Keeping the Faith
Jewish people across the world are still reeling at the new reality unleashed by the massacre in Israel of October 7, perplexed by many of our neighbours and colleagues, their silence, awkwardness, hostility indifference or ignorance. Shocked to our core by the violent and virulent antisemitism across the world, the mindless and promiscuous vitriol towards Israel. And yet, perhaps curiously, grateful to those who have reached out to us with love, empathy and compassion.
I grew up at a time when there was optimism about the future and even a sense that antisemitism was on the retreat, but on October 7 all that changed. I appreciated the fear felt by my mother who had acid thrown at her by hostile teenagers in Lithuania, I understood my father’s deep angst and mistrust of a world that had allowed the murder of his family because they were Jews.
How did it come to this, we ask ourselves, that not even a century after the Holocaust? When did never again become yet again?
There has been a fundamental change and challenge to Jewish identity, a tectonic shift in Jewish consciousness, the repercussions and implications, which we have not even begun to unravel and understand.
One of the critical challenges is in the interfaith space. And particularly between Jews and Muslims.
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, Māoris and Aboriginal people. My interaction with Muslims began shortly after 9/11 when we became the first in Australia (as far as I know) to reach out to Muslims and to establish contact between Mt Scopus and King Khalid College Year 11 students.
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 their literature and liturgy. The Catholics continue to lead the way and to take practical steps. I am still moved by the visit of Pope John Paul 2 to the Kotel, Western Wall and his note placed in the wall :
“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.”
My faith in interfaith work with Muslims and some Christians has been deeply shaken by October 7. I have however been heartened by a conversation with a few brave Muslims and a good number of Christians who have reached out.
Despite the schadenfreude of some of our critics, we 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.
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. 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.
I don’t believe the time to have that conversation is while we are still engaged in a war, we are losing young soldiers daily, our people are being held captive and emotions are running so high. 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. I will draw hope from the Torah reading this week in which Isaac an Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham put aside their fractious past to bury their father. Despite their mutual recrimination they appear to look forward to building a future together.
I believe that there are enough courageous and genuine seekers of faith in each of our magnificent monotheistic movements to still make it a better world. Unlike optimism, hope is not passive but an active determination to make things better!