and an Episcopal church in a suburban Omaha location. No site has yet been found, but organizers are hopeful the project will come to fruition.

“The first week we thought about it, we put the odds at a million to one,” Bob Freeman, the chairman of the Tri-Faith board, said. “I think now there is a real possibility — and I don’t quote odds anymore per se — but I think there’s a real possibility it could work.”

The plan, which has been under discussion for years, will receive a significant boost Friday, when national leaders of all three faiths join together for an event being billed as “Dinner in Abraham’s Tent.”

The evening will begin with worship services for each of the three faiths followed by a panel discussion, “Conversations on Peace,” featuring Rabbi Peter Knobel, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Mark Pelavin of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center will moderate.

Hundreds are expected to attend the event, which will be held at a convention center in Omaha and broadcast live on the Internet.

“The question that you need to ask me is why not to do it,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, whose synagogue, Temple Israel, is the Jewish partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Azriel said, “and I really believe that there is no time to wait to establish a peaceful relationship among the three groups.”

Founded four years ago, the Tri-Faith Initiative is a joint project of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, an organization founded in 2006 principally to be the Muslim counterpart in the initiative.

Though the viability of the campus is still being determined, some members of the Omaha Jewish community have not waited to voice their concerns about the plan.

In a recent letter printed in the Omaha Jewish Press, Phil Schrager, a Temple Israel member and major donor to local Jewish charities, expressed “strong reservations about the efficacy” of the plan because a Palestinian-born member of the Tri-Faith board had signed on to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

“I think that Rabbi Azriel ought to be applauded for the time and effort that he’s putting forth to try to promote peace among the religions and promote dialogue and conversations,” Schrager said. “But I separate that from the Tri-Faith campus, which I have concerns about.”

Both Freeman and Azriel said they were pained to learn about the boycott, but nevertheless they vowed to continue the dialogue.

“I’d never met a Muslim until three years ago,” Freeman said, “so I had the same prejudices and stereotypes and assumed there were bad things about their faith and region and they all believed them. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore, based on my personal experiences.”