Rebecca Abrahamson

Haredi Peace Activist

On Learning the Language of the Other

February 26 2018

In order to make headway in any peace process, anywhere, learning the language that the Other speaks is vital.

I presented my work at the Engaging Sacred Values Conference, Trinity College, Dublin; its theme — the use of religious values to make peace in the middle east. Reverend Ken Newell moderated, who has his own track record of peace making. He helped negotiate the Good Friday cease fire agreement, 1998, putting an end to much of the terror attacks in Northern Ireland. At the conference, he encouraged the participants to be open to hearing other points of view, “learning another language is so much more than vocabulary and grammar, it means learning the language of religion, the language of another’s values.”

The dominant language in the middle east is that of scripture and tradition. The language of traditional and religious people of all Abrahamic faiths includes discretion, tact, and modesty.

And I witnessed some gaps in that understanding during my trip.

During my presentation at Trinity, I presented what I believe is the ultimate method of recognizing the Other in Islam and Judaism, in the language that speaks to both — interconnected Muslim and Jewish religious courts.

In the language of Islam, there can be Shari’a courts that will interact with courts of the “People of the Book,” also known as Mumin – believers from other monotheistic faiths. Jewish courts or Batei Din can interact with courts of the “Children of Noach” and Ger Toshav — righteous resident aliens. Muslim Shari’a courts and Jewish Batei Din will use this language of recognizing the other, forming an intellectual and legal basis of mutual recognition.

I also presented that this involves recalling the scriptural roots of western political science as brought down by Christians including Erastus, the founders of the English Parliament and the founding fathers of the United States. We need to question the assumption that peace will arrive in the middle east as soon as everyone here is living some derivation of western relativism.  Religion no longer marginalized, all peoples of the middle east will feel represented, making any workable peace process truly lasting.

Here was the response — “Arabs are not second class in the Holy Land… how would you like to live in Iran!… we believe in Democracy not Theocracy… Where would Christians fit in your scheme….Most religious leaders do not share your open and accepting views…We have fought for freedoms that you would undo….”

But I had other responses as well – “it is good that you challenged us… we cannot continue sitting around agreeing with each other… secularism is simply not working in the middle east… Rebecca has a point that Judaism and Islam shape all parts of life…of all the ideas I have heard, this is the most workable….”

I was also asked in private, and asked tactfully,  how I feel about gay rights. That seems to be the modern litmus test for tolerance. I welcomed the discussion, it is a sensitive and timely issue, but  I would not expect anyone to ask my underage children or grandchildren that question.

This brings me to another branch of this trip to Ireland and the UK.

My ticket back to the Holy Land was booked from the airport at Luton, a suburb of London.  Eager to network with the Muslim community, I found the Olive Tree Primary School, and made contact.

A staff member told me, “we can work with believers from all faiths”, and invited me to give a brief talk to the school children.

I found them to be friendly,  modest,  and varied – the blue eyed and fair skinned sat among those whose ancestry stemmed from the African Continent  to the Indian sub Continent. They displayed a marked cordiality – they all took the time to greet each other with the blessings that G-d fearing Muslims bestow upon each other.  They were hospitable to me, reflecting a generosity of spirit ingrained in the Islamic religion – and a hospitality that was taken somewhat advantage of by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted). Here is what happened.

I asked if their community had any contact with the Haredi Jewish community.

The secretary responded, “A Rabbi from Stamford Hill called to offer support after our school made the news. You see, officials from the government came to check our school. They said they need to speak to the children, separate from us…”

My wariness receptors went on high alert.

She finished the sentence: “they asked the children, ‘do you know any homosexuals?’”

But the oldest children in that school are eleven years old!

She continued, clearly hurt: “and we told them, ‘we do not want you talking to our students.’”

The claim is that the officials were simply checking the school for discriminatory attitudes.  It also showed that these officials had not learned the language of the Other. Learning that language would have made them aware that such a question could be interpreted as a provocation.

Bequeathing modest and strong boundaries to children is achievable, and it is what traditionalists do.  It’s language involves hands-on parenting,  creating a sense of acceptance in the home so that as children mature, they will not crave affection from outside. It means avoiding immodest influences from the media, as well as anyone who would raise inappropriate topics.

Is this an extremist view? The works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov are studied widely, from Christian divinity students to Jews from the unaffiliated to the orthodox. Rebbe Nachman emphasized modesty in deed and thought as a foundation of spiritual and psychological health. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is considered a moderate leader in the Muslim world today. He strongly emphasizes the importance of modest demeanor between men and women.  No one calls these leaders extremists.

As far as fears that traditionalists are poised to harm homosexuals?

Upon the shooting and murder of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando Florida, scores of Muslim leaders condemned the attack. Here I want to point out the use of tactful and modest language when  the Orthodox Union, which represents modern orthodox Judaism in the United States, issued its condemnation: “.…No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.…” (emphasis mine).

You might say, forget the sensitivities of religious people! Well, let’s take a look at the Planned Parenthood website on talking to children about intimacy, here are some quotes, see the link below:

“…you can teach your kids about respecting other peoplekeep the conversation age appropriate reassure them that it’s OK to be embarrassed about this stuff…The best way to keep your kids safe and healthy is to stay involved in their lives and to set some boundaries…”

Looks like tact is important to a lot of people. As far as effective dialogue goes,  Professor James David Audlin has quipped, “I see all too often in such ‘inter-’ dialogues where true dialogue is replaced by loaded questions that are more dogmatic assertions than honest questions respectfully asked.”

Whether striving for peace in the middle east, visiting a school in a sleepy London suburb, or in what ever circle you find yourself, try to remember to get to know the language of the Other.

————

Full quote from the Orthodox Union condemnation:

https://advocacy.ou.org/orthodox-union-condemns-violent-attack-orlando-florida-american-assailed-due-personal-identity/

———-

Write up of the Ofsted questioning of the Luton schoolchildren:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/15/ofsted-luton-olive-tree-school-homosexuality

———

Planned Parenthood web site on tips for talking to kids about sex – if even PP acknowledges the need for tact on this subject, why in the world cannot that be acknowledged when breaching such a subject with traditionalists? The site is modest:

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/tips-talking

———–

Go ahead and Google : “Muslims Condemn Orlando Attack”

Reverend Ken Newell’s Book, Captured by a Vision  https://www.amazon.com/Captured-Vision-Memoir-Ken-Newell/dp/1780731035

The Temple Mount — Haram Al Sharif, towards harmony: What we have forgotten, what we must remember

March 9 2018

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between the Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock is pivotal in shedding light on the ideal relationship between Judaism and Islam. In clarifying the contexts in which Jerusalem is holy to both religions, we will discover that this site can truly be a place of prayer for all peoples, while fully acknowledging the aspirations of both Jews and Muslims regarding theology, history, and even how this can be applied politically today.

We will see that the debate over the Temple Mount\Haram Al Sharif need not be a zero sum game in which only one side may lay claim to this sacred place, quite the contrary; at the same time, the holiness of this area to the children of Israel and to the Muslim nation are not equivalent, nor should we expect it to be, given our peoples’ unique roles.

But before we get to facts and figures, Holy Writ and historical evidence, I want to bring you to the meeting that catalyzed this article. In February  2018, the Interfaith Encounter Association hosted a dialogue session at the Abu Awad estate in Gush EtZion, in which both Muslims and Jews presented their views on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, on which stands the al Aksa Mosque. Al Aksa means “far away” in Arabic…and in First Kings chapter 8 verse 41 concerning the Temple, we have “…if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—”

Al Aksa – far away, from a distant land….

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Temple Mount in Judaism

  1. Its Universal Character – Holy to all children of Abraham

The holiness of the Temple Mount begins at the very beginning – there, Adam and Chava were created and offered sacrifices.

The midrash (legend) of the field of Brotherly Love is said to have been located on this place. Two brothers dwelt here, one with a large family, one who lived alone. After completing the harvest, the one who dwelt alone thought, “my brother has a large family, I have no need for all this wheat, let me bring some to him” At the same time, the brother with a large family mused, “I have so much happiness from my family, let me bring some wheat to my brother who lives alone, at least he can have some pleasure in this world.”  Each one thus put the other first. They met up as each was carrying his sack to the other, and, understanding the intent of the other, they hugged in brotherly love.

There, Abraham built an altar and faced the trial of the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac. From then on the site was called Har HaMoriah – the place where G-d will be seen/feared.

It was on Har haMoriah that Jacob learned Torah in with Shem and Shem’s grandson Ever, and where Jacob had his prophetic dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

The above illustrates the holiness of the Temple Mount/Har haMoriah, as it applies to humanity. Now we will look at its place as a focal point for the children of Israel.

II As a Focus of Prayer for the children of Israel

The Temple Mount became the focus of prayer for the children of Israel because the Temple housed the aron haBrith (Ark of the Covenant), which initially accompanied the children of Israel’s wanderings in the desert. Upon the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments were placed in the  aron haBrith, and the Jewish people prayed towards it. The  aron haBrith symbolized the presence of God on earth.

The Ark of of the Covenant traveled to several places. Then king David brought it to Jerusalem and it was placed on the rock where Isaac was almost sacrificed. The Temple could not be built by king David because he had been a man of war, so his son Solomon supervised the construction. Thus, the Temple Mount became the focal point for prayer for the children of Israel. Sacrifices were offered in the Temple, and Jerusalem became both the royal capital as well as the location of the Sanhedrin, or High Court.

Indeed, Jerusalem has always been the spiritual capital of the children of Israel, with the Temple at its focus – with ample room for the nations of the world to worship there as well. G-d fearers from all nations of the world would visit and worship at the Temple, even those from far away – I Kings 8:41.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, the always smiling and energetic founder of Roots\Judur, quoted scripture regarding the place of Jerusalem and the Temple for the Jewish people (indeed, the Rabbi would have continued quoting had I not cut him off at a pivotal point, and he politely deferred – thank you Rabbi Hanan! We will get to that dynamic point, now back to scripture):

First Kings  chapter 8:

41

וְגַם אֶל־הַנָּכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־מֵעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא וּבָא מֵאֶרֶץ רְחוֹקָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶֽךָ׃

“Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—

42

כִּי יִשְׁמְעוּן אֶת־שִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל וְאֶת־יָֽדְךָ הַֽחֲזָקָה וּֽזְרֹעֲךָ הַנְּטוּיָה וּבָא וְהִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּֽה׃

for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm—when he comes to pray toward this House,

43

אַתָּה תִּשְׁמַע הַשָּׁמַיִם מְכוֹן שִׁבְתֶּךָ וְעָשִׂיתָ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ הַנָּכְרִי לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּן כָּל־עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ אֶת־שְׁמֶךָ לְיִרְאָה אֹֽתְךָ כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלָדַעַת כִּי־שִׁמְךָ נִקְרָא עַל־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִֽיתִי׃

oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built.

Rabbi Schlesinger went on to quote the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the rebuilt Temple and and end to all war, which you can see in footnote I at the end of this article.

Thus the focal nature of the Temple in Judaism did not detract from its importance to the nations of the world. Quite the contrary! We should be glad that there are other peoples who cherish Jerusalem and the site of the Temple, we want to see scripture fulfilled, don’t we?

Concerning the special role of the Jewish people in the Temple, understand that the nations of the world and the children of Israel have discrete roles – Temple service was exclusive to the male members of the priestly class. And among the priestly class, only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and only on one day a year – Yom Kippur.

Discussing the universal nature of the Temple is not saying that the Temple Mount is a free for all, quite the contrary, its very universality demands particularist roles –  the special roles of the High Priest, the priestly class, the Israelites, and the G-d fearers from the nations of the world were strictly defined. Each Jewish tribe had its own gate in which to enter, it was forbidden for a member of one tribe to breach the gate of another. Each tribe had its special place, and each nation has its special role, working in harmony, and this bequeaths a strong sense of belonging and uniqueness.

Journeys

We then looked at the Qur’an about al Aksa in Surah  (chapter) 17, “The Night Journey”:

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

  1. Glory to Him who journeyed His servant by night, from the Sacred Mosque, to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, in order to show him of Our wonders. He is the Listener, the Beholder.
  2. And We gave Moses the Scripture, and made it a guide for the Children of Israel: Take none for protector other than Me.
  3. The descendants of those We carried with Noah. He was an appreciative servant.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad, our host and the Palestinian director of Roots, connected Surah 17 and the Prayer of Solomon – I Kings 8:22-52. Al-Aqsa means far-away. Perhaps the Qur’an is referring to I Kings 8:41, the Temple being a house of prayer for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place”?

We all marveled at this “chidush” – this (seemingly) new interpretation, springing from Holy Writ. This speaks to the energy that emerges when people gather with an aim to uncover an intellectual framework for peace, already possessing a nagging feeling that it is already there, embedded in scripture.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad had his own journey in coming to the point of hosting such conciliatory meetings. He is co-director of Roots, and his brother, Ali Abu Awad, is co-founder of Roots and founder of Tagryeer – the Palestinian National Non-Violence movement.

The Abu Awads did not just wake up one morning and decide to be leaders in peaceful resistance. Ali had begun using forms of peaceful resistance when in an Israeli jail – he went on a hunger strike in order to be able to see his mother, and it worked. Then their beloved brother Yusuf was killed at an Israeli checkpoint in 2001, and not, apparently, in self defense. Incredibly, this tragedy deepened the Abu Awad’s commitment to peaceful conciliation.

I will also tell you what brought my husband Ben and myself to reach out to Muslims. It was catalysed by Ben surviving a terrorist shooting of a bus. He was physically unscathed, but deeply shaken, and determined to find authentic paths to reconciliation.

It would be easier to stick to facts and figures, scripture and tradition, but I need to give you a picture of the dynamic at work here, at the marvel of people who have survived tragedies, who by some rights should detest the Other, finding common ground in dynamic discussion. Scripture may well be written in stone and calligraphy, but it is people that bring it to life.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad is the religious brother, Ali a bit more open, so you will find your address at the Abu Awad estate, whether devout or not, there in Gush Etzion, next time we meet.

