Rabbi: Muslims Have Sheltered Jewish People
June 5, 2008 by TMO
Courtesy Tehran Times Political Desk
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Gottlieb, one of (according to the Tehran Times) the first ten women rabbis in the history of Judaism, on May 10 visited the offices of the Tehran Times and the Mehr News Agency, heading a delegation of 21 peace activists from the United States. The interfaith delegation included people of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Indigenous religious confessions from 11 different U.S. states. Following are excerpts from an interview conducted by the Tehran Times with Rabbi Lynn Gottleib.
Q: You have visited many Iranian Jews during your trip. Do they like living in Iran? What is your view of them?
A: I am the first woman rabbi to visit Iran. I had the opportunity to visit and attend religious services at Tehran’s synagogue, with the rest of the members of this delegation as well, to visit the Jewish hospital, and to hear from (outgoing Jewish MP) Morris Motamed and Siamak Mursadeq, who is the future parliamentarian. Several of us also visited the Jewish community in Shiraz and we also met a Jewish shop owner and his son in Isfahan, and we also shared a meal with Mr. Mursadeq in his home and had a lengthy conversation. And as well, we have visited the Armenian (Orthodox Christian) religious community. For me personally, that was very moving and very exciting.
It’s important for us to know about this ancient Jewish community (in Iran), which is the oldest community outside of Israel that exists in the world, and has preserved the traditional ways of Jewish people, and everyone that we have spoken to, whether they have visited Israel or not, has affirmed that they have in Iran only some minor challenges, such as the inheritance law. But we know that there is openness in the parliament and with the Supreme Leader, and among the population, to resolve those challenges… They are of Middle Eastern origin and have a unique perspective to offer us in maintaining a good relationship with their Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters and have been living in peace with their neighbors for 30 centuries.
For much of the world Jewish community, whose history often reflects the difficult times they have had in Europe, it is important to remember that the Islamic world has sheltered the Jewish people throughout our long history.
We are so saddened, not just as Jews but as Americans, and in this I know I reflect the feeling of the whole delegation, at how tragic and unnecessary the war and the American invasion of Iraq has been, and we are deeply distressed at the destruction of the Iraqi culture and people and we are praying for a speedy withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
(Here) we have eaten well, we have been graciously hosted, we have loved the people of Iran, and we have had wonderful conversations… This is a community that expresses many different views within the context of a tremendous spirit of hospitality, which we have so appreciated. And that is the tradition we share. Abraham was known for his great hospitality, and in Jewish tradition this is the reason that he is known as a prophet among us not only for his revelation of tawhid (monotheism), but also because his revelation of tawhid and unity came with his extensive hospitality to strangers. We also learned that it was Cyrus who returned the Jews first to the land of Israel after they were first exiled and helped us rebuild our temple there. He also wrote the first declaration of human rights in human history. We honor the people of Iran for this advanced understanding that human rights must be the heart of any religious expression.
Q: The 60th anniversary of the establishment of Israel is approaching. Is it justifiable that, based on its past problems, one nation should treat another nation in the same way as it was treated before and create the same problems for that nation?
A: When I was 17 years old, I had the opportunity to go to high school in Israel, in Haifa. And I also attended university there. And since that time I have returned to Israel almost every year. Most recently, in the past 12 years, I have led seven delegations from this organization, Fellowship of Reconciliation, to Israel and to Palestine. The first year that I was in Israel, I remember being very excited, of course, and driving up the hill to Jerusalem, and seeing lights on the side of the road and I asked Zev Vilnay, who was the grandfather of tourism in Israel, “Who lives there?” And he told me those are Arab villagers.
And in my innocence and youth, I didn’t know the history of the Middle East. At that time I was anxious to learn, because from my own history, both the Holocaust and knowing the loss of human lives there, and the civil rights movement in Israel, and the struggle of African Americans to attain human rights, and the genocide of Native American people in the United States, which is an ongoing issue… Anyway, I went to see Mansour, the Palestinian journalist… I went to his house, by myself, with my Israeli host, who was my age. We knocked on his door, we were invited in, he served tea, and I said, “I am here to interview Mansour.” I had no appointment. He was very shocked, but he granted me the interview. He said, “Why do you want to interview me?” And I said, “Mr. Mansour, can you tell me what it’s like to be an Israeli Arab?” That was the term I used. And he looked at me and he said to me, “Young woman, if you want to know my story, I will tell you, but if I tell you my story, then you will have responsibility for that knowledge.” I said, “I want to know your story.” And he told me the story of the Nakba, of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, the destruction of over 400 villages at that time in 1948. I was 17.
Since that time, 41 years ago, I have been working constantly on raising up, in my own community and in the Christian community in the United States, the desire of Palestinians for national sovereignty in their own land. And in this period of time, earlier it was calling for negotiations between the PLO and Israel, just as this delegation is calling… and in this current time, calling for an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine as the only way that will allow peaceful negotiations and a settlement between our peoples.
Q: How do you evaluate the role of interfaith dialogue in achieving world peace?
A: This delegation represents the possibility of world peace in the very nature of our coming together. We as a delegation travel together in an interfaith context to promote the role of interfaith dialogue as an invaluable resource in promoting peace. If we can travel together, sit together, eat together, talk together, get to know each other, maintain our unity, and learn from each other, this can be an example of the peace that is possible, and we found this very much reflected in Iran. There is freedom of religion here; we have discovered it in our travels. And perhaps our work together can be an example and model of interfaith dialogue on both the level of clergy or religious leaders and among the community itself. We advocate both dialogue among people as well as leaders.
Q: Is there any way to stop disrespect toward religions?
A: The media in the United States, for instance, could work a lot harder to promote religious understanding, especially of Shiism… Personally, I don’t think it’s as much a problem of religions as it is politics. Some people use religion to separate. Those of us who care about world peace must lift up those things in our tradition that help us find common ground. We are all cut from the same jewel.
After the events of 9/11, when planes were flown into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, and there was a third plane that did not reach its destination, the religious community in the United States, all across the United States, reached out to the Muslim community.
In my own situation, my Sunni partner in dialogue and I cofounded the Muslim-Jewish peace walk. Our idea was very simple. Pilgrimage is common to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Our idea was that we should all dress in white, which is the pilgrimage garment, and carry no signs except for peace, and walk in a peaceful pilgrimage from a synagogue, to a church, to a mosque and to go inside as a religious community. Everyone was invited.
We had the first peace walk in Mexico five years ago. We had participation from the Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Native American, and Buddhist communities. Everyone came inside the synagogue and offered prayers for peace in their own religious tradition, and then we went to the masjid (mosque) and people went inside. So you can imagine what it’s like to be inside a masjid and have a Jewish rabbi and a Christian priest and a Buddhist monk and a Native American spiritual elder and so forth offering prayers in the mosque, in the name of peace. That also occurred in a synagogue and a church, and in this way we truly enacted the idea that all of us are one religion. While we respect the differences in each religion, of course, is it not good to offer prayers for peace for each other in our holy places?
This walk is in its fifth year, and it has spread to 16 different cities throughout the United States and Canada.