For many of us, the past two weeks, since Israel’s raid on the Gaza flotilla, have been intense and painful. A war of conflicting videos and first-person accounts and many rounds of hurtful rhetoric have been exchanged. Now is the time for more sober reflection.
Having scoured the reports exhaustively, I found Ethan Bronner’s piece in the New York Times (June 4th) to be the definitive account of the tragic incident. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/world/europe/05reconstruct.html?scp=8&sq=Ethan%20Bronner&st=cse. Israeli naval commandos boarded the six boats in the flotilla (followed by the Irish boat later that week). I am convinced that the activists on all seven boats were angered by Israel’s decision to defend its blockade of Gaza with this military operation. Only on one boat, the Mavi Marmara, did some of the activists respond to the Israeli commandos with physical violence. In the conflict that ensued, tragically, nine people were killed.
During these days of intense reflection, I have had many conversations with Christian and Muslim friends and colleagues, in which we have shared deeply painful feelings. While this issue tends to generate heated, angry denunciations, especially in highly emotional times, I have taken part in many encounters in which compassionate and respectful listening prevailed. I have listened to people say angry and critical things about Israel. I have spoken my own truths - about my deep love for Israel and my conviction that Israel must surely defend herself against attacks on her citizens. I have also shared my own view that Israel cannot thrive if she continues to follow the misguided leadership of her current government.
The conversations among us have included areas of agreement and of difference. Strikingly, these interfaith conversations have only strengthened the sense of connection in relationships carefully built over years of work together. Our commitment to our relationships and to one another is unshaken, and our dedication to our shared work of inter-religious relationship-building is unchanged or even deepened.
Throughout these conversations, one sacred text has repeatedly come to my mind and heart.
“One who saves a life, it is as if he or she has saved the entire world. One who destroys a life, it is as if he or she has destroyed the entire world.”
This exalted religious text is known to Jews from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and to Muslims from the Kor’an 5:32. The religious value is the same: every human life is equally and infinitely valuable. The saving of human life is a supreme religious principle and the destruction of life an immeasurable tragedy.
For me, this text illuminates recent events in two ways. First, along with my deep love for Israel and visceral understanding of how threatened she feels, I am nonetheless grieved and horrified that nine people had to die on the Mavi Marmara. Secondly, while I know better than most people the many complexities of the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict, I feel more convinced than ever that there is no military solution to this conflict.
I can only pray that this incident will awaken the world to press the parties to quickly reach a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, allowing the State of Israel and the State of Palestine to live side by side in security, dignity, and self-determination. Only with such a comprehensive resolution will the people of Gaza be supported in restoring their economy and rebuilding their homes and institutions after years of war and siege. Only with such a comprehensive settlement can Israel’s citizens finally be free of war and fear, and can Israel fulfill the dream of a homeland for the Jewish people, a state both Jewish and democratic, with full equality and justice for all of its citizens.
I take great comfort in the powerful reminder of the passion with which many of my colleagues in the Interfaith Conversations Project of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning and in SPIN – the St. Paul Interfaith Network, devote themselves to the building of positive inter-religious relationships. Coming out of this latest tragedy, I know that we will continue to labor to create relationship where there had previously been distance, suspicion, or fear. Our work will offer to many people the precious opportunity to know one another across boundaries of religion, culture and nationality, moving from stereotyped and generalized views of “the other” to engaged personal relationship. Our understanding of our own lives will continue to be broadened and complexified, as we come to see the world through the eyes of our new friends as well as through the lens of our own familiar perspectives. In these relationships, we will continue to practice the skills of compassionate listening and the sacred art of peace-making.
In the course of my years of interfaith work, I have come to love another sacred text, a section from the Kor’an beloved by interfaith activists.
“Oh humankind, we created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another, not that you may hate one another. Surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Kor’an 49:13)
In the wake of last week’s terrible tragedy, my colleagues and I will rededicate our efforts to the sacred work of inter-religious learning and relationship-building, in the spirit of this timeless text. May the God we all worship guide our way.