Dr. Fisher: First, I would like to congratulate you, Rabbi, and thank you for accepting our invitation to serve on the Editorial Advisory Board of Profiles in Catholicism. Your involvement in interreligious, especially Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogue over more than a quarter of a century in Israel is both exemplary and instructive to all of us who believe in the importance of interreligious dialogue today, not only in Israel but around the world. The better we understand one another and the more we interact and become friends with those of other faiths, as you have done in Israel, the more we can become agents of peace and justice in the world, a task which all of our religions call upon us to undertake. In your latest book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, A View from Jerusalem, you describe how you grew up in the United States and became involved in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960's. How did these experiences change your life and influence you to become a rabbi?
Rabbi Ron: As a student at Brandeis University in the late 1960s, I was drawn into the civil rights and peace movements that captured the hearts and minds of students in those years. We were inspired by great religious leaders, such as Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—as well as by famous professors such as Herbert Marcuse—to accept social responsibility for our society and become agents for change. As president of the campus Hillel organization at Brandeis, I led an interreligious memorial service for Rev. King after he was assassinated in April of 1968, and brought home readings from his writings to my Passover seder at my parents' home in Miami Beach at that time.
Dr. Fisher: What were the reasons that you and your wife, Amy, decided to make aliyah and move to live in Israel?
Rabbi Ron: We had spent a year in Israel together as students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1970-71, and fell in love with Israel at that time. We felt—as we still feel today—that as a Jew, this was the place where we could most fully live our Jewish lives. We wanted to be part of this great development in Jewish history, the building of a Jewish state, which would also be a democratic state and a light unto the nations. And, we felt that since it was a small country, we could be involved and make a difference. We made this move together, and despite all the ups and downs of contemporary Israel, we have found Israel to be a meaningful and fulfilling place to live.
Dr. Fisher: Describe how you became involved in interreligious dialogues and became the Founding Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI).
Rabbi Ron: In 1991, I was working as the director of an American Jewish organization in Jerusalem, which had been involved in interreligious relations. A local organization was in crisis at that time, with many people leaving it, and some of them approached me to help form a new organization, with a new, broader agenda. So on January 16th, 1991, the night before the start of the Gulf War, 25 people gathered in the basement of a Christian seminary in central Jerusalem to create this new council, which became an umbrella institution comprised of more than 70 Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations throughout Israel, all of whom sought to promote good relations among leaders and followers of the main monotheistic religions in Israel—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We worked together for 25 years.
Dr. Fisher: You pioneered numerous ongoing dialogues in Israel. Were there any precedents in Israel or elsewhere which helped you to conceive and shape these historic movements
Rabbi Ron: We were inspired by dialogue processes in other conflict zones, such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Cyprus, and even Spain. I led interreligious delegations of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (Muslims and Christians) to these places, where we learned a lot about other conflicts, especially about the role of religious leaders as well as laypersons in helping to transform the conflict from violence and hatred to non-violence and cooperation.
Dr. Fisher: In your book, you devote a chapter to Jewish-Catholic, especially Vatican-Israel relations. These began, of course, with the 1965 declaration, Nostra Aetate , of the Second Vatican Council. Did this have an effect on all of the Jewish-Christian relations, or just on Catholic-Jewish relations?
Rabbi Ron: In my view, this has profoundly changed interreligious dialogue among people of all major religions. Dialogue is now “kosher”, i.e. legitimate and accepted. It is part of the mainstream in the contemporary world. What the Catholics and Jews began has not only influenced Jews and other Christians but Jews and people of many other religions, including Islam.
Dr. Fisher: What are the highpoints of the relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel since the Council? And what was your personal involvement in them?
Rabbi Ron: There were several high points. One was the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel at the end of 1993, just a few months after the signing the first agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people, known as the Oslo Accord, which was signed on the lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993. The other major high point for me was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in March 2000 (see below).
Dr. Fisher: Please describe the pilgrimage of Pope St. John Paul II's visit to Israel/The Holy Land in the millennial year 2000. What impact did the pope's words and symbolic gestures have on Jewish-Christian relations in Israel and, indeed, around the world?
