The Voices We Need to Hear: An Interview with Jonathan Golden

By Gabriel Ertsgaard

Interviewed by Gabriel Ertsgaard

Jonathan Golden is Director of the Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict (CRCC) at Drew University. He also convenes Drew’s program in Conflict Resolution and Leadership and runs the Drew Institute on Religion and Conflict Transformation. Golden has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of two books and numerous scholarly articles, and is co-author of the forthcoming Religion in the Classroom. He is currently writing Turning Point, a book based on interviews with ex-combatants and victims of conflict that become peace activists.

GE: Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and how it led to the work you do now?

JG: My dream was to study the archeology of the ancient Middle East, so I spent many summers in Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem in particular. Living in Jerusalem was pivotal for me. I was making friends that were Jewish-Israeli. I was making friends that were Arabs, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. It was really striking to me that I could be making friends on both sides of this divide, but they couldn’t seem to engage with each other in a healthy, happy, compassionate way. That’s what really got me thinking a lot about this area of work, peacebuilding and interfaith understanding.

There was a very specific incident as well. I had just arrived for a nearly year-long stay in Jerusalem, when the bus I was riding daily, Bus No. 18, was bombed twice in one week. That was in 1996. So for my interest in getting into this field, there was a long arc, but there was also a moment that called me to peacebuilding.

GE: What can you tell us about the history and mission of the Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict (CRCC) at Drew University?

JG: About fifteen years ago, with founding Director Chris Taylor, we had an opportunity to start this center here at Drew. A lot of wonderful allies in our area of New Jersey wanted to see an institution dedicated to peacebuilding and interfaith/ intercultural understanding.

New Jersey is one of the most religiously diverse spots on the planet. But there’s a key distinction between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is the fact of there being different people in the room, on campus, or in your community. Pluralism addresses what we do with that diversity. How do we get people to engage and build something positive out of all that diversity?

I like to say that the CRCC operates on three different scales: (1) locally, being very specific to our campus community; (2) regionally, as a hub for interfaith activity in a place where there is great demand for it, and (3) globally, whether that means working with refugees from around the world or bringing students to other parts of the world.

For the first ten years of the center, the focus was on global work—look at the conflict over there. For the past five years, it’s become increasingly clear to many people that we’re facing serious conflicts here at home. We’ve shifted our focus so that more than ever we’re working with communities here in the United States—in particular, New Jersey. Over the years, we’ve also gotten increasingly student oriented. Our mission statement is “to educate a next generation of leaders in interfaith and intercultural understanding and peace.”

GE: What are some key things to understand in order to pursue successful peacebuilding work?

JG: At CRCC, we’ve gotten very involved in what we can learn from the Northern Ireland Peace Process. One of the most important lessons is that, yes, in 1999 you had an agreement that is memorialized on paper. But there was so much work leading up to that, and so much work following after that to make it hold. I think why so many peace agreements either fail or do not progress beyond a cold peace is because people don’t really invest in the person-to-person peacebuilding that’s such an important part of it.

Speaking more generally, “how do you not know that?” shouldn’t be a rhetorical question that we only use when we’re indignant. Rather, it’s something that we should be asking ourselves. If someone says something that’s alienating to me, I ask myself, how do they not know that? Well, they grew up in a community where people who look like me, sound like me, or talk like me aren’t really present. Of course, they’re going to make mistakes, or just not know, or worse, be afraid to ask. So, we need intentional steps to build understanding. That doesn’t just happen on its own.

Even intra-group conversations are really important, and those can be the toughest ones. “Who are you to speak for my pain, or for my community?” Sometimes we have people with similar last names and similar backgrounds, but with vastly different views. Ironically, the greatest risk to peacemakers is usually not coming from the other side. If we look at history—Michael Collins, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Mahatma Gandhi—all were murdered by people from their own identity group.

How do you take that bold step toward peace when members of your own community are likely to see it as a form of betrayal? I would turn it around and say that those who are most faithful to their community are the one’s able to see the long game, the long arc—like Nelson Mandela. They don’t just ask how are we going to respond to the attack on our community that happened today, but how do we build a world where our community doesn’t get attacked?

GE: You’re currently working on a book about ex-combatants and victims of conflict who become peace activists. What inspired you to take on this project? And what have you learned from their stories?

JG: The inspiration for this project comes out of our Institute on Religion and Conflict Transformation which brings young, emerging leaders from around the world to campus for a summer training. A young man from Nigeria told us the story of how his own brother had been murdered by an extremist on the other side of the entho-religious divide. It’s a back-and-forth conflict, with victims, perpetrators, and survivors on all sides. Then the young man said something that really pierced my soul, a statement from his mother: “I don’t forgive the person who did this. I probably still hold hostility toward him and maybe even his group. Nonetheless, I don’t want to see another mother experience what I had to experience.” This sentiment was later echoed by other people that I interviewed. It’s a refrain that I heard from people in Israel/Palestine, people in Northern Ireland, and even here in the United States. Yes, forgiveness can be part of the peacebuilding process, but it’s not necessarily the focus.

What’s common to all of the people in my research population, is that you might expect their experiences to further polarize them, to cause their hatred to grow, to drive them further into the teeth of conflict. But for the people I interviewed, it was the opposite. For example, two men who lost their daughters in the Israel/Palestine conflict—Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian Muslim—were driven by their loss to want to reach out to the other side. Both of them landed in an organization called Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) which is for Israeli and Palestinian families who have experienced such tragedies. They have since become the best of friends and are well known in the field.

Or take the example of Arno Michaelis, who was an angry, violent young man involved with the neo-Nazi movement in the United States. He had a set of experiences that caused him to completely turn his world around. He has since allied himself with Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father was killed by a member of the white supremacist organization Arno had helped co-found many years prior.

GE: What can outside supporters or peacemakers learn from the stories of ex-combatants and victims of conflict?

JG: The people who are living and breathing a conflict and suffering from it on a daily basis are the ones crying out for compassion, crying out for some form of reconciliation. People outside don’t really get that. They’ll say, just give more money to this or that cause. Just keep pushing your team to fight harder, because that’s what’s going to solve this. People outside the region just think that either arming your side or boycotting the other side is going to bring the solution. Whereas I’m trying to amplify the voices of these people who have suffered the most.

Even the perpetrators, the extremists, the people who’ve committed acts of violence—in some ways, they’re victims as well. In most cases, they’re someone who was radicalized or even brainwashed as a young man, had a gun put in their hands. So they were also initially victims, and then spent many years in prison. People who have felt the conflict first hand are begging people to come together and find a way to build peace. I think people need to hear these voices more than some of the other voices that tend to be louder.


Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He previously taught university English courses in the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in various print and digital publications.