Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (seated at left), who represented his father, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, signs a declaration of religious tolerance with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center (far right) and Betsy Bennett Mathieson of This Is Bahrain and other dignitaries look on. Photo by Monica Almeida/SWC.

Jews join Bahrain officials to promote religious tolerance


Even for Los Angeles, where spectaculars often are met with a stifled yawn, a recent international tribal gathering in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom was an eye-opener.

There were delegations of Buddhists in saffron robes, Sikhs in turbans, Muslims with keffiyehs and hijabs, Jews with kippahs and Christians in business suits.

Some 400 members of these diverse groups came together on Sept. 13, at the invitation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for a noble objective. The aim was to sign and support a declaration denouncing religious hatred and violence in all their forms; to support full freedom of religious choice and government protection of minorities; and to ensure that religious faith “serves as a blessing to all mankind and as the foundation of peace in the world.”

Given the past and present behavior of mankind, it doesn’t take a skeptic to view this and similar declarations as pie-in-the-sky illusions.

What was different in this instance was that the declaration was promulgated and drafted by the ruler of a country where such ideas have been in effect for centuries. That country is Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has some 1.4 million inhabitants, and a breakdown of its religious faiths indicates that 70 percent are Muslims, 14.5 percent are Christians, 10 percent are Hindus and 2.5 percent are Buddhists. The percentage of Jews is listed in different surveys as a fraction of 1 percent, but the actual number is even smaller, ranging between 36  and 40 residents.

Large parts of the Jewish population left the country following riots in 1947 and 1967, but Jewish, Muslim and British sources agree that the riots were triggered by pro-Palestinian outsiders and that resident Arabs went out of their way to protect their Jewish neighbors.

But with the ascendancy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the throne in 2002, domestic and foreign observers have seen an almost utopian state of relations among Bahrain’s religious groups. The monarch has enshrined religious tolerance in the country’s laws and by personal example. For instance, since 2015, he has celebrated Chanukah with both Jews and Muslims in attendance.

During the dinner in Beverly Hills, Sami Abdulla, a Bahrain government minister responsible for housing projects, was asked whether there were any problems in what sounded like paradise on earth. He responded that the main fear of his countrymen was that the surrounding region’s many problems and hostilities would at some point spill over into their nation.

Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the two Orthodox rabbis whose unorthodox projects and initiatives as leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center often vex more conventional Jewish organizations, visited Manama, Bahrain’s capital, by invitation in early 2017. A walk through the city, Cooper said, was enlightening. There was a church, with a huge cross, next to a Hindu temple; and 100 yards away was an impressive mosque. A small synagogue, the only one in the Persian Gulf region, still stands in an older part of the city.

Hier and Cooper met with Hamad and discussed the ruler’s plan to establish a Museum of Religious Tolerance in the capital city by the end of this year.

Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, Cooper noted, during the audience with the king, the latter denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit the Jewish state.

Another point of discussion at the Beverly Hills event was a universal statement on religious tolerance written by the king and celebrated as the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

The document’s key points emphasized freedom of religious choice, religious rights and responsibilities, and “faith illuminating the path to peace.”

The evening’s guests included officials from such predominantly Muslim nations as Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. Like all others present, the Arab officials stood in respect as the colorful Bahrain National Orchestra, conducted by Field Marshal Mubarak Najem, played “Hatikvah,” preceded by the Bahraini and United States national anthems, sung by Sumaya Meer and Cantor Arik Wolheim.

The main speaker was Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king, who led the Bahraini delegation, toured the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and met with Jewish students.

As the evening’s climax, a group of distinguished guests on the dais signed the Bahrain Declaration, among them the speakers; visiting Arab officials; clergymen of various faiths; the evening’s master of ceremonies, television personality Mary Hart; UCLA professor Judea Pearl; and Betsy Bennett Mathieson, president of This Is Bahrain. The government-supported  booster  organization presented each guest with a lapel pin featuring symbols of the country’s seven religions, with a Jewish menorah adjoining a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, a reporter asked Cooper whether the evening’s upbeat tone and hopeful notes were warranted in light of the Mideast’s seemingly endless conflicts.

Cooper responded that Bahrain, like Israel, “lives in a tough neighborhood. But if there is to be any hope for the future, it will have to be realized by voices of religious moderation.”

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed


“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
 
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
 
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
 
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
 
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
 
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
 
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
 
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
 
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
 
2002)
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
 
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

Does Buddhist Hold Mideast Peace Key?


While news of the Geneva accords hit the headlines, a group of Palestinians and Israelis were trying to make a different kind of peace — with the help of Buddhists in southern France.

