I have just returned from a 5-day event, The Parliament of the World’s Religions meeting in Salt Lake City. The 10,000 participants reflected the diversity of religions practiced around the globe, from tribal religions and paganism to the Abrahamic faiths and Eastern religions. The atmosphere was festive, the tone respectful and the scene colourful. I consider myself privileged to have been there. Had I not been present on Shabbat, I would have felt exhilarated, not betrayed.
Israel was represented by delegates from the Jerusalem Peacemakers group, Interfaith Encounters Association, the Abrahamic Reunion, the Interfaith Centre for Sustainable Development and my own organization, the Elijah Interfaith Institute.
There was much interest in Elijah’s banner proclaiming HOPE for Jerusalem. For us, HOPE is an acronym for House of Prayer and Education, our organisation’s vision of an interfaith centre to be built here. The phrase “Bringing HOPE to Jerusalem” was a strong conversation starter, with many people stopping to ask what we planned and to say “amen.” A few people did challenge us on discovering that three of us from the organization were Jewish Israelis. In at least one case, (a Frenchman), there was hostility to the “occupier state” and more than one person blamed the “Zionists” for the current violence. However, the vast majority were keen to hear a positive message and encouraged when hearing about our activity. This was particularly true of young American Muslims, who were generally open to dialogue and happy to meet people who aspired to peaceful coexistence in the city holy to all of us.
Jews were represented at the Parliament by many Rabbis, teachers, community leaders and interfaith activists from across America and beyond. Reflecting the current reality of American Jewish life, most of the Jewish representatives were kippot-wearing non-Orthodox rabbis, 75% of them women. Female Rabbis led both the Reconstructionist Friday night Prayers and the “conventional” service; they organized the Shabbat dinner we shared and took the majority of Jewish places on panels and in plenaries.
On Shabbat morning, after praying, I decided to go to listen to one of my intellectual heroes, Karen Armstrong. I had not planned to attend sessions on Shabbat but when a Christian-Buddhist friend suggested that I accompany her, I asked myself “Why not?” It was a shame that I did not look at the program. I would not have gone to hear a Jewish speaker on Shabbat and it transpired that this appearance of Armstrong was on a panel with a Muslim scholar and a Jew – an American Reform Rabbi. The topic was “Dealing with Texts of Terror in our Traditions” and the idea was that each of the panelists identify texts in their traditions that could be read as encouraging violence, explain how adherents read them today and suggest ways that our religions can reject violence and still remain authentic and loyal to our sacred texts.
The Muslim scholar spoke first. He was a bit boring and predictable but he made his points well: the recent tendency to read the advocacy of Jihad as encouraging violence and attacks on non-Muslims does not reflect the tradition of Muslim legal opinion since the founding years of the Muslim religion.
Then spoke the Jewish panelist. She began by saying that the topic was particularly pertinent as Jerusalem was “in flames”. She then stated unequivocally that the source of the misery was that Israeli soldiers are shooting to kill. A few minutes later, in order to bolster her reputation as a lover of peace, she described how she had sat with the families of the victims of Baruch Goldstein’s massacre. Who in the room remembered or even knew Baruch Goldstein? The Google came out. Whatever else she said in her presentation, the damage had been done. Hundreds of people in the auditorium now understood that peace-loving Jews don’t like was Israel does and they had permission to blame Israel, too. After all, Israeli soldiers shoot to kill. My Buddhist friend was not sure if she was not correct in that regard.
The betrayal was total. No-one had singled out Israel at the Parliament until that moment. That it was someone representing the Jewish people was horrifying. What is worse is that all her diatribe did not contribute to her analysis of the topic at hand. It was a gratuitous attack.
Karen Armstrong was wise enough to make no reference at all to what the previous speaker said. I hope that after hearing a true scholar, the audience remembered little of what preceded it. However, I suspect that some real damage had been done.
The next morning, we were able to present our vision of HOPE in a session. Those who attended were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and many were determined to help us. They were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and even Muslims present – and a handful of Jews. There was warmth – perhaps even love. It was a great contrast to the previous morning but we had many fewer people in attendance.
I used to enjoy travelling but after this trip, I was so happy to be home, in Jerusalem. And this afternoon, I was overwhelmed by the love for peace and for each other we experienced at the inaugural Praying Together in Jerusalem event. A large group of Christians of various denominations, a small group of Jews and a single Muslim representative prayed our evening prayers side-by-side at the Jaffa Gate. Tourists, pilgrims and other passers-by wished us well. There were no threats or signs of hostility.
I felt gratitude towards everyone who came. For some people, it had required courage. Mutual respect reigned above all. It was truly a moment of Hope. For me, it was a ‘tikkun’, a repair, for the hostility and betrayal I felt from a fellow Jew in Salt Lake City.