May 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Carried by Dialogue from Jerusalem to Gaza

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester


More images like these of Palestinians and Israelis can
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 incomprehensible.

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 committed.

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 peaceful coexistence.

* 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, <>.
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