Back to the discussion – then Rabbi Yaakov Nagen came up with a compelling parallel to Muhammad’s night journey: the prophet Yechezkel speaks of his own journey, being taken by God from a far away land to see the Temple:

וַיִּשְׁלַח תַּבְנִית יָד וַיִּקָּחֵנִי בְּצִיצִת רֹאשִׁי וַתִּשָּׂא אֹתִי רוּחַ ׀ בֵּֽין־הָאָרֶץ וּבֵין הַשָּׁמַיִם וַתָּבֵא אֹתִי יְרוּשָׁלְַמָה בְּמַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים אֶל־פֶּתַח שַׁעַר הַפְּנִימִית הַפּוֹנֶה צָפוֹנָה אֲשֶׁר־שָׁם מוֹשַׁב סֵמֶל הַקִּנְאָה הַמַּקְנֶֽה׃

“He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by the hair of my head. A spirit lifted me up between heaven and earth and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner Gate that faces north; that was the site of the infuriating image that provokes fury.”

Rabbi Nagen is the grand nephew of the illustrious Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish.  He is Ram of Yeshivat Otniel, Hebron. Perpetually smiling, accepting of all and blind to your faults, Rabbi Nagen commands a wide span – he has a deep understanding of the Haredi path, given his background, matched with his education at Yeshiva University and now leader in the national religious camp. Also a journey.

Journeys are par for the course, for prophets, for us.

The Destruction of the Temple as noted in the Qur’an
The Qur’an declares the homeland of the children of Israel to be the Land of Israel, Surat Al Maeda, 5:20-21:
And [mention, O Muhammad], when Moses said to his people, “O my people, remember the favor of Allah upon you when He appointed among you prophets and made you possessors and gave you that which He had not given anyone among the worlds.
O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back [from fighting in Allah ‘s cause] and [thus] become losers.”
And in this Land, we had a Temple. We continued our study with teachings from the Qur’an relating to the destruction of the Temple –

  1. And We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: You will commit evil on earth twice, and you will rise to a great height.
  2. When the first of the two promises came true, We sent against you servants of Ours, possessing great might, and they ransacked your homes. It was a promise fulfilled.
  3. Then We gave you back your turn against them, and supplied you with wealth and children, and made you more numerous.
  4. If you work righteousness, you work righteousness for yourselves; and if you commit evil, you do so against yourselves. Then, when the second promise comes true, they will make your faces filled with sorrow, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy all that falls into their power.

See too this is also the message in the passage in Yechezkal: 8:6

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן־אָדָם הֲרֹאֶה אַתָּה מהם [מָה] [הֵם] עֹשִׂים תּוֹעֵבוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת אֲשֶׁר בֵּֽית־יִשְׂרָאֵל ׀ עֹשִׂים פֹּה לְרָֽחֳקָה מֵעַל מִקְדָּשִׁי וְעוֹד תָּשׁוּב תִּרְאֶה תּוֹעֵבוֹת גְּדֹלֽוֹת׃ (ס)

And He said to me, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the terrible abominations that the House of Israel is practicing here, to drive Me far from My Sanctuary? You shall yet see even greater abominations!”

Thus we see the verses both in the Qur’an and in the Torah about the Temple’s fall, let us take a peek at history as well.

The Destruction of the Temple – first under Babylon, then under Rome, the Temple Mount laid waste – until Islam

When the first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the ark was hidden under the Temple Mount. It continued to be the center of prayer for the Jewish people, and a symbol of Jewish unity. The second Temple was rebuilt in 515 BCE and stood until 70 CE, when Israel rebelled against Rome. Three wars were fought, the first and second wars of Jerusalem, the third of Bar Kochba. Rome conquered Israel, renamed the land Palestine, and renamed Jerusalem Aelia. The Temple Mount was purposely left in ruins.

In the year 614 CE, the Persian army set out to conquer Egypt, and en route the Jews helped them conquer Israel. But the Roman Byzantines defeated the Persians, and the Roman Byzantine king, Heraculus, punished the Jews by turning the Temple mount into a latrine, where all the waste was dumped. Under Byzantine Rome, no Jew was allowed to even come within five miles of Jerusalem on pain of death.

So for over 500 years, the Temple Mount suffered every degradation possible, first by pagan Rome, then by Byzantine Rome. This inspired various Jewish splinter groups to rebel, to fight for the Temple Mount again.

Al Quds in Islam

I In Tradition

The word “Jerusalem” or its Arabic equivalent, “Al Quds” – “the Holy” – is not written in the Qur’an.

Back to the meeting – two Jewish participants started to react to this, and I stepped in quick. This is usually used to say that Jerusalem is not so important in Islam. I insisted that this must be understood in context: in many parts of the Qur’an concepts are not explicitly mentioned because it is assumed that one is familiar with previously revealed holy books. I also brandished the essay by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, “Confrontation”, in which he states that we cannot apply the rules used by one religion to another, different faiths are not parallel and cannot be understood by the vantage point of another faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes that this is not a mere gap, but an abyss, an impossibility in fully comprehending the Other.

So by evaluating the place of Jerusalem in Islam with the tools of Islam – assuming previously revealed holy books, and not by the tools of Judaism, ie, how many times it is mentioned in the Tanach – we see an example within the Qur’an itself of its acceptance of other proper faiths, its self-identity of belonging in a symbiotic relationship with previously revealed faiths, a sort of enshrined scriptural tolerance.
Qur’an, Surah al Isra (the Israelites)  17:1 states – Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.
This is followed by 17:2 –
And We gave Moses the Scripture and made it a guidance for the Children of Israel that you not take other than Me as Disposer of affairs.”
Back to the meeting,  Rabbi Yaakov Nagen brought up this passage  as an indication as well of the centrality of the Torah as the heart of the Temple.
Here are two hadith (traditions) that declare Al Aqsa to be located in Jerusalem:

“set out deliberately on a journey only to three mosques: this mosque of mine (in Medina), the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) and the Masjid al Aqsa (in Jerusalem)” (hadith Bukhari and hadith Muslim).

And – “a prayer in the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) is worth 100, 000 prayers, a prayer in my mosque (in Medina) is worth 1, 000 and a prayer in Jerusalem is worth 500 prayers more than in an any other mosque”. (Bukhari).

From a religious view, the Al Aksa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam for the offering of prayer. Historically, it is important to Islam because of its role in protecting other monotheistic faiths.

I continued, “If Jerusalem was not important to Islam, why would Caliph Umar clean the Temple Mount with his own hands?” I pantomimed to make my point, they looked chagrined. Here is more:

II In History

  1. Caliph Umar – Al Aksa

We discussed Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab (584-644 CE), who was a member of the Sahaba – companions of Muhammad, and was the second Caliph in the growing Islamic empire. Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem in 637 CE. Umar cleaned the Temple Mount with his own hands, setting the example for his soldiers to clean it also. Umar brought 70 Jewish families to dwell in Jerusalem. Thus Umar reversed centuries of Roman degradation.

Umar did not clean the Temple Mount for Muslim worship. He cleaned it for the Jews.

Back to the meeting – Yusuf, a Palestinian Muslim, interjected, well, can the Jews look favorably upon the al Aksa mosque, as part of a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies to restore the Temple?

This is where Rabbi Hanan raised his hand to make a point – he was jumping out of his chair and could have sparked a flame with that infectious energy of his, but I was jumping out of my chair as well and grabbed the floor without raising my hand at all, politeness will have to wait, peace comes first – “of course!” I interjected – Rabbi Hanan sat back in his chair, deferent, still smiling, and I presented the actions of Caliph Umar, above, in cleaning the holy place.

Of course, in the backwash of my enthusiastic expostulation, I wondered yet again if I am breaching ethics of modesty, held by both Judaism and Islam, by even sitting with a group of mostly men, in an effort at conciliation. Oh interrupting a Rabbi is a slight offense compared to this. I have the blessing of my Chassidic Rabbi to participate, true, but is it enough? And the Muslims there may well get flack from their brethren for sitting with Jews.

I glanced at Sheikh Abu Awad in an effort to read his expression, but he had that distracted look that I have sometimes noticed, perhaps still grieving about his brother Yusuf? Perhaps worried about his son, disabled by, well, I did not want to believe that this was true, his son was shot by one of our soldiers and is in rehabilitation.

We are all carrying quite a lot of baggage as we gather.

Back to more facts and figures, they are easier:

The holiness of Jerusalem in Islam is in part because of Islam’s role as protecting other proper monotheistic religions. This echoes the role of Ishmael, the older brother whose role is to provide support for other religions to worship God properly. This protective role is sourced in the book of Genesis 25:9, in which Ishmael and Isaac bury their father Abraham together, with Ishmael deferring to Isaac. Although Ishmael was older and should have gone first, his deference to Isaac reflected his respect for Isaac’s role as Torah learner, and a symbol of protection.

Caliph Umar hired a Yemenite Jewish engineer named Ka’ab al-Ahbar to construct Al Aksa Mosque.(Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol XII).  Al Aqsa was built by Jewish people with the help of Muslims who believed that they were rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.

At this time, the majority of Jews were not Rabbinic, they were Samaritan, Karaite, and Saducean. Umar built a Christian shrine over the rock, where Dome of the Rock is now. In the Southern part of the Temple Mount he built a mosque where Al Aksa is now.

The Exilarch was the leader of all the Jewish sects, including Rabbinic, Karaite, Sadducean, and Samaritan. At the time of Umar, Hemen was the Exilarch. He was more politician than religious leader.

Sabeos was an Armenian historian who lived during Caliph Umar. He claimed the non Rabbinic Jews were more militant and that they claimed the Temple Mount exclusively for Jews. Sabeos claimed the non Rabbinic Jews formed a plot to get revenge on the Christians: they slaughtered a pig and threw its carcass in the mosque and claimed the Christians did it in order to get Caliph Umar to kick the Christians out of Jerusalem. Umar discovered this lie, deposed Hemen the Exilarch, banished him from Jerusalem, and replaced him with the scion of the Davidic house, head of the academies of Babylon, A Rabbinic Jew named Bustanai.

Bustanai made an agreement: Muslims would keep the Temple Mount clean and open to all believers. The Rabbinic Jews would forbid sectarians, radicals and militants from trying to build a Temple.

For connections between Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock, and Ezekiel’s Temple, see footnote II below.

On Rebuilding the Temple in Jewish Tradition

Do we rebuild, or wait for Messiah?

This question has been pivotal for the children of Israel since the destruction of the Temple.

I Wait for Messiah

The commentator Rashi, twelfth century France, writes, “The final Temple that we are awaiting, is built and complete, and will be revealed and descend from heaven.”

It is written in Zohar, Shemot 32A, that the Holy Temple will be built by G-d Himself.

II We built the first two, let’s build the third

On the other hand, Maimonides, twelfth century Spain and Egypt, writes that the Temple will be built by the Jewish people. He bases this on Exodus 25:8 “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” G-d gave us a commandment to build a Holy Temple for Him, and the obligation rests upon us to complete it.

One way of reconciling the two opinions is as follows: The building, which was built by G-d (the spiritual Holy Temple which we are building every day in our mitzvot, especially when we study the Holy Temple and its laws) will descend from heaven, and the physical Temple is already in place.  (Likutei Sichos Vol. 18, Bein Hameitzarim)

And of that time, it is written: ‘For then I will convert the peoples to a pure tongue that they may all call upon the name of G-d to serve Him with one consent’” (Zephaniah 3:9) and: “On that day G-d shall be one, and His name One“. (Zachariah 14:9)”

Holy Writ, historical facts, and creativity

Towards the end of the meeting, Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Organization entered. He sports grays and browns, a modest knitted kippa, and projects a welcome calm. He is busy, running over ninety simultaneous encounter groups all over the Holy Land. His bearing is a relaxed balance to the passions that Rabbi Hanan and I compete over. He will ground you, and direct you to the group best suited for you with that laid-back insightfulness of his.

To come up at the meeting with the “chidush” – acceptable interpretation, of Al Aksa as the farthest mosque echoing verses in the Tanach was a powerful experience indeed, among people who by some rights should not even be talking to each other, and is yet another example of how much potential there is for conciliation.

Religious people are shaped first and foremost by holy writ and tradition. Engraved in stone, enshrined in tradition, the word of G-d and the vessels in which His word has been passed down are absolute and guide us on the straight path of living. That straight path is brilliantly applied in our daily lives as halacha/sharia – both mean “the way” – the nuances, that are vital to the flexibility needed in order to apply religious law to daily life.

So we have one level – the absolute teachings, a second level –  their applications on our path, and a third level – our personal philosophy, shaped through that lens with which we view the world, a lens which is influenced by our place in history and our life experiences, the potential for creativity within those limits, and powerfully expressed at this encounter.

Applying Theology and History Today

From the Torah view, the children of Ishmael live in the whole world. “His hand is on everything” Genesis 16:12.

If Ishmael is not doing his role properly, then he troubles everyone.

If he is righteous, he will help everyone. He will serve God in a simple way. He will avoid complexity. He will know what is right, and do it with no sophistication, no complex intellectual arguments. In the Torah, Pinchas saw a sin and acted. He killed a man and woman who were brazenly rebelling against Moses. He did not wait for a court to hear their case. This is an example of holy brazenness.

The term “Muslim” used to refer to all believers. Indeed, the word “Muslim” predates Islam as we know it. The word “Muslamai” was used by Onkolos to translate “Kenites” in the five books of Moses. Kenites were righteous non-Jews. (Onkolos translated the five books of Moses into Aramiac, first century CE.) In the Qur’an, there are many verses that define “Muslim” as anyone who believes in G-d, His prophets, believes in the Last Day, and does good deeds.

