Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Sh’lach: Curiosity over assumptions


was one of about 400 people in attendance last week at the NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

An iftar is the delicious, joyous evening meal eaten during Ramadan, when for a month each year Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, encouraging one another to focus even more on God, prayer, good deeds, study, charity, family and community. And NewGround is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based organization that holds yearlong training sessions for Jewish and Muslim high school students and millennials, bringing them together to build real relationships.

NewGround’s iftar not only was a tasty meal together, but an evening of learning about NewGround’s approach to relationship building. Among NewGround’s stated values is “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” 

While listening to the Muslim and Jewish NewGround fellows, I couldn’t help but think what the history of our religions might have been, or anyway what Judaism might have become, if the story told in Parashat Shelach Lecha had gone a different way.  

“Shelach lecha,” God says to Moses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. “Send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people” (Numbers 13:2).  

Moses chooses 12 men — a leader from each tribe — and they return after 40 days with grapes so big it takes two men to carry a single cluster.

The scouts return bearing not only fruit but also tales of who and what they saw. While Israel’s modern Ministry of Tourism logo uses the giant grapes as a symbol of the plentiful reasons to visit the Jewish state today, 10 of the scouts in our Torah story use them to illustrate a more ominous idea — the giant grapes fed giant people: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. And the whole community broke into loud cries” (Numbers 13:32-14:1).  

What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from NewGround’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”? Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of spying on them? Attempted to talk with them, rather than make assumptions about them?  

And suppose they’d done the same with one another, encouraging one another rather than belittling themselves. In one midrash, God says to the doubtful scouts, “I can forgive you seeing yourselves as grasshoppers, but did you know how I made you look to them? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

Indeed, they bring great harm upon themselves. While in last week’s Torah portion, day after day of “nothing but this manna to eat” had some Israelites reminiscing (misremembering?) the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), now the report of the 10 pessimistic scouts has some saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt … ” (Numbers 14:3). Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God kills the 10 scouts and condemns the entire first generation to die off before any may leave the wilderness: “You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days — 40 days — that you scouted the land” (Numbers 14:34). God rewards only the two scouts Joshua and Caleb, imbued by God with ruach acheret, “a different spirit” (Numbers 14:24).  For attempting to encourage rather than frighten the people, they survive to enter the Promised Land with the next generations.

In a 2016 dvar Torah on Shelach Lecha, the esteemed British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed along a teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson about where the 10 dubious scouts went wrong.

They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place. But, according to Rabbi Sacks, Rebbe Schneerson teaches: “That is not what God wants from us. [God] wants us to engage with the world … to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. [God] wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger … ”

No wonder the 10 scouts balked at the challenging future they imagined.

Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rebbe Schneerson, nor does NewGround.

Lest we find ourselves like our ancestors — crying out loud in fear and anger, unable to hear, let alone listen, to one another, longing to return to a time and place that existed only in our imaginations — perhaps we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, the “different spirit,” the angel that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.


Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.

The NewGround Iftar in 2016. Photo courtesy of mjnewground.org

The Ramadan Project


After spending my formative years in Jewish day school, it was only natural that I’d rebel in college: I signed up for a class in the New Testament. Not because I was considering conversion, but because I was at an academic disadvantage. My professors assumed basic literacy in Christianity, while I had learned only about the persecutive aspects of the faith — blood libels, the Inquisition, the Crusades, Passion plays.

I never had such a primer on Islam; it never seemed quite as necessary. But in January the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions (or ban, depending on who’s speaking) on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries heightened debate over the treatment of Muslims. I realized that even those who would not consider themselves Islamophobic or who, like me, know a handful of Muslims, often came to a communal tables with more baggage than information. And that’s even without mentioning the Israel-shaped elephant in the room.

So, this year I decided to use Ramadan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month-long fasting holiday that ends this year on the evening of June 24  — as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect the dots and find the common DNA between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these two ancient faiths.

The internet and my network of friends and acquaintances seemed a good place to start, and both turned up a few good nuggets. For instance, while segments of Torah stories appear in the Quran, only the story of Joseph is told from start to finish, and it often is referred to as “the most beautiful of stories.” And when Muslims are preparing to address a crowd, they recite Musa’s Prayer — named after Moses, known for his leadership despite a speech impediment.

