The long road to restoring my faith in interfaith relations

The long road to restoring my faith in interfaith relations

First, Muslim leaders must show us exactly where they stand on Hamas and Hezbollah. Then we must be prepared to hear their pain over Israel’s occupation.

We Jewish people across the world are still reeling at the new reality unleashed by the massacres of October 7, perplexed by many of our neighbours and colleagues, their silence, awkwardness, indifference or ignorance.

How did it come to this, we ask ourselves, not even a century after the Holocaust. When did never again become yet again? Why do we feel so alone even though we have some very powerful allies?

There has been a tectonic shift in Jewish consciousness, the repercussions and implications, which we have not even begun to unravel and understand. A fundamental change to Jewish identity, our place and acceptance in the world, our existential reality.

One of the critical challenges is in the interfaith space. I have been engaged in interfaith work for most of my adult life. For the past 30 years, I have worked alongside Christians and Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, Buddhists and Mormons, Māori and Aboriginal people.

My interaction with Muslims began shortly after 9/11, when, together with my colleague and friend Frances Prince, we became the first in Australia (as far as I know) to reach out to Muslims and to establish contact between Year 11 students at Mt Scopus College and King Khalid College in Melbourne.

My time on the executive of the Council of Christians and Jews helped me recognise the capacity of the Catholic Church to change and to revoke thousands of years of anti-Jewish sentiment in its literature and liturgy.

The Catholics continue to lead the way and to take practical steps to implement the policy initiated by the Nostra Aetate document in 1965. I am still moved by the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Kotel, Western Wall, and the note he placed in the wall (and now stored at Yad Vashem):

“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations.

We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

I resigned from the JCMA because of its membership’s pusillanimous refusal to utter a single word about the antisemitic violence of Hamas.

My faith in interfaith work – especially with Muslims – was seriously challenged by the visit I helped lead to Jerusalem several years ago on behalf of the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Melbourne (JCMA). We were a small group and visited the sacred sites of each other’s faiths with a tour guide of the faith at each point.

I got worried when the Muslim guide at the Temple Mount suggested there had never been a Jewish Temple there. I got anxious at the heated exchange with the Muslim Imam at the Christian Palestinian centre and his angry dismissal of my viewpoint since I was just a white South African who didn’t really understand apartheid and its direct parallel with Israel.

I felt wounded at Yad Vashem when the Muslims accused us of exploiting the Holocaust to gain sympathy. We Jews in interfaith naïvely thought that after 2001, moderate Muslims, appalled by Al Qaeda, were beginning to acknowledge the reality of Israel, and that our common kinship and traditions united us more than divided us. Instead, this trip opened my eyes to the deeply entrenched ideological antisemitism in the Muslim Middle East.

The fact that Jews have had a presence in this land since the time of Abraham (which long preceded Islam), is just an annoying detail. And they promote a toxic antisemitism in their schools and madrasas, their media and their methodology.

My faith in interfaith work with Muslims and some Christians has been deeply shaken by October 7. I resigned from the JCMA after that day, because of its membership’s pusillanimous refusal to utter a single word about the antisemitic violence of Hamas.

As I wrote in my resignation letter: “I believed JCMA was a space of compassion and respect. I am deeply disillusioned by the inability of Muslim leadership in Victoria, and indeed Australia, to distinguish between the barbaric, antisemitic ideology of Hamas and the humane teachings of Islam, which I assumed they represent.

“I acknowledge there’s been a reference to Israeli victims in at least one statement, but in the absence of condemnation of Hamas’ genocidal ideology, that seems remarkably insipid.  

“Part of the disappointment is that we stood steadfastly with the Muslim community after the horrific Christchurch massacre and had hope that this had deepened our mutual and religious bonds. We would have expected you to stand by us at our time of need.”

General view of the prayer hall as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addresses the congregation during a visit to the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Friday, October 6, 2023. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING

The ostensible justification provided by JCMA – that it is apolitical and its policy is not to issue statements – shows a profound misunderstanding of how much the world and the Jewish condition has changed since October 7. The paradigm shift necessitates a policy shift.

This was not simply another conflict between Jews and Muslims, but a turning point in Jewish history and destiny. I commend the Jewish Community Council of Victoria for its principled stand to suspend interfaith relations for the time being. Natalie Gunn from the JCCV wrote:

“The active choice of … many interfaith groups to not unanimously condemn the terrorist attacks on the Jewish community of Israel on October 7 is disgraceful and highlights a deep breakdown of trust …”

Rabbi Ben Elton of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, who has been involved in interfaith work for years, said, “Our work has been put back very significantly by recent events and more importantly by the reaction to them, not just by Muslims but a section of the Christian community. It has been very disappointing and left us feeling exposed and unsupported.”

It feels like some Muslim organisations used us to show how tolerant and inclusive they were.

For my own part, I feel like I’ve been played and exploited for political reasons. It feels like some Muslim organisations used us to show how tolerant and inclusive they were.

I have heard from only one imam, a university chaplain, who sent me a pathetic message asking for my email address. His profile picture is one declaring:  Israel is a terrorist state. His posts include a comparison between the policies of the Nazis and of Israel.

Two Muslim women have, however, reached out with compassionate messages, and I have been heartened by a conversation with another brave Muslim, Mo Elrafihi, CEO of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, who had the courage to write in the Herald Sun:

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had always been a presence in my life, rearing its head periodically, and drawing me into its complexities … We must unequivocally condemn Hamas for its October 7 attack on innocent Israeli civilians and the taking of hostages. I support Israel and the right to defend herself against aggression. But it should not come at the cost of innocent Palestinian lives …”

Is there a place for continued interfaith work?

Despite the schadenfreude of some of our critics, Jewish interfaith leaders believe there must be a future. We will continue to live together in this country with its rich multifaith tapestry – and Melbourne is not Jerusalem.

Rabbi Shamir Caplan of Beit Aharon in Melbourne puts it this way: ‘’As difficult as it is to do, it is crucial for us to not allow our own loss and suffering to negate our appreciation for others’ loss and suffering … We need to be able to appreciate other people’s experience without ignoring that of our own people.

We will need to re-engage but it can’t be business as usual. And it can’t be the Jews as usual leading the way.

“If our relationships are real, then when we are disappointed by the other, we must not turn away, but rather turn toward the other and say, we expect more. And I do believe our relationships are real …”

While I respect and support the thoughtful and measured response of Rabbi Shamir, we need to recognise the seismic shock and shift in the Jewish soul. We will need to re-engage but it can’t be business as usual. And it can’t be the Jews as usual leading the way.

Our Muslim interlocutors will need to show us exactly where they stand on support for Hamas and Hezbollah and what their intentions are regarding anti-Jewish, not to mention anti-Israel, teachings in their schools and mosques.

And we need to be prepared to hear their pain about the suffering caused by Israel’s occupation and how it erodes their faith in us and our morality. We need to understand how they can’t accept that many Australian Jews are Zionists who still believe in a two-state possibility, who reject our own extremists and who despair at the cost of the occupation to our souls.

I don’t believe the time to have that conversation is while we are still engaged in a war. Now is not the time to resume interfaith events.

As Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar (Avot 4,23) said: “Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger, nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him …”

In the meantime, I will continue to despair and dream, to doubt and to hope, to labour and to act for the future of interfaith here, in Israel and across the world. To believe that there are enough courageous and genuine seekers of faith in each of our magnificent monotheistic movements.

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Photo: Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Friday, October 6 (AAP/Bianca De Marchi)