When Muslims get all upset about something, they are right, but sometimes in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Expressed badly, it leads to terror, to dictatorships. Expressed for the good, it leads to defending the helpless, revenge on the evildoers, fighting for justice.

If Muslims believe that Islam only refers to those who follow the Qur’an, then Muslims have to fight everyone else. But if Muslims, like Caliph Umar, believe that anyone with a prophet and scripture is a believing nation, then Muslims will actually help and protect Jews in their synagogues and Christians in their churches. Then, “infidels” are only , those individuals who are outside civil society.

Why is Jerusalem the third most holy site in Islam? Because it is the first most holy place for Jews. And Muslims are supposed to be the protectors of Jews. Anyone who tries to claim it only for themselves, exclusively, is mistaken.

Since the time of conciliation under Caliph Umar and Bustanei, things have changed. Beginning in the 10th century, 400 years after Muhammed, The Muslim definition of “believer” meant only Muslims who follow the Qur’an – pray five times a day, fast on Ramadan. Muslim commentators stopped including Jews and Christians. This is in opposition to Qur’anic verses:
Surah Al Maeda 5:48:”… To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.”
And Surah Al Baqara: “The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians- all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good- will have their rewards with their Lord. They will not fear, nor will they grieve.”
Likewise, the children of Israel could better apply the concepts of righteous gentile as a living concept, including the ger toshav – resident alien, to members of the Arab population who dwell in Judea and Samaria.

Muslims forgot why Jerusalem was important. It is not important to Islam itself, it is important to Islam because Islam is supposed to support other religions. It is the third holy city in Islam because it is the first holy city in Judaism. Muslims forgot to protect the children of Israel.

Rabbinic Jews have forgotten that they were once a minority. If Umar had not selected Bustanai as the new Exilarch and the official representative of Judaism throughout the expanding Islamic empire, Judaism could have devolved into a militant sectarian band of zealots, seeking to restore the sacrificial system, devoid of Rabbinic tradition.

Indeed, when the Muslims fight for the Temple Mount today, they have inherited being a protector. When Rabbinic Jews forbid going to the Temple Mount, they are keeping their part of a forgotten agreement. The agreement was to stop the Jewish zealots who say the Temple Mount is only for Jews.

We are shadow-actors, playing out an agreement that was made 1500 years ago, with little memory of where it began. And we are carrying personal and national baggage as we shadow-act.

The children of Israel must remember that the Temple Mount is a house of prayer for all peoples, and from mount Zion will spread Torah to the whole world. The Muslim nation must remember its protective and welcoming role to all children of Abraham. Both nations must put into action their acceptance of the Other, enshrined in scripture and tradition.

Scripture and history are there for us to listen to, as we have no choice but to breach societal norms (under the guidance of our spiritual leaders) and the baggage of personal experience to reach conclusions that are laying dormant, awaiting us.

Footnotes:

I   Isaiah chapter 2
הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר חָזָה יְשַֽׁעְיָהוּ בֶּן־אָמוֹץ עַל־יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2

וְהָיָה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִֽהְיֶה הַר בֵּית־יְהוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃

In the days to come, The Mount of the LORD’s House Shall stand firm above the mountains And tower above the hills; And all the nations Shall gaze on it with joy.

3

וְֽהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָה אֶל־בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר־יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתֽוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא־יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל־גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃ (פ)

Thus He will judge among the nations And arbitrate for the many peoples, And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war.

Isaiah 56:7

וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל־הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”

The Qur’an, in the chapter al-Isra – the children of Israel – which discusses scripture and may be a parallel to its focal point in the aron habrith – Sura 17:2 And We gave Moses the Scripture and made it a guidance for the Children of Israel that you not take other than Me as Disposer of affairs.

II Connections between Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock, and Ezekiel’s Temple:

Coins printed by the Ummayds reflect the “menorah”.

The Dome of the Rock is the gold domed shrine to the north of the al Aksa mosque. There is evidence that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (646 – 705CE) built the Dome of the Rock according to the plan of Ezekiel. “And I saw that the House had a height (govah) round about; the foundations of the cells were the full length of a rod, six cubits was its span” (Ezekiel 41:8) ”Govah” is not just height, but also linguistically related to the back of something, a covering, or dome.

There are other similarities, for instance the Holy of Holies, which was located where the Dome of the Rock is now, is not physically connected to the Temple Sanctuary or inner courtyard, just as in all previous Temples.

Under ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock was opened to the public solely on Mondays and Thursdays; on the other days only the attendants (Levites) entered. These attendants immersed in a bath and purified themselves, changed their clothing, burnt incense and anointed the Rock with all kinds of perfumes. Prayers were held after incense was burnt. Ten gatekeepers were responsible for each gate. The Dome was coated with gold, and the Rock was surrounded by an ebony balustrade, behind which-between the pillars-hung curtains woven with gold. Jews and Christians were employed in different services there: they made glass for the lamps and for goblets, and prepared wicks for the Menorah. They were exempted from the Jizya and passed on these tasks as inheritance. (see AI-Wisiti, pp. 43-44, the tradition of the Jerusalem family of ‘Abd al-Rahaman. from Raja’ and Yazid) (Qubbat al-Sakhra). (Abu-Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis, pp. 80-81, vol 136).

They used to stand by the Rock and circumambulate it as they used to at the Ka’ba, and slaughter beasts on the day of the feast [i.e., ‘Id al-Adha]. (Sibt b. al-Jawzi’s Mir’at al-Zaman )

So we see in the above, a glimpse of the holiness of the Temple Mount in Islam – the third holiest place for prayer, and the mandate in Islam to support other monotheistic faiths.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo


Published in MissMuslim, December 2017


This story does not fit in anywhere.
I figured I would never tell it.
Stumbling across MissMuslim, and its founder’s sensitive discussion on “hyphenated people” – those with multiple identities – I thought, would they accept this hyphenated experience? Throughout this story you will meet a Chassidic Jew praying for a traditional Muslim, and as a result, both reaching a higher ground.

A Chassidic woman visiting Egypt, with a Rabbi, Professor, and hosted by a Sheikh, is already a hyphenated experience.

There we were in March of 2016 zipping around Cairo and Al Fayoum in marathon discussions with professors of Al Azhar University, Al Fayoum College – and human rights activists on how to improve relations between Jews and Muslims, between Israel and Egypt. We needed to identify and challenge the barriers that separate us.

Al Azhar, the oldest running university in the world, boasts a stunning variety of students, a cross section of the entire humanity of Muslims who flock there from all over the world. Thus you see a formality in bearing and the refined manners that are paramount when meeting strangers from all walks of life and all colors of the rainbow.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo -

Al Azhar University – Cairo, Egypt

Al Fayoum College reminded me of, believe it or not, my Haredi (they call us ultra-orthodox) society. A more conservative institution, they attend to learn the holy books and become good wives and mothers, good fathers and husbands. Living in a society of relatives and acquaintances, the women I passed in the hall gazed at me the same way they would have if this school was in Meah Shearim or Bnei Brak, “Do I know you? Perhaps our families are acquainted?”

Discussions that began with theology veered quickly into politics, and here was the common thread – their prime concern was the treatment of Palestinians under Israel. This, not theology nor history, was held up as the real stumbling block to normalization. We had found the major barrier.

But, that is mere background. Our trip took an unexpected turn when I encountered a different set of barriers.

At the Ibn Ezra synagogue in Cairo, which is no longer in use, I prayed alone as one overwhelmed to be in a place once thriving with Jewish life, now a tourist attraction – a mockery of glory past. How did Jews get here, why are we gone? This exile goes on for so long, so long… standing completely alone, tourists vanished, light surrounded me, the house of worship was mine at last.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo -

Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo

I sighed, woke out of my meditative reverie, overheard the gaggle of tour groups again, and also an, “Excuse me, can you pray for my fiancée?”

A young woman with bovine eyes and a worried expression approached me. “Of course,” I answered,  “Please tell me his name.”

I do not know why I added, “I am Jewish,”  to the end of my reply.

Well I was in a synagogue, although not one in use anymore. But we were supposed to keep hush hush about being Jewish and coming from Israel. “You are! I’ve never met a Jew before! My father always taught us to respect everyone, and he said that Jews are very special people. Can I call you?”

Our host, Omer Salem, with his relaxed bearing, yet on the alert, slowly began approaching us, “I really have to ask Omer…” He (Omer) nonchalantly walked over, cutting us off, we were taking risks being there, he needed to be cautious. We left the synagogue.

Two days later I found myself hugging her in the hotel lobby. Just minutes before our embrace Omer told me, “Iman, whom you met, wants to talk with you, and, actually, she is on the way to the hotel now…” How could I say no?

“We met when he was touring Egypt,” she began to tell me of her fiancée, “I love him because he is so honest and he respects me. He lives in the States and his health is not good.”

Iman’s efforts to get a visa had been rebuffed, and her fiancée’s chronic health problems were a more serious stumbling block to married life. So that very day we first met in the synagogue she was going to various houses of worship and asking people to pray for him.

He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls.

There I was trying to cross political and theological barriers. I was witnessing both nobility and familiarity during my excursion in Egypt, I could hardly bear the thought that soon I would be leaving, that walls and fences would loom again, and here was Iman with her own personal barriers that were preventing her very happiness.

Her pain became my pain. Why should those in love be separated? Fences and walls are everywhere! This is unbearable! Enough.

When we give du’a – pray, practice sawm – fast, or give zaka’at – charity, or any other good deed, we have a choice. We can figure that G-d will just have to reward us in this life and let us into Jannah – Heaven – in the next. Focused on the good deed, and not on the Giver of the good deed, we rush past G-d as we accumulate merit as selfishly as those who exploit in order to amass wealth. Smug in our piety, we’ll get our reward!

Or – we can transform.

Iman’s pain became my pain. Back in Israel, I nearly bumped into a wall, I was distracted in pondering the barriers that separated Iman and her fiancée. What is G-d saying to us, here and now? He is Gracious, created love and commands marriage. He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls. He wants our happiness.

Then it came to me….“Go!”

“Go!” begins the chapter in the Torah that introduces us to our forefather Abraham’s journey. G-d commanded him,“Go out from your land, from your father’s house…”.

We are not ancient Greeks, with their pantheon of selfish gods, throwing around fate and human emotion, stuck in tragedy.

Children of Abraham act. They “Go”!

I contacted a human rights activist in Egypt and inquired about a visa, put Iman in touch with a doctor to discuss options for treatment, and, here is another hyphen for this hyphenated experience – contacted a minister! You see, in Jewish tradition, the marriage ceremony is said to bring healing to the bride and groom. Well, Reverend James David Audlin confirmed that holds true in the Christian tradition as well. So we both encouraged her to marry. He contacted a lawyer for her visa, and things were finally moving!

Great! No longer stuck in tragedy, Iman told him, “I will be there soon.”

A few weeks later I got this message from her:

“Dear Rebecca,
Thank you for your help and your prayers. I need to tell you something. He broke up with me, he says he cannot go through with this. We have spoken for the last time.
Iman”

So “Go!” was answered with “No.”

She was no longer stuck, that was some comfort.

We had achieved clarity, if not the exact fulfillment of our prayers.

And that clarity moved her in another direction:

Two months later, I received a photo of Iman and an Egyptian man, it was their engagement picture. She wrote,

“We have been friends for a few years, he supported me during that trying time, I respect this, and he is so honest….”

And I thought I would not tell you about it.

I miss Egypt, I long to return, but boundaries loom. What is G-d saying to us, here and now? He is Gracious, created love and commands peaceful relations among people. He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls. He wants our happiness.

Such an insight helped Iman.

Could such an insight mend the political as well?

Respectful Dialogue, Nuanced Views: New Visions for Peace in the Holy Land

Respectful Dialogue, Nuanced Views: New Visions for Peace in the Holy Land

Published in the Jewish Press, August 2016

 

Recently, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center a forum hosted by the Home/Bayit organization, had a candid and wide-ranging discussion on ways to solve the conflicts in Israel between the Israeli’s and Palestinians and create something new and better for everyone in the Holy Land.

The fact that discussion of volatile issues could take place in such an atmosphere of respect was even more impressive than the solutions proposed. Inon Dan Kehati is chairman and founder of Home/Bayit, and his insistence on respectful and open dialogue really worked. One panelist quipped, “how many conferences have you all attended where everyone stays for four hours?” The energy was hopeful despite the potential for rancor. The respectful atmosphere meant that each participant could express the nuances of their views, which lessened the potential for polarization.

For example, Sami B Awad is a member of the Arab Christian community in Bethlehem, and one of the panelists. He indeed supports the BDS movement as a means to pressure Israel to address the grievances of the Palestinian population here, and decidedly not as an effort to displace or threaten Jews. He sharply criticized parts of the BDS movement for harboring antisemites who have no interest in Israel, but are joining BDS due to their distaste for the Jewish people. This he rejects outright, and in the strongest language. So as threatening as the actions of BDS can be to many, it was refreshing to see this nuanced approach.

We need more of that. And there was.

Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi of Ramallah has a bearing both regal and low-key. He rejects the mixing of religion and politics. He has studied under the Tablighi Jamaat movement, a pacifist Muslim movement founded in India nearly a century ago, which emphasizes the importance of one’s personal character improvement and rejects involvement in politics. True to his position, he maintains that it matters less whether there is one or two states, what is essential is freedom of movement for all people of the land in the entire land. Arab and Jew should be able to travel and live wherever they like. Rights for all, everywhere. And he added, “according to the Qur’an, the Jews will gather here in this land at the End of Days. And this is what we are witnessing!”

The Sheikh spoke in Arabic, with Sami B Awad translating. It was just part of the beautiful atmosphere of the evening – a Christian translating as a Sheikh quoted the Qur’an.