I also attended a June 7 community iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, marking the end of that day’s fast and sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I listened to the presenters — NewGround board members, local city officials and graduates of NewGround’s interfaith fellowship programs — share their stories. As Muslim attendees knelt for Maghrib, the evening prayer, I stood at the back and realized how little I knew.

I did pick up on some comforting similarities. As a language nerd, I noticed that in Ramadan’s traditional greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I barely had to squint linguistically to see a mevorakh (Hebrew for “blessed”). And I had read that the Ramadan fast is known as sawm; the Hebrew word tzom also means fast. My Ramadan project was working its magic already, connecting my Hebrew influences to their Arabic ones.

To guide me further into the semantics of Semitics, I reached out to my childhood friend Shari Lowin, now a professor of religious studies. In one example, she said, there are two words for charity (tzedakah in Hebrew): For Muslims, zakat is like a tithe — a portion of a Muslim’s salary donated to charity — and the language is about “making something pure,” similar to Hebrew’s zakh (shemen zakh, pure oil, is what fueled the miracle of Chanukah).

“According to Muslim scholarly theory,” Lowin said, “giving a portion purifies the rest of your money, makes it yours,” while the other word for charity, sadaqa, is from a root meaning “speak the truth, be sincere,” and denotes a voluntary giving of alms. And Maghrib means “sun” or “west,” phonetically similar to Hebrew words ma’arav (“west”) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

Another friend I worked with about a decade ago, Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel at Patheos.com, filled me in on more worldly similarities between the adherents of our two different faiths — like concerns about assimilation’s impact on her teenage daughter.

“What are the foundations of faith inside of her? Is she strong in those foundations? I love the empowerment and [conversation around] owning your image and story, but I hope she’s still doing her prayers, still fasting, doing whatever is fundamental, and I hope [it] doesn’t get lost along the way,” she said.

The Ali family aims to “be respectful of differences and find similarities,” said Dilshad, whose parents are from India. “We try not to put ourselves in a silo. We are not only friends with people who are Muslim, or only people who are South Asian. I think that is a good model for them, having relationships and friends with people who are different.”

All of this dialogue inspired me, not just to learn more about the Muslim community but to build bridges to it, as well. Here are a few practical ways that I’ve decided to move my own Ramadan project forward — and you can, too.

1. Host Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner and other meals. I’ll account for dietary restrictions around food and alcohol, and strive for accessible conversation about the world, our faiths and our passions. When friends introduced me to my friend Marium, they told me she was “the Muslim Esther,” and that was pretty spot-on. Maybe there’s a “Muslim you” out there, too.

2. Learn about the Quran. Most Jews know very little about the Quran, even though Muslims know stories from the Jewish Bible. What is in the Quran, and how do its stories compare to those in the Torah?

3. Consider my own narrative in light of an interfaith (or multifaith) conversation. What do I need to tell Muslims about Judaism and what do I need to know about Islam for us to understand each other’s stories and be allies for each other’s communities?

4. Learn about programs that use education, dialogue and experiential discovery to connect Muslims and Jews. NewGround runs programs, as well as more in-depth fellowships. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute invites North American Muslims to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Encounter Programs brings Jewish leaders to Israel for “transforming conflict through face-to-face understanding.”

As Dilshad noted, these relationships take honesty and time.

“It’s who you meet and engage with one on one,” she said. “It works slowly. Our world views expand one person at a time.”

Jews part of interfaith effort helping needy Moroccans at Ramadan


Chabad of Morocco joined a Christian-Jewish fellowship and a local Muslim group in an interfaith effort to provide food at Ramadan for thousands of needy Muslim families in the country.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the Muslim group Mimouna, along with Chabad, teamed to deliver 1,500 boxes of food worth some $60,000 to feed 8,000 needy Muslims in Kenitra, Rabat and Sale on Sunday.

