Israel’s great Dane
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Israel’s great Dane

Former diaspora affairs minister seeks peace from within and without

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In 2011, the city of Akko’s youth parliament, affiliated with the Citizens Accord Forum, met with the mayor. Citizens Accord Forum

Rabbi Michael Melchior has left politics behind, but he has not left public service.

Rabbi Melchior served in the Knesset for 10 years as leader of the liberal Orthodox Meimad political movement. Born in Denmark in 1954, he earned smicha from Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Hakotel in 1980 and was appointed chief rabbi of Norway’s 1,400 Jews soon after. In 1986 he made aliyah, but he has held on to his Norwegian title.

His main focus, though, is on Israeli life. Rabbi Melchior is a community rabbi in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood as well as an activist for the improvement of Israeli society.

When Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck spent a sabbatical year in Jerusalem, he and his family lived in Talpiot and discovered Rabbi Melchior’s congregation.

“We never found anything we loved as much,” Rabbi Zierler said; the two rabbis “became very close,” he added.

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Rabbi Michael Melchior

Rabbi Melchior will be in Teaneck next week, as part of a four-day U.S. fundraising trip for some of the organizations with which he is involved, and he will meet with groups of people organized by Rabbi Zierler.

Rabbi Melchior’s projects focus on uniting Israel’s different strands of society, and on reaching beyond Israel to connect with neighboring Arab communities.

Rabbi Melchior, who was Israel’s first minister of diaspora affairs, grew up in a diaspora community small enough to demand that all factions to work together. Having chosen to raise his family in a primarily secular Jerusalem neighborhood, he was disappointed to discover that by sending his children to religious schools and religious youth movements, “our kids only came to know other people who were exactly like themselves. They didn’t come to know other segments of society.”

Disturbed, he set out to break down the barriers between the groups. It started with meetings in the 1980 and early 1990s, “but something important happened after the assassination of our prime minister” in 1995. “More and more people understood that this” – the division into separate groups – “could not continue.”

He led a movement to create schools and educational programs “where religious, very religious, very secular, and everything in between” could study together, he said.

“A whole new Israel is being created, which is not very known in North America,” Rabbi Melchior said. “There are tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, who are interested in creating something new in the seam between different identities of Judaism.”

From one school launched 12 years ago, there are now 52 institutions of what is called “inclusive Jewish public education.”

Another part of Rabbi Melchior’s efforts are devoted to “our relationship to the non-Jews who are living with us in Israel.

“We have a responsibility towards the Arab community,” he said. “We’ve been living ourselves as a minority throughout the ages, and we know what it is to live as a minority. Now we’re tested: We’re a majority, and we don’t always live up to the test.

“It’s not enough to say, well, the Arabs are better off here than they would be in Syria or Lebanon. That’s not the test. The test is what’s acceptable to the standard of Jewish values we have preached and which we believe in and have talked about when we were a minority.

“We don’t always live up to our responsibility. This is not something new I’m saying. There’s the Or Commission, formed after the Arab riots in the year 2000, which unanimously said there is discrimination toward the Arab citizens. I can give you so many examples. The investment we put in the education of an Arab child compared to the investment in a Jewish child, the funding of religious institutions of Muslims and Christians compared to the religious institutions of Jews. If you give religious institutions support in the country, you can’t give half a percent of support to the institutions of more than 20 percent of the population.

“This is something we should be sensitive to as Jews. Thirty-six times we read in the Torah to be sensitive to strangers,” he said.

To deal with these gaps between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, Rabbi Melchior formed the Citizens Accord Forum. Funded now in part by the Israeli government, “this is the only movement which is working across the board with all the different Arab organizations,” he said. “We work with the Islamists, with the secular Arab movements, with the Arab mayors, with the most radical Arab organizations.

“We have a dialogue, where we both we discuss issues of principle and we also try to find a way – through what we call a deliberative dialogue – of how we can live with our differences.

“The surprising things is you can actually find solutions,” he said.

One example: “We’ve created youth parliaments in the mixed cities around Israel. Jews and Arabs sit in the youth parliaments together, then they decide on youth policy together. They do things together.

“I believe not in protesting, but in creating a change through a sensible dialogue and making people understand that this is good for everybody. It works well. It makes sense.”

Perhaps Rabbi Melchior’s most auda­cious arena of activism goes beyond Israel’s citizens: It deals with the question of peace.

He believes that it is possible for Israel to find peace with its neighbors – but that the approach to peace must change.

“There has been no point where the Arab Muslim world is so ripe and ready to make peace with the State of Israel as it is now,” he said.

Contacts with Muslims – he can’t go into details, but has said they include Hamas and other Islamists – have convinced him that “it’s possible.”

Publicly, Rabbi Melchior was instrumental in organizing a Muslim-Jewish dialogue that began with a summit in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2002.

“A lot of work I do in this area is under the radar,” he said. “I work with all the Arab countries, with all the fragments of the Palestinians. There is a willingness today to make an agreement with the State of Israel from all segments of leadership in the Muslim world. It’s possible to get there.

“Israel must be willing to make peace and pay the prices and accept the conditions – everyone knows what the conditions are. It will demand from our side that we make that strategic decision – that we haven’t made – to make peace.

“If the State of Israel is willing to do that, and I think the vast majority of Israelis are, then we can have a peace which is totally different than the peace we made with Egypt, even different from the peace which was signed in Oslo.

“Today I think it’s possible to get a peace that will include a very vast part of the Arab and Muslim world,” Rabbi Melchior said.

The problem, though, is that the focus has been on “a quick fix, a secular peace. We don’t deal with the substantial existential issues.

“It doesn’t work that way. If you don’t build up a legitimacy for peace among the people, and their identities are not involved, peace is not going to happen.

“I think it’s very possible to make peace. I’ve met the most extreme leaders on the other side. It’s always been possible to come to an agreement. But there has to be thinking out of the box.

“You can’t keep on telling your people that the other side hates us and fears us so therefore we should make peace. You can’t only make a peace which is a peace of interests.

“If the only language to make peace is a secular language, it doesn’t convince the people. It also doesn’t convince the Palestinians. You have to change the story. You have to come up with a peace of values.

“I believe in Zionism. I believe also that to be here is part of the fulfillment of a dream of Jewish history, of a dream of the prophets, even the fulfillment of God’s will that the Jewish people is back in their homeland. But I can’t say then that it’s an accident that there’s another people living here.

“You can’t have it halfway. If it’s God’s will that we’re back, and this is a fulfillment of Jewish destiny that we’re back in our homeland, then it’s part of this also that there’s another people living here

“If we expect of the other – the Arab world and the Palestinian people – to accept our right to self definition, we must accept the same from them. That’s the essence of Judaism,” he said.

“I found radical Muslim leaders who said, if you come with that kind of attitude, a religious attitude that we believe in one God, that we come together in the Holy Land to respect each other – if that’s the attitude then we’ll go along with such a peace of two states for two people. Nobody ever offered such a thing,” Rabbi Melchior said.

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