The circumstances of my birth and survival as a Jewish infant in the midst of World War II Amsterdam have forever determined my belief in the saving capacity of interfaith dialogue and activities in the face of destruction and hatred. The first lesson I learned in life, from a Gestapo leader who had entered our home to round us up, was that the gates allowing a man to return to compassion are never fully locked.
Watching me in the cradle he exclaimed “pity that this is a Jewish child,” and my father retorted with indomitable spirit, “he is lucky to be a Jewish child because whatever will happen to him, he will never grow up to be a son of murderers.” He shouted abuse but his eyes filled with tears and he left us to escape.
The second lesson of my survival was that in the end the forces of compassion will prevail. My “moetie,” my loving foster mother, was a pious, German born Catholic woman, already 47-years-old when she risked her life and the life of her family by taking this baby into the safety of her home.
Reunited with my parents who separately survived, I was brought up with respect and love for other spiritual traditions as the compassionate source of human survival.
Similarly, the injunction expressed in the heart of the Talmud and the Torah, “he who has saved one human life is as if he saved an entire world and he who has destroyed one human life has destroyed an entire world” remains a guiding principle in the various faith traditions.
Reservoir of hope
In the loving encounter of Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, there is an enormous reservoir of hope. I believe with a complete faith that living dialogue – when we truly meet God in the eye of the other – will move us beyond the tragic impasse and help us to create sustainable peace.
Children behind the shifting boundaries have all the right in the world to a peaceful, secure and fruitful future. The eyes of these children remain our focus. All that is required is a self-critical approach, to keep the door of compassion wide open and to build together a decent society in which no one is degraded.
During a memorable meeting of imams and rabbis that took place at the beginning of 2005 in Brussels, we pledged to strengthen ties and to help facilitate opportunities for common study and sharing of experiences. In short we pledged to make our kinship visible both inside our study centres, our synagogues and mosques, and outside in the streets of our sometimes violent cities; to walk hand in hand and oppose by example all forms of stigmatization, condemning violence and the taking of life, loudly and unequivocally.
Tolerance to respect to love
From my own experience I would like to modestly suggest some practices that have helped me, and might help others, in paving the road from tolerance to respect and from respect to love:
• Facilitate the exchange of students in our various institutes of training for rabbis, imams, priests and pastors. Living in each other’s learning institutes even for one semester would have a lasting positive influence.
• Hold an interdenominational, intercultural session at the beginning of the parliamentary year as we have been doing in the Netherlands for the last six years with the participation of representatives from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other spiritual traditions with the specific inclusion of humanism. Imagine similar meetings preceding the opening of the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament Assembly!
• Advance and uphold the Millennium Development goals to “free the entire human race from want." Our faith traditions consider this to be justice, not charity, yet we have been much too timid in espousing this cause. Together we should be taking the lead in helping to eliminate poverty and misery in our midst and far beyond. Directing our focus could be the holistic approach of the Earth Charter where the respect for ecological integrity, human rights, the pursuit of democracy and peace are seen as indivisible.
• Study texts together from our various traditions in a self-critical way; to move from the historical context of our past to the existential present, to fight bigotry in our midst and to unmask misinterpretations and misuse for what they are - the attempt to highjack religion and to destroy and foster hatred rather than love.
I see us, the people from the Abrahamic traditions, supported by other spiritual traditions, living together in two neighbouring states, Israel and Palestine, moved by the mystery and commandments, praying and acting in the pursuit of peace. I feel strongly that I am now holding the knob of the door that was once heroically held open for me. Do I open or close the door?
May the All Merciful/Harachaman, give us, mutually responsible people, the courage and the wisdom to keep the door towards Shalom/ Wholeness, wide open.
Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp is President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, European Region and co-recipient of the 2005 International Alliance Peace Award with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.
This article is part of a Common Ground News Service (LINK: www.commongroundnews.org) series on the role of religion in the Middle East conflict.