Barry Shrage
Barry Shrage

The Abraham Accords and the New Israeli Government: Abraham’s Promise of Reconciliation and Peace Becomes Real

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the liturgy includes the story of the expulsion of Abraham’s son Ishmael, father of the Arab nation and Hagar his mother perhaps foreshadowing an eternal battle between Arabs and Jews.

“Sarah said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his…

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.”

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba…

When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears…

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink…

God was with the boy and he grew up…”

This seems like a very strange Torah reading for
Rosh Hashanah when in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks words:
“God judges the whole world and decides on their fate for the coming year. It is as if the world has become a court- room. God Himself is the Judge. The shofar announces that the court is in session, and we are on trial, giving an account of our lives.”

Each time the shofar blows we respond:

Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgement…whether as children of God or as
servants. If as children be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children.…until You be gracious to us and release our verdict clear and pure as light, O Awesome and Holy One.

We ask God to judge us as a father judges his children with love and compassion so the story of Hagar and Ishmael seems like a poor choice of a story to excite the compassion of God for his people or for us.

But there may be more to it than what’s on the surface and like Hagar we need to open our eyes to see the “well of water”…the possibility of reconciliation.

Because in the end there is reconciliation:

“And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.
His sons Yitzchak and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah”

So perhaps we’re being told that at the end reconciliation is possible between Yitzhak and Ishmael and between the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael….in the name of their father Abraham….

Back in 2002 at the height of the second intifada a time of terrible bloodshed and religious violence I began hearing about improbable meetings between leaders of many faiths aimed at using their religious and moral authority to work for an end to violence and the resumption of the peace process.

Leading the effort along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Mufti of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo were Rabbi Michael Melchior, then Israeli deputy foreign minister and Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish a founder of Israel’s Islamic movement. Sheikh Abdullah had a spiritual awakening in the 1980s and surprised his followers by advocating for better relations between Arabs and Israelis.

As a believing Jew violence in the name of God….killing innocents…or horribly shedding the blood of Abrahams grandchildren over his grave…was impossible to understand…and so this process fascinated me ….I contacted Rabbi Melchior and was impressed with the result of his work which came to be called the first Alexandria Declaration of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land.

Reading it was like a fulfillment of our best hopes and dreams:

“In the name of God who is Almighty, Merciful and Compassionate, we, who have gathered as religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, pray for true peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and declare our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and dignity.

According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name, and defames religion in the world. The violence in the Holy Land is an evil which must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbors, respecting the integrity of each other’s historical and religious inheritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred, and the misrepresentation of the other.”

Exciting and beautiful and important but like so many beautiful dreams it faded and seemed to disappear in the face of continued and intensifying violence and bloodshed.
While Sheikh Abdullah led part of the Islamic movement toward peace others including Hamas had other ideas. This is the way dreams of reconciliation fade and die in the face of reality.

Or do they?

According to a recent story in The NY Times:

“Sheikh Abdullah died in 2017, four years before the Islamist party he helped found, Ra’am, became the first independent Arab faction to join an Israeli government coalition. But the sheikh’s… unlikely friendship with Rabbi Melchior, as well as their below-the- radar attempts at religious-based peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, were all part of an unexpected, decades-long back story of an effort by some Islamists to find a place within Israeli politics.

For Mansour Abbas the Sheikh’s death was one of several pivotal way stations in his journey to lead Raam into Israel’s government.
“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral… it hit me — that I need to be committed to Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior’s joint approach,” said Mr. Abbas, who became Raam’s leader in 2018 and entered Parliament two years ago.”

In June 2021 Mansour Abbas agreed to help create Israel’s new Bennett- Lapid government, perhaps the broadest and most inclusive in Israel’s history. It was the first, thanks to Mansour Abbas to include an independent Arab Israeli party as an official member of the governing coalition.

At the time I knew nothing of Abbas’ background and so like most everyone else I thought Abbas’ entry into the government was an act of political pragmatism. I assumed Abbas had reasoned that though he was no Zionist neither were the Haredi parties who bartered their political support for financial support for their followers and money for their yeshivot. So why wouldn’t he join to better the lives of Israel’s Arab population by working for more equitable treatment for Arab villages and towns and far greater police support for the fight against crime in the Arab community.

And that’s why the story of Rabbi Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah and Mansour Abbas is so important especially as part of the larger story embodied in the Abraham Accords. I was born in 1947 and as long as I’ve been alive hostility and war between Arabs and Jews has been a fact of life, a horrible reality.

But in September 2020 peace treaties were signed between Israel the UAE and Bahrain and normalization agreements soon followed with Sudan and Morocco. So the inclusion of Ra’am in the new government seems like an important expansion of the Abraham accords, a step toward religious peace within as well as outside the Holy Land. So there may be something more going on here. Something spiritual and important and courageous and personal.

Last week Time magazine announced its list of “100 Most Influential People.” The article on Bennett read:
“In the end, it all comes down to courage….Something dramatic needed to change, but more importantly, someone courageous needed to make that change. Bennett threw himself into a political firestorm in order to forge previously unimaginable ties between Israel’s left and right, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular and formed one of the most diverse governments in Israel’s history.”
The articles about everyone on the list were written by someone with a special connection to them. Bennett’s was written by Ra’am head Mansour Abbas!

Twenty years ago when the Alexandria Declaration faded from memory it was impossible to guess that the dream of peace would re-emerge within a fragile but hopeful new Israeli government.

The new government may not last and the dream of religious peace may again fade under the religious fanaticism that’s really only greed and lust for power masquerading as religious zeal.

But maybe it will be God’s will that this fragile coalition and the new spirit created by the Abraham accord may finally heal the pain of a mother crying for the life of her son in the wilderness.

Perhaps that was the plan all along…For the children of Ishmael to create another great monotheistic faith and after centuries of conflict find peace in the land of Israel in the spirit of the prophets and in the words of our Torah:

“And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah”

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP
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