[Sephardi Shas] “Orthodox Rabbis for Interfaith”

There is a new interfaith organization out there called “Orthodox Rabbis for Interfaith” with a surprising story, the group is made up entirely of young leadership affiliated with Shas. It seems that for the last three years the United Nations has given money from the Ford Foundation to a group of forty young leaders and rabbis- average age 35- associated with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef for the purpose of educating them into the basics of Islam, the Middle East peace process, and the Palestinian perspective. They have received lectures, tours, and seminars from academics, Arabs, and the military to broaden their perspectives.

Now that their training has ended, they are fulfilling their promise and bringing what they learned out to the broader Shas community and they are engaging in active interfaith dialogue. They have even started a new organization to get the word of the need for interfaith out to the public. According to the articles they visited the Sheikh Abu Khader Jabari, the Palestinian clan leader of Hebron and discussed topics with the Imams. When asked “How can Jews thank God every morning for not making them a gentile goy?” They answered: “it only applies to the ancient pagan gentiles who worshiped the stars,not to Muslims.” They further relied with a pun “Maariv Aravim ba Hokhmah,” therefore God approves of Islam.
They seem to have a solid Romantic view of the peaceful co-existence of Jews and Muslims through the ages, which they will once again foster as Arab Jews who speak Arabic and share the same values and culture.

They were featured in the recent feature in the holiday magazine of Kav Itonut (parent of religious paper HaShavua) describing their history and activities.- Kav Laitonot.pdf Here is a description of their activities from a Shas publication-Shasnet from 2009 describing the training- here.

Here is a nice documentary on the program and their training.

They recently visited the Trappist monastery in Latrun desecrated with graffiti. And a representative was interviewed on the Israeli talk show “Kirschbaum and London,” where the secular hosts were particularly condescending to religion and toward the Arabs. The secular hosts even called the monastery the “therapeutic” instead of Trappist.

The same organization Interpeace is funding a Master’s degree in conflict resolution for ultra-orthodox women to serve as community organizers. About 40 prominent ultra-orthodox women are now participating in a similar educational programme. Many of the women are leaders within their communities, for example the wife of the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, the daughter of the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel and the wives of two SHAS ministers etc. The Master’s programme is jointly implemented by Interpeace, the Haredi College of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University. Apart from organizing inter-religious encounters, the two year programme teaches English, mediation skills and about the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

12 responses to “[Sephardi Shas] “Orthodox Rabbis for Interfaith”

  1. ר' חיים הקטן


  2. fantastic!, interfaith groups & meetings are a way foward to understanding uncommon faiths?

  3. I can’t help note that I doubt that this group would be willing similarly to dialogue with non-Orthodox movements. I can understand why, of course, from their perspective, but noting that does highlight just what these sorts of encounters can – but also can’t – do.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: I do not agree with you. The secular hosts were unnecessarly aggressive and the mistake “therapeutic ” is terrible. But on the main issue as to whether there is a religious dimension to the conflict, they were right, and Rabbi Shem Tov, with his romantic and simplistic view, was wrong. He’s telling us how his family lived on peace with their Arab neighbors, This is serious? And his final comment with its invidious distinction between Sefardic Jews who come from the Middle East and Ashkenazic Jews who come from Eastern Europe was inexcusable.

  5. Therapist Monastery? “Keter Aram Zuba” synagogue? Lord… think I could pick up pocket money as a professional caption editor?

    Rabbi Dr. Kaplan, can you elaborate regarding your issue with Rabbi Shemtov’s personal account? I can tell you with utter certainty that my grandfather and his parents got on well with their Muslim neighbors in Aleppo. During the riots in 1947, in which they left, they trusted only one family– their Muslim neighbors — to watch over their possessions and home, with the understanding that if they were not to return to Syria, the neighbors would become the owners. Are you skeptical that a mere two generations ago, there were many Jews and Muslims with perfectly cordial relations? Or merely that this is a relevant point? I think it is quite relevant to observe that the religious dimension of modern anti-Semitism in Islamist discourse is a modern phenomenon, and that it need not be a permanent reality.

