Although the Arab-Israeli conflict has helped portray Muslims and Jews as bitter enemies, Islam and Judaism actually have more commonalties than differences. An on-line effort is helping young people on both sides of the religious divide recognize that, and reconstruct their relationship as descendents of the same ancestor: the Biblical patriarch, Abraham.
When Ari Alexander completed his graduate studies in Comparative Ethnic Conflict and Modern Middle Eastern Studies five years ago, he embarked on a journey of self-discovery.
"I had studied Hebrew my whole life growing up, and I decided it was very important for me to learn Arabic and to get to know a bit about Arab culture and history, unbiased, from the point of view of the people themselves," he says. "I spent a month in Beirut and 3 months in Damascus. Those experiences for me really opened my eyes by being immersed in Muslim societies, and getting to know people as individuals, it really transformed me."
Alexander wanted other young Jews to experience the same transformation. So, when he returned home to New York in 2004, he got involved with the interfaith Children of Abraham project.
"We had a group of students from 23 countries who took photographs and discussed Muslim-Jewish relations with each other on the Internet," he says.
This one-time on-line interaction, Alexander says, expanded into a virtual organization that recruits young people from around the world.
"In the Muslim world we selected Indonesia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Iran," he says. "In the Western world, we selected France, England, the United States and Canada. We are targeting students who are between 16 and 19 years old, but we've gone a little bit younger and a little bit older depending on circumstances."
Participants are asked to access the Internet on a regular basis, for about three or four hours a week, Alexander says. "We are looking for the kinds of students who are not afraid to be leaders among their peers, to lead them to think about things in a more open and pluralistic way when it comes to the members of the other communities."
Alexander says in addition to holding virtual dialogues with one another, members are also starting tolerance initiatives in their local communities.
Students take photos documenting Jews and Muslims worshipping, participating in rituals, and observing holidays. Alexander says they are encouraged to organize photo exhibitions "which put on display so many of the visual similarities between the two groups. Even though it's a very simple idea, it's something that's very new for most parts of the world."
Members are also encouraged to spread the ideas of tolerance and coexistence among their peers and through reaching out to the local media.
One student in Jakarta, Indonesia, had an op-ed article published in the Jakarta Post about her experience with Children of Abraham and what it was like to interact with Jewish people for the first time.
That student was Dania Pratiwi, 20. "I hated Jews at first, because in Indonesia, we don't have any Jews here," she says. "I thought that all Jews were bad."
A friend convinced Pratiwi to join the Children of Abraham. Over the past three years, she discovered for herself how similar Muslims and Jews are.
"Like in Islam, we can eat only the Halal food, Jews only eat Kosher. In Islam, we do the ablution before we pray,"she explains. "It's the same thing in Judaism. They, too, wash their hands and face too before they go to prayer."
As a member of the Children of Abraham, Pratiwi had a chance to interact with Jews for the first time in her life when she was invited to the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace in Seville, Spain, last year.
"Actually, at first, I was afraid because lots of imams and rabbis were in the same place," she says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, are they going to kill each other? Am I going to be okay during this conference?' But the imams and rabbis hugged each other. They had dinner on the same dinner table. I was amazed and thought, 'if they can do that, why can't we?'"
Elliot Steinberg, 15, of London, had never interacted with Muslims before joining the Children of Abraham a few months ago.
"I went to a non-Jewish school when I was very young, but I didn't have any Muslim friends," he says. "So this is the first time I've ever talked to anyone Muslim about my religion, and it's the first time I've ever heard about Islam from a Muslim. It's really great because I've gotten friends now who live in Indonesia and I've never been anywhere near Indonesia. The farthest I've gone away from England is Berlin in Germany."
Steinberg says exchanging photos was the first step to starting the on-line dialogue with his new Jewish and Muslim friends.
"We shared photos about how we portray the other religion," he says. "So we had pictures of the crescent moon for Islam and the Star of David for Jews. On top of that, we also had a picture that Muslims put up of an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a little child and talked about what they feel about that. The Jews put up a picture of a suicide bomber and we discussed that as well."
Children of Abraham co-founder Ari Alexander says these conversations among Muslim and Jewish youth reinforce the notion that what brings them together is far more significant than what drives them apart.