Religion Can Be a Fertile Ground for Mideast Peace

We have an obligation to base the peace with the Muslim world on the many common values we share with the Muslims. Not peace in the style of members of the left, who promote it on the basis of hatred and separation from the Palestinians.

Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior
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Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior

There are people who see a crisis in every opportunity. And there are some who see an opportunity in every crisis. I'm among the latter.

A profound observation of the processes taking place in the Arab world should gladden the heart of anyone who favors freedom and justice in general, and every Jew in particular. It contains a kind of repeat broadcast of the Exodus from Egypt. But this time it's the Egyptians who are emerging from slavery into freedom. Almost without bloodshed, an entire nation rose up against the regime of torture, despotism and slavery. Every Jew should be pleased with a step that ends in a victory of justice and truth over oppression and lies.

An expression of this identification can be found in the wonderful words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the Jewish leaders in modern times. In Nahalat Hasar, his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, the rabbi expresses the blessing that must be recited when witnessing an event that ends in liberation from the yoke of enslavement: "All the free people in the world, all those who favor and fight for human rights, have all joined the blessing of the Israelites ... because at the time when the freedom of the Israelites was born, their freedom was born as well, because those who left Egypt restored to human beings the understanding that they had lost: that they all have one Father and they have equal rights ... From those who left Egypt they received the book that confirms every man's rights, that writes and signs about the freedom of man and the divine dignity of every being."

Prior to any political and opportunistic accounting, we should be aware of the magnitude of the change from the point of view of Jewish ethics. On the political plane, it's true that there was a great blessing in the peace agreement with Egypt. But at the same time we mustn't forget that it was a peace agreement contracted with an autocrat and dictator, and not a genuine peace based on common values of genuine familiarity and closeness and an honest and open relationship with the Egyptian people.

Moreover: As is true of tyrants, the Egyptian despot also used anti-Semitism as a shock absorber, in order to divert the oppositional criticism leveled at him toward the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

I saw it with my own eyes: Shortly before the Alexandria summit, in which leaders of the three religions convened for a conciliation meeting, I met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At the meeting I criticized him for the anti-Semitism that was flourishing in his country, but he made do with a statement that revealed his tactics: "I don't understand. The anti-Semites are my greatest opponents." He wanted so say that that is how they find release through expressions of hostility and hatred. They have two options: to hate us or to love us. And he probably prefers the former.

Surprisingly, Israeli governments also accepted this unacceptable policy. It reached a point of true absurdity, the essence of grotesqueness, when the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promoted an avowed anti-Semite, who declared that all Jewish books should be burned, to the position of secretary general of Unesco.

As a result of this cooperation, a barrier and a separation was created between Jews and Israelis on the one hand and the Egyptian people on the other. Now a real door has opened, and a worthy opportunity to make peace not only with the government, but with the Egyptian people and Egyptian society. It's true that we almost certainly will have to "pay" for that by making peace with the Palestinians too, but hasn't the time come to do so? We have an obligation to base the peace with the Muslim world on the many common values we share with the Muslims, values of justice and equality.

Not peace in the style of some members of the left, who promote it on the basis of hatred and separation from the Palestinians. "We are here and they are there" - such a peace perpetuates the hostility, and in the end even adds Knesset seats and popularity to supporters of right-wing politicians Rabbi Meir Kahane and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

On this plane interfaith peace is likely to make a decisive contribution. Quite a number of people watched the most recent uprising in Egypt with amazement; it revealed the fact that a vast majority of the Egyptian people are traditional. That doesn't mean that all its sons are suddenly turning out to be members of the sect of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it definitely says something about the important place of religion in their identity.

One of the major challenges facing this interfaith discourse is how to change religion from a means of revenge, a destructive and deadly sword, into a powerful lever for achieving and making peace. Religion is not the problem. It is likely to be the solution. Recent events have proven that profound religious faith can dwell together with a civil constitution and democratic pluralism.

The time has come to climb down from the ladder. All the crazies have to climb down from the roof of hatred and totalitarianism to the ground of reality, ground that is planted with values common to all those who believe in one God: freedom, justice and peace, tradition and ethics. Fertile ground from which a different Middle East can grow.

Rabbi Melchior, who served as a government minister, heads the Mosaica Center for Interreligious Cooperation.



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