Rabbis and Imams for Peace

While the world's eyes were affixed to visions of relief planes arriving on the beaches of Indonesia last week, something truly miraculous was taking place in the halls of an elegant palace in the land of waffles. Under heavy security, Orthodox chief rabbis from Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Israel, Morroco, Norway, Romania, and the Czek Republic spent four days in Brussels praying, singing, sharing stories and studying together with Imams and Shieks from Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Palestinain Territories. While there was little American press coverage, reports from the conference were carried on Eurovision, Al Jazeera, Israeli Television and the BBC World service as over one hundred and fifty religious leaders from forty nations, including the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Bakshi Doron and Shiek Talal Sedir, cheif of religious affairs for the Palestinian Authority, joined together for dialogue under the patronage of the King of Belgium, Albert II and the King of Morroco, Muhammed VI. As one of only a handful of non-Orthodox rabbis who participated in "Rabbis and Imams for Peace", one of the few North Americans present, and one of the youngest at the table, I took my seat with the all-male Congress with a deep sense of respect for my elders. Yet there was one aspect of irony that was apparent to me- while I have had been blessed with many experiences in inter-religious dialogue, many of these men were formally participating in a conference with their religious counterparts for the very first time. The Chief Rabbi of Mod'in from Israel asked me to take a photograph of him while he spoke so that he would be able to show his wife and six children that he sat next to an Imam. "I have never done anything like this," he told me, "I was very skeptical. But now I see that it is good to do this." During the first session of the Congress, Dr. Abdul Abad, a spokesman for Islamic religious councils in the Palestinian Territories articulated the spiritual message of the Congress in near poetic form: "If we see the Holy Land as a wife, we will each say 'she is my wife', and we will continue to fight one another for the right to claim her. My friends, let us see the Holy Land not as a wife to claim, but as our mother - so that we may live in peace as brothers." The Congress resonated with such a suggestion, and the applause for Dr. Abad's statement kicked off what soon became a remarkable display of fraternal cooperation. "We must give these Islamic leaders honor" Rabbi Bakshi Doron demanded of the rabbis in the hall "for they are true to God, they love God, and they help us to uphold morality in a world rampant with secularism." While the Congress was heavy on affirming Abrahamic roots and simplified monotheistic declarations, the Congress was not simply a display of goodwill gestures. There were many moments of honesty when the Jewish leaders spoke of their outrage at anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims. "Why do you keep silent when Islamic web-sites are fomenting Jew hatred, quoting lines from the Koran that command Muslims to attack Jews?" a French Rabbi inquired of the Imams and Sheiks. "There are no such lines" a Muslim scholar replied, waving an electronic device in his hand, "type the word Yehood into my digital assistant and it will show you that such hatred does not appear in the Koran!" "But why don't you condemn it when your colleagues use it?" the rabbi retorted. Others told stories not of prejudice, but acts of violence, including a compelling story by the former Cheif Rabbi of France Rene Sirat who recalled the day when his brother was walking home from synagogue and was murdered by a Muslim terrorist. Jews were not the only ones who raised concerns over prejudice and violence. An Iranian scholar of Islamic Law, Sheik Jafri said "If we are to achieve anything in our meeting today, we will not only have to send a clear message to Islamic extremists, but to those in the government of Israel who send missiles that kill innocent Palestinian children." A Palestinian, Sheik Hilmi, built on those concerns, saying to the rabbis "If I continue to be restricted by the Israeli government, imprisoned, and can not travel to Jerusalem, then how can I even think of continuing this dialogue!" Yet these tense moments were countered by moments of profound understanding. Imam Sajid of Great Britain remarked - When I first came to England I had never met a rabbi. I saw a man with a kipah on the train and mistaking him for a Muslim I wished him a 'salaam aleykum'. It turned out that he was a rabbi from Leo Baeck College. We talked and we became friends, and in the years since I have realized that we have a shared goal - Anti-semitism and Islamophobia are linked - and if we are to ever live in peace in Europe, we must learn to live in peace with one another." Rabbi Abraham Soddendorp of Holland also shared inspiring words: "When I was born in 1943, my mother, to save me from the Nazis, placed me in the hands of a gentile woman. I was an unknown person, a liability, a danger - and yet I became a loved one. This German Catholic woman risked her life to rescue me. Can we not follow her example, and risk our lives for the sake of the other? For the sake of Palestinian children? For the sake of Israeli children? " Sheik Hassan Chizenga of Tanzania inspired the Congress with perhaps the most bizarre vision of peace: "In Islamic law, Jews are considered to be equal to Muslims, for it is permitted for a Muslim to marry a Jew. Jews are believers, People of the Book, and are to be respected. I have just married my fourth wife. However, if the esteemed members of this Congress feel that it will be worthwhile to promote peace with a public gesture, I will take as my fifth wife a Jewish woman!"The hall erupted in laughter, and after reassuring Sheik Chizenga that he would make a very good brother-in-law, organizer Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein of the Elijah Institute in Jerusalem remarked "but luckily I do not have a sister." Outside the hall of meeting, the atmosphere was electric. At nightly concerts featuring a Morrocoan band, the Algerian born Chief Rabbi Joseph Azron of Reishon L'Tzion took the stage and chanted Hebrew liturgical prayers. Not to be topped, Sheik Hilmi commanded a microphone and began to sing in Arabic. Within a few moments, the men were trading lines of praise to the Creator as the drummers, violinist, and bass player marveled at the musical talents of the holy men. This was an unplanned and joyous scene which brought out every camera in the hall and brought great joy to Alain Michel, the French philanthropist and visionary who initiated the Congress. So what did we come away with other than a renewed sense of commonality and trust between the children of Abraham? Perhaps the most poignant moment came when we thought for a moment about what was happening on the other side of the world. One day, before lunch, we Rabbis and Imams stood in silence for the victims and offered prayers in Arabic and Hebrew that brought tears to many of the men around the table. I wish that the world could have seen that moment - to see the intensity of emotion on the faces I saw around the room - to see that even the most strict and devout Jews and Muslims are also Rabbis and Imams for Peace.