Jews, Christians, and Muslims are often bitter antagonists on
several different issues but especially in relationship to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rabbi, committed to the prophetic call to
peace and justice, honored by all three traditions, I pray that Jewish,
Christian and Muslim leaders can transcend the history of conflict and become
allies for peace. In this spirit I offer the following reflection.
In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, after Isaac tells Esau, his
son, that his brother Jacob has stolen the blessing, Esau burst into wild and
bitter sobbing and said to his father,
“Have you but one blessing? Bless me too, my father” (Genesis 26:38)
Esau’s painful words, “Have you but one blessing?” raises the critical issue
that must be faced today by all people of faith. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and
all people who seek peace, must respond to Esau’s cry with an unqualified “No!”
God is not limited to one blessing. God blesses all God’s children: Jacob and
Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and
Yet, for far too long, religious leaders and teachers of our respective
traditions have claimed that God has only one blessing that has been conferred
on our particular community. This painful history of religious exclusivity, of
privileging our own religious tradition over others, has fuelled prejudice,
hatred and violence. It is time for us as religious leaders to take action to
end this cycle of pain and violence perpetrated in the name of religion. It is
time for all of us to repent, to do teshuva (return), to return God, to
return our shared belief that in God’s eyes no particular people or religious
community is privileged over the other.
For Jews this means returning to our belief stated in the very first chapters of
our Torah, that all human beings are created in the Image of God. In our
tradition there is a debate between two great rabbis: Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva argues that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important
principle of Jewish faith; Ben Azzai counters that the belief all human beings
are created in the image of God is even more important. Both values, love for
all human beings and the inherent dignity of all human beings, lie at the core
of our faith and, I believe, at the core of Christianity and Islam.
The affirmation of this shared legacy does not in any way negate the distinctive
character of three traditions. The distinctive character of different religious
traditions are precious and sacred, but the distinctiveness of our faith
traditions must be placed in the context of our core universal understanding
that every human life is sacred and deserving of human dignity, equality and
justice. It means placing our shared religious understanding of human dignity,
love and compassion at the center of our faith. Nothing is more important.
Highlighting this shared legacy and moving beyond exclusivity and privileging is
not only critical to our faith traditions, it is also essential for the healing
of the conflict in the Holy Land. Just as Jacob and Esau assumed there was only
one blessing, so the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have claimed exclusive
title to the land.
Over the centuries during the various bloody conquests of the Holy Land,
religious leaders have encouraged the exclusive claim of their particular
religious traditions and often fomented violence in the name of religion. Is it
possible for religious leaders in our own time to move beyond our own murderous
history of exclusivity? The Holy Land is the land of two peoples, the
descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Is it possible for religious
leaders to help resolve this conflict in a way that assures both peoples
justice, security and peace?
It is the same Biblical story of Jacob and Esau that offers us hope for such a
vision. In Genesis, Chapter 33, the Torah recounts that after years of
separation, during which Jacob and Esau harbored murderous hostility to one
another, the two brothers come together. Jacob, terrified that his brother will
kill him, and according to rabbinic interpretation, that he could kill his
brother, offers Esau gifts. In an extraordinary moment, Esau, the aggrieved and
embittered son who didn’t receive the primary blessing, says to his brother, “I
have a lot my brother (more than enough), you keep what is yours” (Genesis
33:9). Jacob pleads with him to accept the gift and says to see your face, my
brother is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10). This is one of the most
inspiring and extraordinary passages in the Torah. Jacob and Esau finally
understand that they are both blessed, that they both are children of God.
Inspired by this vision, the task of religious leaders in our time is to help
Israelis and Palestinians to move from the painful cry of the aggrieved and
dispossessed, to the reality where both parties understand that there is enough
for both peoples, where they can see God’s face in the other.
The task is not easy, and it will involve much dialogue, listening, compassion
and generosity. It requires of Jews, Christians and Muslims, an openness to a
sacred encounter with one another, learning about one another’s cultures beyond
the demonization and characterizations. It requires a curiosity and eagerness to
understand the other. Last year I was blessed to travel with a group of
Christians, Jews and Muslims to Egypt and Qatar. It was my first visit to Arab
and majority Muslim countries. I learned so much, about the countries we visited
and especially about Islam. It was such a gift to share the journey with an imam
and to spend time in prayer and dialogue. And, I also learned so much from
travelling together in a group that included all three faiths, dedicated to
understanding, justice and peace.
