For 10 years, from 1999, Rabbi Michael Melchior was a member of Knesset, elected via the dovish Meimad faction — the political face of moderate religious Zionism.
Apart from holding a ministerial position with responsibilities for the Diaspora and for social affairs, and deputy ministerial posts in the Education and Foreign Affairs ministries, Melchior worked hard during that period to bolster interfaith dialogue — seeking to provide a kind of religious authorization, from influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, for the political compromises necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A highpoint of that effort was an interfaith summit in Alexandria, in 2002, at which influential religious leaders put their names to a declaration opposing the abuse of religion in the cause of conflict, and asserting the joint interest of the three monotheistic faiths in a joint quest “for a just peace that leads to reconciliation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, for the common good of all our peoples.”
The signatories — who included six rabbis, four bishops and four sheikhs — stated that “The Holy Land is holy to all three of our faiths. Therefore, followers of the divine religions must respect its sanctity, and bloodshed must not be allowed to pollute it.” And so, declaration continued, “We call on the political leaders of both peoples to work for a just, secure and durable solution in the spirit of the words of the Almighty and the Prophets.”
A decade later, Melchior, 58 and now out of party politics, is if anything more fervent in his belief that the religious support for reconciliation is there — emphatically including from spiritual leaders representing Islam. He says too many Israelis and supporters of Israel have bought into the false assessment that peace with the Palestinians is impossible, that the leadership on the other side is unwilling to make the necessary compromises, and that Muslim religious zealots would prevent any such compromises even if Palestinian political leaders did negotiate it.
I have met with a whole strata of the most radical – the more radical, the better, from my point of view. I have yet to meet with somebody who is not willing to make peace
In an interview in Jerusalem to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, Melchior repeatedly stressed his conviction that the desire for reconciliation is there on the other side, among the Palestinians, if only Israelis would open their eyes to see it, and open their arms to seize it. He said he meets all the time with all kinds of Muslim figures, including the most extreme, and asserted that, yes, absolutely, they are prepared to live in peace alongside our Jewish state, the sovereign state of Israel. He said he has sat down with the “whole strata of the most radical players,” and, however improbable this may sound, “I have yet to meet with somebody who is not willing to make peace” on that basis.
Melchior, who was born in Denmark into a family with a seven-generation history of rabbis, moved to Israel in 1986. From here, he still serves as chief rabbi of Norway, and his name was raised as a possible candidate for next chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, a job of which he speaks highly but one he says he would not take. He made aliya, he says simply, “to live in Jerusalem” — to be part of the revived sovereign Jewish state.
The interview, conducted together with The Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent Raphael Ahren, began with a discussion which Ahren is writing up separately on issues relating to the Diaspora, including the current disputes in Europe over Jewish rites such as circumcision and shechita. Then we moved on to talk about the possibilities for peacemaking, which sprang from a question I asked Melchior about ties between American Jewry and Israel. Excerpts:
The Times of Israel: We’re coming up to Rosh Hashanah. What’s your sense of the American-Jewish/Israel relationship? Is Israel becoming less central. Do you see a widening divide. Or is everything strong?
Michael Melchior: What I am afraid of is not so much what is happening with American Jews. I’m afraid of what’s happening here. That’s more what interests me, and what happens here affects what happens in America.
I’m a little afraid that we here are living a little in a bubble. And we send that message to the American Jews we are in contact with. The vast majority of the American Jews are probably not affected. But the ones who come here often, the more pro-active American Jews, are affected.
We have somehow convinced ourselves that we are living in a situation where it’s not possible to achieve what the vast, vast majority of the people here want: People here want a just society, a society where there’s much more equality. And the vast, vast majority want peace here – peace with our neighbors.
But we’ve somehow bought the argument that it’s not possible, that there’s nobody to make peace with – that our neighbors don’t want it, Islam doesn’t want it, it’s impossible, at least in our foreseeable future. And we sold that argument to at least a part of the more active of the American Jews. I think that’s a catastrophe, because it’s not true.
It is possible to create a just society. If we don’t do it, we’re really in for very, very bad times here. And it is possible to build peace here, in a very, very short time. Our neighbors are more than ready. Islam is more than ready to do that.
I’ve said for the last 20-25 years that Islam would take over all our neighboring countries, and slowly it’s happening. Not that I want any credit for it. And everybody’s analyzing if it’s good news or bad news. I can’t say if it’s good news or bad news. That’s for all the analysts, who, by the way are always wrong about practically everything – always wrong. Not that they ever, ever admit that they’re wrong or find something else to do.