Oslo is dead was pretty much the consensus, the majority in attendance seemed to agree that a two state solution simply does not meld with the aspirations of the people actually living here. Both Arab and Jew love the entire Holy Land. Both Arab and Jew yearn for freedom of movement in its entirety, in the entire land. The concept of – “you go get your rights over there, and not here” was held up as a mockery of justice and a solution unacceptable to both Arab and Jew alike.

Freedom of movement for all, everywhere in the land

The desire for freedom of movement for all was echoed repeatedly throughout the evening by most of the panel. Ahmed Maswade, law student from Bir Zeit university and resident of East Jerusalem, put it this way, “I want Jews to be able to go to Hebron and Arabs to be able to go to Jaffa.” He does advocate for a Palestinian state, but with porous borders with Israel and one in which Jews can live freely. Sami stated, “it cannot be that the only way I can express my Christianity is on Christmas day in Bethlehem. I want to be able to visit Christian sites up in the Gallilee, and to visit the churches in Jerusalem.” Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi, trained to eschew both politics and state borders, echoed this need – and we heard the same expressed by Jewish leaders as well.

Rabbi Gabriel Reiss of the Lavi organization lives in the Judean Desert with his family. With his trademark gritty passion and big-hearted concern for all, he addressed the Arabs present by apologizing “on behalf for myself at least, because how, 60-plus years after the founding of the state of Israel, can there still be Palestinian refugees living in camps?” Applause stole some time off of his ten minute slot. An advocate for Jewish sovereignty in the entire land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, sovereignty means responsibility for all inhabitants of the Land. Two state solutions amount to a certain schizophrenia, in which no leaders need take responsibility: the state of Israel can claim, why should we invest in areas that we are destined to give up? And leaders from the PA can claim, the occupation is preventing us from improving the lives of the Palestinians. That leaves people suffering in the middle. A one state solution would mean responsibility and a better life for all.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen of Alternative Action echoed the call for sovereignty-cum-responsibility for the entire land by decrying the current water shortage in Bethlehem. “It should be considered an embarassment that anyone lacks water in the Jewish homeland.” Echoing the discussion about identity, he emphasized the importance of expanding the narrative of each community, so that all residents of the Land have a real awareness of the aspirations and experience of each other.

Rabbi Yishai Fleisher is spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron. He combines a sense of humor with a broad knowledge of history and law. His humor is admittedly tinged by a certain sadness; he explained that he is part of a movement of those holding on tightly to what they value most, and feeling under constant threat from many directions. “We are like roots, holding on tight, and roots are not always pretty.”

“Hebron!” He teased, throwing out that word to the audience, “what do you think of when you hear that word? Settlers, land-grabbing, violence? What we should think of is – this is the place where my forefathers and foremothers are buried….Think about it – the members of Hebron have a religious ideology, are armed, you would think we would be shooting every day and we are not.” And later on, attorney Jonothan Kittub, Palestinian Christian and human rights activist, decried the way the residents of Judea and Samaria have been portrayed in the media. “In order to push Oslo, the efforts of the settlers had to be put in a negative light.” An unfair portrayal he rejects outright.

And for even more nuanced views, Attorney Kittub decried ‘puppeteering’ in the form of democracy. He put it bluntly – people do not need a “parliament,” they need the representation and civil rights, not some body that marginalizes anyone who disagrees. We do not need a “state,” we need self-determination, not a sham government.

Palestinian self-determination is still part of the vision of the Arab panelists who were present, but this would not come at the expense of freedom of residency and movement for all. Their vision is that two states would have porous boundaries with Jews living freely in Judea and Samaria, and Arabs within the ’67 borders, members of both populations free to travel and work where they wish.

A representative of J Street represented her view against the occupation of Judea and Samaria very aptly, and it was moving to hear her family’s personal story which proved her love for the state of Israel and heartfelt concern that the state live up to democratic principals. When members of the Arab community from Judea and Samaria expressed willingness to live under Jewish sovereignty, as long as citizenship and civil rights were granted, she did not capture the nuanced mood of the evening. Israel must withdraw from those territories was her final word, no compromise. This was, in her words, in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. Good for Inon for inviting her and really living up to freedom of dialogue among different views; I was taken aback at her inflexible stance. That may change.

What she was hinting at was preserving a Jewish majority within the green line – what Yehuda HaKohen refers to as “demographophobia.”

Demographophohia

Activist Emanuel Shahaf mentioned that now that Israel does not rule Gaza, we need not fear a demographic threat. Jews will remain in the majority, even including Judea and Samaria. Murmurs of of disagreement with his basic premise followed. Yehuda HaKohen has spoken against the whole concept of “demographic threat”, stating that neither side should fear a member of the other population having this or that number of babies. We need a paradigm that jettisons this fear.”Demographic threat” is the main reason some want to relinquish Judea and Samaria – it is to remain in the demographic majority within the green line. Population numbers as a factor in democracy just does not work in the middle east. It may seem generous to give up territory, but this really means giving up people – we do not want to know from you, go get your rights over there and not here – not real generous after all. Many in fact actually want to live in harmony, together.

Jonothan Kittub added that given Jewish sensitivities about security, no matter what the demographics, Jews need to run the security establishment. This was a perfect example of someone who was able to conceptualize what is essential to another community – the expanded narrative that Yehuda HaKohen is advocating for. We can create paradigms that are uniquely suited to the fabric of middle east culture. One is the need to embrace overlapping identities and an expanded narrative. And fears of a “demographic threat” have to be jettisoned.

Inon Kehati graciously gave me the floor to propose the concept of Muslim and Jewish religious courts that will work in parallel and unison to adjudicate conflict and to guide our peoples philosophically. The courtroom of the media will be replaced by the adjudication of G-d fearing leaders who will rule on the issues and rumors that divide our peoples. I am quite serious – the first meeting of Sheikhs and Rabbis is scheduled in a month’s time!

This was but one example of efforts to acknowledge the Other, an effort we were all making that evening, despite our differences, getting towards a unified narrative that will serve all peoples that dwell in the Land.

Finally.

 

 

Hassan el-Shamy, A Muslim Who Gives Voice to All

Hassan el-Shamy, A Muslim Who Gives Voice to All

 

Published in the Jewish Press, September 2017

Permanently smiling, Hassan el-Shamy exudes a natural warmth. A people-loving human rights activist with a background in engineering, he chairs The Egyptian Association for Scientific and Technological Development where he moderates discussion panels, giving a platform and voice to all.

He is also a writer for the Journalists Syndicate since 2000, manager of Voice of the Arabs Union of Egyptian Radio and Television since 2005, and an accomplished novelist. But that’s only a list of titles. It’s what he actually does with them that counts.

I met him during my visit in March 2016 at the Egyptian Scientific Forum, Cairo, a conference center founded by the Minister of Education which offers forums to foster dialogue. He was there to moderate Dr Omer Salem’s presentation of his new book, “The Missing Peace.”

Hasan El-Shamy with group of Jewish and other religious leaders.
Hasan El-Shamy with group of Jewish and other religious leaders.

El-Shamy had already moderated Dr. Salem’s presentations and had had to quell a fair amount of rancor that Salem has weathered concerning his views on Arab-Jewish conciliation.

“Last night I was with the communists, tonight I am with the liberals, and tomorrow will be with the fundamentalists!” he quipped. The Muslim Brotherhood, that is. El-Shamy holds that freedom of expression is both a Democratic and Islamic value, and vital in human rights and in the curbing of extremism.

“But what about the quandary of granting freedom of expression to those who aim to later quash the same freedom for others? It is a dilemma.

“Democracy is a process. Just like we attend primary school, and then high school, democracy is something we learn over a long, long time. Everyone must be allowed to participate and express their views, that is the best antidote to radicalism.”

El-Shamy put his message to work when a member of the conference started an uproar about some misstated historical date. Furious over the inaccuracy, he gestured dramatically, voice raised, and el-Shamy went over and gave him a kiss! Dr. Salem likewise tried to calm him. Invited by Salem and soothed by el-Shamy, the fellow finally stormed out, impossible to placate. El-Shamy had put his value on free expression to work, even under attack.

His almost daily activism has some way to go. Egypt has been under military rule since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and has been in an almost continuous official state of emergency since 1967. This means that citizens may be taken into custody without charge or trial; police brutality accusations have been documented by human rights groups.

Former adviser to Anwar Sadat, Dr. Aly el-Samman commented that the assumption among those pushing for social change in the 1950’s in Egypt was that democracy would be restored as soon as the old regime was replaced. No one suspected that totalitarianism would last over half a century.

Only in the year 2005 were the first multi-party presidential elections held, though accusations were leveled that the election was fraudulent. The West has had a role in totalitarianism in the Middle East, as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice admitted, “For sixty years the U.S. has pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and has ended up with neither.” Activists like El-Shamy insist that such governmental heavy-handedness is un-Islamic and provokes extremism.

“The Qur’an calls for tolerance, acceptance, free speech, and democracy”, he insists. Then he invoked the Constitution of Medina as an example.

“In the Sahifat al-Madinah, Muhammad aleiha hasalaam consulted with all the different tribes. He asked their opinions. This is democracy right there!” Indeed, the Constitution of Medina established a pluralistic federation of Muslims and monotheistic non-Muslims in which all People of the Book had full religious freedom.

He continued, “It is only natural that Muhammad aleiha hasalaam made such a federation, for ‘there is no coercion in religion’” quoting the Qur’an, Al-Baqara 256.

El-Shamy personally identifies as a religious man: “I pray five times every day. The main purpose of all true religions is to make peace between people. If I am ‘religious’ and I do not get along with people, then I am not really religious. Some Muslims shun family members who are not part of their ideology, or who are not religious enough, and that is wrong.”

He also insists that women must participate in public life. “Only fifteen percent of the Egyptian Parliament consists of women. The percentage should be fifty plus one!” And why? “Women offer thoughtful contributions to any debate, and the men are encouraged to be more sympathetic, well mannered, and thoughtful themselves. In our family, the women are the rulers, and we are all better off because of it.”

He shared some family stories which explain his views: “In our family, the woman has more rights than the man. When my father died, my sister received the largest portion of the inheritance. My mother is the ruler of the family. I had a friend who wanted to marry my sister. I did not think it was a match because I did not feel that he would accept a wife as a leader. So he went behind my back! My mother joked, ‘if he went to all that effort, then he loves her very much, and it is good for your sister to be the loved one. You will see that everything will work out. So my sister not only became the leader of my friend, but of his whole family as well!”

“There can be no such thing as a thought crime,” he insists. “That is a communist concept with no place in Islam. There is no reason to fear the will of the people.” He holds that if the fundamentalists are granted human rights and freedom of expression, they will be less frustrated, which will result in less extremism and radicalism.

El-Shamy opposes capital punishment in practice. “A basic human right is one’s right to life, capital punishment should be done away with, it has no place in the modern world.

I countered, “but capital punishment is allowed in Islam.”

“No, there is confusion about the meaning of al-Qisas in the Qur’an. Al-Qisas means ‘equivalence’, that the punishment should fit the crime, it does not mandate capital punishment, even for murder,” he said.

“Instead, in place of capital punishment, the Qur’an states that monetary compensation or forgiveness are options for the bereaved relatives of the slain:

We ordained for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if any one foregoes retaliation charitably, it is an atonement. Surat al-Maidah, 5:45

Hassan el-Shamy’s enthusiasm for his work is contagious; his ceaseless efforts towards co-existence and peace, between neighbors and nations, reflects the breadth of a vision that sees beyond simple boundaries on an international map.

An Arab Voice to Hear, Especially Now

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17590

First published on the Israel National News site

 

A preface in light of the violence over Rosh HaShana (September 2015) in Jerusalem:

There are voices of peace in the Arab and Muslim world. They are not as loud as the voices of terror, but they exist, are working to stop the violence, and should be given voice even at difficult times. Or, especially at difficult times.

Herein is a glimpse of how good things can really be between Muslims and Jews here, about a Sheikh who exudes a Shlomo Carlebach kind of love for everyone from his hub of hospitality on the Mount of Olives.

But in view of the terrorist murder of Alexander Levlovitz Hy”d, I did lose heart, almost shelved this.

I called the Sheikh as a courtesy. He answered the phone and immediately said, “Salaam Aleikum Rebecca, I am very busy with the terrible things happening in Jerusalem, violence is not our way.”

I pushed further: “What are you doing, Sheikh, to stop the violence?” I do not know why we expect a peace-seeking Arab Muslim to go fix the rest of them, like when people expect me to go fix all the Haredim. But the question was asked.

“That is exactly what I am busy with. Right now, people are on fire. Outsiders are also interfering.” And you will see more of his philosophy, which has made him famous world over, below.

Business woman Maksoom Hussain, originally from Pakistan and now residing in the UK, added her voice to the condemnation:

“Of course I condemn all acts of terror, no matter who is responsible. Any life lost is one too many. Another family mourning their dead adds to the heartaches and pain, and this is opposite to what we all hope and pray for, which is a world where all can live in peace and nobody has to worry about their family returning home. May Allah rest brother Alexander Levlovitz’ soul and soothe his family and friends with his love and mercy.
When violence happens, we freeze and try to protect ourselves, but our Jewish family needs to hear that there are many Muslims who pray for a peaceful and pain free world for all children of Ibrahim (AS).

American Muslim Fionna Connors posted a condemnation on her facebook page: “Alexander Levlovitz died recently in a rock attack in Jerusalem. He was pelted with stones, lost control of his car and crashed into a ditch. I wish to offer public condolences to his family and to publicly condemn this attack.”

And you remember the thundering rebukes I have already quoted by Egyptian Muslim Omer Salem against the violence, both past and present, that emanates from his people and that he is tirelessly working to bring a halt to. Go to my previous articles to look them up again.

Please pause for a moment and witness real grassroots conciliatory efforts as I introduce you to the Shlomo Carlebach of the Arab world, Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa, of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.

It’s all about love here, and in Sheikh Ibrahim’s mind, love means giving freely. His home on the Mount of Olives is a hub of hospitality, boasting twelve rooms crammed with beds and a seemingly endless supply of food for all who visit.

