Reflections on a Sabbatical

Published July 01, 2019 by Dr Ed Kessler MBE

This blog is being published on 1st July, the day I return to the Woolf Institute after a 6-month sabbatical, my first after the Woolf Institute was founded 20 years ago. I am very grateful to all the Trustees and staff, especially Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, who became Acting Director on 1st January and, with her three fellow-directors, has led the Institute with an unusual combination of enthusiasm, energy and efficiency.

Such is the confidence that I (and my fellow Trustees) have in Miriam that she has now been appointed Executive Director and will have responsibility for the day-to-day running of the Institute. She and I look forward to working closely together for many years to come.

As the word 'sabbatical' suggests, it was a restorative 6 months during which I read dozens of books and in so doing, rediscovered the love of reading… slowly. Following the advice of Socrates, I improved myself by learning about other people’s life experiences and by reading their writings, I shall – hopefully – come by more easily what others have laboured so hard to achieve.

Some of the sabbatical was spent in Israel and Jordan, part of a region where too much history has been written in the blood of victims who – because they were not like 'them', who didn't live like 'them', who didn't share 'their' faith – were regarded by 'them' as the unredeemed, the subhuman, the stranger and the refugee.

The privilege of a sabbatical enabled numerous and sometimes lengthy meetings – in the USA, Europe and the Middle East. They underscored the importance of the contribution of the Woolf Institute and its ethos that rejects the idea of defining ourselves by ourselves. Rather, as I said to a friend from the Waqf whilst drinking coffee on Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount, we can only define ourselves in the presence of others. We discover what it means to be human when we truly see others as humans, like us; when we appreciate their history, their community and their values. When we encounter their humanity, we avoid the trap of demonising those whom we don't know.

During our conversation, demonstrations suddenly broke out, which taught me that the more we put ourselves into the position of power, the harder it is to understand others. I am also increasingly worried about how common it is to come across two perspectives: one view suggests, 'I know who I am because I am not you'; the second, 'I know who I am and I don't need you'.

This is why over the sabbatical, I have written a new A-Z, this time examining the Holy Land: from Arab to Zion.[1] My hope is that the series will reaffirm our task to respect differences while being true to our own heritage, our own language, while making space for people who are different.

Whoever we are – religious or secular, Jew, Christian or Muslim, we are all, individually, outsiders, different, distinctive, and challenging the idols of the age.

How does this apply to the Woolf Institute? Let me illustrate with a brief discussion about power and influence because this may help you, the reader, understand my hopes for the Woolf Institute over the next 20 years.

Power and influence are often thought of as being the same kind of thing: those who have power have influence and vice versa. In fact, though, they are quite different. If I have total power and then decide to share it with nine others, I now have only one-tenth of the power I had before. But, if I have a certain measure of influence and then share it with nine others, I do not have less. I have more. Instead of one person radiating this influence, there are now ten. Power works by division, influence by multiplication.

A monarch has power, making military, economic and political decisions. Those who disobey face the possible penalty of death. A prophet has no power whatsoever. He commands no army. He has no way of enforcing his views. But he has massive influence. Today we barely remember the names of most kings. But the words of the prophets continue to inspire by their vision and ideals. As Kierkegaard once said: When a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.

The Woolf Institute seeks to influence society in a different and more enduring way than power. Whilst power may end with death or resignation, influence remains. Influence is like lighting one candle with another. Sharing your influence with someone else does not mean you have less; you have more.

The Woolf Institute delivers education like the flame of a candle which lights another candle. The first is not diminished. There is now, simply, more light.

Dr Ed Kessler MBE is Founder Director of the Woolf Institute.

[1] Further information on the publication of Ed’s new A-Z will be available over the summer. His first A-Z of Believing: from Atheism to Zealotry can be found on the independent online here or on the Woolf Institute podcast here.

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