Dalai Lama meets Israeli leaders, joins interfaith event

JERUSALEM — Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Education Minister Yossi Sarid held formal talks with the Dalai Lama in the Knesset on Thursday of last week, sending a clear message to the Israeli government to meet with the exiled Tibetan leader despite growing ties with China.

"It's about time that people in Israel who are serving in the highest positions" should also accept the Dalai Lama at the main entrance to the chambers of Israeli politics, Burg said at a joint news conference with the Dalai Lama in the Knesset's Chagall Hall.

Sarid said a cabinet minister needed to meet with the Dalai Lama, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his doctrine of nonviolence, and he decided to do so to spare the country embarrassment.

Dubbing him the "No. 1 proponent of nonviolence," Sarid said Israel had much to learn from the Dalai Lama's teachings.

The Dalai Lama noted that whatever meetings he holds, even in universities, "there are some problems." However, he said he did not want to cause embarrassment to anyone, although there are leaders who avoid him.

Burg hosted the Dalai Lama despite attempts by China to get the meeting canceled, especially due to last Friday's arrival of Burg's counterpart, Li Peng, for a six-day visit. Li, chairman of the Chinese People's Congress, is also the No. 2 official in the Communist Party hierarchy and is the most senior Chinese official to visit Israel.

Burg rejected notions that his meeting would harm relations or defense deals with Beijing, and maintained that the Knesset should have its own expression in foreign affairs.

"Israel is slowly but surely moving toward joining the kind of nations it would like to associate itself with," he said, noting that a number of Western leaders, including President Clinton, have met with the Tibetan leader several times.

"Israel should have wider interests than its weapons industry or the arms trade with a couple of states around the world," he added.

While the Dalai Lama was meeting with Sarid, Burg went into a meeting next door with Foreign Minister David Levy.

The Dalai Lama was received at the entrance to the Knesset by Burg and the two exchanged white scarves according to the Buddhist tradition. They then walked hand and hand into the building.

Several Knesset members joined the two in their half-hour meeting in Burg's office.

In the meeting, Burg read from the Talmud on the difficult moments in Jerusalem before the city fell to the Romans.

Burg also gave the Dalai Lama a non-leather-bound copy of the Bible, causing his guest to burst out in warm laughter. Burg said the two had had a spiritual exchange, and he tried to relay to his guest what it means to go into exile and how to survive in exile.

The day before, the Dalai Lama linked hands with Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergymen at the shores of Lake Kinneret, praying for rain

The Tibetan spiritual leader stood silently with Rabbi Menahem Froman of Tekoa, who had suggested the joint prayer; Sheik Ali Abu-Salach of Ramallah; Friar Maximillian Mizzi, a Franciscan from Assisi, Italy; the Rev. Andrew White of Coventry Cathedral, England; and Rabbi Avraham Soetendorp, a Liberal rabbi from the Hague.

The group first faced the lake and then Froman gently turned the Dalai Lama around to face south, the two standing together for several moments silently.

"This is the way we pray, in the direction of Jerusalem. It is also the direction of Mecca," Froman said.

When asked later whether he had religious reservations about praying with representatives of other religions, Froman said that he has 10 children and his fear is not that they might become Christians, Muslims or idolaters, but that they might become unbelievers.

"The problem of religions today is not the clash between religions that existed in the past, but the challenge of materialism and the lack of spiritual values," he added

The event occurred during an interreligious conference at Beit Gavriel on Lake Kinneret, organized by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and Jubillenium, a commercial company dealing in millennium-themed activities.

Speaking at a press conference after the joint prayer, the Dalai Lama admitted that he had reservations about the efficacy of his prayer, but said it could not hurt.

When asked if he believed his prayer would be answered, he replied with a simple "no," but he said that the symbolism of the spiritual leaders standing together was very important.

"There is no harm in it," he said, adding that he views action as more important than prayer. "The Jewish people are very active," he said.