Rabbanit Hadassah Froman, widow of the late Rav Menachem Froman of Tekoa, in Gush Etzion, states, “Sheikh Ibrahim was Menachem’s partner for many years, they did much together in the way of peace. Ibrahim was with us in the hospital when Menachem had surgery. I was reciting tehilim, Ibrahim was reading the Qur’an. Whenever we needed him, he was there; he was always at our house for the shiva. And he has a big family. He is a man of miracles, anyone asks him to go, and he just goes. Like Avraham Avinu, Hashem told him GO! And he just went! Ibrahim just goes, whenever anyone needs him.

“When Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel were kidnapped last summer, I organized a prayer rally, and Sheikh Ibrahim attended, demanding their recovery. If there was a “price tag” arson attack against a mosque, Menachem and Ibrahim would arrive together to comfort the community. Menachem would bring a Qur’an and say “Allah HuAkbar!” in front of the Muslims, and this really calmed the community, who of course would be very upset. Rav Yaakov Nagen is continuing.Menachem’s legacy.”

Rav Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Hevron, describes Sheikh Ibrahim in similar terms. “He is always there when you need him. I tried to contact him to invite him to a meeting and was unsuccessful. The participants gathered at a restaurant in west Jerusalem and who do I see outside, Sheikh Ibrahim! I called him in and he made time for us, as he always does.” And it is Rav Nagen and the Sheikh who are in a now-famous photograph, which unbeknownst to them, hopped around the internet world wide as a symbol of Jewish Muslim rapprochement.

I had the privilege of interviewing the Sheikh, after I attended a meeting of Muslims and Jews to discuss the Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur cycle, which this year parallels Eid AlAdha. When it came his time to elaborate, he jettisoned the academic and theological and spoke of how he employs love:

“The story here is not about how these holidays coincide every thirty three years,” brushing off the academic, “the story is about how we are all one, all from Adam and Eve. We are all from one father, Avraham. We have two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, but G-d brought us together here in this land. We are suffering because we are apart, divided. G-d never put a sign on a baby’s face like a Star of David or a cross or a crescent moon. We are all born with the same face to say that we are all one.”

“The ayah (verse) says, ‘Al Janna (heaven) is under the foot of the mother.’ The ayah does not say who the mother is, just that we are siblings. There is no attachment like that between mother and baby. A mother is something holy,” then he looked intently at me, “you are a mother, you are holy!” I felt ten feet tall.

He stood to pour drinks for those present, and thinking ‘mipnei seiva takum’ – in front of the elderly you shall stand, the Sheikh is in his seventies – I quickly rose and said, “Sheikh, let me.” He would not hear of it. This was an awkward moment, and one of many you will experience if you involve yourself in understanding the other. But we will not get anywhere if we comfortable all the time.

This was my chance to test all this free love versus a concern of mine for sure – preserving the Jewish nation. Can all this love lead to being influenced or to assimilation?

He brushed that off quickly – “very unlikely. The natural roots of a child are in the parents. They are not likely to go astray if the child has a good relationship at home. Like I said,” and again he looked at me, this time to convince me totally, “you are a mother! You are holy!” It was a confidence-building rebuke. He sat down, I followed suit, but I pushed a little more:

“There are divisions within the Jewish people. How do we deal with that?” He answered:

“The separation wall between the nations is not the wall here or the Berlin wall. The separation wall is when we do not talk to each other and when we separate from each other. You have a duty to find out how your neighbors are doing, to bring them something, even something small, to eat.” Forget the debates that fuel divisive dialectic. Eat!

“I learned from my parents to give, to love everyone whether Jew, Christian, everyone. In 1948 no one had much. My father would tell me, “take the sugar and coffee, and bring it to the children outside that need something sweet.”

Shlomo Carlebach’s father found his way to Ibrahim’s father and discussed how Jews and Arabs can get along together. Ibrahim’s father said simply, “’your people come to this land and volunteer. Let them bring school books for the Arab children.’ And they did. Then the Arab kids brought vegetables from their garden to the Jewish settlement. Shlomo Carelbach said that my father is not mother Theresa, he was father Theresa! And that we need more people like him in this land.”

“I have no passport, but I have flown around the world – I spoke in India in front of over a million people, dressed like this, (and indicated his red and white kafiyyah) I have been to over twenty states in America, and all I did to get this was to host people and give to them. The actor Richard Gere visited me here, and I visited Tony Blair and the second to the Pope.”

I left aside that strange detail of how anyone travels with no passport, though I like details. Meeting ended, I accompanied him to East Jerusalem so I could savor more, stopped at red light in Rehavia. Ibrahim nonchalantly looked out the window, warmly greeted a teenage boy sporting a black hat and litvishe style black suit. Their happy small talk ended as we pulled away, beckoned by the green light. The bachur seemed totally at ease.

“Sheikh, how do you know a haredi boy in Rechavia?”

“I just met him now, this is what I do, talk to everyone.”

At this time of year we commemorate the binding of Isaac, Akeidat Yitzchak, remembering Avraham’s test as well as his mark of hospitality, a trait which Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa emulates.

I entitled this article, “The Shlomo Carlebach of the Arab World.” But I do not know if Sheikh Ibrahim sings. A better title would have been, “A Living Link to Avraham Avinu.” Meet him. I need not supply the address, just wander up the Mount of Olives, either you will find him or he will find you.

(Explanation: Eid AlAdha takes place in the month of Dhu Al Hijjah, which parallels the Hebrew month Av, and commemorates the test of Avraham Avinu regarding Ishmael, who according to the Qur’an 37:100-112 interpreted from his dreams that he was to sacrifice Ishmael, then age thirteen. Parallel to Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac),this has been interpreted as a test of Avraham’s love for G-d above even his love for his own son.”

 

Dr. Omer Salem, A Bridge for Peace?

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/18199

First published on the Israel National News site, January 2016

Determined to pursue peace with the Jewish people, Egyptian Muslim sheikh, Dr. Omer Salem, just completed a whirlwind tour of Israel.

He spoke in venues including a Young Ambassador’s high school program, yeshivot in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish Agency, and in a wide spectrum of synagogues and mosques. He was presenting a call for peace based upon scripture, and in this regard could almost be mistaken for a Jewish revivalist, with his call to Jewish people to deepen their attachment to Torah and mitzvot. The closer Jews are to their book, he insists, the more they will be viewed as Ahlul Kitab – people of the book – by Muslims, and the more they will earn respect in the Muslim world.

For some background, Salem attended primary schools in Egypt, his homeland, then studied at Berkeley and Stanford Universities, journeyed to India where he is research fellow at Darussalam University, then onto Yale University where he attained a master’s in religious studies, (still lives in New Haven with wife and kids), then a PhD from Al Azhar University in Cairo in which he defended the Jewish people as “Ahlul Kitab”, or “people of the book”.

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva asked Omer, during his speech there three years ago, “Does their acceptance of your thesis mean a certain amount of agreement?” “Yes, it does,” Salem answered in his mild mannered way. And that amounts to a lot of hope for relations between Muslims and Jews.[1]

As to what motivated him to get involved in Jewish-Muslim rapprochement, Salem sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as central to solving the conflicts in the Middle East. “I have friends and family back in Egypt, I want them and my people to be at peace and to prosper, and I see making peace with the people of Israel as key.” He has condensed his proposals in his new book, The Missing Peace, the Role of Religion in the Arab Israeli Conflict.

He holds that any solution in the region must be based upon scripture, both Torah and Qur’an, as this is what ultimately unites Muslims and Jews both theologically and historically. ”Read!” he insisted to the students at the Young Ambassadors high school program, Petach Tikvah, “check out the sources for yourselves!” “This really impressed me” one student remarked, and the idea that Islam can indeed support a Jewish state was new information to them.

Salem demands recognition by Muslims that Jews are people of the book and deserve the respect and protection of Muslims. Once this is established in the Muslim psyche, all else falls into place – Jews are no longer “kafr” – heretics – but coreligionists. He brandishes the Qur’anic verse 49:13: “O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other.” And 5:48 “To each among you (Muslims and Jews) have We prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.”

Dr Salem regards this verse as invoking multi-covenantism – Jewish law for the Jews, Islamic law for the Muslims – a teaching demanding more than mere tolerance, but actual acceptance of the other faith community.

Dr Salem emphasizes that the Jewish people’s loyalty to Torah will enhance their reputation in the Muslim world, for people of the book must indeed follow their book. He boldly stated at his speech at the Jewish Agency that Muslims will actually help the Jews build their Temple once they see the Jewish people as loyal to Torah.[2]

Salem’s profile is rising; his visit was reported in Olam Katan, Ma’ariv, Israel HaYom, and the Jerusalem Post. Not everywhere was he received so kindly; in fact he was harshly heckled and philibustered for five full minutes during his presentation at the University of Haifa, shouted down by an Arab student who identifies with the Communist party. The student had to be forcibly removed from the auditorium. Omer simply quipped with his trademark even keel, “that student does not like religion and he does not like peace.”

An Example to Other Muslim Moderates, Condemnations of Terror

Few have the talent to be a total lone wolf. You wonder to what extent Salem represents other Muslims, and more so, if it is true that others do share his tolerant vision, where are they? Furthermore, if we are deserving of protection as people of the book, where are the similar Muslim voices condemning terror?

His courage in meeting with Jewish leaders in a conciliatory way has inspired other Muslim leaders to follow suit. He has inspired Sheikh Ahmad Erdowan of Amman, Jordan and Dr Mohammed Al Fiqui of Al Azhar University to become more active in Muslim-Jewish rapprochement.[3]

During his talk at Kehilat Yedidya synagogue, Jerusalem, Salem explained the lack of vocal condemnations of terror from moderate Muslims that we crave. “Moderate Muslims are between a rock and a hard place. If they condemn the terror attacks publicly, they are at risk of being attacked themselves. So in that regard they are scared.” Salem did concede that yes, the moderates do give some emotional support to the jihadis. Muslims world wide feel hurt, they feel downtrodden and frustrated, so when attacks happen, even moderates do not condemn as they otherwise would. It is also difficult for Sunni Muslims to condemn other Sunnis, a certain intra-religious loyalty exists that precludes loud and public condemnations.

I certainly am not satisfied with his explanation concerning the lack of condemnation of terror, and the crowd at Yedidya responded with unified murmurs of protest. And as to being in fear of one’s rulers, and thus voiceless? Omer clearly got a surprise at the crowd, who again together insisted that fear of the government would not prevent them from speaking their mind!

Author and translator Dr Jeff Green of Kehilat Yedidya remarks about Salem’s talk, “Omer claims that religion is part of the solution, and that Muslims feel hurt and downtrodden. Yet when a member of our audience countered that there are Muslim sovereign states, Omer responded that none of the Muslim states are truly Islamic. That was a little hard for me to hear. Still, to think he may be bringing other Muslim leaders to visit and possibly teach in Israel is an accomplishment.” And Omer received a few hugs and thanks at the end of his talk. “You are a breath of fresh air,” one listener remarked

At his speech at the Jewish Agency, Salem stated that Islam has no theological conflict with Judaism. He notes that Islam does have a long standing dispute with Christianity over two topics. One – the trinity is viewed by believing Muslims as idolatrous. Two – Christians wish to proselytize to Muslims. Judaism is considered strictly monotheistic, and does not call for proselytizing any more than spreading the Seven Noahide Laws, which Muslims already keep.

Both issues are totally absent vis a vis Judaism, and should serve as another point of conciliation. He was asked if Israel were run according to halakha, would it be more acceptable in the Muslim world? Perhaps even be considered a Muslim state? “Yes!” Salem responded unequivocally. It would show the Muslim world that we are truly people of the book. One student said he left the talk feeling inspired and hopeful.

“Falsehood has been spread on both sides. The falsehood on the Islamic side is to say that all Jews are kafr, the falsehood on the Jewish side is to say that Arabs have no place in this land. It has to be replaced with an alternative narrative, and the alternative narrative must be – Jews are Ahlul Ktab and this land is the Holy Land.”

Caliphate

At his presentation at “Tikkun”, hosted by Meir Buzaglo, professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, Dr. Salem emphasized two points: the importance of jihad al nafs (similar to the Hebrew “nefesh” – soul, the struggle for self perfection) and that this is a higher form of jihad than what is unfortunately being waged nowadays – jihad al sayeef – the struggle of the sword. He invites Muslims to favor what is considered in Islam the higher and more difficult path of ongoing self improvement.

His second point – Muslims are dreaming of a worldwide Caliphate. He declared that in the minds of many Muslims, this is an inevitability and that just like the Jewish people yearned for political emancipation with the Zionist movement, Muslims yearn for a Caliphate. He insists it need not be a threat to the Jewish people, as long as they cleave to Torah and are seen as coreligionists. Efforts such as his thesis at Al Azhar are part of attempts to get the Muslim population to regard the Jewish people in a more favorable light.

“What can we do to ease the situation?” one woman asked. One, cleave to Torah, he said yet again. Two, give a podium to the moderate Muslims (like I am doing right now). “But won’t that just make you appear like a puppet of the west?” she countered. That is a real concern, revealing again the position that moderates are in – their catch-22, between a rock and a hard place. Give them a podium, hear their condemnations of terror and conciliatory overtures, and their own people may just reject them, and worse. Omer has indeed received threats from Muslims who do not appreciate his efforts at normalization.

But Omer Salem is taking that risk. He functions more as a messenger between camps, apparently seeing himself as merely communicating the heart-felt and the inevitable. Indeed there are those who have asked of him to be more preacher than messenger, in terms of condemning terror and in cooling aspirations of political Islam, which certainly are of concern. Can’t he say something to his brethren on these two points? “I cannot stop a moving train,” he can only enhance the status of Jews in the eyes of any future Caliphate, adding that he has never seen a situation in which condemning terror reduces it. [4]

Dr Salem insists that both Jews and Muslims can prosper side by side. They can live and coexist together, it is not a situation in which one side goes up and the other must fall. “Our ancestors prospered in parallel” he declares, “when both sides respected the other. I do not want to rule the Jewish people and I do not want the Jewish people to rule me. We each have our self rule.” And only, he reiterates, when done according to scripture.

