Understanding Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine

It took an hour to get through the checkpoint at Qalandia this morning. It’s always a bit of a lottery. I had three queues to choose from and must have chosen the wrong one. For a long time no one was being allowed through the turnstile. Perhaps the Israeli soldier who was supposed to be checking passports and permits, etc. had gone for a break or something. Or perhaps there was a lengthy interrogation going on.

Eventually a few people were allowed through the turnstile. With it being Friday, most of the people going through into Jerusalem were elderly folk, presumably going to worship or to visit family or friends. Many families have been separated by the Separation Wall.

For me, it wasn’t so bad waiting in the queue for such a long time. There were three Ecumenical Accompaniers on duty at the checkpoint. One of them joined the queue along with me, so I didn’t get bored. She told me that her name was Hanna and that she came from Norway and had studied in Oslo. She was three weeks into the usual three-month stint that the Ecumenical Accompaniers do. She had spent several months in the West Bank before, whilst researching for her M.A., which she entitled “The Wild, Wild West Bank.”

I asked whether she had been to lectures with Johann Galtung (whom I’ve heard referred to as “the father of peace research”, since he founded the Peace Research Institute Oslo). I was dismayed when she told me that he has become vehemently anti-Semitic in recent years. When I heard him speak in Heidelberg about 18 years ago, I was most impressed. I wonder what caused him to go off the rails?

When one sees what the Israeli government is doing in the occupied state of Palestine, it is perhaps tempting to demonise Israelis and Jews. But Jesus, who was himself a Jew, said that we should not judge others, lest we be judged. We should certainly not demonise people, especially if we are complaining about them demonising others.

One of the two workshops which I attended at the Sabeel conference this morning was about the variety of Jewish religious traditions and political standpoints in Israel. Choosing workshops can be a bit of a lottery, like choosing a queue at a checkpoint. I made two good choices this morning.

In one workshop, a rabbi, Arik Ascherman, a former executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, told us that, of the Jews in Israel, more than half are secular, about a quarter are Orthodox, about one fifth are Ultra Orthodox, and only a few are liberal.

None of these broad groups is monolithic. There are three main traditions of Ultra Orthodox Jews: Sephardic, Hassidic, and Lithuanian. They all enjoy the privilege of not having to work or to serve in the armed forces, so that they can devote their lives to religious study. Hassidic Jews are not only devoted to intellectual study. They also sing and dance and follow the path of mysticism.

Ultra Orthodox Jews are likely to be supporters of the National Religious Movement, which asserts that God has commanded the Jews to redeem the whole of the Land of Israel by whatever means are necessary, including building settlements in the occupied territories. This command is paramount, so it may be expedient to kill Palestinian civilians, if it serves the purpose of restoring the whole Land of Israel to the Jews. Human rights issues and international law are irrelevant.

This is a minority view, but the National Religious Movement plays a key role in the current coalition government. The executive summary and recommendations of a new report from the International Crisis Group, “Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, are well worth reading.

The impression that I gained from Arik Ascherman is that the majority of Jews in Israel are so fearful of finding themselves at the mercy of a hostile majority population, that, whatever happens, they want to live in a Jewish state, in which they have control over their own destiny. This suggests the necessity of a two-state solution, so that Israel would be assured of a majority of Jews within the state of Israel.

A one-state solution would be problematic from this point of view. In a single state uniting Israel within the 1967 borders, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza would have a majority of Palestinians. Either the state would not be Jewish, in so far as Jews would not be in control, or it would essentially be an apartheid state, with the denial of human rights for Palestinians which that entails.

The other workshop which I attended this morning was about Islam. Mohammad Dajani Daoudi, head of the American Studies Programme at Al-Quds University, explained that the Koran should not be read too literally. According to the spirit of the Koran, “Islam” means submission to God. And anyone who submits to God, including both Jews and Christians, is a “moslem”.

When read in the right spirit, the Koran cannot be used to justify killing people. Individuals have a right to choose their own religion, even if this means converting to another religion. The Koran, like other holy books, does not teach supremacy, exclusivity, hatred, violence and war. The Koran teaches compassion, mercy, peace and inclusiveness.

According to the Koran, we should not only pray, but we should also do good. Then people will see us as models.

George Fox, the main founder of Quakerism, said: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

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