I’m not an analyst. I look at my role as trying to do my little part in creating the future. What I think we should be doing is to create that peace together with our neighbors. And as the person — at least in the Jewish world or in the state of Israel — who more than probably any other person has met with leading personalities, including Islamists, on the other side, amongst the Palestinians, amongst the Arab countries that we have relations with, and (the ones) we don’t have relations with, I have yet to meet with personalities who are not willing to make peace with us.
I come to them as a staunch Zionist, as a rabbi, somebody who believes with all his heart in the future of the state of Israel as a state of the Jewish people which will be here for all of the future, not as somebody who is willing to give up in some wishy washy (way). And everybody knows that that is where I come from. I have met with a whole strata of the most radical – the more radical, the better, from my point of view. I have yet to meet with somebody who is not willing to make peace based on that formula.
Everybody. Everybody. I can’t specify, but including people who I probably shouldn’t meet with, all kinds of leaders…
And they’ve agreed to have a Jewish, sovereign state…?
Yes, a Jewish sovereign state in the land of the Wakf, in the land of dar al-Islam, a Jewish sovereign state, here, yes.
I know you just met with Mahmoud Abbas, but you’re also talking about…?
Abbas, that’s easy. Everybody meets with him.
So these wonderful intimations you’ve heard. Who from?
I’m talking about the much more radical Islamists. I can’t be more specific – in the Palestinian territories, in Judea, in Samaria, in Gaza, in Egypt, in all the North African countries…
People with real authority?
People with real authority, more extreme people, people at all levels with all the authority…
And they say this only to you?
They are also willing, under the right circumstances we have to create, to go out and to say it, to sign it, in all capacities.
The Hamas leadership…?
In my assessment it is possible to make peace with Hamas.
How many years have we been saying that the Islamic Brotherhood will never, never accept a Jewish state, the state of Israel, here? Now, suddenly, they (the Egyptians) have sent their ambassador here… and they have peace with Israel in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood presidency.
Hamas is a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood. How many years have we been saying that the Islamic Brotherhood will never, never accept a Jewish state, the state of Israel, here? Those who have been following carefully what the Islamic Brotherhood have been saying and writing — which people don’t do, even the Arabists never do it — well, they had been talking long before the Arab Spring, or whatever you want to call it, about the possibility of living with an Israel here. But that of course has never been reported here, because it doesn’t fit into our picture of Islam.
Now, suddenly, they (the Egyptians) have sent their ambassador here. Now that doesn’t mean it’s a clearcut position, but they have appointed this ambassador and they have peace with Israel in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood presidency.
Let’s close our eyes for a moment. Let’s just say that the following would be possible: That we could have a religious peace between Judaism and Islam, where the leading Jewish and Islamic authorities would give their religious legitimization to a two-state solution, which would accept that there is a Jewish state next to a Palestinian state living in peace. Not a hudna, not an armistice. Living in full peace next to each other. Even beyond that – with an Arab minority living in Israel, maybe even with a Jewish minority living in Palestine.
Let’s say that this would get the support from leading Islamic authorities — from the Islamic Brotherhood, Hamas and Fatah — and the leading rabbis and the poskim (authorities on Jewish law), 80 or 90 percent of the poskim. Would that be good?
That would be good.
That would be good. Okay. Now my claim is that it is not only possible, but that it is very much within reach.
What needs to happen for that to occur?
Well, first of all, people are already speaking to each other. The majority of Islamic authorities and a majority of Jewish authorities already support such a solution.
I remember a few years ago when you were engaged in inter-faith dialogue. Gradually, the brave, moderate Islamic spiritual leaders who agreed to meet with you were becoming deterred because they felt their lives were endangered. And it became harder and harder for you to hold those conversations. Are you saying that things have changed, that the climate has eased, that you are able to have such meetings, that you’ve made progress in these conversations, that the real heavyweight spiritual leaders are communicating and that something is changing?
Is there some kind of declaration that is taking shape?
I’m saying that people are speaking, but it’s difficult, not least because our authorities are making this difficult, some of our authorities are not very open to this. They’re afraid.
