ROCKVILLE CENTRE — “Peace is possible, prayer is powerful,” and dialogue is essential.
That was the message that Bishop William Murphy brought to Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David synagogue here October 21, invited by the synagogue and by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island to speak about the pilgrimage which he made to Israel with 17 other U.S. bishops in mid-September.
“We went to Israel and Palestine in order that we might be a witness for peace,” Bishop Murphy said, as he recounted the ten days the bishops spent in prayer, visits to holy sites, and dialogue not only with leaders – political as well as religious, Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian – but also with the people of varying ethnicities, cultures and faith communities throughout the region.
“We wanted to be sure we heard a balance of opinions,” he emphasized, and he encouraged the same from his audience here.
“I’m going to tell you what I think, and I want you to tell me what you think,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to have a good and honest discussion among friends.”
Visiting the region just weeks after the end of the 50-day war last summer between Israel and Hamas over Gaza, Bishop Murphy said he “sensed a great deal of fatigue.”
“The war was very draining,” he said. “People needed time to get their breath back.” As a result, he said, “I don’t think this is the time when either side is ready to come forward” with any bold new initiatives for peace. “Both sides need some breathing space.”
Nevertheless, the bishop recounted some of the hopeful encounters of the pilgrimage.
For example, he told of a rabbi – who, it turned out, originally hailed from Brooklyn – that Bishop Murphy invited to come to lunch with the bishops to share his experiences with them. The rabbi told the bishops that his community is in an Israeli settlement right down the road from a Muslim settlement. He had helped the imam move in, he said, and when the Muslim settlement was having difficulty getting water, the rabbi intervened with the Israeli government to facilitate its delivery.
“If we can work together like this,” Bishop Murphy recalled him saying, then peace is possible on a wider scale.
Bishop Murphy told of meeting with former Israel President Shimon Peres, and asking him, with the Jewish holy days approaching, what he wished for. “He said, ‘My only wish, my only hope, is for peace.’
“I thought, that’s the message I have to bring back,” Bishop Murphy said. “We have to be, all of us together, men and women of peace.”
The bishop reported meeting with Palestinian leaders. Some, he said, insisted that the conflict with Israel was “an issue of injustice, of our land.” Others, however, seemed more reasoned, Bishop Murphy said, understanding the need for greater mutual understanding.
Asked by an audience member about what steps must be taken for peace, Bishop Murphy said reconciliation and peace must be based in reality. For example, he said, “We cannot ask Israel to give away land that will leave them vulnerable to anyone throwing bombs” into Israeli territory. He said the United States is not being helpful at the current time, with the president having “no credibility” with either Israel or Palestine. Ultimately, he said, the Arab world must recognize that Israel is there to stay – “and not only recognize that, but accept it, and work together with Israel.”
Rabbi Howard Diamond of Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David, suggested, however, that that is precisely the problem.
“I don’t think it’s about settlements, or economics,” or any specific issue, he said. “I think they just don’t want us there.”
“I don’t disagree with you at all,” Bishop Murphy responded. “But we must remember that prayer is powerful.” The God who could send the plagues upon the Pharaoh, and then lead His Jewish people out of Egypt, the bishop said, can surely bring about a just and lasting peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
Another audience member raised the question of religious persecution. “We see the attacks of anti-Semitism in the United States, in Europe, and throughout the world,” he said. “We see the attacks on Christians in the Middle East, the threats to Christians around the world.
“What we have not seen,” he said, “is outrage, in the Jewish world, in the Catholic, in the Christian world.”
Bishop Murphy agreed, noting the “great increase across the world of people being killed because of their religious beliefs” – the vast majority of them today being Christian, he pointed out. He called for a unified effort to oppose religious persecution and to stand up for religious freedom, in America as well as around the world. He cited as an example the “growing national organization, Catholics for Freedom of Religion,” which, he noted, was started by two Catholic women here on Long Island.
“The source of our freedoms,” he said, is “not the state or any group,” it is God. “If we lose freedom of religion,” he warned, “we lose the basis of all that we believe in.”
All photos by Gregory A. Shemitz