Each box contained traditional Ramadan foods, including dates, tea, lentils, chickpeas and other staples. The first-time partnership built on a pilot project by Chabad that last year provided 250 food packages for 1,300 people.

“We are privileged to help support Moroccans in need celebrate the holy month of Ramadan,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, in a statement. “This inspiring initiative serves as a shining model of bridge-building between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and shows that the world’s faith communities can unite around shared values to make a difference for good.”

During Ramadan, a month of introspection, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.

Muslim rioters, Israeli police clash on Temple Mount for second straight day


Muslim rioters protesting visits to the Temple Mount during Ramadan and Israeli police clashed for a second straight day at the holy site.

On Monday, the rioters threw rocks, stones and firecrackers at police officers. They had been stockpiling the weapons in the Al-Aqsa mosque and barricaded themselves inside overnight, according to reports.

Israel Police said they dispersed the rioters.

A small Jewish group has been among the visitors to the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims, during the last 10 days of Ramadan. In recent years, police prohibited Jews from visiting the site during the waning days of the Muslim holy month.

It is the first real violence to occur at the site during Ramadan this year.

 

Egyptian peace plan looks to engage ‘most extreme elements in Israel’


Last year’s Egyptian television series for Ramadan “Harat al Yehud” (Jewish Quarter) displayed nuance and nostalgia toward Egypt’s mid-century “Israelites.”

This holiday season’s “Alqayasar” (The Kingpin) reveals a full-frontal hardening of attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians of Gaza.

“Alqayasar” portrays the evil deeds and shady alliances of a terror cell leader who uses tunnels near Rafa to commute between his hideouts in the Nile Delta and the Gaza headquarters of Islamist groups, where he also meets up with Palestinian mafia dons and hatches a series of plots against the Egyptian homeland.

Much of the action takes place in the North Sinai, where Egyptian forces are in the third phase of a struggle against the local branch of ISIS, dubbed Operation Martyr’s Right by the army chiefs in Cairo. 

Both the Ramadan holiday and the “Alqayasar” series have several more weeks to go, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the show’s virtuous and now digitally savvy Egyptian army will ensnare the fictional kingpin by the time the country celebrates Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the month of fasting.

Less certain, however, is the outcome of efforts by real-life Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, commonly known as Sisi, to quell a Sinai insurgency and motivate the Israelis to conclude a statehood deal with the Palestinians.

Both items are linked in Egyptian strategic thinking. 

One year ago, Sisi told a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute “will eliminate one of the most important reasons relied upon by terrorists to attract people to join their cause.”

Last month, the Egyptian president said his country is willing to exert all possible efforts to make a final peace deal work between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sisi made a direct appeal on Israeli TV channels pledging that, once an agreement is reached, both peoples will be able to overcome the layers of animosity currently separating them, “just as the Egyptians and Israelis have.”

While Cairo and Jerusalem now enjoy unprecedented levels of security cooperation, neither the Egyptian military nor its diplomats have ever reconciled themselves with Israel’s 2004 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. 

At the time, the army expressed fears of the consolidation of a Hamas-controlled entity on the edge of the Sinai and fretted over the possibility that an Islamist Gaza would militarize the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political echelon saw the move as a deviation from the Bush roadmap, which in part reflected the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace initiative. 

As far as Cairo is concerned, events since the withdrawal have proven these pessimistic forecasts accurate. 

Saeed Okasha, in-house Israeli affairs analyst for the quasi-governmental Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sisi’s new initiative is connected to the rise of ISIS militancy — the radical Islamist group claimed responsibility for the October explosion of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai and is believed by many Egyptians to be the likely culprit behind the downing of the EgyptAir flight from Paris in May — and, as importantly, the emergent threats posed by Iran to the Sunni Arab states.

“The IS presence in the Sinai, the provision of weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood from Gaza and the lack of a breakthrough on Palestinian statehood are related problems for us,” Okasha said in an interview with the Journal. 

“But now we are facing [a] new reality where both the Arabs and Israelis don’t trust the Americans to coordinate a peace effort, and the Saudis have joined us in an effort find to a solution that frees us to confront Iran.”

