Before I shall start, I would like to pay tribute to the community of Sant' Egidio.
At the gathering held 31 years ago in Assisi, the late Pope John Paul II envisioned intense worldwide activity over a period of many years, aimed at strengthening interreligious dialogue, and international understanding, in order to increase peace in the world, and encourage acts of charity and kindness for all the poor and needy of the world.
As always, the community of Sant’Egidio stood at the forefront, and was the first to volunteer, to take this important human and humanitarian challenge upon itself. Although the community of Sant’Egidio is not so big, what led to its success in realizing the Pope’s vision, and in recreating the special spirit of Assisi is the quality of its members, and their great devotion to the concept and the ideal.
I have had the privilege of participating in several conferences organized by the Sant’Egidio community, and there is no question of their significant contribution to awareness and understanding among religions, through productive dialogue and individual face-to-face meetings between leaders of the various religions.
This important conference, by its very existence, expresses the desire that we all share to use dialogue to bring about a good, exalted and better world, for the benefit of the entire human race.
Naturally, our panel today fit-in well, with the historic spirit of Assisi.
Those who believe in G-D and are in favor of dialogue and acceptance of the other- respond positively to any idea, opinion or emotion, without arrogance and without negating the other. They will be the first to accept as equals, with open arms and love - the foreigners and refugees knocking on the doors of their countries, despite all the difficulties and the differences.
They see the good and the positive in every person, nation and ethnic group.
Let us look briefly into the Jewish sources and see together what essential lessons we can derive from them, to the subject we are discussing now.
The Mishna and the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin teach us the truth in this context: "Man was created as a single individual, to teach us that anyone who destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a single life is as though he saved an entire world," since the entire world were created from Adam, who was a single individual.
"And also for the sake of peace among mankind, so that no person should say to another, 'My father was greater than your father' – since everyone is descended from Adam and Eva.
These description of humanity’s origin is of tremendous importance, with implications for man's obligation as a human being to behave in a manner that dignifies the image and spirit of G-D within him, and the image and spirit of G-D in his fellow man. Whatever his religion and his opinions, whatever his nationality, man is first and foremost a human being, and must treat his fellow humans accordingly.
This is our way of life in Israel.
On May 14, 1948, on the day in which the British Mandate over Palestine expired, the Jewish People's Council, declared the establishment of the State of Israel.
In those days, the country was small, surrounded by enemies and very short of budget.
Many have thought the new country won’t last for long. However, this wasn’t the case for the nation leaders. Despite of Israel’s poverty, its people were full with vision and ideals. They created cultural values of equality, liberty, freedom and brotherhood.
According to the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, which being used as a social, legal and ethical contract to this day:
I quote :“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.
And so it is. The State of Israel, which numbered about 600,000 Jewish residents on the day of its establishment, have opened its gates for masses of poor Holocaust refugees escaped from Europe, as well as a huge number of other Jewish, who were kicked out from Arab countries.
Within 18 months, the country has doubled itself due to 650,000 new residents who successfully integrated into the Israeli society.
This process is unprecedented in the history of all nations. That a new state, facing multiple threats, is opening its gates for poor immigrants from dozens of countries, who have different cultural background and customs !!!
But for us, despite all the difficulties, there were no doubts.
Israel, being a lighthouse for other nations, believed it has a moral duty to become a home for all those people.
Years have passed, we knew periods of shortage and wars, but we remained loyal to our path.
In the 1970’s, Israel began to integrate large amount of migrants from the former Soviet Union, estimated at over one million people. These immigrants are equal citizens, who were well integrated in the country despite language differences and complex integration process. Today, these “immigrants” serve in upscale public positions, as Knesset members, ministers and even as the Speaker of the Knesset.
The issue of migrants’ integration is in the core Israel's legacy.
In the early 1990’s, Israel has invested enormous resources in the integration of Ethiopian Jews.
In a complex effort, more than hundred thousand people were brought to Israel within a few months, most of them rural and poorly educated. These immigrants, who came from such a different environment, have found in Israel a home, being a refuge for them.
The tremendous effort made by the Israeli society, the government and all its institutions, has made the migrants’ integration in Israel to an international success story, being example for the rest of the world.
This effort, which continues even nowadays, is also reflected in the integration of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish living in the country, including 70,000 African refugees who escaped from wars in their home countries- most of them are refugees from Eritrea and Sudan. The refugees are able to work for their living, so in addition to the fact that Israel has saved them from death, it is being a safe haven and hope for them and their families.
Israel, as an example for world justice, has been treating thousands of helpless wounded from the battles in Syria, whether in a field hospital established near the border for this purpose alone, or in hospitals inside Israel.
We have also sent multiple aid and rescue missions to disaster-prone areas, such as in the case of earthquakes in Turkey and Nepal, and in the deadly tsunami in Haiti in 2010.
In addition, thousands of foreigners from Thailand, the Philippines, China, Romania, and the former communist bloc, are living in Israel, who successfully integrated into Israel’s work market.
Freedom of religion is a core value for all people In Israel. There are believers from different religions living in security and prosperity in the country: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Baha'is, Ahmadis, and others. The number of Christians in the country is growing every year and new churches are being built assisted by the state. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are equal citizens and not a persecuted minority.
There are many geographical differences in Israel. The South is hot and dry, the North - green and blooming. The Dead Sea - the lowest place on earth - to the very high Mount Hermon.
In the same way, there are also many differences of views and opinions in belief and worship of the various religious and migrants, which can naturally create divisions and tensions.
Therefore, for us in Israel inter-religious dialogue is especially important and essential.
For this purpose we founded the Forum of Heads of Religions in Israel, which enables direct contact between the religious leaders, for every question, problem or any kind of conflict, there is an open line between them, and the problems are solved.
If the situation requires, the religious leaders will meet to find peaceful solution.
In our experience, openness and acceptance of the other is the basis for success in integrating a new population. Only the public's enthusiasm in Israel, its willingness to integrate the immigrants into work, community and society, enabled this crucible.
Thanks to the immigrants, we created a more diverse society with a rich culture which being a symbol of coexistence to the entire world.
That is what we do, that is who we are.
On a personal note, I would like to take this opportunity once again , to express my appreciation to our distinguished hosts from Sant’Egidio, who are an endless source of inspiration in their struggle for justice, diversity and world peace.
Thank you very much.