Ramadan tours promote coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews

The group of Jewish-Israelis sat in a semicircle on the thick, red carpet of the mosque. The women wore headscarves; everyone’s feet were bare.

They had come to this Arab town in central Israel to experience a slice of Ramadan, the monthlong daytime fast observed by Muslims that ends this week. But before they left the mosque to visit Kfar Qasim’s Ramadan market — a nightly, open-air food bazaar — tour guide Shawkat Amer sounded a note of reassurance.

Amer told the crowd that just before the fast ended that evening, loudspeakers would sound calls of “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” across the city. Although it’s a phrase some Jewish-Israelis may associate with the final cry of terrorists before an attack, Amer urged his guests to remain calm. The call, he said, is in fact a message of goodwill.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a threat,” he said. “If I say it, you should feel pleasure.”

The nearly 50 men, women and children who joined the group on Sunday night were among some 1,500 Jews who have toured Arab-Israeli cities in the past month for a small taste of iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. In spite of tensions between the groups, it’s common for Jewish-Israelis to visit Arab towns for discount shopping or Middle Eastern food. But these tours aimed to take that experience deeper by teaching about Arab-Israeli culture and religion.

“If the only narrative is a Jewish narrative and the only history is Jewish, and you just buy hummus from Arabs, that’s not good,” said Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Jewish-Arab coexistence nonprofit that organized the tours in Arab cities across central and northern Israel. “I don’t object to people buying hummus in Kfar Qasim, but for relations between Jews and Arabs, you need more than that.”

A city of 21,000 residents adjacent to the West Bank border and the middle-class Jewish city of Rosh Haayin, Kfar Qasim is one of Israel’s poorer towns. The Hebrew signs on the shops lining its streets are meant to entice Jewish customers.

As Koranic verses signaling the break-fast echoed across the city, the tour group flooded into an open-air food market set up for Ramadan. Merchants sold the tourists delicacies such as sticky pastries, fruit, pickled vegetables and falafel, fried on the spot in a giant pan. Part of the idea behind the tours, Gerlitz said, is to boost the Arab-Israeli economy, which has less exposure to tourism dollars than Jewish cities.

“Tourism is a meaningful tool for economic development, and tourism right now is mostly in Jewish towns,” he said. “Government investment is mostly in Jewish towns. That means there aren’t investments in Arab towns.”

But the tours also aim to confront historical wounds. Near the center of town, an austere black-and-white monument that looks like an upside-down obelisk with the year 1956 emblazoned on top commemorates the Kfar Qasim massacre, when Israeli border guards killed 48 fieldworkers returning home at curfew. In 2007, then-President Shimon Peres formally apologized for the incident, but residents say they are still pained by its memory. Some said they value dialogue with Jews as a way to move past historical trauma.

The tour group “doesn’t make a difference for me — but for my kids it does, so they won’t say Jews are animals,” said Amer Amer, a vendor of pickled vegetables whose father died in the massacre. “I want Jews to feel trusted here, at home here. I don’t want them to just say, ‘Those are Arabs.’”

The tour provided few opportunities for informal conversation with residents, focusing more on basic information about Islam and Arab-Israeli culture. But Adi, a Hebrew tutor who declined to give her last name, said the group’s exposure to Arab culture and Islam was still more than Jewish-Israelis normally receive.

“I think it was at a more informative level, but as an Israeli I got more of a taste [of Arab-Israeli life] than I get day to day,” she said. “It gave more familiarity than what I’m used to.”

At the mosque visit ahead of their trip to the market, the Jewish group heard Eyad Amer, a local imam, alternate between outlining the basics of Ramadan and answering the group’s questions about Islamic worship. Was there space for women in the mosque? (Yes, in another room.) Does Islam have egalitarian movements, like Judaism? (No.) How many of the city’s 25,000 residents observe the fast? (80 percent, based on mosque attendance.)

“They just hear about extremist Islam,” the imam told JTA after the tour. “They don’t know what moderate Islam is. If we don’t talk about Islam, they’ll just have a negative outlook toward us because they’re just exposed to the dark side, not the enlightened side of Islam.”