Again, he is relaying heart felt messages more than preaching, communicating central concerns between the Muslim and Jewish communities, a role not always popular on either side. But he is, perhaps surprisingly, supporting Jewish observance and revival and bringing more moderate Muslim leaders to the forefront. In this sense he serves as a vital bridge.

Sources:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSHO-h-MTA

[2] December 24 2015 Jewish Agency  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKJQpmj9Bzk

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0EOH1YZKsc

[4] One example of him relaying a message between camps occurred at an Abrahamic reunion event in Utah, October 2015, when Dr. Salem took the podium unexpectedly and explained the Israeli position on the separation wall, and on increased difficulties for Arabs to travel from the West bank to inside the Green line. This was after the wall had been criticized as an attempt at land-grabbing. Not so, Dr. Salem insisted. “The Israelis see it as necessary for their safety,” he explained. Skip ahead to minutes 48-50: http://livestream.com/accounts/3116574/events/4361388

 

Muslims Who Advocate for Peace: Nusantra and Ramadan

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17207

First published on the Israel National News site, July 2015

Part one of a two part article.

Nusantara – an Indonesian word for archipelago, or cluster of islands. Composed of six thousand islands, Indonesia hosts three hundred ethnic groups and seven hundred and forty languages all under one flag. Echoing its all-inclusive connotations, Imam Shamsi Ali chose this term when he founded a Muslim charitable and outreach organization based in New York City.

Founded in 2013, the Nusantara Foundation’s stated purpose is to promote a peaceful Islam, integrate the Muslim community into American society, reach out to non-Muslims to build greater understanding between religious groups, and provide social services to all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

An upbeat tone permeates the Nusantara website[1], and an email forwarded to me beckoned:

“Greetings from the Nusantara Foundation! We are committed to promoting a peaceful and moderate form of Islam….Islam Nusantara is the form of Islam that reflects the deep, universal characteristic of Rahmatan lil-alamin, or “merciful blessing for all humankind.” Islam Nusantara emphasizes friendship, peace, and love. We firmly believe it is time to replace the rigid, narrow, obsolete, and cruel public images of Islam with an alternative — the Islam that is friendly, sociable, rational, visionary, and capable of advancing friendship and cooperation above antagonism and conflict.”

Imam Shamsi Ali, Nusantara’s founder, exudes a youthful exuberance. Raised in rural Indonesia, he studied in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before immigrating to the United States in 1996 at age 29, whereupon he earned a PhD in political science. His collection of awards and honors includes being named one of the most influential religious leaders in New York City by New York Magazine in 2006, the Ellis Island medal of honor award in 2009 and 2010, and he was chosen as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Jordan, and by Georgetown University.

“I’ve been known informally as the face of moderate Islam in the west,” Imam Ali says, and it was he who was chosen to represent the Muslim community after 9/11 to visit the scene of the attack on the twin towers, hosted by president George Bush.

Rejection of violence

But this all-embracing love and acceptance takes a sharp turn when rebuking any acts of violence that occur in the name of Islam.[2]

“…(ISIS) has risen against the very spirit of Islam and broken every single covenant prescribed by Islam – all while shamelessly calling itself the Islamic State. We call upon all to stand firm against this dark force and to stop them in their tracks, that they may indeed be the “losers” God has condemned them to be.” This follows a quote from the Qur’an: “Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: They are the losers” .

In this same article he severely condemns the murder of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, Calman Levine, Aryeh Kopinsky, and Avraham Goldberg in November 2014, also brandishing Qur’anic verses in his harsh condemnation of an inexcusable act.

This condemnation of violence extends to the murders that occurred at the Charlie Hebdo French newspaper, January 2014[3]

In a discussion between Imam Ali and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton synagogue, NY, the Imam explains his work in combating violence in the Muslim world. “It is all a matter of education.” He notes that there is nothing in the Qur’an that allows any Muslim to kidnap girls, referring to the kidnappings in Nigeria. Again underscoring the need for education, “Bin Laden never formally learned Islam, he was a business student, he may look like a good Muslim but he never formally studied the religion.”[4] More about the Imam’s efforts in strengthening a peaceful Islam later, now I want to turn to the Imam’s collaboration with Rabbi Marc Schneier.

The above noted interview was one of many projects between the Imam and the Jewish community; his work with the Rabbi had a slow start but turned out to be a very productive partnership, including the advancement of Holocaust education in Austria, the prevention of the threatened ban on circumcision on the European continent, and their joint book, “Sons of Abraham” [5], which has an introduction by President Bill Clinton.

First stage – building trust

Trust building is an important first step in Muslim-Jewish relations, and the Imam and the Rabbi underwent their own journey before being able to work together. But first a…

Flashback!

She grabbed me by the elbow, I was startled, she was shaking. “You are naïve! I saw you sitting there, you think you can talk to them but they turn around and stab us in the back!”  – A Jewish woman hastily whispered as she intercepted me. I had just exited a meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant with Muslim leaders. Raking me with a warning look she nervously walked away.

It would be easy to call her an Islamophobe, or label me naïve. I knew her feelings were coming from a fear I was all too familiar with. And her stance was not foreign to me. How do you move from heart-felt fear to trust-building? And I say trust-building – it is a process.

Imam Ali addresses this; he learned nothing good about Jews during his upbringing in Indonesia. He slowly got to know the Rabbi after 9/11 and the perceived need for some kind of reconciliation between the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Imam Ali notes that his trust for Rabbi Schneier grew out of a few key points:

– As he got to know Rabbi Schneier, he saw that what Rabbi Schneier says in private to the Imam is the same as what he says in public to everyone else.

– He saw Rabbi Schneier’s emphasis on ethics – honesty, friendship, building community.

– He saw that Rabbi Schneier defends and fights for others. The Rabbi’s advocacy for Muslim Americans led to the Imam’s advocacy for Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community, which will be illustrated below.

Rallying together

Likewise, Imam Ali’s trust in the Jewish community was encouraged when the Rabbi publicly defended American Muslims in March 2011; Representative Peter King had ordered hearings entitled, “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”[6] Rabbi Schneier organized a rally and publicly objected that Islam alone was being singled out. Tragically, we have ample evidence that there are other sources of home-grown terror in the United States:  the murder of Muslims Deah Barakat, his wife Yusour and her sister Razan in February 2015,[7] the massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston NC and the rise of the neo-Nazi movement in America.[8] All sources of violence and radicalization should be investigated.

The Rabbi a softy? Sellout? Perhaps that is what you are saying after watching the video of the rally.[9] But look where it led!

Imam Ali – “to have Jews supporting the Muslim community and saying that anything that is against Muslims is against us, really boosts our spirits. For me it has become a personal responsibility to say that any anti-Semitism is an attack on me, and any Muslim who denies the Holocaust is denying my rights.”[10]

And Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community followed right on its heels, here is how:

November 2013: Rabbi Schneier was invited to speak by the Jewish community in Vienna about the Holocaust. He brought Imam Ali, who in his speech unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism and the silence following Kristallnacht, and it was the Imam who got the president of the Austrian Muslim community, Dr Senya, to promise to introduce Holocaust education to the Austrian Muslim community.[11]

That is the result of fighting for and defending the other. And anyone can do that, in whatever position they find themselves.

I felt it essential to add an addendum about this month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with the Hebrew month Tammuz. This month long daytime fast is binding on all able bodied Muslims from the age of eight years old. Evidently sharing a common root with Sefirat HaOmer, Ramadan corresponds to the Hebrew month Iyyar. After Pesach, the barley offering was brought in the Temple between Pesach and Shavuot, this spans the month of Iyyar, and until it was offered, it was forbidden to eat barley, wheat, spelt, oats, and rye.

Leviticus 23:14 – “And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your God…”

After the Temple was destroyed, the barley offering could no longer be offered, and in a grain-based culture like Arabia, the Sadducean Jews observed this period as almost a total fast. They took the verse, “until the selfsafe day” to mean that the fast occurs during the day.

Rabbinic Jews living in Babylon prohibited new grains but allowed other foods. For them, this period became a time of mourning – some Jews would in fact fast, and weddings and music were forbidden.

“You who believe! Observing As-saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious….but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number should be made up from other days…Allah intends for you ease…and you must magnify Allah for having guided you so that you can be grateful to Him.” Qur’an Al-Baqarah 2:183-185

Note the assumption in this verse that fasting did not start with the ministry of Muhammed, but preceded it.

Renee shares that her women relatives back in Morocco used to cook the iftaar (break fast) for their Muslim neighbors so that they could rest in the afternoon and look forward to a prepared meal. This implies a few things – Islamic law allows members of the People of the Book to cook for them, Muslims can fully accept Jews as Jews by holding that they need not fast during Ramadan, and we had a symbiotic relationship in the past that can be reclaimed.

In my mind the month of Ramadan implies not just a tolerance for, but a need for the presence of non-Muslims in society, as in our need for the “Shabbos goy” who are essential staff in religious hospitals in Israel. The symbiotic, interdependent relationship of Jews in Muslim society is nostalgically recalled by my older Sephardic neighbors, and Muslim leaders like Dr. Omer Salem.[1]

Renee also shares that likewise, in Morocco, Muslims would bring flour to Jewish families to celebrate the Maimouna festival, or what Moroccan Jews referred to as the end of Pesach. Muslims would join in sharing the mufleta (pancakes) with honey and butter, savoring the first taste of chametz, facilitated by their Muslim neighbors.

I would think that western universities can make exam periods flexible to accommodate the fast. We are certainly familiar with the difficulties presented when our Days of Awe conflict with the very beginning of the university semester, breathing a sigh of relief when the Holy Days fall on the weekend. Our need to leave work early on Fridays in the winter, days off for holidays and no work on Saturday even if there is a deadline will of course inspire us to accommodate Muslims – we are not the only ones who have obligations vis a vis the sanctity of time.

Muslim acquaintances have told me that it is okay to eat in front of a Muslim during Ramadan. But help them out by giving a supportive thumbs up and an “alright! You can do it!”

It is just another form of standing up for the other.

[1] https://www.academia.edu/1404941/what_could_happen_if20

Sources:

[1] Nusantara Foundation http://nusantara-foundation.org/

[2] November 18, 2014 – Nusantara Condemns Slaying of Peter Kassig; Jerusalem Violence http://nusantara-foundation.org/?p=233

[3] http://nusantara-foundation.org/?p=245

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pku10xZ3KR0

[5] http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/226732/sons-of-abraham-by-rabbi-marc-schneier-and-imam-shamsi-ali/

[6] Rep Peter King’s Muslim Hearings http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/09/AR2011030902061.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/us/north-carolina-jury-brings-three-murder-counts.html?_r=0

[8] Analyst: Charleston Suspect Steeped in Supremacist Sites http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/22/south-carolina-church-killings-writings/29126461/

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7l7oYS0AP0

[10] http://nusantara-foundation.org/?page_id=2

[11]The Rabbi who got Abbas to Denounce the Holocaust http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4517923,00.html

Muslims Who Advocate for Peace: Diverse Culture

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17245

First published in israel National News site, July 2015

———————

In my previous article we met Imam Shamsi Ali, founder of the Nusantara Foundation, New York City. We saw that, impressed by the advocacy and support from his Jewish colleague for the Muslim American community in the wake of proposed congressional hearings: “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response”, Imam Ali then championed Holocaust education in Austria.[1] There is more.

Advocating for each other: Circumcision, Kosher and Halal, Oral Tradition

Advocacy for the other leads to trust. With basic trust established, Muslims and Jews see more clearly that there are common elements in their faith.

The Imam and Rabbi worked together to protect ritual circumcision for both Muslims and Jews, which had been threatened by proposed legislation in the Parliamentary assembly of the council of Europe, 2014[2].  They were successful in getting this resolution defeated, and a key element was the solidarity and advocacy between the Muslim and Jewish groups. This same solidarity is in effect in their joint defense of kosher and halal slaughter, which has been banned in several European countries.

“When government leaders see that it is not just Jews speaking for Jews and Muslims speaking for Muslims, but instead a collective voice, working together, this speaks volumes.”
Regarding the verses in the Qur’an that appear harsh and anti-Jewish, Rabbi Schneier’s view is that just as Jews have the oral tradition that we rely upon to understand the written Torah, the same courtesy must be extended to Islam vis a vis verses in the Qur’an. These verses must be contextualized in their oral tradition, also known as sunnah which is based upon hadith, or sayings of Muhammed. We do not interpret “eye for an eye” literally, we can likewise pause before we make conclusions about harsh-sounding Qur’anic passages, turning to their religious leaders for clarification.

On Loving One’s Fellow

Moving on from advocacy for the other, what is the Imam’s style as an Imam to his followers? His smiling persona belies an ability give thunderous rebuke to his flock in his sermons.[3] “We are neighbors with every single human being, now in this era of globalization.” He states that Muslim prayer begins with Allah HuAkbar, then one greets one’s neighbor on the right and left. If one’s greeting is inadequate, if one does not have  love in one’s heart for one’s neighbor, then the salat (prayer) will not be accepted. “We have to be concerned with our neighbors in China, in Africa, because if we are not, if we do not take the challenges facing our neighbors to heart, that is when trouble starts in our own communities. “

“I studied in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and I learned Islam there. I did not study Islam(ic texts) from non-Muslims, but I have to admit I learned to be a better Muslim from my non-Muslim friends.

