The Words of the Ben-Zvi Family
Jerusalem, Israel -- A group of ten academic and religious leaders convened at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on October 31 to discuss issues related to interfaith dialogue and cooperation among religions.
In her opening remarks, the director of the Jerusalem office of UPF for interfaith and inter-religious cooperation, Dr. Nurit Hirschfeld, emphasized the importance and value of holding an interfaith forum. She pointed out the positive influence that such a forum can have in society and the potential of interfaith initiatives and activities that can emerge from such forums. "We should evoke the spirit of cooperation and peace in Israel and the entire Middle East region."
Participants included Dr. Anat Shapira, Dr. Hanoch Ben Pazi, Dr. Avi Gilboa, Sheik Jaber Mansur, Sheik Samich Natur, Sheik Samir Asi, Dr. Haim Vais, Rev. Dr. Jeosepe Di-Luccio, Dr. Nurit Hirschfeld, and Mr. Hod Ben Zvi. After a short introduction of each one of the participants, Mr. Hod Ben Zvi, a senior advisor to UPF-Israel, gave a short slide show introducing the history of UPF's interfaith activities in Israel during the last decade. He expressed a desire to learn from the other participants' experiences and field initiatives. "It is extremely valuable for religious leaders to draw lessons from the wisdom expressed by other religions."
The introductory remarks sparked a lively discussion. Several issues were brought up, expressing possible challenges and impediments as well as hopes and aspirations. The following paragraphs are an attempt to summarize the main points:
Throughout history, the negative power of religion has led to wars and destruction much more frequently than to peace activities. Wars and conflicts are the "default mode" of human behavior. It is very easy to destroy, but much more difficult to restore and establish a peaceful relationship. Thus the challenges are substantial.
Education has a crucial role in the interfaith context. There is need to "go out" and act in the "real world" through religious leaders visiting schools and talking with students of other religion, meeting and discussing with school teachers, visiting and consoling people of all faiths that are hospitalized, etc.
A few scholars, although describing themselves as atheists, felt they could contribute to the interfaith forum with their academic expertise and approach based on conscience.
There is an evident need to touch upon the sensitive issue of the role of women and their status in all religious traditions.
The academic perspective is very important and has an enormous impact on validating the interfaith discussion. Thus, our forums and discussions should be held within academia and seek to avoid being marginalized.
The joint study of Holy Scriptures and sacred texts in forums is vitally important. In order to understand one another better, we need to understand each religion's basic thought and even challenge and wrestle with problematic aspects. Boundaries are built by our ignorance about other religions and thus must be overcome. It is agreed that the ethical code of most religions is very similar. Thus, on top of studying the ideas we share and agree upon, we must learn how to deal properly with disagreements.
Learning about the other's religion might also help us understand our own religion better. For example, for Christian people to learn about early Judaism can help them understand Jesus' words in a deeper way.
The lively discussion about interfaith ideas continued over lunch. Sheik Mansur shared about his grandfather, who spoke Yiddish with his Jewish friends, and remembered a rabbi talking Arabic with his Druze and Muslim friends.
Below is an interesting testimony of Sheik Samir Asi, the Imam of El-Jazar Mosque in Acre, about his field experience in interfaith. Sheik Asi expressed his strong determination to bring to peace and unity among religions. He reported about many activities that he is conducting in order to strengthen the cooperation between Muslims and Jews in Israel in general and in Acre in particular, a city on the northern coast of Israel, near Haifa. The population of Haifa is diverse, with 72 percent Jewish and 28 percent Arab. "My religion advocates that the human being is the most precious thing in the whole world, even more precious than religion itself," he said by way of introducing this anecdote:
"Six years ago I organized a delegation of young Arabs and Jews along with a rabbi to to visit Poland, including Auschwitz; it was an unprecedented trip. My people were against my going. I stood in front of 2,500 people in the mosque announcing the trip. They were against the idea that their imam would go to Auschwitz. However, I stood there, holding firmly to my position that there is no reason not to go. After all, we were not involved in that horrible evil, so we must let the Jewish people know that we feel their pain. It wasn't easy to convince them, but eventually I received their support!"