Gestures of reconciliation

It should still be possible for Jewish religious leaders to feel the plight of innocent civilians wounded or killed in Gaza.

In recent discussions with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, I learned that both Islam and Judaism share the moral imperative of "Thou Shalt Not Kill." But in the contemporary complex conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, this gets blurred by events and ideologies on the ground. In the aftermath of the massacre of the yeshiva students in Mercaz Harav, rabbis who were in dialogue with Muslims were waiting for a clear public denunciation of the murders by religious leaders in Israel. But this was not forthcoming due to differences among Muslim leaders. On the one hand, some said that murder is murder and that this senseless murder should be definitely denounced since it clearly violates one of the basic ethical commandments of Islam - "thou shalt not kill." But, on the other hand, other Muslim religious leaders could not but help link the terrorist attack to the killing of innocent civilians - especially women and children - in the attacks of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza the previous week as an attempt to put a stop to the firing of Kassam missiles into Sderot and Ashkelon. WHILE THEY did not justify the massacre, they also wanted and needed to hear a moral denunciation of the taking of lives of innocent Palestinian civilians from their Jewish partners in dialogue. But the rabbis saw this as part of a defensive action of the Israel Defense Forces and furthermore they argued that cause of the killings was the Palestinian usage of innocent civilians as human shields. The rabbis did not see the linkage between a military maneuver and an outright attack on innocent students in a yeshivah in Jerusalem. They were not prepared to express any moral outrage against the killing of Palestinian civilians, since this was an unintended consequence of a military operation. As a result an impasse was reached in the dialogue between the Muslim and Jewish religious leaders who have been active in intensive dialogue together during the past five years. Is there a way out of this impasse? Is it possible - even in the midst of our complicated and confusing conflict - to empathize with the pain and suffering of "the other side"? Moreover, is it possible to come up with a joint moral position which would express sorrow over the killing of innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict, without compromising one's own personal or collective religious dignity? WHEN THE Jewish people left Egypt and miraculously passed through the Sea of Reeds, and in pursuit the Egyptians drowned, the Bible records that they sang a song of redemption. But the Midrash rebukes the Jews for singing when God's children were drowning, since all of God's children are precious to Him. Therefore, it should be possible for Jewish religious leaders to empathize with the plight of innocent civilians who are wounded or killed in Gaza, even if this is the fault of the terrorists who fire from their homes, and not the fault of the IDF, which tries to minimize killing of innocent civilians out a deep sense of morality in fighting necessary wars. And one would expect that serious Muslim religious leaders ought to be able to denounce a massacre by one of their own "believers" in unequivocal terms since this clearly negates a fundamental principle of their religion. But the photos of women and children killed by the IDF in the war on terrorism in Gaza blinded some of these leaders so that they could not see the moral imperative to denounce the massacre in the yeshivah in no uncertain terms. These photos - which were shown over and over again as part of the Palestinian and Arab propaganda war against the Jewish State - distorted the moral compass of Muslim religious leaders who otherwise might have been inclined to do the right moral thing instinctively. WHAT WAS missing here? What could have prevented this impasse from coming about? This could have been prevented by some "gestures of reconciliation" - by phone calls of Muslim colleagues to their Jewish colleagues which would have simply said "I'm very sorry for what happened in the yeshiva. This is morally unacceptable in Islam." In fact, when some of these Muslim religious leaders said this in person to their Jewish colleagues in a heart-to-heart conversation a week later, this meant a great deal to them. Indeed a few years ago, when a young Jewish soldier shot and killed four Arabs - Muslim and Christian - in the town of Shfaram, rabbis from this dialogue group paid a condolence visit to the tent of mourning in this Israeli Arab town. This was a gesture of reconciliation which their Arab partners have never forgotten. One of my colleagues remarked to me a few years ago that one of the results of the ongoing conflict in our religion is the end of empathy. This is unfortunately all too true. Religious leaders need to take the lead in restoring empathy and morality to the public discourse. Otherwise, we will all be ruled by extremist passions and horrible media images which blind our moral sensibilities. The writer, a veteran educator and activist in Arab-Jewish coexistence education, serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.