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Hitting the bottle over issues of faith

by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet

It began at a conference in Berlin about a year after the Six Day War. A group of Rabbis and Christian clergy had asked themselves how they could contribute to peace in the Middle East.

They reasoned that beyond the limited political entities of Israel and the Arab nations were the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Surely these shared sufficient common ground in belief and values to be able to find ways of meeting and reconciliation?

At this first conference we each explained why we had come. A young Egyptian told a room, suddenly hushed and tense, how his brother had been killed during the war. My Jewish instinct was duck in anticipation of yet another attack on Israel. What followed was far more devastating. He said: "I came here to meet with Jews, because if no peace comes as a result of this war, then my brother died for nothing."

For me that turned religious dialogue from theory into a major commitment. It was the shock of meeting the "other", the "enemy", and discovering a human being with values, courage and generosity of heart.

That first conference revealed a phenomenon we had astonishingly overlooked. We hat thought of Western Europe as essentially a Christian society, however nominal, with a small remnant Jewish community. Now we realised that the Muslim polulation had been growing considerably since the war and was several times the size of the Jewish one. Islam was no longer a peripheral factor in Europe, it was a substantial component. Moreover the way Islam was accommodated to the West or alienated from it could have enormous long-term consequences.

Any attempt at dialogue, even among people of good faith, could easily be hijacked by the pressures and urgency of the Middle East conflict. So we confined ourselves to issues affecting the three communities in Europe.

We were in no way an official representative body - in fact it only worked because those who participated came as private individuals through personal recommendation. So the new organisation became the "Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe".

We decided to issue no statements, resolutions or petitions as a result of our meetings. Our task was to build trust in a situation where suspicion seemed to be the rule. What counted was the inner work we did with each other. It would have to impact on our own circles through example and reputation.

With few resources we concentrated on running occasional conferences and found the "Hedwig Dransfeld Haus", in Bendorf, West Germany, a Catholic centre committed to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and reconciliation. In Bendorf we started an annual conference for theology students of the three faiths, expanding it to include community and social workers. We wanted to bring together future leaders of the three communities while they were still studying and developing, to learn about each other out of the reality of shared experience. From knowledge could come some measure of trust and friendship.

Conferences have studied the situation of immigrant groups in Europe, the problems facing their second and third generations, the challenges of preserving traditional values in a secular society, education, intermarriage and related issues. The last two years have seen long discussions, public and private, on the impact of the intifada and the Rushdie affair.

But the reality of pluralism hits home in the day-to-day problems of living together. For example:

For Muslims wine is forbidden. While some tolerate its presence when non-Muslims drink it, others do not. For the Jewish Friday evening ceremonies, wine is an essential ingredient. Since we attend each other's services and rituals, we provided wine for the Friday evening meal but also grapejuice, so that everyone could be accommodated.

But the kitchen staff, without thinking, took out some nice cut-glass jugs to enhance the appearance of the tables, and poured the wine and grapejuice into separate but similar ones. Some of the Muslims were understandably upset at what they saw as an attempt to mislead them into drinking something forbidden.

Fortunately the matter was soon cleared up and we discussed what to do the following year. We could leave all the bottles unopened so that everyone could see and confirm their contents. But why not omit wine altogether - Jews could fulfil their religious requirements with grapejuice. At this point some of the Jews began to complain that they were compromising too much - why should they give up their wine just because of what the Muslims required?

These seemingly minor difficulties illustrate how hard it is to see the world through the eyes of others, and to make even small sacrifices so as to accommodate differences. There seems to be an imbalance in such situations whereby the liberals of any faith have to yield to the expectations or demands of the fundamentalists. But the liberals also have to acknowledge that the fundamentalists may be feeling equally compromised and at risk in taking part in such an experiment in the first place.

That both groups are affected by their meeting may only become apparent later, usually after they have had to face the people back home. Having moved beyond the stereotype thinking of our peers it is painful to encounter the same prejudices you no longer share. Dialogue exacts a price.

1990 the 16th annual Bendorf student conference took place. Rabbinic students from London and other Jews joined Muslims from various centres and communities in the UK and Germany and Christians from theology faculties and teacher training colleges. It was a microcosm of the pluralistic society emerging in Europe, multiple in faith, shared by religious and secular people alike.

The task now is to spread that vision to a wider world. Such new human community will be as strong or fragile as the care, love and generosity of spirit we invest in it. This week the Muslim festival of Ramadan begins, coinciding this year with the Christian season of Lent. After the Passover, Jews enter the solemn period of the Omer. The three calendars do not quite meet, but the faiths do. They experience the same seriousness before the same God.

The key now is wether they can find mutual ground in Europe's emerging pluralistic society which can offer hope of new harmony for religious and secular people alike.

The author is Principal of the Leo Baeck Institute, London. Source of this article: The Sunday Correspondent, March 25, 1990.

EMail to principal Jonathan Magonet in London

EMail to Hedwig-Dransfeld-Haus

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