A poll released by the by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya on the eve of its annual conference seems to demonstrate that public opinion in Egypt and the Gulf is aligned with Sisi and Saudi King Salman.  

More Saudis (41.6 percent) and Egyptians (32.1 percent) think the next U.S. president should get behind a regional agreement, rather than force direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which garnered only 18.9 percent approval in the Saudi kingdom and 25.5 percent from Egyptians. 

Both Egypt’s and Jordan’s ambassadors to Israel participated in this year’s Herzliya conference.

“It’s time to activate the Arab Peace Initiative,” said Egypt’s ambassador, Hazem Khairat, referring to the regional framework conceived by the Saudis under the rubric of all Arab states fully recognizing Israel, in return for an independent Palestinian territory resembling something close to the 1967 borders.

“The two-state solution is the only way to end this conflict. There is not much time left, and there is no other alternative,” Khairat said.

Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, thinks regional realities in 2016 have generated positive changes in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. 

“Both face the same threats to their security — Iran, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood — even if the Egyptian order of priorities is the reverse of the Israeli.”

The Al-Ahram Center’s Okasha says Egypt won’t even let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s Defense Minister deter efforts to broker a deal. 

“We think Israeli public opinion will be more convinced by an agreement backed by someone like Lieberman. If you want real peace, you have to do it with the most extreme elements in Israel,” Okasha said.

“And that is what [Anwar] Sadat achieved with Menachem Begin.” 

The hate narrative and Muslims in America


On the sixth night of Ramadan, June 11, I broke my fast at a synagogue during a Havdalah-Shavuot celebration. Around 10:30 p.m., at almost the same time that Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., I called an Uber to get from the Westwood synagogue to my apartment in midtown Los Angeles. The driver took an unusual route. “I’m not going through West Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t want to see all that gay parade stuff.” He was a white, middle-aged, Christian man. A beaded cross dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked me where I was from. I said I was Pakistani. “You don’t look like them,” he laughed and added, “That’s a compliment.”

Let us be frank about what it is. The two most acceptable forms of discrimination in America today are discrimination against gays and Muslims. It is politically, socially, legally acceptable to be a bigot with regard to practicing Muslims and a person’s sexual orientation. In the past six months alone, countless politicians backed by the Christian right have pushed for hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills through state governments. These include bills like North Carolina’s sweeping HB2, which denies even basic legal protections to gay and transgender people. 

At the same time, Muslims in the United States have to tolerate the racist ravings of presidential candidates and television anchors. The word “terrorist” is now reserved exclusively for Muslims, a dubious indignity that the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world must accept as theirs alone. The political causations behind the rise of ISIS are no longer debated, but every time a madman pledges allegiance to it, the rest of the Muslim world is immediately answerable for his motivations. 

There are more than 3 million Muslims in America, and some of them, like some Orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians, do not support gay rights. The route to acceptance has been a morbidly slow evolution across all major world religions, made worse by the lack of political and legal institutions to contradict widely held religious beliefs. 

The four major schools of Islam are in utter disagreement on homosexuality and challenge one another on the legal premise of punishment, if any. Islamic literature has been rife with homoeroticism over the ages, and in modern narratives, progress is being made as global acceptance increases. It is also true that the state of gay rights is most abysmal in seven Muslim majority countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. In yet others, including Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan, homosexuality is legal and LGBTQ rights are improving. 

But is homophobia in Islam relevant to the case of Omar Mateen, a non-devout, possibly gay Muslim man with unproven links to any fundamentalist organization?

Yes and no. It should not be completely ignored that Mateen’s violent motivations might have found their root in his parents’ religion, or that he declared allegiance to multiple (albeit contradictory) terrorist organizations in a last-minute 911 call. Having said this, that cannot be the primary or even secondary point of focus.

Religious leaders at the Islamic Center of Southern California speak about solidarity in the wake of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Amal Khan

Once more, much of the conversation in America disowns what is inconvenient to include in its political and cultural narratives this election year. Mateen was a gay-hating, gun-touting Muslim terrorist with Afghan parents, according to the media narrative. But what Mateen was, was a mentally unstable American terrorist with legal access to assault rifles.  