I assume they’re skeptical. I assume that if the authorities have contact with you, they tell you that you’re being played. That this is the ‘phased plan.’ That of course the extremists are going to agree with you, so that there is an Israeli withdrawal, and then they can go ahead with their larger plan, and push ahead to destroy Israel…
No, the (Israeli) authorities are afraid. It’s much easier not to do anything.
Be categorical. Tell us what is potentially available. From 1996-1999 we had very little terrorism here. But towards the end of that period there was such a sense in Israel that opportunities for peace were going begging that Israel ousted Netanyahu and elected Ehud Barak. In Israel in 2012, although there is no dialogue or interaction, Netanyahu is very solid because there is no rising public sense of ‘You’re missing the opportunity here.’ As you said, we have become convinced that there is no prospect… So, give us some reason to believe.
Ariel Sharon begged. He said, ‘Give me three days without terror and you’ll see what will happen here. I will turn this around, we’ll do this.’ Abu Mazen (Abbas) said to me the other day, ‘Listen, Sharon said, give me three days. I have given you now five years. Nobody in the Israeli security forces, from the chief of staff and down, will deny that my security forces are doing everything which you asked me to do.’
We just don’t care. We don’t care. It’s very comfortable for us. They (the Palestinians) do the job for us. It’s very comfortable.
Because the Israeli public believes that we do not have a partner who is willing to take viable positions, on the refugee issues and on the military…
No, no, people don’t think that. People just say it’s very comfortable for us. We don’t have any terror. The issue of the territories is very far away. We don’t care. New settlements the whole time. People don’t care about it.
I think that’s misreading the public. People are invested in understanding our reality. They don’t think we have a partner in Abbas.
Why do people accept that there are new settlements the whole time?
I don’t think the mainstream of the Israeli public is particularly happy about it, but they’re very bleak on Abbas. Never mind Hamas…
So why do they accept the new settlements the whole time? They don’t care. If they cared, they wouldn’t let it go on.
They barely elected Netanyahu in a region that is totally unstable and therefore they are wary. They see Abbas goes to the UN, and he makes a speech (last year) where he can’t even bring himself to say the names Moses and Abraham (and acknowledge the Jewish heritage in this region)…
Do you think people are worried about that?
Yes, I think people think we would like to make peace with the Palestinians, but they see Abbas has not confronted the narrative that there is no Jewish legitimacy here. If he was telling his people…
Abbas needs to be able to make a serious agreement (with an Israeli government that has the authority to implement it).
If the Israeli public is convinced that Islam will never live with a Jewish state, then I can understand the skepticism. But if the Israeli public would see that the central Islamic parties and the essential Islamic authorities would give authority to Abbas, or whoever is the leader, to negotiate and to reach an agreement which would then have that authority behind it, then I think the whole thing would look different. That would be the paradigm shift.
If we here in Jerusalem could reach a religious peace which would be a basis for a political peace, think what kind of message that would be to the world.
Rabbis can help to change that. Leading rabbis want to do that. I think I’ve built the kind of trust, both inside the Jewish and the Islamic world, to be helpful. And the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian authorities cannot continue to play any games if that happens.
Tell me how you anticipate reasonably that this may play out in the near future.
I’ve said enough. This is what I’m working on. If it happens – there are no guarantees – it will also give a message which is different about the place of religion. Religion today is playing a very negative role. Religion today is a reason for people to kill each other.
If we here in Jerusalem could reach a religious peace which would be a basis for a political peace, think what kind of message that would give to Europe and to the whole of the Middle East and to Asia and to America. Just think a moment what kind of message that would be to the world. To the Christian world.
Within Judaism, there has always been significant rabbinical authority that prized the value of life over the value of land. In Islam, the clamor, the loud Islamic spiritual voices have not been voices of tolerance. The voices of tolerance have been marginalized. You are saying that the influential voices of religious Islam are prepared to come out and legitimate Jewish sovereignty?
Up until now, the Islamic parties have been in some kind of persecuted opposition. When you are in power, you have to think with many different responsibilities.
I don’t think the Jewish extremism we’ve seen recently represents mainstream Judaism. I don’t think expressions of fanaticism represent mainstream Islam.
You can also talk about (extremism in) Judaism, with all due respect. Look at what we’ve seen here in recent days – price tag (attacks by pro-settler extremists), extremist attacks on Arabs in downtown Jerusalem, all the talk about, ‘You can’t rent out apartments to Arabs, you can’t give jobs to Arabs, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ Now, I don’t think this represents mainstream Judaism. I don’t think expressions of fanaticism represent mainstream Islam.
