Photo Credit:
Left to Right - Dr Joseph Ringel, Dr Aly ElSamman, Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, Dr Omer Salem, Rebecca Abrahamson, Bridgitte lSamman, March 2016, Cairo

“It could be dangerous Rebecca! You have your family and grandchildren to worry about, don’t even think of it.”

She was right; it could be dangerous, going to Egypt now, and not as a tourist but with the purpose to engage in dialogue, crossing lines that have become walls, attempting to breach fortresses that should not ever have been erected in the first place.

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It could be even more dangerous not to go. Our ultimate goals – Israeli and Egyptian intellectual exchange on the many levels that exist in both societies, and dialogue that includes religion and an honest recognition of and respect for the other.

Dr Omer Salem of Yale and AlAzhar Universities was the catalyst. I have been referred to as “ultra-orthodox peace activist”, and traveled as a journalist, along with Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Israel, and Fullbright scholar Dr Joseph Ringel of Haifa University. A student of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, Rabbi of Tekoa and peace activist, Rabbi Nagen is active in Israeli – Palestinian conciliation.[1]

Dr. Salem has been tirelessly advocating for conciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and sees rapprochement on a theological level as key, which he discusses in his new book, “The Missing Peace.” The contact which we sought – and successfully achieved, is taboo right now. Only four and a half years ago the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt was airlifted from the embassy in Cairo in response to rioting. Although the embassy reopened in September 2015, Egyptian Parliamentarian Tawkif Okasha was removed from his position merely for hosting the Israeli ambassador in his home, March 2 2016. But Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty going back thirty-seven years, no war for forty-three, it’s time we turn this very cold peace into something real.

Dr Aly el-Samman:Normalization and Mutual Respect

Dr Aly el-Samman, former advisor to Anwar Sadat and active in interfaith work, is doing something about it. Hosting us in his home, this octogenarian spoke slowly with the aplomb of a seasoned leader and descendant of a saint[2]. He had just returned from the Muslim evening prayer – maghrib, and he had that slight bruise on his forehead that bespeaks of the five times daily bowing to the ground. Egyptians, he claims, are tired of cold peace with Israel. “We signed an agreement with Israel, it is time to honor that and have real relations – travel, dialogue, contact. Thursday March 10 I am publishing an article in the newspaper al-Bawaba chiding the Egyptian public for the continued tatbia – boycott. Tatbia is not logical or ethical. Egyptian public opinion is increasingly tilting against the tatbia.” He offered an example, “The newspaper Al Masry Al Yom also came out with a piece in support of normalization with Israel, written under the penname ‘Newton.’ Israelis are special people; you need to know the key to their mind and heart.”

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen has an energetic demeanor and the youthful smile of one who has just fallen in love. Constantly emphasizing the need to connect the head with the heart in cross cultural relations, he took Dr el-Samman’s cue, “Sadat opened the hearts of the Israeli public when he went to the Knesset.”

Still, Dr. el-Samman said that regardless of the strides that dialogue can make, a real stumbling block for Egyptians in normalization with Israel is any mistreatment of Palestinians,

Rabbi Nagen responded, “I work with many Palestinian sheikhs. Oslo did not work for anyone. We want Abrahamic union – citizens of the Holy Land would be both Israeli and Abrahamic or Palestinian and Abrahamic, just like a European can be both French and European or Spanish and European. Palestine and Israel can have a border, but an open one. We propose taking turns concerning who governs the entire area, and all can live anywhere they wish.”

Dr el-Samman responded that union at this point is premature. The Palestinians crave identity. Start with two states, then work towards – “how did you refer to it?”

“Abrahamic Union,” responded Rabbi Nagen, but he reasserted his objection to two states, “there are 120,000 Palestinians who work daily in Israel. If we fully separate, they may build a huge wall and not ever unite.”Brigitte, el-Samman’s wife, piped in brilliantly, “The future of a wall is to be destroyed.” But Rabbi Nagen was not so sure.  “Two states may mean closed borders and I have Palestinian friends who fear that.”

More important than the impromptu peace proposals being worked out between Rabbi and Muslim leader, was the respectful dialogue and meeting of minds, which can only occur with an honest recognition of and respect for the other. And religious dialogue must be a factor.

“We need religion on the map for lasting peace,” Dr. Salem insisted. “Sadat’s vision could not sustain because it did not match the identity of the people, which for good or bad is tied up with religion. People pray five times a day, they do not read UN charters five times a day.Go to a shop in Egypt and you see a copy of the Qur’an, so emphasizing the positive Qur’anic statements about Jews is vital. If I respect Rabbi Nagen’s Torah, then instead of blowing his mistakes out of proportion, I will work with him, hold him to his own standards.”

And this is what I proposed the night before, where I spoke at a small gathering, “Hold me to Torah standards like a big brother would,” and, “Ishmael is described as righteous by our sages.[3] A loving older brother would never exaggerate or publicize his younger brother’s faults, but help heal them. The Jewish experience is largely influenced by fear. When we do wrong as a people, as a state, be our loving older brother, please rebuke and support with love.”

Still at that gathering, Fulbright Dr Joseph Ringel spoke. He offered a perspective on Israel to this audience that should soften the impression that many Egyptians have. “The voices of tolerance and harmony in Zionism were classically stronger than any of the few violent voices that existed, so there is much base for recognizing our mutual interests and humanity. The key is more meetings like this; this will lead to harmony and working together as brethren to build a model to build a better society and a better world.”[4]

Mutual respect graduates us from other-blaming to problem-solving.

You must believe in the Other. And you too can be part of grassroots efforts. Hold that thought. Next article – meetings at AlAzhar University, the oldest running university in the world and center of Islamic scholarship today.

Ps. It is hard, I admit, leaving your heart scattered around the world as you grow to love more and more. Egypt is colorful and full of love, go there and touch the people.


 

[1] Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen is a leading rabbinical figure in interfaith encounters in the Holy Land. He has organized prayer vigils bringing together Israelis and Palestinians against religiously motivated violence.

[2] See his book, “Egypt, from one Revolution to Another”.

[3] Talmud, Baba Kamma on Genesis 25

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w60yVB1TS_A

 

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There is so much more to share about this trip. More articles describing this trip will be serialized. Google “Rebecca Abrahamson – Egypt is Colorful and Full of Love” for next in series.

3 Talmud, Baba Kamma on Genesis 25

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Rebecca Abrahamson is active in cultural diplomacy, has traveled in this capacity to Istanbul and Cairo, co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, and is editor of "Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims." She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and cultural diplomacy, and busy with her children and grandchildren.
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