Speaking to the group, both the imam and the tour guide complained of discrimination against Arabs in Israel. (In fact, in an interview, Imam Amer said he lived under Israeli occupation, despite being a citizen).

Still, there are hopes for improvement. A two-hour tour wouldn’t fix the longstanding challenges Arabs face in Israel, tour guide Shawkat Amer said — but he hoped that greater Jewish familiarity with Arab-Israelis could help chip away at tensions between the communities.

“I can’t fix the whole world, but even if I do 1 percent of good, it will get better and better,” he said. “The more Jewish people I bring to Arab towns, the happier I’ll be.”

Muslims and Jews forge friendships over dinner

Some Jews wore kippot, while Muslim fellows wore hijabs and niqabs as 300 members of the two religious communities came together over an iftar dinner June 25 during Ramadan at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

The break fast — which featured kosher and halal foods — was much more than a meal. The event was filled with interfaith dialogue and a practice known as “Two Faiths One Prayer” in which Muslims and Jews pray side by side. 

Organizers from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change said it was a gathering to make friendships, connections and harmony in order to help reduce Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Los Angeles, the home of an estimated 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims.

Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, a community-building organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish-Muslim relations, told the Journal, “[The event] connects Jewish and Muslim communities. Each of them that we host, they have one-on-one conversations and build connection and relationships. … It really focuses on community building.”

Attendees participated in a Q-and-A session and shared different aspects of their culture, religion and experiences. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Susan Goldberg said having such a dialogue in which both the Jewish and Muslim communities learn about their differences and commonalities is vitally important.  

“I think that both of our communities have experienced an incredible amount of discrimination. … Unfortunately for Muslims, Islamophobia is a really pervasive occurrence. So I think we have empathy for each other from those experiences,” she said.

“It is really important that we stand up for Muslims when they are dealing with a level of discrimination,” added Goldberg, who is also a NewGround board member. 

Through a number of initiatives, NewGround strives to transform Muslim-Jewish relations and advance a shared agenda for change. Its annual fellowship program this year elected students — half from one faith, half from the other — to participate in the nine-month program. 

Soraya Ahyaudin, a NewGround fellow and one of the recent graduates honored during the evening at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the program taught her how to engage in difficult conversations — and then how to take action. 

“It is just a skill that you learn during [the] sessions, but it is also a skill that you can implement in your life, in your career and in your relationships that you have outside the fellowship,” Ahyaudin told the Journal. 

She said she realized that being uncomfortable while listening to others is not a bad thing. 

“It is something that you should embrace because if you are unconfortable, that means you learn something new about other cultures, other religions and other people,” Ahyaudin said. 

“I had learned about how to engage better with people in conflict conversations. So, I definitely see this is [a] very useful skill to implement in my job that I’m applying for right now because I’m looking for work in interfaith and human rights fields,” continued Ahyaudin, who studied public diplomacy at USC.

Jewish independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, a NewGround fellow who graduated last year, echoed these sentiments.

“We learned how to [make] a really difficult conversation become [a] very productive conversation,” he said.

“You see on the news every day now a situation in which people are communicating violently,” added Ungar-Sargon, who just finished a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They are … lacking tools that are necessary to have important conversations to sort of move this thing in a nonviolent direction.”

Muslim and Jewish Jerusalemites break bread together

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

As the call to prayer marking the end of the day-long Ramadan fast echoed from a nearby mosque, the two dozen people sat down and began eating. There were many traditional Arab foods, and conversation flowed easily. It looked like any post-fasting dinner table in the Arab world.

What was unique here is that most of the guests had never met the hosts, Bronka and Aref Tahboub, before this night. The Tahboub’s had opened their home to a group of Israeli Jews who wanted to experience the iftar meal.

“There are so many things here that we don’t control,” Aref told The Media Line in fluent Hebrew. “But Arabs and Jews have to live together. I’ve worked with Jews all my life and I want my children to get to know Jews.”

The meeting was organized by Kids4Peace, a grassroots organization that brings Muslim, Christian and Jewish children in Jerusalem together. About 25 Jewish families signed up to be hosted by Palestinian families, along with their children.

