Religious peacemakers

In Israel peace may seem a long way off and tensions run high, but this is precisely why dialogue is so urgent.

By GIDEON D. SYLVESTER
December 4, 2014 14:12
Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White, a Christian archbishop from England, as he is turned away by an IDF soldier from entering Bethlehem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The recent surge of violence in Israel is alarming. We are still reeling from the brutal murders of Jewish men at prayer in Har Nof, and women and children at random bus stops.

Fragile bonds of trust have been broken and tensions are rising in the country. The lack of any peace process deepens our despair, and our fears of an interminable religious war.

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Alongside this depressing picture, a dedicated few continue laboring for peace. Two heroes of this work – an Orthodox rabbi and an Anglican canon – have made it their mission to dialogue with some of the most extreme exponents of fundamentalist Islam, the people with the influence and power to make a difference.

Recently, under the auspices of the Europeans for Israel organization, they spoke about their fascinating work; its dangers, successes and limitations.

Canon Andrew White holds no illusions about peacemaking, or the people with whom he deals. As the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, he has spent the last two decades living in the poisoned heart of the Middle East conflict. There, he has witnessed some of the grisliest sides of Islamic fundamentalism.

Offering a taste of what goes on among his community, he relates the story of a group of Christian children in a kindergarten who were recently ordered by Islamic State gunmen to convert to Islam. The children, who had been brought up with deep religious faith, did not ask questions; they simply joined hands, affirmed their belief in Christianity, and were immediately shot dead. In this climate, it is no surprise that 30,000 of White’s parishioners have fled their homes.

Representing the church doesn’t immunize Canon White from danger either. Members of his staff have been murdered and he too has been attacked, kidnapped and thrown into rooms lined with body parts. Astonishingly, despite these terrifying experiences, he remains fearless. He believes he is doing God’s work and for him, this is all that matters.



Others are more prudent. The archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the 80 million members of the Anglican Communion, has ordered him to leave Iraq. It is simply too dangerous for his mission to continue.

RABBI MICHAEL Melchior works from Jerusalem.

While the city is quieter than Baghdad, his passion for peacemaking has taken him from the comforts of the Knesset, where he served as a minister, into the heartlands of Islamic fundamentalism, where he meets with some of the most extreme Muslim leaders.

He believes that praiseworthy and important as they are, dialogue groups of secular, educated Israeli and Palestinian liberals cannot be relied upon to bring salvation. Urgently needed are those most opposed to peace; the extremists from both sides must meet and find ways to talk and work together for an end to violence.

In my first week working for him as an adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, Melchior informed me that we would be meeting with a group of Palestinians. As a dutiful assistant, I Googled the names of our guests and discovered to my horror that they were among the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, people with blood on their hands who had spent years imprisoned in Israeli jails. Arriving at the meeting, I wondered how we could even shake hands with these most intractable and murderous enemies.

It soon emerged that these former terrorists had repented for their past, and were now partnering with this Orthodox rabbi to educate their own communities towards reconciliation and peace.

Melchior’s meetings with religious and political leaders from the Palestinian territories and across the Arab world have convinced him that even among the most extreme Islamists, there are people who are willing to acknowledge the State of Israel and make peace with us. In short, there are partners for peace.

“AN ENEMY,” says Canon White, “is someone whose story I have not yet listened to.”

The canon believes that when we listen to each other, share food and talk deeply, we can create mutual understanding – and this is the first step to meaningful dialogue and reconciliation.

As an example, he quotes a group of Iraqi Muslim leaders who recently met with Melchior in Cyprus. They were extremely ambivalent about meeting a Zionist, Orthodox rabbi with whom they had little in common. Indeed, they made clear that they were more predisposed to kill him than talk to him. Nevertheless, the meeting went ahead and the conversation lasted for hours, radically altering their perspective on the rabbi and the Jewish people.

“We arrived as enemies and we left as friends,” they said.

White’s argument is rooted in Christian theology, which preaches that one must love one’s enemy – and he is endlessly munificent in his love.

For Jews, the approach is slightly different. It emerges from a talmudic story (Derech Eretz Raba, Ch. 5) which tells of a strange man who visited Rabbi Yehoshua. The rabbi honored him with food and a place to sleep in the attic, but correctly suspecting the man of being a burglar, also took the precaution of removing the ladder in the night, so that the man could not run away with his property.

From here, our commentators developed the phrase “Show honor, but also caution.”

Sadly, while so many of our leaders embrace the need for caution and suspicion, they have underrated the need for honor – hence the ever growing “price-tag” and legislative attacks on Israel’s minorities. Melchior is convinced that while the Jewish community needs to do more to rein in those carrying out these attacks, interreligious dialogue can contribute to easing the pressures.

He illustrates this with a powerful anecdote: When people seeking to undermine the peace process placed a pig’s head in a Hebron mosque, they caused terrible offense to the Muslim community.

Melchior received word of the escalating anger in the city, which would be fueled by incendiary sermons at the Friday prayers in the mosques. So he asked his Muslim contacts what could be done to avert violent riots and killing.

These Muslim leaders explained they had run out of patience with Israeli political leaders, but a conversation with senior rabbis might help.

Melchior then took the chief rabbis to the holy city and through their dialogue, they were able to calm the situation.

SUCH STORIES are inspiring, but both the rabbi and the canon understand there are limits to the miracles they can perform. With murderous groups like Islamic State, as White noted, “there is nothing you can do to create sanity and sanctity, truth and honesty.”

Thus, alongside his efforts to make peace with some of Israel’s fiercest enemies, Melchior is a pragmatist and a proud Zionist who speaks with pride of his own sons, who serve with distinction in elite units of the IDF to defend the State of Israel.

Nevertheless, the existence of dangerous extremists with whom rational discourse and reconciliation are not possible has not deterred the rabbi or the canon. If anything, it reinforces their conviction in the need to build alliances with those who may be willing to stand side by side with us, limiting the conflict and expanding the circles of trust and cooperation.

The possibility of bringing Jews and Muslims together has been realized in Britain. There, the two communities have acknowledged that their many common interests are best served through partnership. When secularists campaign to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter, Jews and Muslims unite to campaign for our shared rituals.

It is not just Jewish and Muslim professionals who are capable of cooperation. The King David School in Birmingham, which does not have enough Jewish students to fill its rosters, has become popular among Muslim parents. They feel comfortable allowing their children to eat kosher food, and while the curriculum is avowedly Jewish and Zionist, Muslim parents respect the fact that their children are receiving moral and religious values not distant from their own.

When haredi volunteers from the Hashomer organization who normally guard synagogues and Jewish communal buildings saw that rising Islamophobia and increasing attacks on Muslim property were posing a threat to their Muslim neighbors, they volunteered to guard the mosques as well. Such cooperation not only reduces tensions between the two communities, but also builds ties between them.

If this progress is possible in Britain, Melchior believes it is an urgent necessity in Israel.

Addressing the religious-Zionist argument that we stand on the threshold of Messianic times, he challenges those who imply that while the Jewish return to Israel is part of the divine plan, the Palestinians who also live here are a divine accident. They are part of the reality which God has placed before us, and we have a religious obligation to work things out fairly and peacefully.

HERE IN Israel, peace may seem a long way off and tensions run high, but this is precisely why dialogue is so urgent. Each act of reconciliation which prevents a riot, the bombing of a bus or a stabbing in the streets, is a cause of profound relief for us all.

It should also be a cause for gratitude to the heroes who champion such dialogue, and take us one step closer to peace.

■The writer is the British United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi.

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