A peace of paper is not enough

February 1, 2018 by Rabbi Dr Danny Schiff
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In 2018, we will mark 40 years since the 1978 Camp David accords that paved the way for peace between Egypt and Israel…writes Rabbi Dr Danny Schiff.

Rabbi Dr Danny

Four decades on, peace is a glass that is simultaneously half-full and half empty.  It is half-full because through all the upheaval in Egypt, and many tense moments, the peace treaty has not been abrogated.  There is still peace.  But the glass is half-empty because it remains a cold peace, a peace that exists essentially as a governmental agreement with precious little commitment on the Egyptian side to embrace the “other”.

This reality can be demonstrated in many ways, but it suffices simply to point to events from the last few months.  In October, the Egyptian government organised a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh to promote dialogue between monotheistic faiths.  No Jews were invited.  In November, President Sisi gave the keynote speech at a youth conference on world peace.  Youth groups were welcomed from all over the world.  No Israelis were included.  And throughout 2017, the Egyptian media carried multiple false stories claiming that Israel supports the Islamic State in Sinai.  After Egypt failed to mark the fortieth anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Post concluded that there remains a “wide and continued hostility on the part of the Egyptian public towards Israel.”

All of which clarifies that reaching peace agreements is not sufficient.

Consider the following:

The impressive official residence of the President of Israel is located in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood.  Just yards away, are institutions that many take for granted but that deserve more attention.  Right around the corner from the President’s home is the Institute for Islamic Art.  Established in 1974, it explores the beliefs and the varied artistic expressions of Islamic civilisation.  It houses 600 Korans from various historic periods.  It has the same security as that found at any other museum in Israel.  And directly across the street from the President, in plain view from the President’s front door, is the Franciscan Sisters Convent, replete with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard.

The Institute for Islamic Art and the Franciscan Sisters Convent … both sit in the very heart of Jewish West Jerusalem at honored locations of undeniable prominence.  Israeli support for this reality is unquestioned.

Could one imagine the identical circumstances of an Institute for Jewish art being set up anywhere in Cairo, much less around the corner from the Heliopolis Palace?  Could one imagine a Franciscan convent being permitted to exist across the street?   Could one imagine it in Ramallah or Riyadh, Amman or Beirut?

The answer is obvious.

There is a profound and overlooked truth that needs to be understood more broadly in international forums:  Peace is not the absence of war.  Peace is not a technical arrangement of land-swaps, borders, and military coordination.  Rather, peace is a willingness to embrace the continuing presence of a different people with an unswerving commitment to their-long term viability, and a determination to give up on any aspirations for conquest, even should the opportunity arise.

It was, in fact, ancient Israel that taught this idea to a world that once had a very different agenda.  As the British historian, Cecil Roth, observed:

“All the dreams of universal peace that have stirred mankind down to our own day are to be traced back to that Messianic vision of the Prophet Isaiah …  To us today it may seem trite, but there was an epoch-making originality in this idea in an age when conquest was regarded as the natural right of the stronger, and a victorious war the ideal of every powerful state.”

The Arab states that surround Israel still dream of conquest.  They have not begun any serious effort to persuade their peoples to live with equanimity with the other in their midst.

To be sure, there are also some Jews in Israel who harbor the same mindset, and it should be clearly articulated that such attitudes are simply un-Jewish.

Nobody, however, should miss the asymmetry:  In Israel, one-quarter of the population is Arab, and Arabic is one of the languages of the state.  Official statistics reveal even more:

  • There are over 400 mosques in Israel, of which some 73 are located in Jerusalem. The number of mosques in Israel has increased about five-fold since 1988, when there were 80 mosques.
  • Approximately 300 imams and muezzins receive their salaries from the Israeli government. Israel provides the Korans used in mosques and funds Arab schools and many Islamic schools and colleges.  Such schools teach Islamic studies and Arabic, as well as the Israel Ministry of Education’s general curriculum.
    • The Muslim community regulates its own court system and handles marriage and divorce under Islamic law. Eight regional Islamic law courts and one national appeals court operate in Israel.
    • Each year the Jerusalem municipality decorates the streets of the city in celebration of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, and hosts dozens of festivities and events for the public.

Today, but a handful of Jews remain in Arab countries.  And it goes without saying that governmental support of synagogues, rabbis, and Jewish studies is basically unheard of in the Arab states, even in those that have signed peace treaties.  Indeed, it is safe to assume that the very concept would be greeted with stiff opposition.

We Jews repeat the mandate of the Torah to “love the stranger” so often that it has almost become a cliché.  But peace does not require loving the stranger; peace only requires accepting the permanent presence of the stranger as an unchallenged reality that evokes tranquility rather than hostility.

When will peace come?  Peace will come when unguarded visitors can peruse copies of the Tanakh in Jewish museums of art in Arab capitals, with none to make them afraid…

No dream of a regional peace deal, or of a bilateral peace with the Palestinians, or even of a real peace with the Egyptians can ignore this fundamental truth.  A peace of paper is simply not enough.

Danny was born in Sydney, grew up in Melbourne, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, USA in 1987; he worked as a Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne from 1987-1992, when he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He has lived in Jerusalem, Israel for the past eight years.

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