Rabbi Ron: The visit of Pope John Paul II was one of the great moments in Jewish-Catholic history and Israeli-Vatican history, which is why I devoted most of a chapter to it in my book. I was deeply moved by Pope John Paul II's speeches and gestures and especially his visit to the Western Wall, and his moving remarks at Yad Vashem. The people of Israel were deeply moved by everything that Pope John Paul II did that week. Following the visit, my wife and I—together with an Israeli film-making couple —produced a wonderful documentary film called “I am Joseph Your Brother” and an accompanying study guide, in cooperation with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, through the good offices of Dr. Eugene Fisher. Then the film is used throughout the USA at academic institutions that teach about Jewish-Christian Relations and Interreligious Dialogue.
Here is a video of the opening of the film
Dr. Fisher: In your book you speak of interreligious dialogue in Israel as, in fact, a “peace process” and “a form of peacebuilding,” calling it a “new model” for laying the foundations for peace in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do you mean by this? How has it worked, in your experience? Can you give specific examples?
Rabbi Ron: I recommend that people read chapter four of the book which explains what peacebuilding is all about, outlines my new model, and provides lots of anecdotes about how it worked well.
Dr. Fisher: Can this “new model” be useful in other places in the world and between other religious communities?
Rabbi Ron: Yes, the model is relevant for all people who are engaged in interreligious dialogue, especially in places of ongoing conflict.
Dr. Fisher: What is the situation in Israel concerning the outbreak of the Coronavirus crisis?
Rabbi Ron: The situation in Israel is relatively under control. To prevent the overcrowding of hospitals and too many deaths, the government has issued strict social distancing and hygiene directives. So far, this is working and the situation is not as bad as many countries in Europe. However, growing criticism is mounting here that not enough testing is being done, which limits the ability of the government to develop a well-planned rational exit strategy. So at the moment, there are efforts to increase the number of tests in Israel.
Dr. Fisher: Are there any specific problems?
Rabbi Ron: Yes. 75% of the illnesses in Jerusalem are coming from "ultra-orthodox" Jewish neighborhoods, and many other such neighborhoods and towns and cities in Israel are been similarly affected. This is because, at the beginning of the crisis, ultra-orthodox rabbis here--as in the USA--ignored the directives of the Health Ministry and the Israel Government. By now, most of these rabbis are on board with observing the policy, but in many cases, it is too late and there are many illnesses and many deaths. This all stems from the anti-modern, anti-science and anti-state attitudes of this sector of the Jewish population here (and elsewhere), similar to the evangelical communities in America who reject science and Big Government.
Dr. Fisher: Is there any positive side to this epidemic?
Rabbi Ron: Yes. There is much cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on matters of health during this crisis. There is no war or violence, and there is even talk of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Gaza. Also, there is much less conspicuous consumption as well as much less air pollution. Also, I believe that there is more recognition that life is precious and more humility among human beings here, who recognize the fragility of life. Furthermore, there are many positive stories of NGO's and people helping out in the crisis, in a wide variety of ways, which tells us that the human spirit of caring and compassion is still alive and well here, among Jews and Arabs alike.
Dr. Fisher: Please comments on Israel’s proposed annexation of the West Bank.
Rabbi Ron: As I wrote in my last blog post (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-folly-of-annexation-now/), the annexation of all or parts of the West Bank in a unilateral move by the government of Israel, in cooperation with the American administration led by President Trump, is an anti-peace move.
It is not a good idea. It will set back the peace process and make the two-state solution--a state of Palestine, side by side with a state of Israel, more difficult.
Dr. Fisher: What are your hopes and fears for the future?
Rabbi Ron: My main hope for the future is that there will somehow be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people. Intractable conflicts ended in other places like Northern Ireland and South Africa, and I hope and pray that this conflict will come to an end one day too. Then we can get on with the long-range vital work of learning to live together in peaceful coexistence.