Why Israel should look east for a model of religious moderation


When Eli Bareket was growing up in Israel, he reached the final of a pre-Pesach school quiz. One of the questions, about the Seder song Echad Mi Yadea, asked "who knows two"?

Two are the tablets which Moses brought down from Sinai, of course. But that was not what young Eli wrote. He put down "Moses and Aaron". "Wrong," said the teacher.

Except that he was right. His family, originally from Libya, sang the song at their Seder in Arabic and that version has two brothers rather than two tablets. But the teacher had no idea of the variant. When a child is led to believe that what he is taught at home is incorrect, Mr Bareket said, "he begins to doubt his parents, his tradition, his culture".

Jews whose families came to Israel from Arab lands often had to contend with such ignorance. The Judaism that evolved in Islamic countries was widely considered inferior to the Judaism of the West.

When someone's tradition is diminished in their own eyes, they are left with little incentive to preserve it. "If a person doesn't know anything about their identity," he said, "it is easy to impose something on them - that they come from nothing. And to give them a story of failure. After a generation or two, they forget. They believe their grandfather was a nice Jew who was streetwise, with lots of warmth and love - but not worth much."

Religious people 'should do all in their power to spread peace'

But he did not forget. Instead, he has dedicated his adult life to encouraging Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews like himself to reclaim their heritage. He was a founder of an organisation Memizrach Shemesh ("from the rising of the sun"), which combines education with social activism. His work last year earned him one of the annual human rights awards from the UK branch of the New Israel Fund. Now he heads the Jewish identity division of Kol Yisrael Chaverim - the Hebrew name of the one of the most venerable international Jewish organisations, the Alliance Israelite Universelle - which sponsors Memizrach Shemesh.

It is often assumed that Jews from the Middle East are more hostile to Arabs because of the experiences that led to their families' exodus from their countries of origin. But he believes that the cultural background of Mizrachi Jews can help them to build bridges between Jews and Arabs as well as to foster a "more moderate and inclusive Jewish outlook".

Children who grew up in Israel know basically nothing of the identity of Jews from Arab lands," he said at the NIF awards ceremony. "They do learn that it is bad to be an Arab and they also learn that a Jewish Arab is no better. For as long as Israeli society perceives the Arab as an enemy and their Arabness is a threat, Jews from Arab countries are perceived as a cultural threat to Israeli society."

He recalls a school trip when he and his friends were discouraged by a teacher from singing Arabic songs on the bus as though it were unworthy of their education.

While religion can be a divisive force, Memizrach Shemesh believes that Sephardi teachings can provide precedents for civic values of tolerance and co-existence.

A few years ago a prominent Israeli rabbi ignited controversy by declaring that Jewish law prohibited Jews from renting property to Arabs in Israel. "He based his ruling on legitimate verses so it was hard to argue with him," Mr Bareket said. "For the Israeli democratic camp, it was another reason to distance the Jewish religion and rabbis from the public realm."

But rather than accept this as the only valid halachic position, Memizrach Shemesh found a different source to challenge it - from Chacham Yom Tov Algazi, the Rishon le Zion, head of the Sephardi community in Israel some 200 years ago. "Rav Algazi brought good enough reasons as to why the sale of property to Arabs is in fact allowed and that's what the Sephardi Jews who lived in the land of Israel did throughout the generations."

When violence returned to the streets of Jerusalem last autumn, they tried to calm the atmosphere, putting up posters with the words of another Sephardi sage, Rabbi Hezekiah Shabbetai, Chief Rabbi of Aleppo and Tripoli a century ago: "You will love your neighbour as yourself - and for men to love their brother and to come to their aid is not just meant between Jews but also for our neighbours, the non-Jews. We should also treat them with love and to pursue what is also good and peaceful for them."

A favourite quotation of his is from Rabbi Shlomo Malka of Sudan, who wrote 75 years ago that religious people "should do all in their power to spread peace and to stamp out hostility and hatred, to purify the atmosphere from religious fanaticism".

Words, sadly, as timely now as they were then.

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