Thich Nhat Hanh — Vietnamese Zen master, poet and Nobel Peace Prize nominee — has been inviting groups of Palestinians and Israelis to his practice center, Plum Village, in an effort to show them that Buddhist meditation can lead to inner peace as well as nonviolence between nations. The trips are largely underwritten by an American Jewish businessman.

Nhat Hanh preaches nothing less than personal transformation as the road to peace.

“I have lived through two wars in Vietnam, and I know what a war is. There is fear, anger, despair and if you don’t know how to manage these feelings, you will not survive,” he told his audience of 300, including 30 Israelis and Palestinians.

For businessman Amin Bara of Nablus, the palpable peace at Plum Village was an inspiration. “You walk at night, and no one asks you where you are going. You sleep peacefully with no trouble. I feel I love life more. I feel a change in my body and my spirit to be stronger in my work for peace.”

Anael Harpaz of Rosh Pina came home with a broken heart after listening to the stories told by Palestinians, especially the sister of a suicide bomber, who revealed the difficult and tragic circumstances leading to the act.

“We fell into each other’s arms afterward. There’s no denying the love we felt for one another,” Harpaz said of the young sister of the suicide bomber. “It’s very sad for me what’s happening to the Palestinians and to our soldiers. We’re all victims.”

Harpaz appreciated what Nhat Hanh is trying to do, saying, “He comes from a place of much suffering, and he chose the nonviolent way, and he’s trying to teach us this. I’m sure it looks like complete nonsense to people who are not on a spiritual path. But I know how much peace being on a spiritual path and returning to my breath has brought to me.”

The Israelis and Palestinians, fresh from the tension of the Middle East, practiced eating, walking and working mindfully — following their breath and keeping their minds focused among the 150 monks and nuns — before meeting together at the end of the week for “deep-listening” sessions.

Eastern meditation has been gaining in popularity in Israel, especially since post-army trips to India and the East have become de rigueur. A few Palestinians are beginning to show an interest, and a Palestinian-Jewish sangha, or meditation group, made up mostly of those who have been to Plum Village, meets one day a month. The style — slow, meditative, gentle — contrasts sharply with the vociferous, combative style of the local population, and many see it as a needed breath of fresh air.

As with many peace gatherings, Nhat Hanh, in a sense, was preaching to the converted. Nearly all the participants had been involved in peace efforts and dialogue before. What might have been new to some was his stance that only when we achieve peace within — and with our loved ones — can we hope for peace between nations. Thus, he began several of his talks with advice for making marriages more harmonious.

Because of trouble with visas and permits, the West Bank Palestinians arrived at Plum Village late. They were thrown right into the dialogue without having had a chance to “practice” beforehand. Two Palestinians were turned back at a Jordan bridge.

Issa Souf of the West Bank village of Hares, formerly a physical trainer, came in a wheelchair with his brother and nephew. He had been shot, he said, by an Israeli soldier as he was attempting to get his family back into the house and away from tear gas. Souf said he believed his stay at Plum Village confirmed for him that he is on the right path — the path of nonviolence.

“I really, really, really feel — and I tell my Palestinian friends all the time — that it’s not a solution if we kill half the Jewish people, and it’s not a solution if they kill three-quarters of the Palestinians,” Souf said. “Both peoples have to oppose the policies that throw us into this situation.”

However, Souf, as well as other Palestinians, believed that Nhat Hanh lacked sufficient information about the Mideast conflict.

When both sides met together, speakers were exhorted to use “loving speech,” without blame or condemnation. Listeners were told to listen deeply, following their breath, and to be aware of their reactions without responding verbally. The idea was for each side to open its heart to the other side and to be able to acknowledge that the other side suffered, too. From this, Nhat Hanh said, compassion would flow.

After septuagenarian Kochava Ron told of her family losing five members to the conflict over 70 years, the group did a bit of walking meditation around the large hall, and Bara, the Arab businessman, walked with his arm around Ron.

But many participants were not able to take Nhat Hanh’s advice to speak gently, personally and from the heart.

Some of the Israelis made speeches about peace, and several of the Palestinians spoke passionately and angrily about the “Nazi” occupation, Sharon’s “fascist” government and the “apartheid” separation wall being built by Israel. But personal meetings between sessions were friendly.

While the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs present were more familiar with Nhat Hanh’s teachings — he led two weekend retreats in Israel seven years ago, and groups of meditators throughout Israel follow his teachings — it was the West Bank Palestinians’ first encounter with Buddhist practice. “They don’t know where they’ve landed,” said one of the Israelis.

Dorit Shippin, the organizer of the Israeli delegation, was not disappointed, saying she got a lot of strength from the week.

“I didn’t expect loving speech from the Palestinians,” she said. “They weren’t there long enough. But [he] planted seeds. You never know how or when they will sprout.”


Ruth Mason is a writer from Los Angeles now living in Israel.

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