A rabbi, to put it simply, is a Jewish version of a Christian priest or a Muslim cleric. And just as the priest preaches from the Bible and the cleric from the Quran, the rabbi reaches into his holy book, the Torah, and teaches the Jewish version of the Sharia.
Over the past summer holidays, I had an encounter with one such individual. I was on the panoramic coach of the intercity train that was to take us from Zurich to Innsbruck, the call of nature came a-knocking. After making sure my son and my nephew were comfortably tucked in their seats, I hurried to respond to the task on hand.
As I made my way back to our coach, I noticed my seat and several surrounding ones had been taken over by a group of rabbis. Coming closer I saw the rabbi occupying my seat deeply involved in a sermon to a group of teenage rabbis, all dressed up in their orthodox outfits, including black hats and hair-locks running down their temples.
Noticing me standing there, he inquired in English if I was the seat occupant. When I nodded, he made a move to get up but I asked him to continue with his sermon while I walked around some more. Eventually, he took over the seat across the aisle, and when I seated myself, I inquired if he was going to Innsbruck. He was off to Vienna with his family, he replied and asked me where I was from.
“Saudi Arabia’ was my reply. In the relative quiet of the coach, my voice must have carried beyond his ears. For a moment frozen in time and memory, I noticed from the corner of my eye the teenage rabbis backing away, and his wife quickly herding her children around her.
I also noticed my son and nephew fidgeting nervously in their seats. Were all these people anticipating something I was unaware of? But the ice was broken between the rabbi and me and soon we were engaged in a discussion of the differences between our religions, and how we both attributed our beginnings to Abraham.
“Rabbi, you say your name is Yosep?” I inquired. “Yes, like the Christians have Joseph,” he responded. “Ah, like we have Yousuf among the Muslims. The same name except perhaps interpreted differently. Much like we all have the same God. So, you are a religious man, a man of the cloth so to speak, and whom we address to as shaikh in our country.”
As he nodded, I turned over to my son told him to come over and say hello to ‘shaikh Yousuf … and he’s not going to bite.’ My son, with a look that implied that his father had too much of a whiff of the mountain air, came over reluctantly. But in a matter of time, I had him and my nephew walk over to the rabbi’s family seated several seats away, and kids being kids, they bonded very soon. The mother, perhaps satisfied that our intent was not evil began to let her guard down and settled comfortably in her seat. The rabbi told me he was from Israel but had migrated to Vienna with his family two years ago. He has been vacationing in Switzerland and was now on his way back to the city of his forefathers. He was an orthodox man and was not very happy with the religious movement in Israel. The laws of God were being violated and it was not the proper atmosphere to raise his children. The sabbath was not held as sacredly as he would have liked.
“Rabbi Yosep, you also have to contend with the increasing violence that the Israeli government has perpetrated against the Palestinians. How does that fit into the morality of your beliefs?”
“It is not a good thing. Not only for the Palestinians who have nowhere left to go, but not also for the Jews. My people can sense a slow rising of sentiments against us not just in the Muslim world but also throughout Europe and if the Israeli government continues this way, it will continue to fester. The illegal colonies being built by the government have drawn a lot of criticism in European cities. It is a cause for alarm.”
I countered, “The Americans don’t seem to think so. The US administration continually refers to Israel as the forger of peace. Coupled with their decision last year to cut millions of dollars in desperately needed development aid to the Palestinians, they are giving Israel a green pass.”
“Forget the Americans,” was his emphatic reply. “The majority of Jews in Israel trace their roots to Europe and not to the America. It is here one day that they may return. And when they do, I pray they do not find themselves unwelcome.”
“Shaikh Yousuf, let us then pray together that this madness will cease. Let us carry the message of peace to our people and silence the thunder of war-mongers. Your people being victims of persecution many decades ago will perhaps understand it better than those running the policies in Israel today.”
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.