An inside look at interreligious reconciliation

Rabbi David RosenRabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), has been advancing understanding and good relations between religious communities for more than 40 years. He has been involved in this area from the time he served as rabbi of the largest Orthodox Jewish congregation in South Africa, during his tenure as chief rabbi of Ireland and throughout more than 30 years based in Jerusalem.

In addition to interfaith representation and education, his work involves mediation and peace-building, and he is heavily involved in multi-religious engagement on ecological issues.

Among the various awards and recognition he has received, Rosen was granted a papal knighthood in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, and he was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his work promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation.

Q: Welcome, Rabbi David Rosen, to Wikistrat’s expert interview series and thank you for taking the time to join us. Since you are recognized as a leading expert in the field of interfaith work, I want to start off by asking you about how you got started in this field.

A: The story goes back to when I was the rabbi of the largest Orthodox congregation in the world, which was located in Cape Town, South Africa. This was at the height of apartheid, and it was important to me that my congregation and I would work against the unjust and racist policies of the South African government at that time. One of the few ways that one could do so without being imprisoned or expelled was through interreligious dialogue. So, I came to this field out of a commitment to social justice, which I believe to be foundational to Jewish teachings and values.

When I became involved in this work, I came to the realization that people of other faiths were amazingly ignorant about me and my faith and that it was important for them to get to know me to overcome those prejudices. At the same time, I grew to understand that I was amazingly ignorant about them and carried with me all kinds of preconceived notions—and, if I wanted to be understood, then I needed to understand.

Years later, I became the fourth chief rabbi of Ireland. My predecessor, Lord [Immanuel] Jakobovits, used to say that “in Ireland 95% of the population is Catholic, 5% is Protestant, and I am chief rabbi of the rest.” This provides some insight into what it meant to be chief rabbi there; you must take care of the Jewish community’s needs, but another major responsibility is to serve as a representative of Judaism to the Christian population.

Then, when I moved to Israel in 1985, Jewish organizations who knew of my work asked me to represent them abroad. First, I served as the interreligious liaison to the Vatican for the Anti-Defamation League and then [as] head of the Israel office of the ADL, and now I am leading the American Jewish Committee interfaith work around the world, which is my dream job.

Q: At a time when there is political deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, do you see any possibility for progress on the religious or interfaith front?

A: Let me start by saying that I think one of the main reasons that past initiatives have failed, including the Oslo Accords, was the failure to take the religious dimension of the conflict seriously. This conflict is not only about tangibles but involves intangibles, including identity and culture rooted within religious tradition. If that is not taken into account at a deep psycho-spiritual level, then the superficial initiatives will flounder. This is not to suggest that rabbis or imams should take the place of politicians in negotiating agreements, but it is important to bring them in on the process.

Q: What do you see as potential solutions for contentious religious sites that are holy to two or more faiths, like the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa compound?

A: There can be no solution on issues of this importance and sensitivity if there is no interreligious understanding and collaboration around it. In the case of Hebron, for example, at the Cave of the Patriarchs, we have seen the implementation of a principle that, when religions share a particular holy site, methods can be found to divide it in such a way that enables each side to use it according to their own liturgical needs.

The situation regarding the Temple Mount is a unique one. According to the Chief Rabbinate and the vast majority of the Jewish religious authorities, Jews are not meant to go up to the Temple Mount. That is precisely why Moshe Dayan could tell the Islamic Authority, also known as the Waqf, that they need not worry and, though they were now under the political authority of Israel, that the government would not interfere with the religious management of the site.

Of course, if we could put an end to the conflict and thereby put an end to the politicization of religion, then there is a possibility that those Jewish people who want to go to the southern end of the Temple Mount to pray could do so. This would not infringe in any way on the ability of Muslims to worship in the Haram al-Sharif [Al-Aqsa compound]. However, so long as our societies remain in conflict then fundamental suspicions regarding each other’s intentions will persist.

Q: Changing focus now to the Vatican, your work has led to a transformation within the Catholic Church and its relationship to the Jewish people. Can you speak a bit more about that?

A: The AJC was one of the pioneers when the Catholic Church started opening up to the world at large and to the Jewish world in particular. My predecessor at the AJC, Conservative Rabbi Mark Tannenbaum, together with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, engaged the Catholic Church as it started out on this journey. This has led to an absolutely amazing transformation in which the Jewish people, who had been seen by the Church as rejected by God and condemned, are now described by that very same organization as a dearly beloved “elder brother.”