But, when there is a vacuum, the very monolithic voices move into that vacuum. And the dialectic, religious thinking which exists in Islam and exists in Judaism, which exists in all religions, it doesn’t come to expression. Our job now is to cultivate dialectic religious thinking, not because the western world expects it from us, but because that is the basis of all religious thinking.
But you’re saying more. You’re saying that the very people under whose aegis Israelis were being strategically blown up less than a decade ago – these people are now ready to come to terms with Israel. You’re saying Hamas is prepared to live in peace beside a sovereign Jewish state.
No, I didn’t say that. I am not the spokesman of Hamas. I said there are strong Islamist forces, no doubt also including strong forces inside Hamas… I’ve already said too much publicly. Israel has made various agreements with Hamas. They’ve always kept their parts of the agreements.
Things have happened in the Islamic Brotherhood that affect Hamas. And we have to catch these signals, and we have to analyze them. We have to understand the religious thinking. These are religious parties. It’s not just another secular party…
I want you to just finish that earlier sentence for me. You’re saying there are influential thinkers within Hamas who what?
There are religious thinkers who decide… Hamas is a religious party. They are the ones who decide the theology, who are prepared to think dialectically.
Who are prepared to legitimize Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East?
They are prepared today to accept a two-state solution, yes. They are prepared today, from a religious perspective, to think dialectically and to understand.
A two-state solution which does not involve Israel being flooded with Palestinians and therefore becoming Palestine?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Otherwise, it’s a one-state solution.
In public, we don’t hear anything of that.
Well, we do, but you have to be able to listen. We don’t want to hear. We don’t catch the signs. They send out a lot of tests.
Appointing an ambassador was a significant step, yes. The status quo was no ambassador. (Egypt’s President Morsi) confronted the status quo.
The letter (Morsi recently sent) to (President) Peres was also significant. Follow the public statements. (Hamas’s) Khaled Mashaal has come out with many, many different statements, and he hasn’t gotten anything for it. So now he’s retracting.
So, why is the Israeli center-left not pushing this more effectively?
The Israeli center-left doesn’t understand the potential of a religious peace.
Do you have any dealings with your former colleagues in the Labor party. While I’m asking that, are you planning to go back into this Knesset business? Or are you going to be chief rabbi of Britain?
That’s a very honorable and important position in the Jewish world. I talked to some of the people in England. It’s one of the absolute most interesting rabbinical positions in the world. I have a very good relationship with the present (British) chief rabbi and had with the former chief rabbi. But I came on aliya in order to live here in Jerusalem, in Israel, and not in order to go to London. This is where I am going to contribute.
What about going back into politics? There’s no obvious party for a moderate religious Zionist.
I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.
It must be very frustrating when you hear these (co-existence) overtures being made and there’s nobody with the wisdom or the interest to pick up on them?
Even when I was in the Knesset, even when I was in the Cabinet, I couldn’t necessarily decide everything. It’s usually the prime minister and maybe two or three other people who can have that kind of influence. (Laughs) Nobody has yet offered me the position of prime minister. It’s probably sensible that they haven’t.
Let’s say that an American administration would succeed in getting Netanyahu and Abbas together in a meeting, it would lead again to the same blind alley
I am in contact with many politicians across the spectrum the whole time. There’s nobody on the center-left who disagrees with my analysis, but it’s difficult for them. They don’t know the factors, or the people I am talking about. The whole religious aspect was kept out of (negotiations). We’ve been going down that blind alley again and again and again. Let’s say that an American administration would succeed in getting Netanyahu and Abbas together in a meeting, it would lead again to the same blind alley, it wouldn’t go anywhere. A new Annapolis or a new Camp David, it wouldn’t change anything.
I’m for any attempt. But we have to somehow change the parameters, to give it the paradigm shift. I think it’s possible.
I’ve spoken to so many (religious leaders). I don’t have anything to sell, I don’t have any political power, They don’t have to meet with me. I don’t give them anything. I don’t give them any legitimization.
The opposite. You make trouble for them.
You try to persuade them to come out publicly and say things that are going to be life threatening…
And they do. They are willing to do this. This is what gives me a lot of optimism.
