Four proposals for greater inter-religious tolerance

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-Jan-06 | Author: Awraham Soetendorp| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Awraham Soetendorp is president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, European Region, and co-recipient of the 2005 International Alliance Peace Award with Imam Faysal Abdul Rauf.

The circumstances of my birth and survival as a Jewish infant in the midst of World War II in Amsterdam have forever determined my belief in the saving capacity of interfaith dialogue and activities in the face of destruction and hatred. The first lesson I learnt at the outset of my life was that the gates allowing a return to compassion are never fully locked, when I experienced the turn of heart of the Gestapo leader who had entered our home to round us up. Watching me in the cradle he exclaimed: "Pity that this is a Jewish child;" and my father retorted with indomitable spirit: "Happy that he is a Jewish child because whatever will happen to him, he will never grow up to be a son of murderers." He shouted abuse but his eyes filled with tears and he left us to escape.

The second lesson of my survival was that in the end the soft forces of compassion will prevail. My loving foster mother was a woman, German-born, piously Catholic, already 47-years-old, who was willing to take me into safety, risking her life and the lives of those in her family. (Some Jewish children were saved during the World War II by "righteous gentiles" who adopted them as part of their own family, thus disguising the children's Jewish identity.)

Reunited with my parents, I was brought up with respect and love for other spiritual traditions as the compassionate source of human survival. Similarly, the injunction expressed in the heart of the Talmud and the Torah, "He who has saved one human life has saved the whole world and he who has destroyed one human life has destroyed the whole world," is and remains the guiding principle in the various faith traditions.

In the loving encounter of Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, there is an enormous reservoir of hope. I believe with complete faith that the living dialogue - when we truly meet God in the eye of the other - will move us beyond the tragic impasse and help us to create sustainable peace. Children behind the shifting boundaries have all the right in the world to a peaceful, secure and fruitful future. The eyes of these children should be and remains our focus. All that is required is a self-critical approach, to keep the door of compassion wide open and to build together a decent society in which no one is degraded.

During a memorable meeting of imams and rabbis that took place at the beginning of 2005 in Brussels, we pledged to strengthen ties and to help facilitate opportunities for common study and sharing of experiences. In short we pledged to make our kinship visible both inside our study centers, synagogues and mosques, and outside in the streets of our sometimes violent cities; to walk hand in hand and oppose by example, all forms of stigmatization, violence, and the taking of life, loudly and unequivocally.

From my own experience I would like to modestly suggest some practices that have helped me, and might help others, in paving the road from tolerance to respect and from respect to love: First, facilitate the exchange of students in our various institutes of training for rabbis, imams, priests and pastors. Living in each other's learning institutes even for one semester would have a lasting positive influence.

Second, hold an interdenominational, intercultural session at the beginning of the parliamentary year as we have been doing in the Netherlands for the last six years with the participation of representatives from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other spiritual traditions, with the specific inclusion of humanism. How encouraging similar meetings would be preceding the opening of the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament.

Third, advance the Millennium Development Goals which "are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want." Our faith traditions consider this to be justice, not charity, yet we have been much too timid in espousing this cause. Together we should be taking the lead in helping eliminate poverty and misery in our midst and beyond. Directing our focus could be the holistic approach of the Earth Charter, where respect for ecological integrity, human rights, and the pursuit of democracy and peace are seen as indivisible.

Fourth, we should study texts together from our various traditions, in a self-critical way, move from the historical context of our past to the existential present, fight bigotry in our midst and unmask misinterpretations and misuse for what they are - attempts to hijack religion and foster hatred, not love.

I see us, the people from the Abrahamic traditions, supported by other spiritual traditions, living together in two neighboring states, Israel and Palestine, moved by the mystery and commandments, praying and acting in the pursuit of peace. I feel strongly that I am now holding the knob of the door that was once heroically held open for me. Do I open or close the door? May we have the courage and the wisdom to keep the door wide open.

Awraham Soetendorp is president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, European Region, and co-recipient of the 2005 International Alliance Peace Award with Imam Faysal Abdul Rauf. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.