Overcoming Fear of the Other

FEBRUARY 15, 2019

I was recently asked to engage with a group of high school principals on the subject of the ultimate other. These principals included Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli men and women who were Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. This group plays a critical role in our society because we entrust them in large degree to educating our children during their formative years. Educators play an important part in influencing the next generation in creating an understanding of the other and in teaching about tolerance.

My role in this program was to teach various topics from a Christian perspective. This included the subject of being created in the image of God, the woman’s role in the Bible, the process of reconciliation, and the ultimate other. For some of these educators, this was their first time reading the New Testament, which may have been different from what they are used to and definitely strange.


Often times, when they read about the religion of the other, they evaluate and look on it through the eyes of what their religion teaches about the other.  This comes instead of allowing for each religion to express its beliefs for itself. The way a religion defines itself is different from how another religion would define it because they have a different viewpoint. After explaining some of the fundamental differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, we read the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42).


The Samaritans in Jesus time were one of the ultimate others. The Samaritans claimed they were the authentic Jews of the northern kingdom. The Jews of the southern kingdom claimed the Samaritans were foreigners brought into the land. This created an ongoing competing historical narrative of who was more authentic. Samaritans followed the Torah, the five books of Moses, and therefore saw themselves as purer than the Jews. There were also competing religious holy sites such as the real location of the Temple. Both sides committed atrocities against one another.


Within the background to the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one dynamic that existed there and that we see in conflict was the process of dehumanization, creating an “us” versus “them” mentality. We are good, and they are bad. We have the true religion, and they have the false one. We build our self-esteem as a group by choosing the moral values we’re good at and pointing out the shortcomings of the other to make us feel better. We tend to focus on the worst aspects and the most extreme cases of other religions to easily vilify them. When others challenge our religion, we claim that their negative examples are not a true expression of our faith. We exclude them and place them on the fringe.


One of the factors that affect the groups I meet is the fear of being exposed to the other. People are afraid to hear about or learn about the other’s culture and religion. In situations of conflict, we think we’ll have to compromise or let go of our identity if we meet and learn about the other. Fear paralyzes people and makes them defensive. In the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, there are several fear factors playing a role here. One is geographical location. Jesus and his disciples entered into enemy territory, an area where Jews did not travel.  When people enter into the areas of the other, they may have fear of attack. It may feel risky.


Another fear factor is misunderstanding. The disciples questioned Jesus for talking alone to a woman, especially a Samaritan woman, and there were questions about her morality. Similarly, we are fearful about what people say about us when we associate with those who don’t belong to our group.


We see it many times here within our context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our group puts pressure on us to not engage with people from the other side. When a person or group of people engage with someone outside of their group, they often times are ostracized and are pressured to remain loyal to their own group by not breaking the ranks of us and them. Our motivation and loyalty to the group may be questioned because of our involvement with the other. Sometimes, they will accuse us of being a traitor.


In reading the story of the Samaritan woman and analyzing it with the group of principals, I could see how apprehension and fear began to wane. One by one they began to engage with the dynamic developing between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Since some of the principals were female from religious backgrounds, they understood how profound this encounter was between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It was significant not only due to the enmity between Jews and Samaritans but also because of the issue of gender. In our context, there is a deliberate separation to prevent interaction between men and women. However, Jesus broke through these norms to reach out to the other.


For us at Musalaha, meeting on neutral ground is critical to having a fruitful process of reconciliation as location is many times associated with fear.  Neutral territory is necessary for developing trust and building relationships. It is within this context that we can begin to speak about the difficult issues that divide our communities. In the story of the Samaritan woman, the common ground for both of them was Jacob’s well. Both needed to drink water, something that in the heat of the Middle East as a means of survival. It was exciting for me to see how these principals from different backgrounds could find common ground through the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.


By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D

Executive Director