by José Manuel Cervera Gragera
When in May 2014, three men joined in an emotional embrace in front of the Western Wall, witnesses of the scene heard them say in Spanish: "We made it." These three people were Rabbi Abraham Skorka; Omar Abboud, the Argentinian Muslim leader; and Pope Francis, in an act that culminated his first official visit to the Holy Land. Their cry of triumph represented before the eyes of the whole world the realization of an old dream, one fuelled by the friendship of the three men in Buenos Aires, and which offers the best formula for overcoming the nightmare of religious confrontations: respect and warmth among people of good will.
To us, at the Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo, that conciliatory embrace that took place in a particularly symbolic city such as Jerusalem, represents the best expression of the spirit that motivates us, which is none other than that of working towards peaceful and harmonious coexistence — one that is so necessary in this part of the world — through knowledge, cultural exchange and dialogue.
For it is true that the Mediterranean as a whole has made valuable contributions to the collective civilization of mankind. It is sufficient to cite the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Greeks, Byzantines, Turks, Berbers, French or Spaniards in this sense. Today's world cannot be understood apart from the multi-directional but shared contribution of Mediterranean cultures, including, of course, and in a prominent way, Jewish religion and culture, which has had such a determining influence on our history.
Rising Fear in the Mediterranean
But it is no less true that today, this culturally privileged space has become a scene of human conflict and drama — economic and financial crises; security problems, with the emergence of new forms and new protagonists of terrorism; social and demographic problems; waves of migration and the implications that these waves carry with them, the most terrible and painful aspect being the incessant loss of human lives.
And as on so many other occasions in the history of mankind, the Mediterranean has become a reflection of many of the great problems that exist in the world — violence, inequality, fanaticism and the difficulties of local and global governance.
Collaborating reflexively in the search for solutions to such complex issues has formed the principal mission of the Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo over its 18 years of existence.
Today, when we speak so much and sometimes so badly of identities in conflict and of the conflict of cultures and civilizations, as an Andalusian, I must say that we ourselves have participated in this dichotomy, in moments at times enriching, and at others, destructive.
Learning from a History of Coexistence and Expulsion
The Fundación Tres Culturas is based in Andalusia, a land in which, at a given moment in our history, men and women from different towns, races and ideologies — some at odds with one another — managed to establish long periods and spaces of tolerance, coexistence and dialogue.
For years, in Andalusian cities such as Cordoba, Seville and Granada, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted, albeit at times in a complicated equilibrium. It was here that Sefarad — one of the great cultural currents of Jewish history, Al-Andalus, a mythical caliphate in the historical memory of Islam, and the influence of the Christian Castile, were blended.
In these Andalusian lands, which were home to Seneca, Osio, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Maimónides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), the convergence of diverse cultures allowed for the development of a powerful synthesis of knowledge. It was from here that the knowledge of antiquity and new techniques, such as astronomy and mathematics — which had been brought from the East — were transmitted to the rest of medieval Europe and went on to enrich the human adventure of progress.
Yet after the conquest of Granada and the unification of the peninsula under a single monarchy, Andalusia became the scene of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and that of the Moors in 1609. In just over a century, two tragedies and two great historical injustices took place that had deep social, economic, cultural and religious implications.
This is also Spain. It is also Andalusia. Intolerance and generosity have coexisted in dialectical tension throughout our history. We have learned from our history, to such an extent that few other societies are so well prepared by their own history to understand our Mediterranean neighbours, to share with them a common view of our realities, our problems and our aspirations.
Yes, we have a shared vision, because what we are witnessing is a new manifestation of something that the experience of many centuries has already taught us, and that that politicians, journalists and scholars should reflect upon — that the Mediterranean has never been a barrier to the flow of exchanges, whether of ideas or of goods or of armies and armed actions.
Using History to Create Peace and Prosperity
Faced with this situation, under which it is necessary to consider how we can help solve problems and transform them into a source of opportunities for all, we must recognize the existence of a common, shared Mediterranean mentality that can bring us closer to our positions and points of view and allow us to advance substantially in the understanding of our shared space in this region.