    As for his “invidious distinction,” it is a simple and obvious reality that it will be easier for Jews of (recent) middle-eastern background, especially those who continue to share a language with their Muslim interlocutors, to engage in intercommunal conversation. What bigotry was involved in the comment? Do you think you are as equipped to bond with Average Joe Egyptian over your mutual love of Umm Kalsoum and your shared family dishes of molokheya, as the Egyptian colleague Rabbi Shemtov alluded to? Israel’s diversity is an asset; there is no reason to pretend that the distinctions between Israeli Jews of different diasporic backgrounds are false ones, or always part of some sneaky identity politics agenda (though I understand any suspicions regarding Sha”s of that nature).

  6. .I do insist this whole affair has Machiavellian undertones.

  7. Care to elaborate? You mean, cause Sha”s is getting Ford Foundation money to spread apologia about what we mean by “shello `asani goy?” Fair enough, I can sympathize with discomfort about that. But it’s generally a good thing when trappist monks (say, does Latrun have a beer industry? It should, isn’t that what Trappist Monasteries are supposed to be all about? 🙂 ) say “it’s wonderful that rabbis came to visit us, and we are touched by the show of compassion by our Jewish neighbors.” It is generally a good thing if there are doors being opened to tolerance and respect for Judaism from Muslim religious leaders, even if for now they need be underground.

    And I daresay it is generally a good thing if shasnikim are learning about and celebrating their own multifaceted Mediterranean heritage, which is not — contrary to what you may expect from their garb, the institutions their children are educated in, and everything about their approach to halakha — identical to an Eastern European one, however invidious an observation this is understood to be, for some reason.

  8. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alex: your points are good ones. I do not deny that there were good personal relations two generations ago. I deny their current relevance. To say, as you so, that modern Islamic anti-semitism need not be a permanent reality is not deny, as R.Shem tov did, that right now it is a very great reality. R.Shem Tov could have made his point about the sefardi roots in the middle east without specifically mentioning the Ashkenazim. Personally I think that bonding with the average Eyptian Joe over family dishes as a way of solving current political problems is greatly exaggerated.

  9. I see this effort leaning on the tradition ascribed to Aaron the High Priest: falsehood in the service of forgiveness and peace. Truth has its place – after the violence has subsided.

  10. The problem is kemayim panim el panim kein lev ha’adam. We become prejudiced due to the perceived prejudices of others and we need to combat this so we don’t perpetuate schism. Being able to talk to people can only ever be an advantage.

  11. Thank you for shedding light on this important story. I wonder to what extent Rabbi Shem Tov’s knock on the difficulty of Ashkenazim to understand Arabs was inspired by the condescension of his Ashkenazi hosts!!! They were incredulous– so he had to explain to them, albeit in essentialist terms, why they don’t “get it”. Unless Shem Tov is a masterful liar, I believe he believes his narrative and that there are obvious benefits to having more Jews and Muslims- in Israel and outside– considering this perspective. The historical record is an important corrective of both rosy visions of muslim-jewish love fests and “neo-lachryomse” visions of abject oppression under Islam.
    On another issue. We cannot underestimate the power of language. I believe that the top-down erasure of ethnic and linguistic diversity pushed by the young State of Israel –regardless of its justifications– has left us impoverished and in a weak position to build bridges and live in peace in the middle east. May groups like this help us rebuild those links. Imshala!!

  12. I strongly agree with Professor Perelis regarding the above.

    Professor Kaplan, political problems are born of both interests, and attitudes. Even when it could be amply demonstrated to the rational leadership of one’s neighbors that mutual non-belligerency and trade ties are to the advantages of all involved, a native hostility to a perceived “foreign, colonialist implant in my region” is not something that will go away easily. Despite obvious facts of history, Average Joe Egyptian (and many Joe Egyptians in Tahrir square) thinks of Jews as aliens to the region, a type of European whose political and ideological alliance with “The West” merely confirms that perception. Average Joe Egyptian believes that Israel was gifted by colonialist powers like England to white European invaders as a sort of consolation for the holocaust they endured at the hands of other white Europeans (this is a liberal Joe who believes in such things). Thus, to him, the loss of Palestinian autonomy on any square inch of their former homeland to these white European invaders is a grave historical injustice.