The Tahboubs have three children, two boys, age 14 and 11, and a daughter who is 9, and all three children are fasting.  While it is only compulsory to fast from puberty, many children choose to start earlier.

“They see all of their neighbors fasting, and they want to do it too,” Bronka, an English teacher told The Media Line. “Ramadan is a special time for us. We believe that the gates of hell are closed, and the sky opens the doors to our prayers.”

Ramadan also marks the time that Muslims believe Allah revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed, who was illiterate. As it based on the solar calendar, rather than the lunar calendar, it rotates through the seasons. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Mohammed used to break his fast with a date, and Muslims today do the same.

At the Tahboubs in the upscale east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, the Jewish guests quickly feel at home.

“It starts with me being a citizen of Jerusalem,” Duel Peli, a lawyer whose daughter attends Kids4Peace told The Media Line. “Jerusalem is a mixed city with people from different ethnic origins and different nationalities. I live in this city I want to be friendly with as many of the different populations as I can.”

He says that being part of Kids4Peace, which divides the children into groups of one-third Jewish, one-third Christian and one-third Muslim, has been an eye-opening experience for him. The parents have parallel workshops to the children, who go to summer camp together in the US.

“I find myself in the minority which is an important feeling for me to have,” he said. “It makes me understand what it is like to be a minority in Jerusalem and in Israel.”

The population in Jerusalem is two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, divided between Muslims and Christians. The meetings have continued despite more than a year of tensions in Jerusalem, which began last June when Hamas terrorists kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Jewish extremists then kidnapped a Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from Shuafat, a neighborhood less than a mile from Beit Hanina. Bronka Tahboub says she knows Mohammed’s father well, and visited him after his son was killed.

His death, and the fighting between Israel and Hamas last summer in Gaza, during which several rockets were fired toward Jerusalem, has negatively affected her nine-year-old daughter Leen, who for the past year has refused to sleep in her own bed.

Yet Bronka says the tensions have only strengthened her resolve to reach out to her Jewish neighbors.

“When God created us He didn’t say “You’re a Muslim, you’re a Christian, you’re a Jew,” she said. “We are all humans and I wanted to share the good precious holy moments of Ramadan with other people. Everyone has a different view and perspective we need to share it together to remove the anger and the sadness in the area.”

After dinner, as the kids played soccer outside, Bronka took out a water pipe and began puffing on melon and mint scented tobacco. As the water pipe made its rounds, the tensions in Jerusalem between Arabs and Jews seemed far away.

Muslim, Jewish fellows celebrate Iftar together

What started off as a group full of professional yet skeptical Jews and Muslims ended with a bond as strong as blood. 

“There isn’t a boundary anymore, so we’re one big group of friends. It’s like we became a family,” said Deborah Tehrani, 31, a Jew from Sherman Oaks, one of 24 people who recently celebrated the conclusion of their time as NewGround Fellows. The program brings young Muslim and Jewish professionals together to help transform how the two groups relate to each other. 

As part of NewGround’s annual iftar — the Muslim break-fast during Ramadan — more than 200 people gathered on July 17 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple to listen to reflections from some of the fellowship’s participants. For those leaving the program, the event was a bittersweet moment.

“I’m excited and sad because the past seven months, we’ve become very close,” said Rumaisa Rahman, 35, a Muslim who owns a promotions and entertainment company and lives in Studio City. “It started with people holding back, and now we’ve become a family.”

Outgoing participants said they look forward to applying what they’ve learned. Rahman, for example, is excited about working on the Web series the group created that will be used to post videos focused on Muslim and Jewish issues. 

The event included a period during which attendees were engaged in an abbreviated version of the kind of exercises used in the program. At one point, everyone present was instructed to find someone they didn’t know. Then, in response to a question, they took turns talking for 90 seconds and listening for 90 seconds. This was followed by 30 seconds of silence during which everyone found a new partner with whom they pondered the answers of the previous one.

Topic included: Where do you find community? Who do you consider your people? What inspires you? With each new question, everyone found a new partner. 

