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What Would Herzl Do? Zionism and Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

By David Krantz

SARAJEVO (Sept. 1, 2013) — What happens when Jews sit down in the same room with Muslims? We ask lots of questions.


The Muslims ask:

  • What is the significance of the kippah?
  • Why can’t you do anything on Shabbat?
  • And what is Zionism?


The Jews ask:

  • What does it mean for you to cover your hair?
  • What is the range of opinions in Islam about homosexuality?
  • What would your ideal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be?


And in a twist on the classical Christian question, a Zionist asks: What would Herzl do?


This summer, I represented the Green Zionist Alliance at the Muslim Jewish Conference in Sarajevo. Bringing together 89 participants from 35 countries — including Iran, Israel and Pakistan — the MJC was founded by Ilja Sichrovsky, but it was actually Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who compelled me to go. If you’re puzzled, that’s because the term Zionism has been so misused and become so mangled that if Herzl were alive today he might be labeled an anti-Zionist based on his own rhetoric. Herzl’s Jewish state, after all, wasn’t to be one free of non-Jews, but one where non-Jews would be accorded “honorable protection and equality before the law” and one where everyone would be “free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief.” Herzl envisioned not just a Jewish state, but a model state, a utopia of peace and freedom and equality.


I believe that I have an obligation to be in dialogue with Muslims not just because we share this same planet, but because I am a Zionist working toward the fulfillment of Herzl’s dream: a model society. And the path to the model state — the path to an almost messianic-like time of peace and understanding — starts with people from different backgrounds simply talking to one another.


“We might not agree with each other, but at least we’re listening,” Lamees Hafeez from England told me in Sarajevo. “If we’re just assuming that we know what the other side is saying without actually knowing what the other side is saying, then our decisions become based on false assumptions.”


And I have found that after talking — when we get to know each other as people — a transformation takes place: We stop seeing each other as the “other” and start seeing each other as people, and sometimes even as friends.


I asked a participant from Saudi Arabia how she felt speaking with a self-identifying Zionist. She didn’t understand why it should be a big deal, she said, because in her mind, she wasn’t speaking with a Zionist or a Jew but a new friend who happened to be Jewish and Zionist.


Over and over, I have seen this through not just the Muslim Jewish Conference, but also Hartford Seminary’s Building Abrahamic Partnerships program as well as the inter-religious environmental networks with which I work, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and the National Religious Coalition for Creation Care: Through interfaith dialogue, we transcend our titles of Jew and Muslim and Christian, and become known to each other as David and Ahmed and Alison. We develop empathy for each other. And empathy is at the heart of peacemaking.




Support for participation in the Muslim Jewish Conference was provided in part by ROI, NYU and generous individual donors.




David Krantz is the president and chairperson of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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