The only thing that separates Omar Mateen from Adam Lanza, from Aaron Alexis, from James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh, Christopher Harper-Mercer or Dylann Roof is his name. That this point needs to be raised in 2016 America is a humiliating measure of the state of racism in this country. On Saturday night, it was Omar Mateen, born to Afghan parents, who killed 49 people. On the morning of June 12, James Howell, born to white parents and from Indiana, was arrested with a cache of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition in Santa Monica on his way to the West Hollywood gay pride parade.

The fact is that homophobia, like hate, is not a Muslim problem. It is a global problem. Legal and immediate access to automatic assault weapons, however, is solely an American problem.

So, no, America should not get to choose who it owns. America should not get to embrace the Muhammad Alis as its own, but reject the Omar Mateens as somebody else’s. It should not get to turn a debate about its own gun laws, its intelligence failures and its homegrown homophobia into a hate-filled, racist narrative about immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, which is exactly what political opportunists like Donald Trump are now doing.

On June 13, one day after the murders in Orlando, the Islamic Center of Southern California was a champion of common sense and solidarity. In the settling chill of dusk, an interfaith vigil welcomed speakers from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Sikh clergies, gay and straight, who denounced violence, oppression and the war of religions in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Arik Greenberg, founder of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, identified himself as a secular Jew. He expressed concern over a systematically instilled anti-Islamism, likening America today to the climate of hostility in Nazi Germany, when ordinary Germans were brainwashed into believing that there was not a single decent Jew who lived among them. “I see this tactic used by many American leaders, making people believe that if they scratch the surface of any Muslim, they’ll find a terrorist underneath,” he said. 

For over an hour, people in headscarves or kippahs, tattooed women and priests, police officers, gays, lesbians, Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and Christians spoke of a common human dignity. “To the wicked opportunists,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “you are on the side of ISIS because you believe in a war of religions and getting cheap political votes through fear and violence.”

With an array of rainbow flags fluttering behind them, the gathering was solemn. Stephen Rohde, chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), ended the vigil by saying, “It is a matter of our survival as a nation, as a widely decent and good people to stand here together.” 

And stand they did, long after the day’s Ramadan fast broke, and the sun set. When people finally dispersed, it was in the silent spirit of hope, holding white candles and reflecting upon the true diversity of America’s greatness.

What’s cooking? Kataief


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Deep within the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City the Shaheen Restaurant lies tucked away, the smell of cooking desserts luring passing tourists to stop and investigate. A team of young boys efficiently flick pancakes from the hot grill and catch them in a basket under the supervision of their father. What’s cooking? Kataief, a sweet to break the dusk to dawn Ramadan fast.

The rapid approach of Eid Al-Fitr means that Ramadan is almost over. Throughout the holiest month in the Islamic calendar Muslims fast, consuming no food or water, during the hours of daylight. Each evening to signal the end of the vigil families, gather with friends and neighbors to celebrate with the iftar meal. Central to this is the kataief pancakes like those Ghazi Shaheen and his sons have spent the last month cooking.

“We learned this pancake from the grand-grand-grand-father – our family was working (like this) nearly 300 hundred years ago,” Shaheen told The Media Line. In the past mixing the batter was extremely time consuming but things have improved since the introduction of machines to do the work, Shaheen said. But the rest of the work is still done by hand – fortunately Shaheen’s four sons are on holiday and so are on hand to help out.

His boys normally come and work after finishing school for the day like he did for his father from the age of ten, Shaheen said, pointing to a photograph of his father preparing identical pancakes over a grill thirty years earlier.

But his sons don’t seem to mind, “We like to work with our family. We will keep doing this until we go to university,” Nidal, the youngest at 11, said.

Kataief is cooked during the morning in small kebab shops, like Shaheen’s, and collected by shoppers on their way home after midday prayers. Once home the pancake is rolled and stuffed with sweet cream cheese, walnuts or honey and eaten as a dessert. Arab cuisine is famous for its appeal to the sweet tooth, with dishes like knafeh and baklava guaranteed to give you a sugar rush, and the pancakes prepared during Ramadan are no exception.