Dinner was also part of the event, and everyone was allowed time to pray, eat or shmooze. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of NewGround, sees the outgoing participants as now part of a greater network of graduates who can use their influence to “help resolve future conflicts that may arise in the community and to act as bridge builders at a time when there is no bridge.”

NewGround currently is looking for its next fellowship cohort of Jews and Muslims. Those interested may apply at muslimjewishnewground.org. If they’re anything like Farah Abdulla, 33, a Muslim physician who lives in Pasadena, they should be ready for new ideas and growth.

“I’m looking forward to coming together with a common understanding that we’ve changed over the course of the last eight months, at least our worldviews,” she said. “I feel that I better understand the Jewish perspective and where they’re coming from.”

At joint iftar celebration, Muslim-Jewish High School Council launched

A recent break-fast meal, held in the courtyard of the Westside Jewish Community Center, began with the blowing of a shofar. The sun hadn’t yet set, so the baskets of pita and dried dates placed on every table remained untouched.

And Yom Kippur was more than a month away.

“Ramadan Mubarak,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin to the 200-odd Jews and Muslims who had gathered on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, to participate in an iftar, the nightly meal that marks the end of each day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bassin is the executive director of NewGround, a project aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust between American Muslims and Jews, rather than one of mutual suspicion. To that end, NewGround is in the process of assembling a fifth cohort of 20 young Muslim and Jewish professionals for its fellowship.

On Aug. 9, the organization officially launched a second, similar initiative, the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council. During the coming academic year, eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students will gather for biweekly seminars and other activities designed to foster relationships and teach them about Muslims and Jews in America.

But if the council’s work can be described in concrete tasks, at least some at the JCC spoke of far loftier goals.

“I want to prove them all wrong,” Natalia Jean Garatto, a member of the new council and president of her youth group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, told the gathering. “The people who believe that the wars and mutual intolerance will never end and those that think that teenagers have no influence or ability to impact our world.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR began the evening by offering words of prayer, and acknowledged the poignancy of a group of Muslims and Jews gathering in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier in the week. It was a chance, she said, for people of faith to stand in solidarity, not just with the Sikh community, but with the Muslim community that the killer believed he was targeting.

“We stand together tonight dedicated to realizing the triumph of light over darkness, and love over all else,” Brous said.

The iftar was sponsored by a handful of Muslim and Jewish groups and was choreographed to demonstrate how the council hopes to achieve its lofty goals, but also served to illustrate for the attendees — including the 14 fellows, their families and other members of the local Muslim and Jewish communities — a number of commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Muslims broke the day’s fast with dried dates; Imam Rushdan Mujahid-Deen of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center explained it was customary for the first food eaten each evening of Ramadan to be a natural food. Some of the Muslims then went upstairs for the Maghrib prayer while a handful of Jews stood in a section of the courtyard for the Ma’ariv service.

What followed was a substantial meal, with the crowd serving themselves plates of vegetarian Indian food from a buffet. Then, under the night sky, Muslims and Jews sat down together. They talked, listened and ate.

“Food always gets people together,” said Mirvat Kamel, whose daughter, Maha, is taking part in the council this year, “that’s what we said.”

For Israel’s Muslims, Ramadan a time to celebrate Islam in the Jewish state

Last week, Muslim and Jewish soldiers gathered after a day’s training to eat a communal iftar, the traditional break-the-fast meal eaten after sunset during the month-long observance of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.

“Ramadan isn’t just one day like the 17th of Tammuz or Tisha B’Av,” said Col. Ahmed Ramiz, head of the minority population directorate in the Human Resources branch of the Israel Defense Forces. “It affects an organization like ours to have so many people fasting for 30 days, because we’re the army. We don’t stop for 30 days, or even one day. But during times like these, we try to keep their needs in mind, and help out where we can.”

Ramadan—a month-long ritual during which Muslims are enjoined not to eat, drink, smoke or engage in sex during daylight hours—is formally recognized in Israeli workplaces as a religious holiday. Yet, like other Muslim holidays, it still isn’t part of the cultural map of a Jewish state more focused on Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day.