“I learned to be friendly, to be more accepting.” [4]

Then he quotes, “O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other (“lita’arafu” – to know each other, a key word in Qur’anic acceptance of diversity, remember it.) The noblest among you in God’s sight is that one of you who best performs his duty. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” 49:13

The Imam elaborates on this ayah (verse): “by getting to know each other we develop understanding, which leads to compassion and subsequent cooperation, (as the Imam has done so well). This leads to our ability to appreciate one another, and that is why I am not hesitant to say I learned how to be a better Muslim from my non-Muslim friends.”

“I know that the Qur’an challenges me when it says, “O people of the Book, come to the same common ground. Worship none but G-d.” I came to the conclusion that spirituality is universal, but religions are limited. We must go beyond the barriers that have come between us. We need to stand up for each other. Muslims around the world have corrupted Islam! But Americans have been standing for Muslims. Likewise I am fighting against anti-Semitism.”

Sounds liberal? Maybe religious texts can be interpreted as more peace-seeking than we thought. Imam Ali is a fundamentalist echoing Qur’anic teachings that simply came to life as he interacted with non-Muslims.

And he finds Qur’anic support for his statement that religions are limited – to each respective people – and at the same time the need to retain a universal perspective: “To each among you we have prescribed a Sharia (covenant) and Minhaj (custom). If Allah had so willed, he could have made you a single Umma (people), but (His plan is) to test you in what he hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is Allah; it is He that will show you the truth about the matters in which you are different.” Al Meada 5:48

As Qatada Ibn al Numan (a contemporary of Muhammed) said, “Al Din Wahid Al Sharia Muchtalifa” – there is one deen ( basic law, perhaps comparable to Noahide law in our parlance) and many covenants – many acceptable religions.

Combating Radicalization in the Muslim world: education, grassroots efforts, integration

Imam Shamsi Ali again proves his ability to balance his all embracing stance with his serious battle against radicalization, and he wages this battle via education.

“We are particularly concerned about our youth; our youth is very emotional, easily influenced by the media, particularly social media. The Nusantara foundation hosts discussion groups for youth to respond to the messages they are getting about the so-called Islamic state, or ISIS. I ask them, is establishing an Islamic state really a core issue?” Evidently it is not with Imam Ali. This echoes the sentiments of another Muslim leader, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, theologian and former advisor to the Pakistani government, who states that the formation of an Islamic state is not a basic religious obligation for Muslims.

Once American Muslim youth are guided in questioning the claims of radical groups, Imam Ali offers a way of channeling their frustrations when Muslim youth feel disparaged. Instead of getting emotional, respond to the challenge positively! The Imam gives an example of such grassroots efforts, “some groups have published cartoons of Muhammed in order to provoke Muslim sensitivities, I called some friends who are Christian ministers, and in response, they are giving positive lectures about Muhammed in their churches!” Thus, Muslim American youth are given an example of channeling their frustrations into educating others about Islam, instead of letting their emotions lead them into more radical outlets. “Don’t respond irrationally, respond with education!” he declares.

The third step is integration into American society. “I am pushing Muslims to get involved with American society and not segregate themselves. We organize summer camps with other communities so they can get to know different kinds of people. We tell them that in whatever country they reside, Muslims are enjoined to protect their country of residence. This country belongs to them and they have a responsibility towards it.

His interfaith work is part of this integration. “Interfaith activities do not mean we are trading religions, nor is it self-betrayal. We simply feel that in order to be a good Muslim we must have good relations with others. Muslims come away from such activities being more comfortable and open with others.”

“I suggested to an Imam I know, go ahead and “twin” with a local synagogue. He said he would not. So I went to the local Rabbi and suggested that he call this Imam. Well when the Rabbi called him he panicked and asked me what to do! They finally did get together – each congregation visits the other annually and they share a kosher meal.”

For those concerned with an overly open religious framework and even assimilation, understand that no congregation spends most of its time in interfaith work; events may happen only annually. But it is keeping the door of communication open that has a moderating effect, provides an outlet for education, and serves as a preventive measure against radicalization. Beyond that, it can be a source of inspiration to find our commonalities, that Jews are not alone in upholding dietary laws or fast days for example.

Muslims in America – Sharia law

Concerning the integration of Muslims into American society, sharia law (Islamic law) and its application in United State jurisprudence has been a hotly debated topic. Muslims have been faced with a similar question that has confronted Jews  – are you loyal to Jewish law or the laws of your country of residence? And, more recently, are you loyal to the state of Israel or to the United States of America? We have had centuries of dealing with the concept of split loyalty, its resolution in the Talmudic teaching Dina DeMalchuta Dina, (the law of the land is the law) and I may proudly add, centuries of proving ourselves worthy citizens of our host countries while being loyal to Torah.

Imam Ali comments: “sharia is how we apply the Qur’an to daily life, like your halakha.  There really is no contradiction between sharia and American law. It really bothers no one that we eat halal meat, or pray five times a day. We also hold that we must follow the law of the land.”

The word “sharia” means “path” or “way”, similar to the Hebrew “halacha”.  It refers to Islamic law; it also means covenant or brith. Referring back to the passage from the Qur’an, al-Maeda 5:48, “To each among you we have prescribed a Sharia (covenant) and Minhaj (custom)….”

Islamic sharia is derived from the Qur’an and Islamic oral tradition -yes, another parallel to Judaism – oral tradition. In Islam, oral tradition is called “sunnah”, and is derived from the hadith (plural, ahadith), which are the sayings of Muhammed, preserved orally, and then written down in the 9th- 10th centuries.

The term “sharia” connotes harsh practices in the minds of many westerners, and for good reason. Floggings and beheadings continue to be performed in the Muslim world. The question is, is this a true representation of Islamic sharia, or a superimposition of Islam on cultures that have not yet shaken their previous primitive practices?

In his recent book, Bigotry: the Dark Danger,[5] Adnan Oktar vociferously condemns brutal interpretations of sharia. He traces such practices as the fault of those leaders who are imposing their own inklings and not truly applying authentic sharia law. “Is there an Islamic country in the world that meets these (authentic) definitions of the sharia of the Qur’an? Of course not.” The solution – get straight to the Qur’an and away from outside influences. He goes on to quote professor Yasir N Ozturk:

“Why do they (Islamic governments) talk of ‘sharia’ and not of ‘Islam’? Because if they speak of Islam they will have to prove their claims with the Qur’an…” Otherwise, he goes on, such leaders can state that what they are doing is the consensus and has centuries of precedent. “Consensus” and “precedent” are not scripture.

The further they get away from the Qur’an and authentic ahadith, the less accountable such leaders are to their populations. But anyone can educate themselves in scripture. Scripture is the ultimate equalizer.  Brandishing the Qur’an and authentic ahadtih, a questioning Muslim can challenge barbaric practices, as Adnan Oktar has in this book.

Stoning adulterers to death has indeed occurred in modern day Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Oktar attributes this to ahadith which he says are false.

But wait, how can you distinguish false from authentic ahadtih? They are authentic if and only if they do not contradict Qur’an. Then Mr. Oktar brings us to the Qur’anic passages that actually refer to adultery: four witnesses must testify, and the punishment is one hundred lashes, which can be administered in one blow by trying one hundred lashes together.

And, to paraphrase Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, the flogging should not wound him, nor should he be bare-bodied, nor tied up.[6]

That is not stoning, and it is not a death penalty. Thus, those ahadith that call for stoning can be rejected outright.

Concerning limb removal, Oktar compares verses that are cited for the removal of the hand as a punishment for thievery, to other passages, concluding that mere cuts are made in the hands of a thief, and not the total removal of hands. [7] Dr Ghamidi does interpret the removal of the right hand, below the wrist, as a literal punishment for theft, only when the criminal deserves no leniencies, and is to be very, very rare.[8]

For those who have heard of the ahadith – the trees will say at the end of days, ‘here is a Jew, kill him’, again, Islamic scholars have grappled with false ahadith. Dr. Omer Salem and Adnan Oktar declare these to be false, as they not only are not sourced in the Qur’an, but contradict Qur’anic teachings. Only study of the Qur’an enables one to differentiate between true and fabricated ahadith.

Concerning the three passages in the Qur’an that refer to Jews as apes – that is the Qur’an, not ahadith. However the three verses, in their view, are in the context of Muhammed rebuking Jews for punishments that await for breaking their Sabbath  or other religious precepts, and not as any permanent state or applying to all Jews.

Peace-seeking Muslims encourage a return to the Qur’an and authentic ahadith. As Dr. Omer Salem says, “get Muslims closer to the Qur’an, they will be nicer to you.”[9]

Are Mr. Oktar and his compatriots merely being defensive about sharia? Law Professor Jan Michiel Otto concurs that some Muslim communities do not distinguish between tribal custom and authentic religious teachings; onlookers can retain a negative view of sharia even when high-ranking Muslim leaders declare that these are misinterpretations.[10]

The only solution is education – learning the sources with a qualified scholar.

Sharia in America

In 2010, legislation was proposed in Oklahoma to bar the courts from considering international law, singling out Islamic law. [11] “This measure… forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law….”

Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Dakota followed with similar proposed legislation.  Whether this was a response to genuine fears of much of the American population in the wake of 9/11, or Islamophobia is beyond the scope of this article.

What is of concern is that sharia-based contracts could be automatically excluded from judicial consideration just because they are “foreign”, even if they do not contradict American law.

Attorney Abed Awad notes two cases in which sharia-based law was indeed upheld in American courts because it did not conflict with American law, and in the end, actually better served the interests of one American company. He states, “The true story of sharia in American courts is not one of a plot for imminent takeover but rather another part of the tale of globalization. Marriages, divorces, corporations and commercial transactions are global, meaning that US courts must regularly interpret and apply foreign law.” [12]

Law Professor Azizah Al-Hibri states that such legislation is unnecessary as the Constitution is what trumps all else – that foreign, international or religious precepts simply do not have the power to overcome American law. She emphasizes that there is no need to formulate laws against precepts that have no automatic authority in America.[13]

What immediately comes to mind in the importance of the protection of Jewish law in secular courts. Do we really want an absolute ban on the consideration of “foreign” law not only in our age of globalization, but concerning the enforcement of the ketuba marriage contract, or the use of the heter iska in business contracts? Indeed, one observer states that such legislation would impair the rights of observant Jews as well.[14]

Imam Ali comments: “in the Middle East now, sharia is being misapplied. Some Americans see this and themselves mistakenly represent sharia as something negative. But sharia gives full protection and freedom to the woman for example. To ban sharia is to discriminate against Muslims, and there really is no contradiction between a Muslim keeping sharia and being loyal to the United States.”

The amendment was struck down by an Oklahoma federal judge in 2013.[15]

It is this advocacy that advanced Holocaust education in Austria, the prevention of a ban on circumcision in Europe, is striving to protect kosher and halal meat on the European continent, and is simply part of what we must do as a minority people who, marginalized plenty, naturally sympathize with the plight of the other.

With all our concerns about violent trends in Islam, leaders like Imam Shamsi Ali, Sinem Tezyapar, Adnan Oktar, Sheikh Ibrahim of the Tabighi Jamaat movement, and Dr. Omer Salem deserve our recognition and support. There are more such leaders.

Back to Nusantara, connoting a variety of ethnic groups, religions and languages under one flag.  Functioning as a cluster, different from each other yes, but united in understanding and cooperation. We should be able to achieve this too, in the Holy Land.

Sources:

[1] Sons of Abraham video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pku10xZ3KR0

[2] Jews, Muslims unite to combat circumcision ban http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4480242,00.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csxcNhKhScQ

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vBprd_J8LA

[5] http://www.harunyahya.com/en/Books/191085/bigotry-the-dark-danger

[6] The Penal Law of Islam http://www.renaissance.com.pk/septfeart2y2.html

[8] http://www.renaissance.com.pk/septfeart2y2.html

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSHO-h-MTA  minute 58 – 1.02, 1.19 – 1.21

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia#cite_ref-56

[11] See pages 7-8 for the specific wording of Oklahoma proposed amendment: http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/sharia3.pdf

[12] The True Story of Shariah in American Courts: The Nation http://www.thenation.com/article/true-story-sharia-american-courts/

[13] Sharia Controversy http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/?p=12202

[14] Can States Prevent American Courts from Considering Jewish Law? https://jewishandamericanlaw.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/can-states-prevent-american-courts-from-considering-jewish-law/

[15] Oklahoma Ban on Sharia Law Unconstitutional… http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2013/08/16/oklahoma-ban-on-sharia-law-unconstitutional-us-judge-rules/

Giving a Voice to Muslims who Support Peace: the Adnan Oktar Movement

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17106

First published on the Israel National News site, June 2015

In my previous article on the subject of Muslims who support peace, I wrote about a quiet fundamentalist and pacifist Muslim movement, albeit world-wide and numbering about one hundred million – the Tablighi Jamaat. Now I am turning one hundred and eighty degrees and profiling an outspoken, colorful press-savvy Muslim movement that also promotes peace – centered around charismatic leader Adnan Oktar, Istanbul, Turkey. Fashionable and upwardly mobile, Mr Oktar’s followers present a glamorous face to the world, insisting that Islam blends beautifully with the modern and democratic.

Working with the penname Harun Yahya, his some 800 websites, over 300 books, and his own A9 television channel reach 60 million people world wide, and a public relations team composed of some of the best, brightest and well-connected Turkish youth. Sinem Tezyapar, his spokeswoman and seemingly tireless voice for a peaceful Islam, whose articles have been featured on Arutz Sheva, states, “we strongly emphasize the peaceful message of Islam…we work to raise mass awareness concerning the real underlying causes of social and political conflicts. We attach great importance in identifying the underlying ideologies of the foremost problem of our era – terrorism. Religion is definitely not the basis of conflict but is the unquestionable basis for solution.”[1]

They have hosted hundreds of Jewish leaders, including an Israeli delegation in August 2012 to discuss the flotilla incident and move forward in mending Israeli-Turkish relations. [2]

There is much information about this movement on the web, and when you take a peek at their websites, the modern and fashionable attire of Mr. Oktar’s team may surprise you. This is part of their conviction that Islam blends seamlessly with modernity, both with democracy, human rights, and even aesthetics and the fine arts. Women can and should participate in every walk of life, from top government positions, to the media to the professions, as they choose.[3]

Sinem states, “we boldly state that there is no place whatsoever in Islam for violence, suicide bombings, oppression and hatred. We strongly believe that a true believer should possess the characteristics of a loving, compassionate, peace-making, forgiving personality; and always seek to establish harmony, understanding and mutual respect among all societies.”

