Sometimes symbol is substance. Over 300 rabbis and imams from over 40 countries gathered in Seville for several days for the World Meeting of Rabbis and Imams for Peace, organized by the Hommes de Parole Foundation, The very facts symbolize something worth paying attention to.
The 200 included chief rabbis from countries, including Israel; the imams included Shiite, Sunni, and Sufi leaders from 5 continents, including Israel and the Palestinian territories. The symbolism is worth paying attention to.
And 20 rabbinical students, meeting with their Moslem counterparts in late night sessions, committed themselves to finding funding to meet again, and Israeli rabbinic judges signed an agreement with the Imams in Hebrew and Arabic. Substance began to transcend symbolism.
After 3 days of meetings, the group signed a public statement mandating regional follow-up, affirming mutual commitment to condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and xenophobia of all sorts, and condemned the taking of life on behalf of religion as a distortion of religious values.
We legitimated not only the Other, as a basis for mutual understanding, and there were calls for a joint council to preserve the dignity of the Temple Mount and all religious sites. Substance began to triumph.
To be sure the meeting of Rabbis and Imams for Peace was not all peaceful. There were public tensions among Muslims, there were behind-the-scenes matters on the Jewish side. There were challenges to the , and there were times when the majority of attendees voted with their feet by holding conversations in the hallway rather than sit in the sessions.
While neither the were ever present, looking to exaggerate any pointed moments of tension.
The challenges to communication were great by definition. The very nature of a world meeting meant that there were 5 official languages (English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic). Plenary sessions provided simultaneous translation; small group sessions couldn't.
Most participants knew very few others before arriving, even of their own traditions. Many of the Israeli rabbis who were there under the auspices of the rabbinate had never sat together with their Jewish counterparts. Many of the Imams had never met face to face with their counterparts from the other major traditions in Islam.
Even fewer had occasion to understand the local situation of what it meant to be Jewish or Moslem in other parts of the world - or, more poignantly, to be Jewish or Moslem in the same place! Imagine the significance of French rabbis and Imams speaking with each other.
Success, no solution
While no comprehensive solution to the Mideast conflict was achieved, informal interactions made the conference into a genuine success. Most participants ran out of business cards. Commitments to stay in touch, across national borders and religious boundaries, were the norm.
A concluding symbolism: At the opening session, the room was filled with rabbis in black coats and business attire and Imams wearing Kameez, Jubbas, and Jilbabs. During the dinner after the opening session, one could see self-ghettoized tables. Black rabbinic hats sat with other black rabbinic hats, knitted kippot with other knitted kippot, Kufis, Turbans and Tarboushes sat with their like. Only those few who were more experienced with this intergroup agenda sought to mix with those of other places and traditions.
But by the middle of the conference, robes and hats were intermingling. At the concluding banquet, the formal black hats were replaced by kippot, Moslem attire was more civilian, ties were loosened and the tables were mixed.
This intermingling doesn't guarantee that the rabbis and Imams gathered in Seville for peace accomplished all that needs to be done, but we surely left with a sense of guarded optimism - and that may have been the most important and lasting message of all.
Rabbi Richard Marker is a Senior Fellow at NYU's Center for Philanthropy and a co-principal of Marker Goldsmith Advisors. Brill teaches Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University and is the director of Kavvanah: Center for Jewish Thought.