Galilee Diary: Interfaith

I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.
-Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State, Introduction

A significant part of the activity of our seminar center here at Shorashim, over the past two decades, as been in the area of fostering cooperation and mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs. The Galilee Circus, our bilingual website, our encounter program that brings together Jewish and Arab teens – all of these seek to ameliorate the fears and antagonism that stand in the way of Israel being a strong and cohesive democracy. Every once in a while, we host a visiting interfaith mission from abroad, who are interested to learn about the situation in Israel, and to understand how their vision of interfaith study and dialogue can perhaps help us here. As I prepared to address such a group recently, I had a sort of realization, and finally understood why I have always felt uncomfortable trying to put my work here into the framework of “interfaith understanding.”

It seems to me that the interfaith dialogue model – in which the participants are all, let’s say, Americans, of different faith traditions – Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Moslem etc. – assumes a common denominator of identity: You can be a good American (or Canadian), equal to all others – regardless of the faith tradition you have inherited or adopted. The participants in such dialogue groups have important shared beliefs, assumptions, and loyalties, and they generally speak the same language. They differ in religion, and can use their shared culture and national identity as a scaffolding on which to stand together while they struggle to understand and find some truth in each others’ religious doctrines and worldviews.

Here, while there are important and impressive interfaith dialogue projects, primarily for clergy, in general the encounters between people of different faith traditions are very different in their assumptions and goals. While it is true, for example, that our youth circus comprises Jewish and Muslim participants, they don’t see themselves as participating in an interfaith activity; I think the reason for this is that the model of a common national identity standing beneath religious pluralism is not operative here. These kids speak different languages, attend different schools, live in separate communities, nurture different historic narratives; they have in common their Israeli citizenship, but for many of the Arabs, at least, this doesn’t have a lot of emotional or ideological content. For most of the Jews in Israel, and for many of the Arabs, religion is not how they define themselves. Arab-Jewish encounter is not much different if the Arabs happen to be Muslim, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Druze. The encounter is not consciously an interfaith one.

When Theodore Herzl had his epiphany at the Dreyfus trial, he began to champion the view that religious reconciliation no longer offered hope, because the operating assumptions of European identity were national, not religious. Hence, Zionism can be seen as a rebellion against Judaism, a redefinition of Jewish identity from religious to national – in which case, interfaith dialogue becomes beside the point, and the solution to the Jewish problem lies in obtaining for the Jews a national state like that of the French or Hungarians or Latvians. Not everyone, of course, accepted this analysis, and we’ve spent the past century and more debating the relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish nationality, with no consensus on the horizon. What seems clear, meanwhile, is that the “One God” idea of American religious pluralism stands on a foundation of One Nation that, for better or for worse, we have not attained in Israel.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

5 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Interfaith”

  1. avatar

    Yes, it is a question of nationhood. But that question in turn leads to the more fundamental question of what kind of nation does Israel aspire to be? A Jewish state at the expense of democracy and its Arab citizens? Or a pluralistic democracy that values and grants equal rights to all its citizens?

  2. avatar

    This becomes harder and harder. So, how do we in the diaspora, particularly in the United States with our political situation, react? Is it as fellow Jews religiously connected or is our nationality somehow Jewish? i see a unity as an American. Is there the possibility of a unity as an Israeli out side of religion?

  3. avatar

    Joe, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that a “Jewish state” means it’s not democratic. France is a French state, and Germany is a German state. I’m sure you would agree, however, that these states are still democratic. Then why can’t you have a Jewish state that is also democratic?

  4. avatar

    Harold, I agree with you. I am not saying a Jewish state cannot also be a democratic state. But it is a challenge, because a truly democratic state must grant equal rights to all its citizens without regard to their ethnicity or religion. Consequently, there is a risk that over time, the ehtnicity or dominant religion of the majority can change, e.g. in the future, the majority of citizens in the United States may be Hispanic Catholics. And that’s okay, if we are truly committed to being a democracy. Is Israel willing to remain a democracy if in the future the majority of its citizens are Arab Muslims? I would hope so. To me, a truly “Jewish” state should reflect the very best of what it means to be Jewish.

  5. avatar

    Joe, thanks for your reply. Regarding the question “Is Israel willing to remain a democracy if the majority are Arab Muslims?” The answer to that question would not only depend upon Israeli Jews but also upon the majority Muslims. Keep in mind that more than 50% of today’s Israeli Jews are either refugees from Arab-majority states or descended from them. If I were an Israeli Jew, I would be understandably concerned whether democracy and equal rights can be maintained in an Arab-majority Israel.

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