Camilla Schick on Rabbi Melchior’s talk: ’Religion as a force for peace”
“The way you treat the ‘Other’ is the definition of a state. That is Judaism. We needed to be born of a people in Egypt before we could understand this,” said Michael Melchior, rumoured candidate for Britain’s next Chief Rabbi, in his address at the South Hampstead Synagogue last week.
Melchior drew upon the story of the king of the Khazars wholed the conversion of his kingdom to Judaism. The king asked a Jewish leader ‘Whatwill happen when you have political power? Will all your standards hold up?’ To which the Jew replied ‘That I cannot answer’. “But this is now for every Jewand Israeli to answer,” Stressed Melchior. Also the story of the king of Mizraim (Egypt), ruling over a land of “big social gaps” and preoccupied with a fear of demography.
“Does this sound familiar?” Melchior asked. “Why are we now making the Arab woman’s womb the threat to Israel?” We should have left this ourselves faced in Egypt long ago. “This is what Pesach is about.” Melchior said he foresees peace in Israel, but fears the “secular peace” trying to is now “gravely stranded”. So he urges more thinking outside the box, which means addressing the one thing that the world (particularly pre-9/11, back in the good ‘old Fukuyama End of History era) had filed away on a shelf somewhere: Religion. “How are we going to deal with it?” Melchior asked. In most major current conflicts, religion lies at the heart. Everyone is tackling the Arab spring, Gilad Shalit, conflict resolution etc through a secular church-separated-from-state dichotomy, and yet “The real world doesn’t work like that”.
Christianity is still a driving force behind the secular mask of US national and foreign policy, so that after decades of the West making secular deals with Arab dictators it’s perhaps unsurprising Islamism is now breaking beyond this hypocrisy. And recent tragic events in France indicate a dogmatic secularist approach to nation building that represses or disregards the religious identity of minorities can also have severe consequences.
Having earned the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s Prize for Tolerance and Bridge Building, and served as minister for diaspora, education, and foreign affairs in Israel among other positions, Melchior has proven a strong advocate for social justice and no stranger to fighting for a cause. He’s therefore well placed to begin building what he describes as a “coalition” with “the most radical forces” including Islamist leaders in the UK as well as those in Israel-Palestine, in order to now negotiate through a prism of religion as opposed to excluding it.
He told us he recently met with a notorious seventy-five-year-old Islamist leader(without mentioning names) who is the epitome of ‘radical’ – he believes all of Europe should become Islamic, he believes in Jihad, he supports suicide bombings, he’s been tortured, he’s not been allowed to leave his Palestinian home city for forty years, his sons have all been in Israeli prisons – and the Rabbi was certainly not excusing any of their crimes. So why bother? Because “Nobody had actually ever talked to this guy,” Melchior remarked.
Melchior told the leader he understands and respects why Palestine is waqf (holy land) to Muslims. When thousands die in Africa, it scrapes a few headlines. But when a stone is thrown in Jerusalem, the whole world knows about it, because this land matters to millions across different faiths. So he suggested the Jewish value of kiddush hashem (sanctification in the name of God). “Just think what it would do to the honour of God, if we could work it out together in the Holy Land. The most important value (we share) is this land belonging to God. We are all temporary residents here, as we were in Egypt.”
The leader then asked ‘What do you want from me?’ Melchiorreplied ‘You know what I want.’ ‘Jihad?Armistice?’ No. ‘…Youwant Salaam?” Everlasting peace. Melchior described how, after four hours of discussion, three minutes of silence descended. Then the leader said ‘Salaam!This young man (AKA Melchior) is right! Enough of the period of jihad. We need to make salaam. For Allah.” As idealistic as this scene sounds, these are serious religious people who are not playing games, Melchior stressed.
While he cannot be sure if anything will happen, he feels sure this is where we need to begin tackling the conflict – by addressing interfaith parallels, such as sharing the same God and land, rather than allowing the rest of the world’s secular politics to antagonise and playoff religious differences for political gain. The way the world now pigeonholes which people have a right to live in which state is “ludicrous” Melchior argued. There are Arab Israelis who prefer to live in Israel, and there are Jews who prefer to live in Hebron (provided that when a Palestinian state is created they will also live as respectful Palestinian citizens, he stressed).
If Islam says Muslims can live alongside the Jewish faith and vice versa, then engaging religious respect might already be a more effective way to a two-state solution. In the meantime how can anyone write fatwas for the death of others, or reject an Arab-Israeli work permit? If you crush another person’s dignity and right, then you crush God. We want there to be a just Jewish future and a state of freedom and righteousness in the vision of our prophets.The Rabbi’s final point being we are all children of God, and this is the very basis of Israel.
The moment that basis ceases to exist “I cannot live in that state anymore,” Melchior confessed. So kiddush hashem. If we want to stand up for the very essence of what it means to be Jewish, we shouldn’t be afraid to engage religion as something in common. Where there’s a will there’s a way, but where there’s also a God shared with others, a common way hopefully becomes evident to us all.