Wednesday, September 04, 2002

The following is a press release sent to me by David Weinberg (press officer for an organization called the Mosaica Center) :

Jerusalem .. At the first-ever "Islamic-Jewish dialogue on social justice", held yesterday (September 3, 2002) in Beersheba, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and Israeli Arab Islamic Movement Leader Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour tried hard to stick to the planned topic, but it wasn't easy.

The two clerics were brought together, at the initiative of Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, under the promising title "Religious Leaders Speak Out for Social Justice", by the Mosaica Research Center for Religion, Society and State. They managed to agree that "truly religious people ought to place social justice at the forefront of their agendas", as Sarsour declared. Bakshi-Doron added that "In the prophets and in our religious-halachic sources, social justice is paramount. I believe that we can bridge gaps between Jews and Moslems by working together on the social agenda", the Chief Rabbi said.

But the daily politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were never far from the surface. Sarsour bitterly attacked the Israeli Supreme Court for agreeing (yesterday) to allow the deportation from the West Bank to Gaza of two Palestinians who assisted family members in carrying-out terror attacks. "The Court is joining the Israeli destruction machine", Sarsour sniped.

"You should take example from British Chief Rabbi Sacks", he then told Bakshi-Doron. "Sacks is not afraid to speak out against Israeli injustice", said Sarsour -- referring to a controversial interview with The Guardian given by Jonathan Sacks last week in which he decried the immorality of Israel's presence in the territories.

Sarsour went on to condemn Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, saying that "he who attacks the People of the Book chips away at the holiness of Allah himself". Bakshi-Doron was not satisfied with Sarsour's declaration. "I no longer know which Sheikh to believe and when", lamented Bakshi-Doron. "Last year in Alexandria I signed a joint religious declaration against terrorism with Sheikh Tantawi, the senior-most Egyptian Islamic cleric. But under pressure from Islamic radicals, he backed away from the declaration as soon as I left Egypt and the media cameras left with me".

"Tantawi never repeated this religious commitment against terror in Arabic when speaking to his own people", accused Bakshi-Doron. "I would like you, Sheikh Sarsour, to do so; speak out against terror in Arabic in your mosque! We have to ask -- who sets the tone for the Islamic world? Sarsour speaking Hebrew, or Tantawi, Yassin, and Nassrallah?!", demanded Bakshi-Doron, referring to the clerics that head Hamas and the Hezbollah.

Mosaica Center Chairman Adv. Aviad Hacohen summed-up session thus: "This seminar is part of a wider effort, spawned by the Mosaica Center, to build a new language of trust between religious leaders of both faith communities. We have no illusions that it will be easy. But this event was significant in the very fact that it happened, and we will keep at it". Rabbi Melchior was hopeful too. "We must break the dangerous linkage between religiosity and radicalism. Religion can, and should be, a force for peace", declared Melchior.

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