There is no real parallel for this 180-degree turn in human history, and it has reached the point of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and the classification of anti-Semitism as a sin incompatible with true Christian belief. That has ramifications for the rest of interreligious relationships, including Jewish-Muslim relations. If a relationship that was so toxic throughout history can be transformed, then it seems that current relationships poisoned by politics are redeemable and restorable.

The first steps for this radical transformation of the Church were taken in the ’60s, and then the institutional structure was developed in the ’70s, but some felt the reconciliation was incomplete so long as the Church did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel. This final step was guided not only by diplomats but also by clergy on both sides—and it was a very exciting privilege for me to take part in that. It paved the way for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel and, during that visit, he took the initiative to meet with the Chief Rabbinate Council and asked to set up a direct bilateral commission between the Chief Rabbinate and the Vatican.

This was not something that the Chief Rabbinate had considered; after all, they do not even have dialogues with different currents within Judaism, so they had not conceived of such an arrangement with other faiths. But, when the pope asks, it is rather difficult to say no. Though I am not employed by the Chief Rabbinate, I am both an adviser and part of the official delegation of the Chief Rabbinate for relations with other faiths. As a result, I represent Israel as well as the Jewish Diaspora through AJC.

Q: I understand that you are heading to Auschwitz with a senior Saudi religious official on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.

A: I have been in contact with Saudi religious leaders for the past decade or so as a result of an initiative taken by the previous king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Even though many perceive Saudi Arabia as only beginning to change now under King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the truth is that many positive changes started under King Abdullah. He was the leader who launched initiatives to send tens of thousands of Saudis abroad for education, to develop women’s education, and to get involved in interfaith relations in order to change the kingdom’s attitude towards other religions and its presentation of Islam.

In 2005, together with Austria, Spain and the Vatican, King Abdullah established an institute for interreligious relations, the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). The board of the center consists of nine people: three Christians (representing the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch), three Muslims (two Sunni and one Shi’ite), one Hindu, one Buddhist, and I am the one Jewish representative. For the Saudis to agree for an Israeli rabbi to serve on the board of an institution they established was a big deal. I think I am the only Israeli rabbi to have ever been received by the king of Saudi Arabia.

Five members of our board met with the king and at that meeting he said to us, “The Torah, the New Testament and the Koran all have the interest of humankind at their core. Therefore, it is our obligation to work together for the betterment of humanity.”

KAICIID has provided me with the opportunity to meet with Muslim religious leaders, especially from Saudi Arabia, who have never met a Jew before. Let alone a rabbi. Let alone an Israeli rabbi. More often than not, the vast majority of their knowledge of Judaism and Israel has come from very negatively prejudiced, if not anti-Semitic, propaganda. Therefore, it is very important for me to have the opportunity to engage them. At the end of our conversations, when they see we can discuss important issues in a way that is both productive and respectful to their religion, it is quite dramatic to see how attitudes can change.

One of the most important religious leaders I have had the opportunity to meet through the KAICIID is the secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa. Appointed by King Salman to this position two years ago, the secretary-general of the MWL is bureaucratically the most important figure in the Muslim world and he has completely changed his organization’s orientation.

Historically, the MWL has disseminated a hardline or ultra-orthodox view of Islam around the world which would sometimes influence traditionally moderate societies to become more religiously extreme. It is now seeking to propagate a brand of Islam that is tolerant and moderate, and has issued statements condemning Holocaust denial and standing in solidarity with victims of anti-Semitism.

Al-Issa believes in dialogue and wants to conduct it with the Jewish community both in the Diaspora and in Israel. Two months ago, I shared a platform with him at a United Nations conference on the subject of responsible religious leadership. Prior to that, the AJC hosted him at an event where he and AJC CEO David Harris signed an MOU that included, inter alia, an agreement on the part of al-Issa to visit Auschwitz with us on the 75th anniversary of its liberation. I hope we are going to see that agreement come to fruition next January.

Q: Thank you for joining us, David, for what was a very interesting discussion.

A: It was my pleasure. Thank you.


Rabbi David Rosen with Pope Francis
Rabbi David Rosen (far right) during a private audience with Pope Francis during the 16th Meeting of the Joint Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See at the Vatican, November 2018. Credit: Courtesy.

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