At the Fundación Tres Culturas, what we seek to achieve through the diverse range of activities that we carry out, is to make a contribution, however modest, in favor of that great objective: that the Mediterranean should cease to be a hostile and exclusive frontier, a dilemma between war or peace, a divisive line between development and underdevelopment, an area threatened by insecurity or fanaticism, a deadly trap for people and families who cross its waters seeking a better future.
In order to recover the Mediterranean's role in fostering encounters and exchanges, we must be able to work together for a future of peace, prosperity, cooperation and stability.
Pluralism and Diversity Should Be the Basis for Coexistence
This contribution can and should be based on the fact that the technological, communicational, economic and cultural changes seen in recent decades have made it necessary to view diversity as a source of wealth and not of conflicts. Diversity should be the basis for the achievement of a fruitful coexistence between different cultures that can and should have a common ground based on universal values that we have to know how to identify and defend.
This is not what is happening at the moment, unfortunately. Clashes, provocations, and dissensions between different religious and cultural groups are at the center of all of our concerns and, in general, of those of European citizens and now also of European institutions.
We should continue to bear in mind that one of the cornerstones of democracy, at least as we understand it from our European perspective, is the commitment to respect pluralism in all spheres of social life.
In this sense, at least conceptually, in the face of exclusionary and confrontational tendencies, Europe should know how to lead the effort towards coexistence between different identities, among other things, because Europe, a geopolitical entity that has been forming for centuries, has always been plural. Pluralism and diversity have never been absent among us. It is precisely on this basis that the idea of the European Union was formed, so that diversity does not lead to disunity, so that pluralism, which inevitably is accompanied by tensions, will not engender confrontation.
Rejecting Prejudice toward Muslims
Tendencies towards uniformity and the homogenization of societies lie at the root of tragedies as immense as that of the Holocaust, a human and moral catastrophe, the Shoah, which should serve as an unforgettable lesson to all humankind about the unfathomable limits of perversion to which scorn for the other, those who are not the same as us, can bring us.
I would like to point out that this same diversity substantially affects what we might call Arab or Muslim identity in a broader sense. The diversity of traditions and interpretations of Islam reflects the social complexity of an entire region with a rich heritage that cannot be approached from a monolithic or reductionist viewpoint.
A reductionist vision is, undoubtedly, to consider Islam as a whole as a threat, a feeling that, sadly, is more widespread among us than it should be. Of course, so-called Islamic terrorism is a serious threat to our security, but it is radically unjust to ignore the fundamental fact that the main victims of terrorist violence with so-called jihadist roots are precisely Muslims themselves.
Terrorism will not go away easily. That is why it is important to seek to combat it on the basis of realities and not prejudices, as prejudices are always built on the basis of intolerance and xenophobia.
Using Integrative Thinking to Resist Fanaticism
That is to say, we need to know ourselves in order to understand ourselves, and for us to see reality as it is. Otherwise, we will never be able to understand one another. In a world too often dominated by stereotypes and lack of reason, it is imperative that we open paths towards integrative thinking and a productive dialogue that can help overcome differences.
That is what we do in Andalusia, and precisely what we want to do with the Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo — to serve as a meeting place, to convert institutions like ours into centers of dialogue and reason and, consequently, to resist any manifestation of radicalism and fanaticism.
Let us be honest: Is there any other reasonable path that will not lead to catastrophe?
Today, in this issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal dedicated to Jerusalem, a sacred city for the three religions of the book, and also the scene of past and, unfortunately, also present confrontations, we must raise our voice and remember Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, Let those who love you live.” In the same way that this city is the compilation and the sum of many of the conflicts that devastate us, so it is the emblem of our dreams.
Our task — that of the Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo but also that of all people of good will — is to change looks of hatred for those of fraternity, to change fear for hope. It is a difficult but absolutely necessary challenge. And to paraphrase Pope Francis, I am sure we will make it.