According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, history answers the question: what happened? While memory answers the question: who am I? To know who we are is in large part to know, and to remember, of which stories we are a part (1).
One story that I am part of is the story of Jewish suffering. My maternal grandfather came from Vrbow in Slovakia that had a thriving Jewish community. My wife and I visited there in 2008, and saw the ruins of the big terracotta synagogue on the main street of the town. The shell of the building remains but the people are completely gone, either murdered by the Nazis or escaped. My grandfather never spoke about what happened there.
Instead, my grandfather told us at the Passover Seder how he and a group of Yeshiva students danced on a shaky boat as they departed from Vladivostok during the war. In his haunting, deep voice my grandfather would sing the same song at the Seder that the students danced to on the sea. The song speaks of the Jews being persecuted in every generation, with our enemies seeking to annihilate us, and God saving us.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that Jews, in the aftermath of the devastation of Jerusalem and its people, would cry out to travellers when passing them on the road: “Look, and see, is there any pain like my pain?!” (2) I know that our Jewish historical pain is great and unique. Yet, if I want to understand and connect with others, I need to learn about their pain and their stories.
In 2001, I started on my interfaith journey, hearing the deep spiritual feelings, everyday anecdotes, religious experiences and personal stories of Muslims, Christians, and Aboriginal people (click here for one example) https://youtu.be/yyXCvOgx3mw. These interactions changed me and my identity. I now identify as both deeply Jewish and as a human being with deep connections to people of other faiths.
Hugh Mckay wrote that we are the authors of each other’s stories through the influence we have on each other, and the way we respond to each other (3). He says that these stories answer another question, where do I belong? My answer is with my Jewish community, as well as with my interfaith intercultural community with people like Mohamed, Calisha and many others Australian Muslims, Arabs and people of many backgrounds.
My closeness and my work with Muslims has not all been smooth sailing. I sometimes had doubts about what I was doing. I was accused of siding with the enemy. On the evening of 15 December 2014, Sydney held its breath during the Lindt Cafe siege. My colleague, Lebanese Australian Shaykh Wesam Charkawi was praying for the victims on the steps of Lakemba Mosque. I stood beside him and recited psalm 23 in Hebrew. The next day we learned that two hostages were killed. That afternoon, I got an angry phone call from a stranger accusing me of being a traitor to the Jewish people.
Negotiating questions of loyalty is tricky against a background of conflict. Some Arabic Australian teenage boys struggled with their learning about the Holocaust. I talked to the boys at their school. I was joined by three other men. The Sheikh, Wesam Charkawi, Peter Lazar, a Holocaust survivor and father Shenouda Mansour who is a Coptic Orthodox. The priest told the students that the Sheikh and I were his dear brothers. One of the students from that group asked Father Shenouda, “aren’t you a traitor to your religion by being friends with the Sheik and Rabbi Zalman?” Sheikh Wesam explained to the students that as Muslims, it was entirely appropriate to learn about the suffering of others, including the Holocaust. The survivor, Peter Lazar, then told his story.
One of the principles of countering prejudice through conditions for the success of intergroup contact (4) is to have the sanction or permission from authority figures on both sides of a divide for interacting with people on the ‘other side.’ At Together For Humanity we always have Muslim, Christian and Jewish facilitators when we bring groups of students together. In this way it is clear that this contact is Kosher. Involvement by the principals and teachers is also very important.
I sought this kind of sanction in writing from a Palestinian Sheikh, Ahmad Abu Ghazaleh. I asked him to write a rationale for working in interfaith from the perspective of Islamic sacred texts. He wrote a beautiful one page article that ended with a verse from the Quran that essentially said: “Allah does not forbid you to deal righteously and kindly with those who have not fought against you on account of religion and did not drive you out of your homes. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly”. (5)
I wasn’t too happy with this verse. I told the Sheik that the verse says Muslims should not be belligerent toward those who have not harmed you or stolen your lands. Which means that if one accepts the Palestinian narrative about Israel, then Jews are fair game. He is one of the most gentle and delightful people I know and he said in his gentle voice, Zalman, I can only give you what is written in the book, I can’t make it up.
This Sheikh did an enormous amount of work for Together For Humanity, talking to thousands of children and teachers alongside a Jewish colleague, Ronit Baras. I count him among the people I am most grateful for having become part of my life. I needed to accept him as he is, and he has done the same for me.
1) Sacks, J. (2019) Covenant and Conversation, Deuteronomy, Maggid, Jerusalem, p. 223
2) Lamentations, 1:12
3) Mckay, H. (2014), The art of belonging, Sydney, p. 22
4) Alport, G, (1954) the Contact Hypothesis.
5) The Quran, al-Mumtahanah 60:8.