In this dialogue we need to understand one another and our respective
communities. Because Israel is so important to us, I want to share some thoughts
about what the State of Israel means to Jews and some of the challenges we face
in our own community.
For most Jews, and, for most Israelis, the issues related to Israel are not
primarily theological or religious. The founders of Israel were secular and
envisioned a state that would embody the prophetic teachings of justice, freedom
and peace. For most Jews, Israel is not about God, the Promised Land or
theology. Israel is about survival, safety, and ongoing Jewish cultural
The vulnerability and victimization of Jews in the world was the primary reason
for the birth of political Zionism. Theodore Herzl and the other leaders of
political Zionism argued that the price Jews paid for our lack of political
power, our powerlessness, was too great. The catastrophe of the Holocaust 40
years later convinced many Jews and much of the world that they were right. Jews
needed a place where Jews could be secure and where we could express our
national identity. On this level, Zionism has been a huge success. Today Israel
is a state that provides Jews with national expression, where Jewish cultural
creativity flourishes and where any Jew can find safe refuge in times of need.
Christians and Muslims are often confused why their Jewish friends, often so
liberal on many social issues, react so passionately to any criticism of the
policies of the State of Israel. When Jews hear criticism of Israel, they hear a
challenge to the survival of the Jewish people. Any resolution of this conflict
needs to address the Jewish fear about survival along with the justice for the
Yet a crucial part of the Zionist dream has not been fulfilled. One of the
dreams of the founders of Israel was that the Jewish state would translate the
Jewish experience of victimization into a resolve not to victimize others.
Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, articulated this when he wrote in
1948, just as the state was being created:
“The state is only a means to an end…. There must not be one set of laws for
Jews and another for Arabs. We must maintain the principle expressed in the
Torah: “The same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among
you… I am sure that the world will judge the Jewish state according to the way
it treats the Arabs”
The dream, that the Jewish state that would wield power differently, has not
been realized. In the very creation of the State of Israel, injustice was
committed against the Palestinian people who were dispossessed of their homes
and communities. Further, as Israel has developed over time it has become a
society where there is one set of norms that apply to Jews and another to
non-Jewish citizens. This is true even within the pre-67 War borders of the
State of Israel, and is much worse in the Occupied Territories.
This is a painful reality that is acknowledged by a fairly significant number of
Israelis and a much smaller number of American Jews. It is this disturbing
reality that has led to the creation of many Israeli peace and human rights
organizations that are committed to upholding the core Jewish value that all are
created in the image. The Jewish community is deeply divided on this issue. Many
American Jews and Israelis deny that Israel has acted unjustly towards
Palestinians and will often attack anyone within our community who suggests
Just as there is deep conflict within the Jewish people, so too there is
conflict within the Christian and Muslim community. There are significant
clashes within each of our religious traditions and civilizations. Jewish,
Christian and Muslim leaders who are prepared to challenge our own communities,
to build understanding and ultimately to work together for peace, are a source
of hope that we may end the centuries of prejudice and discrimination fuelled by
religious leaders and ideas. Religious leaders, who have the courage to engage
in this difficult dialogue, could be allies for peace. The task is challenging,
even somewhat dangerous, but it is sacred work.
If we join together in this sacred work, we will be responding to Esau’s cry of
pain by refusing to take sides, by advocating for a just solution for both
people, for all people.
If we join together as allies for peace, we will be following the inspiring
footsteps of Jacob and Esau’s courage to face one another and to see the face of
God in the other.
If we choose to follow this sacred call, we may help the Israeli and Palestinian
peoples to transcend the history of violence and dispossession that has
characterized this conflict and most human conflicts over land.
The Torah tells us that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father
Abraham. It is time now for the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael to come
together, to see the face of God in one another and to make peace. May we, with
God’s help, join together as allies for peace, and may God bless our efforts.
As it says in the daily Jewish prayer for peace: “Bless us all, our
Father/Mother, as one, in the light of your Presence.”
Keyn Yehi Ratzon!
May it Be Your Will!
Rabbi Brian Walt is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA. and the co-Founder of Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. He is the former Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.