Melchior Social Initiative
Culture & Society
Transforming Conflict, Building Peace and Sustaining Democracy in a Divisive World. Since 2010, Robert Weil and the Family Robert Weil Foundation have been major partners and supporters of Rabbi Michael Melchior's groundbreaking social initiatives throughout the Middle East as well as in Scandinavia and beyond.
Rabbi Melchior was born in Denmark and became the Chief Rabbi of Norway, and the International Director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, where he worked very closely, among others, with Per Ahlmark. After the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, he shifted the focus of his activities to Israel and the Middle East. He was elected to the Knesset where he served for 10 years. The main fields of his activities as a legislator were in the area of social justice, education, children's rights and environment. He served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to Shimon Peres and was the first ever Cabinet Minister for World Jewish Affairs and Israeli Society. With his experience in government and civil society over 25 years in the Middle East and around the world Melchior followed how the world turned from a place of optimism, the victory of liberal democracy, human rights and dignity, possibly even the end of history, into a place of insecurity for the future, the building of walls, the financial fall of the middle class and fear and hatred being utilized by populist extremists and autocrats.
Melchior decided to concentrate his efforts in two areas – very much inter-connected: religious peace transformation and building models for a sustainable democracy. Having followed closely all the failed attempts for peace in the Middle East, Melchior already for a long time has felt that we were missing something basic. The tent of peace had become too small and exclusive. By defining peace in purely secular terms, the peace processes left outside of the tent the religious elements and identities which in turn, very successfully, blocked and even blew up the possibility of any progress. Already several years ago, Melchior set out on a very unique ride to see if it was possible to turn what seemingly had become the biggest obstacle to peace into a driving force to encourage and support such a peace. Having established, together with Jewish and Muslim partners, six centers for peace in the most difficult places in the Israeli and Palestinian areas, Melchior found that even in the more radical Muslim world there is an exciting, new thinking, of how to combine a total devotion and fundamental loyalty to Islam and Sharia Law with values of democracy, human rights, secular state and peace. This process, this thinking, is being held back by the Israeli Palestinian conflict and therefor a religious formula on the Muslim side, which Melchior's Muslim partners have reached, for peace and end of conflict with Israel could make immense change and be an important development for Islam in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Also on the Jewish side, more and more leaders are joining the coalition for peace, realizing that between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River nearly half of the population are Muslims, just as are all of Israel's neighbors. As long as we could convince ourselves that there was no partner, that Islam could never live with the State of Israel in this area, we did not need to find an honest way to compromise. But now, radical but sincere Israeli leaders meet with their Islamic counterparts and hear from them a willingness to find a solution including, and not excluding the other side.
These conversations are including more and more influential leaders creating an exciting debate all over the Middle East, involving also younger leaders who now have a real choice of joining forces in a coalition for peace or continuing down a path which really gives no hope for the future of their own constituency. We realize that there is still a long way to go but also that a peace between leaders will just not happen if it does not have the legitimization of the identities of the two peoples. This is also important for other conflicts in the Middle East and in Europe. The model of religious peace, being faithful to one belief, being confident in the limitations and modesty of one's existence towards G-d and fellowman makes it possible to build new coalitions, give a new hope for peace and a partnership of values in the Middle East and all over the world. This is a message which is sorely needed these days.
The second field of activity is in the realm of the threat to our democracy. Many individuals and groups feel that others are governing them, that they are excluded, they don't understand the process and they are convinced that government does not serve their best interests. Liberal democracy has also been lacking the ability to include collective identities, ethnic, cultural and religious, which play a dominant role in most peoples' lives. On the basis of these issues, Melchior founded the Citizens' Accord Forum in Israel, which built a model of deliberative dialogue, where people from all identities: ultra-orthodox, secular, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, from the periphery and urban, Arab Nationalists and Islamists – all sit together around the same table. They sit not in order to discuss how discriminated they are, although they all certainly have such feelings, but to work out how to find solutions through dialoguing together. These debates take place all over the country, at times with specific groups such as social workers, lawyers, teachers, politicians or religious leaders, or very often just as a cross-section of society. Youth parliaments of Jews and Arabs have been created in mixed cities, which have been empowered to participate in the decision making of the youth policies in their municipality. The agenda can be very diverse according to the wishes of the group. Every issue can be on the table. We deal with different social issues such as sexual and physical abuse in the family, solutions for the elderly who are in the beginning stages of dementia or for example ethnical screening at the borders. These are issues where inclusion of communities and collective identities in order to find solutions are crucial, because the work is done with the cooperation of government and municipal agencies there is a genuine feeling of the thousands of participants that they are engaged in a true, democratic process. The model is being studied and copied in different ways in Europe, Africa and the U.S. This past year a large ethnically diverse group have been invited to present the model at ECMI (European Center for Minorities Issues) the largest center for minority studies in Europe in Flensburg, Germany, as well as the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. The forum also has experts from all over the world who participate in annual international seminars in Jerusalem, including a wonderful teacher from Ghana, Ms. Ruby Quantstone.