If we continue the present situation, we’re going to a situation where we will become, god forbid, either like Lebanon or like South Africa. If we continue the status quo, with no political process, continuing to put more and more settlers in Judea and Samaria, that’s what we’re going to be. We of course react very strongly when people accuse us today of becoming, of being apartheid. Of course. Because we’re not. But that’s what we will be. That’s why I say that there is no other real solution: It’s either a two-state solution or it’s Lebanon or apartheid South Africa.
American Jewish leaders have to understand they are not helping us by sanctifying the status quo
American Jewish leaders also have to start living with that reality. They have to understand they are not helping us by sanctifying the status quo. They are lulling themselves into this. They think they’re helping us and they’re not.
I think you misjudge the Israeli public. I don’t think people think the status quo is tenable. People fear this is a calm that will pass. But mainstream Israel thinks that if (former prime minister) Olmert had offered the deal he offered to Abbas methodically a year earlier (rather than just before he left office), Abbas still couldn’t have taken it because he’s not legitimized Israel to his public; his public would kill him because they don’t understand Jewish legitimacy here.
You’re wrong. You’re just wrong. All the polls show you’re wrong. As opposed to you, I check it with the Palestinians. I go to Nablus. As opposed to you, I go to An-Najar (university in Nablus). I speak to the students there. You’ve never done that. You’ve never gone there. You just listen to the same rubbish… I go there every week. I speak to them every week. They are fed up of this conflict.
Why won’t Abbas say this? Why won’t he say it to me? I’m a fair-minded journalist. Why doesn’t he come out and say ‘I’m ready to do the deal?’ I can’t report that he’s ready to do a deal if he won’t come out and say so.
Let me just say, it doesn’t mean necessarily that he will, in an interview, give up these last arguments, before negotiations. Just like I don’t expect Bibi to do so.
At this point, we moved on to a discussion of the failure to pass legislation to replace the Tal Law on military service for ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Here, too, Melchior charged that the public “does not care enough” to force the politicians into action. “It is immoral if you have people who put their lives at stake and serve not only three years in the army, but then reserve duty and more reserve duty,” he said. “But people have to not only sit around Friday night and to complain. People have to care and to be willing to do something about it.”
Still, returning to his more optimistic vantage point, Melchior then praised Israelis for, generally speaking, getting involved and being active, and moved the conversation toward a positive, Rosh Hashanah-appropriate conclusion.
People in Israel generally are involved. People care more than in most countries. But I think there is a feeling that we can’t kind of change the big issues, that somehow we’re stuck on the big issues. And we’re not.
I want to say this before Rosh Hashanah. The whole idea of Rosh Hashanah is that every person can in every decision turn the whole world around – not only his own fate, not only the fate of his neighborhood, of his community. He can turn the whole world around. Israel is still a young enough society, is still a small enough society, that we can turn things around.
I have seen it in so many areas. We started a movement to set up a new stream of education — religious and secular studying together. We only started 12, 13 years ago. This year, it has become a public system, paid by the state.
We have thousands of young kids who don’t only do three years in the army, but they volunteer one or two years beyond that to work for society. Who does that in England or America?
We have thousands, tens of thousands of young people who are willing to turn this around. But they don’t believe in the public life, in the Knesset, they don’t believe in our political parties. They have become cynical. That cynicism is the worst thing we have. Cynicism is, I think, the first step towards heresy. Heresy is against everything we believe in.
We can have peace here. We can have a just society. We can have better relations between religious and secular, between Jews and Arabs. That is the will of 90% of the people here. They just don’t really believe that it’s possible. And they’re wrong.
In a democracy you need the Knesset, you need political parties, you need public life. And you need the belief that we can turn things around. And I think that we can. We can have peace here. We can have a just society. We can have better relations between religious and secular, between Jews and Arabs. That is the will of 90% of the people here. They just don’t really believe that it’s possible. And they’re wrong. They’re wrong. We have to restore their belief.
There’s no society where people volunteer more than here. It’s just that they’ve given up. You see it in all the polls. I speak to young people sometimes about the Knesset. I have the feeling that sometimes the soldiers in elite units are willing to go to the Knesset and conquer it. They think that people are sitting in the Knesset just to make a salary.
Well, listening to you describe the political environment, I’d also lose my faith…
I haven’t talked about the Knesset as such. I’ve talked about the lack of leadership. And the lack of leadership is because many good people don’t want to go in. They’ve given up on that sphere. They’ve lost the belief in that part of our public life.
And I want to restore that belief that we can turn things around. I think it’s possible. I really do.