The Jewish People's New Task

Modern Jewry, with its victims and its lessons, must propose itself as a bridge on which Western Muslims and Christians can step as they go to meet each other, create a Christian-Muslim dialogue and institutionalize Western Islam.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

Rosh Hashanah is very different from other Jewish holidays. A thread of universalism runs through it, and its prayers differ from those of the rest of the year. Nationalism and the nation's collective memories are marginal at this time; its main essence is directed outward: "a prayer ... for all the nations." This is the only day when we pray for the world's well-being. We sing "today the world was conceived," and we know that "everyone in the world will pass before Him," without distinction and without discrimination, because everyone is equal before the world's creator. Like Adam and Eve, who were born free of religion and zealotry.

Over the years, due to the Jewish people's historical troubles, the holiday's universal identity became blurred. It was difficult for us, the persecuted, to rise to the occasion and act on behalf of the world that rejected us so violently. Behaving as "a nation that dwells alone" came naturally to us, and we abandoned the universal responsibility of the Jewish people, which was once "a nation of the world" and has now become too much of "a nation of the land."

The results of this closing of the national soul are very sad. For the first time in millennia, we are not at the forefront of influence on the world. In the past, there was hardly an era in which we did not have an influence. Take Jesus, for example. His teachings and values sprang from the Jewish core of the Second Temple period. Those who sowed the European renaissance included descendants of Jewish Marranos, who brought the wisdom and achievements of ancient Greece, which had been preserved by the moderate and tolerant Muslim philosophers, back home.

It is impossible to decipher the codes of modern times without Spinoza or Moses Mendelsohn. And what would the previous century have been like without Marx and his communism, on one hand, or Freud and the individual soul, on the other? That period also produced Trotsky, Zamenhof and others, and their dreams.

All that is finished. Sixty years ago, Europe failed the test of "the other." When it was given the chance, it spat out and destroyed its Jews, who became the ultimate lepers.

Today, Europe faces the test of a new "other" - the Muslims. Tens of millions of Muslims live in Europe and the West today, and when Turkey joins the European Union, it will have some 100 million Muslims. The question, "what do we do with them?" can be heard in the corridors of power in Paris; it influenced the elections in Britain; it changed the laws on religion and state in Sweden; it is reflected in the stereotypes of Hollywood heroes in Washington. The West's racists also ask, "what do we do with them?" And as the crowds cheer, they reply: What we always did - war, exile, restricting their rights. But Israelis and Jews do not even ask this question.

While the West is fighting one of its most important battles, over its health and sanity, we are absent, because of an understandable complex. They are struggling without us over the ecology of heaven and earth - against fundamentalism and extremism, for human rights, against international terror, for women's status, against the veil. A time when our international acceptance is greater than ever before, at a time when the world needs our unique input, we are absent as never before. This is the Jewish paradox of our times. Our contact, friction, traumas, recovery and interface with the modern West opened some doors of contemporary Judaism to new winds and exciting ideas: religious pluralism, the equality of the Jewish woman. Yet on the other hand, we hide ourselves and cut ourselves off, with understandable fear, behind our closed national shutters.

The future of the world to a large extent depends on the West's ability to be fertilized and impregnated with the new Islam; to include Muslims, instead of rejecting them as they did us; and then together to give birth to a new world discourse. Not the "macho" discourse of George Bush and other fundamentalist Christians, not that of Israeli settlers and local conservatives, and not that of the Islamic zealots, who forbid all contact with the West as if it were an impure woman.

What is needed is a moderate and painstaking dialogue, semi-feminine, inclusive and accepting. A dialogue of pregnancy, "world-conceiving," such as that which enabled contemporary Western Jewry to break the pathological historic cycle of Jews and Gentiles and present a new model of life in opposition to Hitler, his successors and the thousand years of bloodshed that preceded them. As the world opens up to us as never before, and as we change to meet it, we can relax from our fears, renew the holiday's originality and return to responsibility for the world and its well-being.

What can we do to promote a world of this kind - a better, more perfect world that would be much less dangerous for its residents and for us? To my mind, we must contribute from our experience as victims, as "others," and then as those who were accepted, so as to prevent the unnecessary sacrifice of our generation's "new others." Modern Jewry, with its victims and its lessons, must propose itself as a bridge on which Western Muslims and Christians can step as they go to meet each other, create a Christian-Muslim dialogue and institutionalize Western Islam.

The West can and should embrace its Muslim citizens and cause them to see themselves, their religion and their traditions in a new light - a light of openness, tolerance and religious pluralism. Many Muslims in the West oppose extremist terrorism. Not everyone there is Osama bin Laden, just as not everyone here is Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein or George Bush. Muslim moderates are in line to be the "Jews," the foreigners of the 21st century, without having done anything wrong. The partners to the 20th century's failure, the victims as well as those who sacrificed them, must get together on their behalf, so that they can pass the test this time. Because if the Europe and the United States fail the test of "citizens of the Muslim faith," the wave of failure will unavoidably drown the West. In contrast, success could give the struggling West a new birth on the path to world peace, whose partners would include most believers in "the one God" to whom we all pray.

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