    But what happens when Jews are not white Europeans? What happens when, in fact, a slight majority of Jews currently in Israel are of non-Ashkenazic background? What’s more, what if, shockingly enough, one of the largest pluralities of Jews in Israel are, in fact… Arabs?

    Such an identity is effectively lost to us today; only outliers like Yehouda Shenhav and Rachel Shabi and Sasson Somekh still call themselves Arab Jews, and their politics are as far from the mainstream as their self-conceptions. And yet, the cultural similarities, even if currently unrecognized, would be unmistakable if more dialogue about them occurred. If Arab and Jew alike recognized the common Mediterranean heritage many Arabs and Jews are products of (I’m using “Mediterranean” in the sense that Goitein utilized in his magnum opus), I don’t think the innate hostility many Arabs harbor against the idea of Jews as a legitimate Middle Eastern population would be as possible.

    That isn’t the only benefit of examining the history outside the neo-lachrymose perspective, and, indeed, free of what I see as modern Zionist dogmas. What I’m suggesting may not be popular in the pro-Israel Jewish world, but there is a certain importance to mainstream Zionist thinking to divorcing Arab Jews from the Arab part of their heritage, to identifying them firmly and *uniquely* with worldwide Jewry and at odds with their “oppressive ex-neighbors.” I find that approach largely dishonest, and harmful to the self-image, individual and collective, of these Jews– and I think the assimilation thereof to movements like the haredi Sha’s is a clear symptom. And so to me, a resurgence of interest by Jews of Levantine/North African/Mesopotamian/Gulf background in their subnational histories, in their particular heritages, in their language and literature and music that preceded the state, could only be a good thing for the healthy development of their identities. An honest look at what was before the state, and during the early years of the state, and now — coming to grips both with what was gained, and what was lost. Perhaps most importantly, at what is still salvageable.

    Avoiding this would make the early “melting pot” approach an effective destruction of Jewish diversity, and the cultural vacuum that emerged as a result of its partial success is responsible for many of the current social ills in Israeli “mizraHi” life (note the comfortable use of orientalist– by definition! — terminology in Israeli discourse, by the way. And isn’t it funny when maghrebis, moroccans, are called mizraHi? East of what, I wonder. Surely not of Lithuania). And blowback for this is the heavily racialized undertones of resentment in groups like the Black Panthers or, in a less radical formulation, Shas, particularly the “Deri” faction, or the early supporters. Non-Ashkenazim in Israel have never quite gotten over having to acclimate to a “Sabra” culture that is basically the creation of Ashkenazim, however much the latter thought they were leaving former European identities behind (for an example of how fundamentally *that* project failed, hebraicized last names and the disdain for yiddish havent’ stopped modern israeli syntax, phonetics, phonology and lexicon from exhibiting what linguist ghil’ad zuckermann calls the traits of a hybrid indo-european/semitic language in his thought-provoking yisra’elit safa yafa). If the history of that assimilation were reexamined and freed of the dogmas of “universally and perpetually anti-semitic Arabs initiate pogroms again, Jewish refugees flee with help from new Israel that welcomes them with open arms, Jewish state immediately justifies its own raison d’etre as safe refuge for all, everyone lives happily ever after,” and hard questions were both asked *and answered*, I think it would be a fantastic development for all Israeli Jews, and indeed all Jews who are affected, however indirectly, by the dominant discourse in Israel — which is pretty much all of us.

    If this led to a more nuanced recasting of Jewish subethnic identities in Israel, and that in turn played a role in Jewish-Arab dialogue, I cannot see that as anything but a positive step toward a reconstituted mediterranean society, where Jews could legitimately, in the minds of “the Arab street,” be part of the ethnic mosaic of the middle east. I do not see peace negotiations based solely on national interests without addressing innate hostilities as having a future.

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