Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hi! this is a first crack at an op-ed about Seville (see links in previous post).

Can Imams and Rabbis Make Peace?

This story does not have a happy ending.

Last week I traveled to Seville, Spain to attend the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis. On the surface, the Congress, organized by the Hommes de Parole Foundation, followed a good plan. First, you bring together religious leaders, who ostensibly are committed to goodness and generosity. Then, they meet in Andalusia, the cultural center during the “golden age of Spain”, where arts and literature, along with warm Jewish-Muslim relationships, blossomed in the 9th – 12th century. You start the proceedings in areas of common concern, like family, technology and secularization, and set a positive tone for a more freewheeling conversation on the following day. After four days of proceedings, you hope these leaders can contribute something positive towards world peace, and towards peace in the Middle East, in particular.

With all of this careful planning, the conference began with high hopes. But, like the “best laid plans of mice and men”, it quickly started to unravel. A session on the first day about family was disrupted by sharp voices of discord. An Imam from France was angered by a proposal the night before to outlaw insults to religious figures such as Mohammed; he called this proposal ludicrous. Some of the Palestinian Imams issued harsh attacks on Israel, and insisted that the only thing worth talking about was the Arab- Israel conflict. The Israeli Rabbis became leery and apprehensive. At the same time, many of the Rabbis and Imams from other places around the world were wondering if their concerns, often local ones, would be drowned out by the politics of the Middle East. This conference now felt uncomfortable and chaotic, the religious version of a bad day at the U.N.

Yet precisely when chaos started to set in, a quiet transformation was taking place. Rabbis and Imams began to talk to each other. Over dinner and in the lobby, conversations about the theological, the political, and even the trivial began to sprout. At night, the musically minded sat together and shared Jewish and Muslim songs. I began a series of heartwarming conversations with Ibrahim, an Imam from London. We spoke of the challenges we both faced in our communities, of being religious minorities, of sustaining faith in secular times. While no comprehensive solution to the Mideast conflict was achieved, many of us genuinely connected on a personal level.

These informal interactions made the conference into a genuine success. It’s impossible to expect that a couple of clergymen will fashion a blueprint for peace in a half a week. But what we did do is open lines of communication. Perhaps someday, both communities will have more to say to each other. For now, communication is an excellent first step.

More importantly, the conference offered an alternate model of reality. The general expectation is that any gathering of Jews and Muslims will be much like a wrestling match: noisy, nasty, and ultimately embarrassing. Yet in Seville, we realized that Muslim-Jewish conflict need not be the norm. The vast majority of us sat together, ate together, and became friends with each other. Despite disagreements and disputes, we appreciated our time together. Unfortunately, the comfortable everyday socializing we had in Seville is far too uncommon elsewhere.

In one of my conversations with a Muslim diplomat, I related to him a Chassidic story. A King is told by his advisors that there is no healthy grain for the coming year. The only grain available is diseased and will temporarily turn the entire population insane. The King and his advisor realize they have no choice but to eat the tainted grain themselves, and then lose their own sanity. But they decide that both of them will make a mark on their foreheads. This way when they look at each other’s forehead, they will realize for a short moment they are both mad, that their imagined reality is completely distorted. I explained to him that conflicts between Muslims and Jews, like all conflicts, are a bit of temporary insanity. And for three days, the Rabbis and Imams were stopping for a moment to look at the mark on the forehead, and remembering what peace could be like.

The conference of Imams and Rabbis did not proceed as planned. But well executed plans are not the only barometer of success. Success can lurk under the surface, at coffee breaks and late night conversations. Sometimes, it is an achievement for Rabbis who have never met an Imam, and Imams who have never met a Rabbi, to sit and talk to each other amicably.

As I was switching planes in London, Ibrahim came over and gave me a big hug. No, we weren’t anywhere near the end, but at least we had made a first step. And I realized that this story doesn’t have a happy ending….yet. However, many of us were moving in the right direction, one conversation at a time. And if we keep talking, it just might have a happy ending eventually.

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