Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: ‘We Eat Hatred Here’

Daan Bauwens interviews RABBI MEIR AZARI, director of the Beit Daniel congregation

TEL AVIV, May 6 2009 (IPS) - Beit Daniel is an Israeli pluralist religious organisation promoting coexistence between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. Executive director Rabbi Meir Azari speaks here to IPS about the war in Gaza, the importance of compromise, and the moral dilemmas of Israel.

Rabbi Meir Azari Credit: Beit Daniel

Rabbi Meir Azari Credit: Beit Daniel

Rabbi Meir Azari is the face of progressive Judaism in Israel, promoting not only the Jewish faith, but the importance of coexistence within Israel. As director of the Beit Daniel synagogue, he seeks to disperse this message through educational activities. On any given week, up to 2,500 children, senior citizens, students and others visit the community centre. Thirty schools and 15 Tel Aviv pre-schools collaborate with the education department of Beit Daniel.

The activities confront Jewish people with Muslims and vice-versa. Besides being director of Beit Daniel, Rabbi Meir Azari is governor of the Jewish Agency that looks after Jewish immigration into the Holy Land.

IPS: What is your moral perspective on the recent war in Gaza? Meir Azari: From a moral point of view, being in places like Gaza is a mistake. At the same time we have to realise that we’re not the only player in this game: there are two players. What happened is the fault of both sides, caused by religious fanatics from both sides. That’s the sad story of this region: instead of rabbis and kaddis (Islamic religious leaders) raising the voice of peace, we hear rabbis and kaddis raising fanatic ideas that cause disasters.

But in no way we can only blame the Israeli side. The need to retaliate is something inherent to us as humans. I feel bad about it, but at the same time I understand it. My message is: religious people from both sides have to raise their voices for reconciliation. For the moment, that isn’t happening.

IPS: According to what you just said, rather on the contrary: in the Holy Land, religion is spreading hatred. MA: Hatred is what we eat in this region, it is part of our daily life. Religious people in Gaza called up to the killing of Jews, they supported those who were throwing rockets on Sderot. So-called religious men called for the killing of civilians. True religious people have the obligation to bring peace back to the region. At the same time, politicians have to understand that they consider the issue from a religious point of view, instead of only talking to other politicians, the army or even negotiating with terrorists.

Nobody ever raised the question from a religious point of view, while religion is playing the major role in the conflict, I’m sad to say.

IPS: If we focus on the Jewish side, do you see religious leaders inflaming hatred against the Palestinians? MA: I don’t think you can talk about hatred on the Israeli side. There’s just the demand to complete the vision of the large Israel, the full Israel, the Israel of the fathers. You cannot call that hate.

IPS: The ‘full’ Israel necessarily includes occupying all Palestinian territory. MA: You are right. There are still people in the Jewish world that don’t understand the need to compromise. And they don’t want to, from a religious point of view. But to live here, compromise will be the name of the game. It is a religious concept. I am not an orthodox rabbi, which means that I compromise in my life. Extremists from the Jewish and Muslim side are now controlling the region and taking all the decisions. That is wrong.

An example: Jewish people claim Nablus. I can understand why; Nablus is a city that used to be a part of old Israel, of David and Solomon’s kingdom. Today it’s a city that is only inhabited by Muslims. Jews cannot even enter, not even to pray at the grave of Joseph. In this case, the Palestinian claim is to have territories that are Jew-free. Jew-free, a concept nobody in the West can possibly comprehend. Can you imagine Italians preventing Protestants from working in Rome because it’s a Catholic city?

IPS: What is to your view the core issue preventing Jews and Muslims from living together? MA: It is the bad blood that exists here. It’s the history. It is the fact that today, extreme people control the key to the conflict. These three things prevent people from coming to a compromise.

IPS: Regarding religion: on a humanistic level, Judaism is one of the most inspiring ethical systems ever thought of. It includes the necessity to keep communicating, to always keep talking and try to understand the other. To avoid the belief one of both is right and the other is wrong. Isn’t Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians contrary to that? Isn’t the connection between Israel and Judaism lost? MA: Absolutely not. I am absolutely sure the Israeli army was acting according to high moral and ethical standards in the recent war. The fact is, Judaism cannot turn itself from life, from living. If you ask me if Judaism is disconnected from Israel, I tell you: Judaism cannot disconnect itself from the right to live. We want to live and we want to live in peace.

We have an enormous problem in this region. The world press is usually reporting about what’s happening in Gaza, about what’s happening in the territories. Now take a look at what happened in Somalia, Sudan or other regions that have problems with radical Islamic movements. This is an issue Europeans ignore. Why did terrorists want to blow up Ikea in the Netherlands? Today we are facing a war against extreme Islam and unfortunately Israel is trapped in this region.

If we consider the conflict itself, today we are not talking about Palestinians any more, we are talking about extreme Islamic groups. This is not the conflict with (former Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat or Abu Mazen (another name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) any more. Those leaders lost their importance. We are talking about Hizbullah and Hamas. A different story.

Israelis are not stupid: we understand that we are dealing with this issue. These groups were not born here, out of the Palestinian question. These groups were born in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, from where this hatred was exported. Ten years ago, we couldn’t possibly imagine today this would be the case. And it has gotten much worse in a short amount of time. This is something Israelis feel so badly: they feel this is a conflict that does not have any solution. Because when you deal with extremely religious people, there is no compromise possible.

So the voices in Israel, to be stronger and tougher, are getting louder because people don’t see any solution. Is a bomb in a bus the solution to a dispute? A bomb in a restaurant? Killing people in the cinema? Flying into the World Trade Centre? In Madrid, in Rome, in London? This is mere craziness. We find ourselves fighting them and doing things we really do not want to do.

And on top of that, I will still say we have to leave the territories. That is something we have to do, as a compromise. But to compromise with whom? This is a different question. Who are we actually really dealing with?

IPS: In the confusion you have sketched, what is the strategy to peace? MA: Spending a lot of money and effort on the coalition to peace. Tons of money in the education of religious people towards peace. Teach them how to solve conflicts, how to respect each other. Without respect, peace is never going to be there. I am calling to the world leaders, the European Union, America, to spend money, not just to rebuild what will be destroyed next week, but to spend money on the education of religious people, raise the sane voice that is calling for peace, support groups that are calling for peace, compromise, coexistence, living together.

There are only a few cities in Israel where Jews and Muslims are still living together. They are the only places in the world where they are peacefully living together. Without the ability to live together in Jaffa, or in Akkor, or in Haifa, we will have a problem. I’m afraid the hatred is also entering these places. Once people would see Muslims and Jews cannot possibly live together, then we are talking about a real disaster.

Again, I don’t want to be heard in this interview as a person that does not understand the problem of Israel, namely the fact that Israel is under attack. This morning I had a meeting with a man from our community whose 13- year-old son was killed in a terrorist attack on a bus. This man is now debating himself if he’d support the deal between Israel and Hamas to release the captured soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 450 terrorists. Each one of them is a killer. And one of them is the killer of his son.

You have to understand the moral questions that we confront. Can you imagine Americans releasing one of the terrorists involved in the attack on the Twin Towers? Can you imagine the British releasing one of the perpetrators of the attacks in the London subways? It is absurd, but we have to compromise at the end. This is the moral question, and moral questions in this region are so tough, so complicated.

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