Last week, my wife and I attended the annual iftar (Muslim break-the-fast) dinner at the residence of the American Ambassador to Israel, H.E. Dan Shapiro, in Herzliya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv, with Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious, cultural and educational leaders and activists involved in Arab-Jewish coexistence programs and peace education from all over Israel. It was a beautiful evening of friendship and fellowship in the wonderful garden of the ambassador’s residence, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. One could almost imagine that we could live in peace in the Middle East!
Ambassador Shapiro greeted all the participants warmly and reminded us of the importance of fasting in our religious traditions when he said,
It gives us an opportunity to ask for forgiveness and to seek understanding. It gives us the opportunity to step into the shoes of those less fortunate than us, and, drawing inspiration from that experience, to practice acts of charity and goodwill.
Ramadan is an occasion for all of this and more for Muslims in Israel and throughout the world. What is particularly amazing is that not only are Muslims free to do this in the Jewish state of Israel, but they also are engaged in many programs of coexistence with their fellow Jewish citizens in Israel.
One such program is a new program that I began a few months ago with my Muslim counterpart, Kadi Iyad Zahalka, the Muslim judge of the Shariya Court of the State of Israel ( I have written about him previously on this blog). We have brought together a group of Jewish and Muslim religious, cultural, educational, academic and community leaders to learn together, to discuss issues of common concern and to take action together. The name of our new group is Kodesh, a Hebrew acronym, which means “Holy”, and which stands for “Religious Voices for Peace”. We will be bringing a method of dialogue and a message of peaceful coexistence to our communities and to Israeli society in the months and years ahead.
Speaking of the possibilities of peace, Ambassador Shapiro, in his greetings to us, reminded us of the renewed Peace Process in our region:
This year, the holy month of Ramadan coincides with a critical and hopeful juncture in the search for peace in this land. Just last week, Secretary of State Kerry was able to announce that an agreement had been reached on a basis to resume direct negotiations on permanent status between the Palestinian and the Israeli leadership. We commend Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for their courageous leadership in agreeing to come together once again to negotiate, and to try to finally achieve the goal of two states for two peoples living side by side in peace, security, and cooperation. Tonight’s gathering of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Druze demonstrates that people of good will from diverse religions and cultures can indeed celebrate and, ultimately, live together in harmony.
Many people in Israel and Palestine and abroad are apathetic about the renewed Peace Process. They are skeptical that it will bring real results. Indeed , a poll in Israel in recent days revealed that 70% of the Jewish population in Israel feel that a peace agreement is not possible (at the time that 55% of the Jews in Israel said that they would vote for a peace agreement, if one is reached!).
I, for one, disagree. Not only is it possible, but it is imperative. The status quo is not sustainable for the long run. We need to resist despair and pessimism and continue to believe that peace is possible. Despite all the obstacles, we need to continue to work for peace.
This reminds me of a good anecdote.
Last March, I spoke at the Rector’s Forum at Saint Bart’s Church in Manhattan. One of the attendees to my lecture was Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998. After I finished my presentation, he rose not to ask a question but to make a very important comment. He told the audience that just five days before the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, a poll revealed that 84% of Protestants and the same number for Catholics said it would never happen! And yet it did happen, despite all the odds against it.
Ramadan is a time of soul-searching for Muslims. Soon, we Jews will begin our own process of soul-searching as we approach the month of Elul and then the Ten Days of Awe– the “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur– when we too will fast as part of our annual process of self-correction or teshuvah (repentance) . As we do this, let us be mindful of the blessings and benefits of peace. Rather than apathy and pessimism now, we all need to not only pray for peace, but to cheer Senator Kerry on at this crucial time and wish him –- and all partners to the discussion — much success!