Stopping the bloodshed: Melchior calls on religious leaders, bystanders to end violence

Peace cannot be a piecemeal collection, Rabbi Michael Melchior said.

A founder of the Mosaica Center for Interreligious Cooperation in the Middle East, Melchior spoke Tuesday from the Hall of Philosophy and delivered his lecture, “Religion and Sacred Spaces: Obstacles to Peace or Not?”

While the world cannot stand by as groups are threatened, the groups in conflict must also take it upon themselves to come to a better understanding of the other and work to find common ground, Melchior said.

“There can’t be peace if Israel can make peace with part of the Palestinians, then others will blow it up,” he said. “You need to make peace with everybody if it’s real peace. It’s the same the other way around.”

While religion does a lot of good in the world today, Melchior said it has its downfalls as well. He pointed to murders, rapes and forced displacement of peoples all over the world performed in the name of God. However, he said, the onus, in part, is on bystanders to intervene on such acts.

“We can’t say that we don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Everybody knows what’s going on. But what do we do about it?”

To answer this question, Melchior shared two examples. The first took place during the 2014 Israel-Palestine conflict on the Gaza Strip. That year, for the first time since 1981, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur coincided with the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Both sides anticipated fervent violence from one another leading up to the event, but religious leaders from both sides took it upon themselves to come together and find a way around the violence.

“We said it can’t be a holy day that will turn into a day of bloodshed,” Melchior said. “We talked about this together.”

As it turns out, both sides were largely ignorant of the other’s holiday. Jews did not understand that Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha loudly, proudly and publicly, and Muslims did not understand that Jews observe the somber holiday of Yom Kippur privately and quietly. Neither celebration was a provocation of the other.

Following the talks, the Muslim leaders declared a fatwa, or an Islamic religious declaration, that Muslims were to tone down their celebrations, while Jewish leaders instructed Jews to not interpret Muslim celebration as an insult.

“For those four days of Eid al-Adha, there was no bloodshed,” Melchior said. “Nobody was killed. … It shows you the influence that religion and religious leaders can have to change our whole situation.”

The second story Melchior shared took place after the 2015 attack on a bar mitzvah in Copenhagen, Denmark. Following the attack, he said, seven Muslims started a movement that eventually snowballed into more than 1,000 to stand in solidarity — hand in hand — with the local Jewish community, all of whom condemned the attacks.

“If you want to kill the Jews, you’ll have to kill us first,” Melchior said, recounting the Muslims’ words.

When Melchior addressed the crowd of Jews and Muslims, he used a traditionally Muslim phrase to capture the moment, allahu akbar.

The phrase translates to “God is great,” and Melchior said it symbolized the power of community and humanity religion can bring when people of all religion take a unified stand against intolerance, hatred, zealotry and religious violence.

In closing, Melchior shared a Facebook message he received from a young Muslim woman who heard him use the phrase.

“He [Melchior] returned to me what had been stolen by Muslim extremists,” he said, relaying the woman’s words. “He returned to me what has been stolen by the Islamic State and from the whole Islam. He returned to me what I can no longer say without making people afraid. … He gave back to me what is mine and what is Islam’s.”