Although I am usually very skeptical when it comes to official conferences, I was very pleased to have been invited to participate in a meeting between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the top leaders of the Hindu community from India that took place a few days ago. About 40 people, including the Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, other important rabbinical figures, professors, myself, and the leading chief “Swamis” of the Hindu community, met in Jerusalem to discuss the relationship between both communities. (Just to put you in the picture: There are one billion Hindus in the world and compared to them we, Jews are “a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way” (Mark Twain) or, to paraphrase Milton Himmelfarb: “We are the sum total of a slight statistical error in the census of the Hindu community”! That the representatives of one billion people see the urgent need to meet the spokesmen of a nation which “does not count among the nations” is in itself a miracle and should not be underestimated. It again proves our unprecedented role and standing in the world community.)
What stood out at this meeting was the sincerity with which both communities discussed the similarities and differences between our religions. We discussed the questions of monotheism, religious observance and the difficult road to peace in the Middle East, both in the general world and also the role religious leaders could play to achieve these goals. Although there were the obvious expressions of mutual courtesy, it was noteworthy that the meetings took place in a spirit of Yirath Shamayaim (the awe of Heaven) and great sincerity. Above all there was a notion of humility and awareness of accommodating the “other”. Repeatedly both sides emphasized the need to respect each other’s faiths, regardless of the differences, and many declarations of goodwill were offered.
Still, being the skeptic that I am, I wondered how true all this really was. But what was the reason for this skepticism? Well, let me explain – I was waiting for the bus that would take the delegation to the Knesseth to meet members of Israel’s parliament and my past experiences have, after all, taught me that beautiful statements of eternal love are meaningless once people embark on a bus journey together. Only in a bus will it become clear whether these expressions of love and respect have any real value or not. This is the real litmus test as you, dear reader, will now see:
The great Dutch author, Godfried Bomans, once described a conference he had attended whose goal was to create better and loving relationships among people. There were numerous lectures by famous philosophers and scholars all speaking about mutual respect and care for each other. At the end of this two day conference people had tears in their eyes, embraced each other and spoke words of eternal love. A special spirit was in the air and it was clear that something great had occurred until…………… the participants were asked to board the bus for the journey home. At that moment something most remarkable happened: As long as there were seats everything went fine, but once they were no more places available, the bus driver noticed that people did not move to the back of the bus to make room for the others who were waiting to enter. “Please friends” he announced through the microphone, “Move to the back of the bus so that we can make room for the others”. In just two sentences this driver gave a masterful synopsis of all the lectures that had been heard from these very same philosophers and scholars throughout the entire conference: Just think of your fellow man. This however fell on deaf ears. Nobody moved. When it became clear to him, after many similar requests, that no-one was thinking of moving to the end of the bus, he lost his patience, got up and thundered in unadulterated classical Amsterdam-Dutch jargon, some of which cannot be repeated, verbal “expressions of disapproval” which by far surpassed all the speeches heard at the conference. The result was surprising: In a matter of seconds there was room for everyone on the bus and nobody spoke a word during the entire trip!
The above story makes a most important point. All the talk about mutual respect, fraternity, tolerance, the need of disarmament, etc., of which our conferences are so full, has little meaning when people are not even prepared “to move to the back of the bus.” Behind this smoke curtain of noble prose, a reality takes place which completely contradicts all this graciousness. Sure, we are told, this is the way of proper diplomacy! It is the “bonne ton” After all, one does not openly wish to say that one does not really care about the other. It is not done. But what is surprising is that millions of people take this talk seriously and convince themselves that it must be genuine while truthfully they should laugh their heads off, were it not for the fact that it is a tragedy of terrible hypocrisy. In many thousands of newspapers this type of meaningless liturgy is printed day after day, and yet we convince ourselves that it must be true – why else would the papers print it?
This causes me to think of the mad man called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I obviously have no respect for this disturbed president of Iran who repeatedly calls for the total destruction of Israel. But I must credit him with one thing. At least he openly says what he thinks of us Jews and of the State of Israel. I, by far, prefer this to all the diplomatic talk of people who think no differently to him but who hide behind words of love and mutual respect. They are more dangerous than this fool from Iran.
So I wondered: What would happen when the bus filled up with the Rabbis and Hindu leaders? Would there be a need for the Israeli bus-driver to get up and give a fiery speech asking them to harmoniously make room for each other. No, I was told, there was no need for it. Not only did they all conduct themselves appropriately, but there was a genuine expression of mutual respect, not just because of the words which had been recently spoken but because of the deeds which were now done. Only then did I know for sure that something great had indeed happened at this meeting.