With Peace Process Stalled, Rabbi Is Promoting Dialogue With Muslims


His father is Iranian, his mother Syrian. He wears a blue Turkish turban and speaks Arabic with barely an accent.

But until he became Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi five years ago, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron had never had a meaningful conversation with a Muslim.

With the peace process stalled, Bakshi-Doron has begun making use of his position as spiritual leader of the Sephardim, or Jews from Middle Eastern countries, to open a dialogue with the Muslim world.


In the last year, he has traveled to Morocco, Turkey and the Vatican to meet with religious leaders to discuss ways of increasing understanding and tolerance. He is planning a trip to Jordan and has sent out feelers about visiting Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

It’s a mission that has set the soft-spoken rabbi apart in a region where fellow clerics--Jewish and Muslim--often speak more to tribal passions than universal values. And it has encountered resistance both from Israeli extremists and clerics on the Palestinian side.

“It needs to be clear that there is no conflict between Islam and Judaism,” Bakshi-Doron said. “Unfortunately, up until today, religion has not been an agent of peace, [but] rather of the most horrible wars. It is time for that to change.”

His interpretation of Judaism stresses not the holiness of biblical sites but that “everything should be done to preserve lives, and that includes returning territories.”

“I believe peace is more important than territory,” he said, referring to the West Bank, the heartland of ancient Israel that is claimed by Palestinians.

In March, Bakshi-Doron and Israel Meir Lau, the chief rabbi for Jews of European origin, extended the dialogue to Christian leaders. They met in Jerusalem with Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.


Bakshi-Doron, who has broad powers on personal matters like marriage, divorce and religious conversion for about half of Israel’s Jewish population, has been using his influence with Israeli bureaucrats to increase the number of Palestinians allowed into Jerusalem to pray on religious holidays.

“The point is to advance the peace,” he said. “We come with the assumption that peace is made not just between the politicians but between the peoples of the region.”

Bakshi-Doron was spurred to initiate a dialogue with Muslim leaders after Islamic militants carried out two suicide bombings in Jerusalem last summer that killed 21 people.

He successfully prevailed upon one of the leading religious figures in the Muslim World--Sheikh Sayed Tantawi of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University--to put out a statement condemning political violence.

“Extremists who carry out acts of violence in the name of religion do not take their cues from the politicians, but rather from their religious leaders . . . and I have some things to say to those leaders,” Bakshi-Doron said.

Leaning forward, he recalled how he wrote to Tantawi asking him to condemn the use of God’s name in the perpetration of violence. Tantawi responded by putting out a statement condemning such behavior, and Bakshi-Doron’s office published the statement.

“I imagine that this simple step deterred many others from carrying out violent attacks. The statement was my first sign that things could be accomplished, and that this channel of communication could work,” Bakshi-Doron said.

Flying to Morocco in February for a U.N.-sponsored interfaith conference, he found that Tantawi--who had been criticized in the Arab press for his contacts with Bakshi-Doron and a subsequent meeting with Lau--had canceled his participation.

But, sitting in the piano lounge of a Moroccan hotel, Bakshi-Doron spotted Iran’s representative, professor Ahmed Jalali, and arranged through an aide to talk with him in his hotel suite about a permit to visit the 30,000-member Jewish community in Iran.

Bakshi-Doron said Iranian officials later denied the encounter took place and have yet to respond to his request for a visit.

“Perhaps this is a particular method of operation--denying the meeting on the one hand, and yet building some sort of relation with us on the other,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, refuses to meet with Bakshi-Doron. And the Palestinians’ chief Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Ikrema Sabri, expresses skepticism about Israelis’ efforts at creating interfaith dialogue, calling them a “public relations trick.”

Bakshi-Doron said he has criticized Jewish extremism, including the glorification by some Jewish militants of an Israeli settler who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994.

Some Jewish militants are not listening to Bakshi-Doron’s call for dialogue.

“We think his interpretation of Judaism is skewed. According to the Torah, Muslim extremists should be killed, not talked to, and certainly not mentioned in the same breath as Jews,” said Itamar Ben Gvir, spokesman for Chazit Ha-Raayon, an offshoot of the outlawed anti-Arab Kach movement.