Dialogue from Jerusalem to Gaza
Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester
More images like these of Palestinians and
tragically be expected if conversations between those
who are different do not begin.
A few weeks ago I toured British university campuses. Arriving at
Oxford Station, I had no idea how to find the synagogue so I approached
a passerby who told me how to get there. As I boarded a bus, the driver
cheerfully agreed to inform me when we reached my destination. Twenty
minutes later we arrived in front of a large park, and the driver
advised me to disembark.
“How do I get to the synagogue?” I asked.
“Look, there it is in front of you!” he said, pointing towards the most
enormous mosque I had ever seen.
“But I asked for a synagogue, not a mosque!” I pleaded.
The driver shook his head apologetically and said, “I am sorry, sir. I
didn’t know there was a difference!”
Speeding back to the synagogue in a taxi, I reflected on my conversation
with the bus driver. As an Orthodox rabbi, I am passionate about my
religion, dedicating my time to its theological intricacies. As an
Israeli, I carefully follow debates about the Middle East and the
competing claims of Israelis and Palestinians to this land. But that day
I took a class in humility from this ordinary Englishman who was unaware
of the differences between Judaism and Islam and utterly indifferent to
the issues which dominate my thoughts. I imagine such people find the
violent conflicts between different religious communities
Jerusalem is a city of intense religious passions. I feel privileged to
live here, but I am also disturbed by the degree of tension around me.
We all know so much about our own beliefs and practices but so little
about those who live next door. In our own way, we are as unaware as
that bus driver.
When we are ignorant about the people around us, conflict seems
inevitable. The Bible (Leviticus 19:17) prescribes that when I see my
neighbor doing something wrong I should rebuke him. Our commentators
explain that through this rebuke we will be drawn into conversation,
understand the situation better and resolve our differences.
Conversation is the surest way to reconciliation; failure to communicate
is the first step to mistrust and violence. The first murder in the
Bible takes place when tensions break out between two brothers. They
talk briefly, but the conversation breaks down, and the first murder is
Living in the Middle East, we suffer grievously from conflict and
killing, but those who believe in dialogue are optimistic about the
opportunities for change.
“Imagine if we could get a million Jews meeting regularly with a million
Arabs. Wouldn’t that make an impact on life in Israel?”
My heart soared at this vision offered by Dr. Yehuda Stolov of the
Interfaith Encounter Association, an organization dedicated to promoting
peace in the region through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural
study. But when he told me that the process might take 15 years, my
enthusiasm sank. Given the depth and urgency of the problem, it seemed a
long time to wait. He then reminded me that, although that may seem far
off, had we started at the time of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s
we could have finished by now!
Dialogue is necessary, urgent and effective. We dare not squander our
opportunities. As Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, spiritual head of the
United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, puts it, we may not all
share the same beliefs, but we do share the same planet, “and we must be
able to live together if we are to be able to live at all.”
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was the first Palestinian doctor to complete his
residency and work in an Israeli hospital. He is also a peace activist
who developed his tolerant philosophy through childhood encounters with
Israeli families. In the recent Gaza war, an Israeli missile burst
through a bedroom window of his house, killing three of his daughters
and one of his nieces.
Despite this tragedy, Abuelaish continues his work for reconciliation
between Israelis and Palestinians. His book, I Shall Not Hate,
metaphorically carried me across the Gaza border, giving me a glimpse of
life there. It introduced me to Palestinian families, took me into their
homes and revealed their fears, suffering and aspirations.
Reading his book is an act of dialogue. It left me with questions, but
it also renewed my will to continue the conversation, to take more steps
towards knowing my neighbors and to do whatever I can to support
* Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the rabbi of Tribe Israel and directs the
Beit Midrash for the study of Judaism and human rights at Hillel House
at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article was written for the
Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: CGNews, May 31, 2011, <www.commongroundnews.org>.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.