“Sure, you get your days off and your short days during Ramadan. But there’s an issue of legitimization; Arab language and holidays and culture are marginalized,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes equality and coexistence in Israel. “We have to legitimize Arab culture so that Arab citizens feel legitimized, so that they feel that Israel is their state, and that the Jewish citizens recognize their culture, heritage and tradition.”

In the Israel Civil Service, Ramadan is an accepted part of the annual calendar, figured into a combination of vacation and personal days like any other religious holiday, whether Jewish, Christian, Druze, Armenian or Greek Orthodox. Just as certain significant Jewish days – such as the summertime fast of Tisha B’Av, or the week of Chanukah, when kids are off from school—can be taken as personal days, so, too, with Ramadan. Because Islam, unlike Judaism, doesn’t have a leap month, Ramadan’s timing with the secular calendar varies from year to year and can fall in any season.

Muslims observing Ramadan generally require certain accommodations at the workplace. Some ask if they can come in late to eat sahar, the pre-dawn breakfast, or leave early to prepare for iftar, the after-sunset dinner. Representatives from Jerusalem’s municipal water company, Bank Hapoalim, and Hadassah Medical Center all shared with JTA details about the special accommodations they offer for observers of Ramadan.

In Jerusalem, the municipality announced the official start of the month with cannon shots fired from an eastern Jerusalem armory, and continued with shots fired off each day at sunrise and sunset to mark the beginning and end of the daily fast.

The municipality also sponsors an annual online Ramadan quiz that this year drew 800 participants from across Israel. Jerusalem also marks Ramadan by stringing festive lights along the Old City gates and supplying special Ramadan food to needy Arab and Christian families. In addition, various nonprofit organizations host a series of interfaith dialogues and iftar meals throughout the country.

At the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres has hosted iftar meals. On Sunday, he hosted Egypt’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Mustafa Al-Khani, and Jordanian ambassador to Israel Difla Ali al Faiz for the meal. Even Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, was scheduled to hold an iftar meal this week.

The IDF, which has hundreds of Muslim soldiers, primarily Bedouins, observing Ramadan, makes accommodations for them to pray and eat at the designated times, according to Ramiz.

“The army’s H.R. department handles the accommodations, and we also ease their physical training if necessary,” Ramiz said. “If you’re a combat soldier and you run 12 kilometers, you lose a lot of water, so we try to cut down on certain kinds of training, spending more time in classes during the month of Ramadan. Those working desk jobs can go home early for iftar.”

But the Abraham Fund Initiatives’ Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says Israel needs more nationwide celebration of a tradition observed in some way by one-fifth of its citizens. His organization works with one Jewish-Arab city or region each year, organizing a community iftar meal with local Jewish and Arab leaders. This year, the hosts were the Arab mayor of Rahat, a Bedouin town in the Negev, and local Jewish regional leaders.

“We’re not a production company,” Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said. “What we’re trying to do is raise awareness of and attentiveness to these cultural Arab events.”

Khaled Diab, an Egyptian-Belgian journalist currently living in Jerusalem, recently wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post in which he said that Jews and Muslims can find much in common in the fasts that are common to the three Abrahamic faiths. Diab noted that the words for fasting, tzom in Hebrew and saum in Arabic, are similar, as is the holiday etiquette, with non-observant individuals refraining from eating in public.

For Hassan Saym, a former Jordanian who employs about 10 young Arab men at his car wash on Bethlehem Road in the tony Jewish neighborhood of Baka, Ramadan can be a tough time to clean cars. He finds that his employees often have a hard time sustaining the physical labor during Ramadan. Those who are not as strictly observant as their families might think don’t want to bring food from home because they’re expected to fast, and they can’t buy food locally because of the price.

“Some just drink Coke and eat cookies while they’re here, because they can’t afford to buy the local food,” Saym said.

But his Jewish clients get it, Saym added.

“They always ask if we’re working when it’s Ramadan, and will often make do with just an outside cleaning,” he said. “I’m just thankful that Ramadan isn’t during Pesach, when everyone needs their car cleaned.”