As a function of his position, serving as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1993-2003, R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita met with dozens of world leaders – including several American presidents, the Queen of England, King Hussein, two popes and even Fidel Castro of Cuba – and always articulated the importance of Torah, Judaism, and the Land of Israel. He is considered one of the world’s most influential and inspiring religious leaders.
On one occasion he was invited to meet with the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo. The meeting went off as planned and Rabbi Lau offered a few suggestions to foster more peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt. Toward the end of their discussion Mubarak made a request. He introduced it by saying that he himself was a secular person, but that in Cairo lived the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Mohammed Tantawi, the most senior religious representative in the country and president of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Mubarak voiced his sincere request that the Chief Rabbi of Israel meet with Dr. Tantawi, the chief cleric of Egypt, and Rabbi Lau accepted. The meeting took place in the office of the president of Al-Azhar University, in an old, dark building on campus. Al-Azhar is the educational institution for the imams, muftis, and kadis (religious court judges) of the Sunni followers of Islam. The conversation lasted about an hour and a half.
When Rabbi Lau saw that dusk was falling, he remembered that he had promised to attend the afternoon and evening services at the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue in Cairo, the only synagogue in Egypt that sometimes has a minyan. He knew that the Jews were anticipating his arrival and apologized to Dr. Tantawi, also known as Sheikh Al-Azhar, that he needed to leave. He thanked the sheikh for the warm conversation, and then, out of politeness, asked if he would be willing to pay the rabbi a visit in Jerusalem. He promised to receive the sheikh with the same degree of respect that he was shown.
His answer was abrupt: “Only if my passport is stamped with the seal of a Palestinian state. I will not have my passport stamped with the seal of the State of Israel.” Rabbi Lau was unwilling to let this extremist view pass, and pressed him. “Here we have been talking about friendship and good neighborliness, so why does the stamp bother you? My passport has the Egyptian stamp, and I am proud to have visited President Hosni Mubarak. Peace and understanding between us is welcome.”
But Sheikh Al-Azhar did not change his position. In his eyes, the Israelis had stolen Jerusalem from the Muslims and he made his position known. “I have done a little ‘homework’ on you,” said Rabbi Lau, not letting it go unchallenged. “I know you have a doctorate, and I found out that you wrote in your dissertation about Jews and Judaism in the Koran. So I conclude that not only do you know Islam, but you know about Judaism as well. I also know something about Judaism, but I don’t know much about Islam. So please permit me to ask: How many times is Jerusalem mentioned in the Koran? After all, we’re talking about the holy city, Jerusalem. Islam’s fundamental text must surely make mention of such a holy city.”
The sheikh gave him a long, silent look. Rabbi Lau continued to press the point. “In our Bible (Tanach), the name ‘Jerusalem’ and its synonym ‘Zion’ appear not just once or twice, but 821 times. This proves the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish faith and consciousness. Jerusalem appears everywhere in the Bible, including in the times of the patriarch Abraham, and in relation to almost every topic. The Bible repeatedly mentions that we must preserve access to the holy sites for believers from all religions and nations. As Isaiah the Prophet says in Chapter 56: ‘Even them I will bring to my holy mountain...for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.’ But as for sovereignty and historical connection, the number 821 teaches us something. So tell me,” he asked again, “How many times is Jerusalem mentioned in the Koran?”
Again the sheikh held his tongue. “Can I make a guess?” asked the rabbi, and the sheikh looked at him in silence. “Is the answer...zero?” Rabbi Lau looked at the sheikh’s deputy standing at his side and the man sheepishly nodded his head.
There was nothing more to discuss, and with that unforgettable affirmation of the right of the Jewish people to their holy city, Rabbi Lau left for the synagogue to recite the afternoon and evening prayers with the tiny Jewish community of Cairo.