Their fine tastes do not accompany what in other circles would be a certain snobbery – Love conquers all in this movement. And Sinem is an example of a compassionate personality: journalist Yoram Yanover quips regarding Sinem’s response to the suspicious reception she has received in parts of the Jewish world, “never an angry word, never a snappy retort. I couldn’t do it, honestly” [4] [5]

The Oktar group runs websites advocating for the Jewish community and directed at the Muslim community, for example, “Holocaust Violence” in Arabic, [6] and his book of the same title. [7] They post essays condemning anti-Semitism, [8] [9] and on June 15 2014 on his A9 TV channel, Mr Oktar strongly condemned the kidnapping of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. An unsympathetic viewer challenged:

“You never said anything when Jewish seeds were kidnapping Palestinians. Why are you speaking out now?

Adnan Oktar retorted: There is no kidnapping of Palestinians. There is no such thing. The (Israelis) detain and arrest those they regard as guilty. There is no kidnapping people and holding them in secret locations. They put them in prison. Their location is known. They say they have arrested them. The process goes through prosecutors and judges… “

He then challenged the viewer’s insult, “And you call them ‘Jewish seeds.’ These people you disparage by calling them so are descended from the prophets. Look, they do not talk of Israel [this way] any more, since I warned them not to. They used to shout out “Israel be damned” at the tops of their voices, may God forbid. You are talking about a prophet; Israel is the name of a prophet. At least call it the state of Israel.”

In this essay, I want to crystallize a central point: Mr. Oktar’s consistent and vociferous denunciation of terror. The intellectual framework he offers seriously challenges the idea that terror is associated with Islam – it also seriously challenges some basic assumptions held in the west.

Put simply, Mr Oktar traces the true roots of terror to social Darwinism, which laid the groundwork for both fascism and communism.

I will focus on social Darwinism and not Mr. Oktar’s take on the theory of evolution, which his followers strongly disbelieve. The debate on evolution is a vigorous one – can Genesis be reconciled with staged evolution? Must we even entertain scientific theory or can we cleave loyally to the literal Word? This concerns us less than the concepts that made their way out of the modern theory of evolution and into western attitudes on society: survival of the fittest, natural selection, and dialectic – the concept of constant struggle to give forth new species and ideas.

As a basis for fascism, Mr. Oktar quotes Darwin vis a vis survival of the fittest, “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world…”[10] blaming this theory for consequent racism.

Mr Oktar is not alone in this view, Jerry Bergman in his essay, Darwinism and the Nazi Race Holocaust, provides tens of sources backing up his statement: “(Social) Darwinism justified and encouraged the Nazi views on both race and war.” [11] [12]

Communist theory was also inspired by social Darwinism. Trotsky said, “Darwin’s discovery is the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter.”[13]

Communism means more than the equal distribution of resources, it is also assumes “dialectical materialism”: dialectic – conflict of opposites, and materialism, that the world functions solely on a material level with no G-d directing it. This means that conflict fosters the development of society. Karl Marx: “Force is the midwife of every society pregnant with a new one.”[14] “Force”, not scholarship, not charity, not spirituality, but “force” – he really said that. And Marx did not intend to avoid force, but use it.

Mr. Oktar quotes anarchist Michael Bakunin:

“The whole work of a revolutionary’s existence is at war with the existing order of society and with the whole so-called civilized world, with its laws, morals and customs…he knows only one science, the science of destruction….” (Ground-Work for the Social Revolution, 1885).

Certainly concepts of survival of the fittest are the groundwork that dictates the cutting away of social welfare programs and soaring housing costs in democratic, capitalistic societies.  Let them fight to survive, right?

800 words into this essay and I still have hardly mentioned Islam, which is the subject of this series. I am getting to it. This is where Sinem Tezyapar, who represents Mr. Oktar, comes in. She states:

“Everyone who is knowledgeable about the real spirit of Islam knows that this kind of insane fanaticism has no place in the Islamic faith. Such actions are expressly forbidden as revealed in the very Word of God Himself. According to Qur’an, one’s murdering an innocent person is ‘… as if he had murdered all mankind’ (Qur’an, 5:32), and ‘Allah does not love mischief makers’ (Qur’an, 28:77). “

She states that the Qur’an itself anticipates that scripture can be twisted: “The Qur’an also gives an example of a gang of nine men who caused corruption in the land by swearing in the name of Allah (Qur’an, 27:48-50). Thus, the fact that people do things ‘in the name of Allah’ or even swear in His name, does not mean that what they do is in conformity with Islam.”

She points out that terrorism was used in the French Revolution and by leftist revolutionaries, and leftist thinking made its way into Arab nationalism in the 1940’s and 50’s.[15] [16] She states that Muslims must distance themselves from these influences and get closer to the Qur’an, just as Dr. Omer Salem says, “encourage Muslims to get closer to the Qur’an, they will be nicer to you.”[17] And she is not just defending Islam in front of non-Muslims; she rebukes her co-religionists soundly when they deviate from peace-seeking, saying not only is it un-Islamic, but creates a cynical world view and poor quality of life.[18]

Dialectic – argument for the sake of argument.

The concept of survival of the fittest applies not only to large scale social injustice, but even to some of the subtleties in our daily life, Adnan Oktar often points out. Dialectic is one example.

Vigorous discussion and debate certainly abounds among religious Jews when it comes to the proper application of Torah teachings, Talmudic scholars can get into what appears to the uninitiated as shouting matches; then one looks on, stunned, as those having engaged in intellectual battle walk away together amicably.

Dialectic as interpreted by communist thinkers is something else entirely. It holds that a state of constant conflict is inevitable in the development of both nature and in society. Survival of the fittest is what perfects both the able bodied species and intellectual.

But in contrast to Talmudic debate, the goal of this type of dialectic is not truth seeking, but weeding out strong orators so that those who are victorious can grab the reins of leadership; truths are decided by the fittest. Might is right. Next time someone tries to engage you in an argument for the sake of argument, tell them about dialectic, they probably never heard of it.

Dialectic is not just the realm of the scholar in an ivory tower. Inflammatory rhetoric in the media also serves the purpose of creating a sense of constant conflict, playing into a theory of dialectic that journalists themselves may be unaware of. For every report about an act or terror, why are there not several reports on Muslims who condemn it, or even reports about the good in Islam?

“I had an Arab worker,” Mr. Citon bragged to me, “and I could leave thousands of shekels in the till, return after a couple days off, and not one shekel was missing, not one!” How about an article about honesty in business in Islam with many examples, large and small? We hardly have a perspective on why rhetoric favors the inflammatory – it is to beget social change through force, through emphasizing fighting and not reconciliation.

This is why Adnan Oktar invests such huge resources in media which emphasize love and reconciliation; his colorful books are adorned with smiling faces of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, black, white and all colors in between, both in religious and non-religious garb, enjoying each others’ company, in recreation and at prayer. His A9 TV channel features people from all walks of life schmoozing comfortably, low key and at ease. He is redressing the balance of negative propaganda we have become inured to.

Indeed, we hardly have a perspective on what influences us. This is where being a member of the People of the Book is a good thing. In both Judaism and Islam, we have a corpus of writ and tradition to guide us, in opposition to societal norms we are hardly aware of, both in large social systems and the subtleties of daily life. Here are some examples from the Qur’an:

Tolerance of different races and peoples: “O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other. The noblest among you in God’s sight is that one of you who best performs his duty. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” 49:13

Non-Muslims have a share in the hereafter: “And those who believe in the Oneness of Allah and do righteous good deeds, they are dwellers of paradise, they will dwell therein forever.” 2:81

The necessity of diversity: “To each among you we have prescribed a Sharia (covenant) and Minhaj (custom). If Allah had so willed, he could have made you a single Umma (people), but (His plan is) to test you in what he hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is Allah; it is He that will show you the truth about the matters in which you are different.” 5:48

Freedom of thought: “There is no compulsion in religion” 2:256 and, “So remind them! You are only a reminder. You are not in control of them” 88:21-22 and “If your Lord had willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Do you think you can force people to be believers?” 10:99

Certainly those Muslims who are vociferous in promoting a peaceful Islam, either through a PhD thesis, modest personal self-improvement or high-profile outreach deserve our attention.

I spent more time in the article working through some basic assumptions that we live with unconsciously and not, as you may have expected, just defending Islam’s role in modern terror. That is because we cannot sit smugly as if completely outside this phenomenon, pointing fingers. We need to identify insidious influences that have allowed a philosophy of terror to gain a foothold, only then can we uproot it. Simply blaming Islam is not the answer.

Okay, you are saying that there is war in Islam. That is right, and there are also rules about war in Torah. But war is not the cynical destruction of the fabric of society in order to promote conflict for the sake of conflict.

“Permission to fight is given to those who are fought against because they have been wronged…” 22:39-40, and, “Fight in the Way of G-d against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits.” 2:190 and here is a hadith (commentary), “Go to war in adherence to the religion od G-d. Never touch the elderly, women, or children….Do not set trees on fire or cut them down. Never destroy houses.”[19] [20]

Sinem asked me to share another important point that their movement emphasizes, providing a more hopeful note – their emphasis on the anticipation of Mashiach, or Hazrat (honorable) Mahdi in Arabic.[21] They insist that the Mashiach will come with no bloodshed, that a sign of the End Times will not be increased warfare, on the contrary, it will be increased expressions of love.

Mr. Oktar takes serious issue with those who anticipate increased war during the advent of Mashiach, and claims that these expectations have dangerously affected American foreign policy; believing that war will increase during the End Times, people may actually support war, seeing it as a conduit to the advent of Mashiach, instead of searching for peaceful resolution. He states this repeatedly, even in capital letters, in one blog: “EVERYONE WHO EXPECTS BLOODSHED IN THE NEXT PART OF THE END TIMES ARE MAKING A SERIOUS ERROR….ON THE CONTRARY, THEY WILL CAUSE THE MORAL VALUES OF THE RELIGION TO PREVAIL WITH LOVE, AFFECTION, GENTLE WORDS AND COMPASSION.” And in this footnote you will see sources from the Qur’an and Hadith backing up this claim. [22] [23]

This repetitiousness is perhaps another effort to redress the balance of animosity flamed in the media: read my lips, Mashiach brings peace via peaceful means.[24]

Moreover, belief in Mashiach unites Muslims and Jews, all the better if we are on the same page about it, regarding it as a peaceful phase in history brought via peaceful means. No smug acceptance of conflict as a sign of the hour – but an embracing of increased compassion and love on our part.

I need not point out so far the parallels between Mr. Oktar’s movement and Jewish movements. The oft-seen Chabad slogan – “Increase good deeds and charity to bring Moshaich,”[25] Breslover singer and songwriter Yosef Karduner, “Moshiach will come without a single shot being fired,” And of course Mr. Oktar’s blending of the upbeat and aesthetic with our modern orthodox and dati leumi communities.

We are being encouraged by our spiritual cousins, from the humble Tablighi Jamaat to the glamorous yet loving Oktar movements, both numbering in the tens of millions of followers, as well as scholars like Dr. Omer Salem, to uphold Torah. Sinem: “Religion is definitely not the basis of conflict but is the unquestionable basis for solution.” This is encouragement that we are unused to. Are we ready for the task? And there are more Muslims out there who want to support us. Nusantara – another large scale emerging Islamic movement for peace. And, Dr. Omer Salem has like minded colleagues. Stay tuned.

(Previous articles on other Muslim groups or activists who support peace: here and here)

Sources:

[1] http://www.sinemtezyapar.com/

[2] http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/israeli-rabbis-prove-religion-works-better-than-diplomacy-in-the-middle-east/2012/08/27/

[3] Bigotry: the Dark Danger Harun Yahya

[4] http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/editorial/in-an-ocean-of-islamic-hatred-we-discovered-true-friends/2013/04/22/

[5] http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/according-to-islam-muslims-should-not-be-at-war-with-jews/2012/12/12/

[6] http://www.holocaustviolence.com/arabic/

[7] http://www.harunyahya.com/en/Books/3764/The-Holocaust-Violence

[8] http://antisemitism.org.il/article/84590/turkish-sentiments-regarding-shoah

[9] http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/it_is_essential_for_muslims_to_remember_the_nazis_atrocities_and_to_commemo

[10] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd Ed, NY Al Burt Co 1874

[11] http://www.trueorigin.org/holocaust.php#f1

[12] Chase, A., The Legacy of Malthus; The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1980

[13] Alan Woods and Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt: Marxism and Modern Science, London 1993

[14] Karl Marx Das Capital Vol I 1955 p 603

[15] http://www.sinemtezyapar.com/no-one-is-born-a-terrorist.html

[16] http://www.islamdenouncesterrorism.com/

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSHO-h-MT

[18] Bigotry: the Dark Danger Harun Yahya

[19] Islam Denounces Terrorism Harun Yahya

[21] Jews must Await the King Mesiah  http://www.harunyahya.com/en/pages/id/1875/

[22] Mahdi Never Sheds Blood: Hazrat Mahdi is a Man of Peace http://www.mahdinevershedsblood.com/

[23] The Redemption of the Jews  http://redemptionofjews.com/

[24] Mahdi According to the Holy Scriptures  http://www.mahdiaccordingtoholyscriptures.com/index.php

[25] http://www.chabadworld.net/page.asp?pageID=CDE5FE54-9328-4CBD-9286-9FD1E630981C&moshHdr=1

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