Knesset member and Silver Spring native Rabbi Dov Lipman spoke about diversity and pluralism in Israel to a group of around 20 Christian clergy last Thursday, citing the shared religious ventures and organizations he knew in America as part of the basis of his work as a politician to encourage a more tolerant and diverse society in his adopted country.
“Coming from the U.S., I saw different religions working together as very natural,” Lipman said.
He expressed amazement at compliments he had received on his bravery as a politician to speak for interreligious cooperation when to him it seemed so obviously a good idea.
“It wasn’t courageous; I just saw it as the way I grew up,” he said.
Lipman spoke to the clergy as part of a weeklong trip around the Washington, D.C., area as the first scholar in residence for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Israel Action Center.
Although he gave public talks as part of his tour, he and the JCRC made it a point to hold this meeting with the Christian clergy, who often interact and work with the Jewish community locally but who had concerns or did not necessarily know a great deal about Israel in terms of religious minorities.
“It’s a chance for them to understand how complex the situation is there,” said Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, director of social justice and interfaith initiatives at the JCRC.
Steinlauf helped organize the event, which included a broad spectrum of denominations and political leanings but, she said, all of them had been enthusiastic about the opportunity to attend.
“We knew the Christian community has concerns about peace in the Middle East,” she said.
Although he did not shy away from talking about the shortcomings of current Israeli policy and acknowledged that there exist real problems, he said he was optimistic about what Israeli society could be in the bigger picture.
“Israel is not simply a safe haven for Jews to run to but really a chance to be a light to the world,” Lipman said.
Lipman spent some time talking about the difficulties of moving the peace process forward when the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s original charter declared their intent of destroying Israel, but said the fact they have moved beyond that and accepted the fact of Israel’s existence points to possible hope.
“It is possible to make peace,” he said.
After the talk, Lipman opened the floor to questions, joking that after enduring a political campaign in Israel no question could bother him. One issue that the assembled Christian clergy especially seemed concerned about was access to the holy sites around Israel for Christians. Lipman acknowledged the seriousness of site access but made it clear that official Israeli policy is that all people have full access to their holy sites. He also pointed out the inclusion of that topic in negotiations with the Palestinians over areas like Hebron, so that Jews too would be able to visit areas of religious importance. “It’s critical they remain open,” he said.
Breaking down the barriers and building trust among different communities is vital to Israel’s goals of peace, Lipman said. He talked about the importance of activities like the Maccabiah Games and other activities that bring people together and show how they are similar, especially since younger people are more likely to overcome prejudice when put together with people different from themselves.
“The moment you expose them to it, it becomes natural,” he said, concluding that far off though it may seem, the idea of a peaceful Middle East has to be believed before it can ever be real.
“You have to dream,” he said.