Is there a common message regarding human dignity and respect for human life among the three Abrahamic Religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Most Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel do not know how to answer this question, since most of them have never studied very much in school or anywhere else about the other’s religion!

Recently, I attended the Biennial Convention of Reform Judaism in Israel, which took place May 27-28. At this conference, a special program was offered for participants.  As part of the Abrahamic Teams project of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, a department of Rabbis for Human Rights,  a panel of a rabbi, kadi (Muslim judge) and Christian minister shared their views on Human Dignity and Respect for Human Life. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman — rabbi of Congregation Kol HaNeshama and past co-chairperson of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, Kadi Dr. Iyad Zahalka — the Head of the Shariya Courts of the State of Israel and a professor of Islamic thought at Tel Aviv University and the College of Emek Yizrael, and Canon Father Hosam Naoum — the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem all shared their views eloquently and effectively with an audience that listened attentively and intensely to this rare kind of discussion. The panel discussion was moderated by Noa Mazor, incoming director of ICCI.

Why is this kind of presentation so rare in Israel?

  • Because the media focus only on the extremist elements in our religions, especially the radical Islamists and the extremist Jews. If one only read the newspapers or watched television, one would have no idea that moderate religious leaders exist and are probably in the majority.
  • Since our young people — and their teachers and parents — are not taught about other religions in schools, they rely on the media and the internet for almost everything they know about each other’s religion.
  • The moderate religious leaders don’t seem to speak out very much. Either they are afraid (some of them for good reason) or they are just not media-oriented. As long as they remain silent, however, the extremist views of religion will continue to prevail.

In their presentations at this panel discussion, the three speakers were not afraid to speak up and were very clear in making their views known to the audience.

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who comes from ten generations of rabbis, told the audience that he learned about pluralism and other religions at home. The synagogue that he founded in Jerusalem 31-years ago, Congregation Kol HaNeshama, is famous for welcoming people of all faiths to its worship services. For him, interreligious dialogue comes natural, as a matter of who he is as a Jewish human being and a rabbi. It is not an accident, that during the past 20 years, he has been one of the most active rabbis in Israel in interreligious dialogue.

Canon Fr. Hosam Naoum, of St. George’s Anglican Church in Jerusalem, agreed completely with Rabbi Weiman-Kelman on this point. Interreligious dialogue is integral to who he is as a priest and as a person. It is no surprise, therefore, that Fr. Naoum has been greatly involved in dialogue programs with me for the past 10 years, and I am always grateful for his cooperation.

Kadi Dr. Iyad Zahalka, who attended Jewish-Arab Coexistence programs organized by the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel when he was in high school, talked about how he is a pragmatic modern orthodox Muslim, open to the contemporary world. He argued persuasively that there is much disinformation about Islam in our culture, especially via the media and the internet. In contrast to what people are usually taught, Islam is a religion that values human dignity and respect for human life. Moreover, he told the group that it is a mitzvah (an obligation) for him to participate in dialogue with people from other religions. “We have a lot in common with Jews,” he said. “And we should cooperate together for the benefit of all of us.”

People who attended this panel discussion expressed the feeling that they were inspired by it. For many of them, it was the first time that they had heard these kinds of ideas presented publicly in Israel. They will now become multipliers by sharing this news with their families and friends on Facebook and twitter, and communicating these ideas in their congregations all over Israel. As far as myself goes, I will continue moderating panels like this in the months and years ahead, to get this important message out to the people of Israel, in increasing numbers from year to year.

The Abrahamic Teams project of ICCI, the Interreligious Department of Rabbis for Human Rights, is sponsored by the Allianz Cultural Foundation and the Robert Bosch Foundation. The aim of the project is to reduce tensions and conflicts between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Mediterranean countries, such as Israel, Egypt, and others.