In a mosque in Western Sydney, at an Iftar (a meal marking the breaking of the fast for one of the days of Ramadan), I received an unexpectedly warm welcome – beyond the genuine displays of friendship I have received from Muslim groups with which I was better acquainted.
One of the leaders of the community, while greeting me enthusiastically, explained to a group, including MPs and other civic leaders, that the municipality of Haifa had recently given an unused synagogue building to his co-religionists, and he wanted all and sundry to know about Israel’s active support for religious freedom.
In Nazareth, Haifa and Jerusalem this February, I met with Muslims, Christians and Bahais, Druze, Maronites, people who identify as Arab Israelis and as Israeli Palestinians, all of whom were participating in a vibrant multi-faith, multicultural society.
From the beautiful Bahai Temple overlooking the Mediterranean, the incredible Churches (there are two) of the Annunciation and the sublimely spiritual White Mosque in Nazareth, to the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem which has on display the plaque announcing the authority of the British Mandatory government, there is stark evidence across the country that a very active multi-religious dynamic is part of the reality of the “Jewish State”.
I spoke with a Muslim and with a Christian who had officially represented Israel at intergovernmental forums, as happy to be Israeli as they are proud of other aspects of their identities. That they are involved in initiatives which challenge the status quo has done nothing to lessen their acceptance and involvement in broader Israeli society.
When any of my discussions turned to the subject of the current tensions and prospect for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, condemnations of the obsessive Israel-bashers in the West were passionate and consistent and often contained the same advice – let people exposed to crazed anti-Israel defamations come and see the country for themselves.
Although the media reported efforts by a number of self-serving cynics and bigots in the NSW ALP to try to restrict possibilities for Labor members to gain the type of nuanced insights into Israel well-known to AIR readers, their activities barely registered on the radar of people trying seriously to build cultures of social justice and peace.
On learning of them, the contempt was overwhelming – what sort of pathetic, amoral bully would publicly advocate ignorance? What anti-intellectual thuggery would try to present every aspect of Israeli life through the prism of an unresolved political conflict? Specifically, how is closing down any avenue to learning consistent with any democratic or liberal ideals?
If we are to take this line of questioning a little further, what sort of political movement would tolerate those identifying themselves with it to shout down lecturers, intimidate people wanting to hear informed perspectives and even threatening physical violence against experts and anyone else who has a different interpretation of causes of, and solutions for, difficult problems.
In two cities I visited on this trip, I met people who possibly had entirely missed out on opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the way the human beings who live in the region understand and deal with life’s challenges. These were in Christian groups, which had managed to not meet any Jewish people (or even very many Muslims), on tightly scripted pilgrimages, visiting the physical past without much reference to the living present.
When AIJAC arranges visits to Israel for thinking, intelligent people from Australia and the Asia/Pacific, we do all we can to expose our guests to a wide range of viewpoints, show them some of the geography, history, cultural diversity and achievements of Israeli society, and enable them to meet and talk with Israeli and Palestinian policy makers, experts and activists from across the spectrum.
That anti-Israel activists are so afraid of knowledge that they try to act like schoolyard bullies to prevent people visiting that country says a great deal.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.