What are a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim Sharia court judge doing together on a speaking tour?
I like to think that our unlikely duo is doing something crucial for our communities and our world. Kadi Iyad Zahalka, judge of the Jerusalem Muslim Sharia court of the State of Israel, and I recently had the opportunity to be able to present our ideas about “the other peace process” to Jewish, Christian, Muslim and inter-religious audiences in several cities in the USA.
What is “The Other Peace Process?” It is different from the political one, which has been stalled for many years. The “Other Peace Process” is sometimes referred to as “the people-to-people track” or “the peace-building process” or “track two diplomacy.” It is the one that brings people from different religions and nationalities together to encounter each other in order to find ways to live in peaceful coexistence together.
For me, one of the highlights of this trip was when Zahalka and I addressed a congregation of Muslim worshippers at one of the largest mosques in the U.S. — the ADAMS Mosque (All Dulles Area Muslim Society) which gathers 5,000 worshippers every Friday in one main mosque and nine satellite centers. Zahalka is a Palestinian, Arab, Muslim citizen of Israel and a respected judge in our country. I am a Reform rabbi who moved to Israel 34 years ago. Together, we spoke at one of the ADAMS satellites which meets regularly in a Reform temple in Reston, Virginia, where we both felt that our message was well received and highly appreciated by those present.
Our message was one that is not usually heard outside of Israel –a message of moderation which emphasizes that peaceful living is possible and that if our politicians and diplomats reach a peace agreement, we the people can actually learn to live together. Indeed, I believe strongly that our conflict can come to an end, as other seemingly hopeless conflicts have ended in what might have seemed as intractable situations in the world, such as in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Bosnia.
When we returned from our speaking tour the previous year, the kadi told me that the first time he had stepped foot in a synagogue was during that trip in the USA. I suggested that he could visit a synagogue in Israel as well and arranged for him to be invited to ours in Jerusalem. He came to speak to a large crowd about the prophet Musa (Moses) in the Muslim tradition, on a Saturday morning last January.
Zahalka–who represents a new generation of serious, sophisticated and dynamic Muslim judges in Israel– presented a moderate and modern interpretation of Islam to our American audiences, as he and his colleagues live and practice it, that is largely unknown and unrecognized outside of Israel. He talked about how Islam in Israel is different from Islam in other places where extremists have captured the regimes and the headlines. He also explained the true meaning of sharia law, as he understands it. Sharia “is not about extremism or violence,” he said many times. “Rather, it is about humanistic values and how ordinary Muslims live their lives, much like halacha (Jewish law) is for the Jews.”
Moreover, at each public dialogue, I shared with diverse audiences stories about how I took religious leaders from Israel to countries of past conflict — to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Cyprus, where we learned what religious leaders did at the grassroots level during the conflict, and how much more they were able to do together when the conflict ended. It was an eye-opening experience for rabbis, imams, kadis and ministers from Israel, and it led to four years of substantive and sensitive dialogue back home, as well as action projects.
Politics can only produce the framework for peace. Community and religious leaders who are part of civil society can help people learn to live in peace together. Peaceful coexistence is our goal. Dialogue, education and action are the methods to achieve this.
Finally, in our lectures in the U.S., we presented the challenges as we look towards the future, and explained how dialogue and education will play a critical role in a sustainable peace process, based on genuine mutual understanding, in the years ahead. We told people about the new dialogue and action group that we have just formed, called “Kodesh” (Hebrew for “Holy) , which stands for “Religious Voices for Peace”, through which we have brought together 30 Muslims and Jews—religious leaders, community leaders, journalists, academics and educators—to engage each other and to act together in our communities.
I am gratified that our political leaders have returned to the political peace process. Now is the time for those of us in civil society to redouble our efforts in peace-building to sustain the possibility of coexistence now, and for the future.