All day while preparing the kataief Shaheen is fasting, something that cannot be easy surrounded by the smell of browning pancakes. “It’s not too difficult, (though) the first day of Ramadan (can) be hard. But then the next day it will be regular.”

Exactly when the Ramadan fast will end and the small restaurant will go back to cooking lamb kebab for the remainder of the year was not yet clear. As Shaheen explained “We don’t know when it will (end).” Eid Al-Fitr begins when the new moon is spotted in the night sky over Jerusalem by religious leaders – maybe that’ll be tomorrow, maybe the day after, he concluded.

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.”

Temple Mount closed to Jews through end of Ramadan


The Temple Mount has been closed to Jewish visitors until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Israel Police posted the announcement in Hebrew at the site on Tuesday. Ramadan ends on July 17 with the Eid al-Fitr celebration.

The site is closed every year at the end of Ramadan, Israel Police told the Times of Israel.

Palestinians had been granted more access to the Temple Mount for Ramadan, but many of the visits were canceled following rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel.

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.”

Over 50 killed in terrorist attacks on three continents


Terrorists have attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, killing over 50 people according to preliminary reports.

At least one person was killed and several were injured in an attack on a gas factory in Grenoble, France in what French President Francois Hollande said was a “pure terrorist attack.”

At a beach in front of two hotels in Tunisia, multiple gunmen have killed 28 people and wounded at least 39, according to the Tunisian Health Ministry. French, Belgian, Russian, German and British tourists are among the dead. At least one of the attackers was killed by security forces, the New York Times reported. A security source in Tunisia told Reuters that one of the hotels targeted was the Imperial Marhaba.

Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bomb explosion at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait which has killed at least 25 people, according to Sky News.

Although there is no concrete indication that the attacks were jointly coordinated, they occurred at roughly the same time on Friday morning across the three continents. Earlier this week, ISIS urged its followers to increase its attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In France, the decapitated body of a man was found on the premises of the factory near Lyon, and an attacker brandishing an Islamic State flag was arrested, according to the website of the Le Point magazine. Two other people were shown being detained on French television, one of whom is the attacker’s wife.

The victim was reportedly a local business man and the employer of a second suspect detained by police. French reports said the victim’s head was pinned to the factory gate and covered with Arabic writing.

There were explosions. It’s not clear whether they were caused by devices or by the ramming of a car into gas tanks.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he would “immediately” head to the site. Hollande cut short his attendance at a summit of European leaders in Brussels in order to return to Paris.

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.

Israel cancels Gazans’ entry permits for Ramadan following rocket attack


Israel canceled the permits allowing some 500 Gaza Palestinians to enter Israel and pray on the Temple Mount for Ramadan following a rocket attack from the coastal strip.

The coordinator of government activity in the territories, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, told the Palestinian Maan news agency on Wednesday that the visits were canceled because “the security conditionsme around the crossing aren’t stable,” since the rocket landed close to the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.

The rocket fired Tuesday evening landed in an open area near Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located near the Gaza border. The launch set off the Code Red rocket alert, causing the residents of southern Israeli towns near the Gaza border to run for bomb shelters and secure areas. No injuries or damage were reported.

The attack follows several similar ones from Gaza in the past month that are believed to have been fired by Islamic rivals of Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group that governs Gaza. Israel has said it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks originating in Gaza.

“Hamas is responsible for depriving worshipers of prayer in Al-Aksa mosque during Ramadan,” Mordechai told Maan. “I am not saying that Hamas fired the missile, but Hamas is responsible because it controls the Gaza Strip.”

Also in response to the rocket attack, the Israeli military said an Israeli airstrike early Wednesday morning hit the rocket launcher in northern Gaza that fired the rocket at Israel.

Islamic State urges followers to escalate attacks in Ramadan


Islamic State urged its followers on Tuesday to escalate attacks against Christians, Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims fighting with a U.S.-led coalition against the ultra-radical group.

Jihadists should turn the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week, into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shi'ites and apostate Muslims”, Isalmic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an audio message. He urged more attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

“Muslims everywhere, we congratulate you over the arrival of the holy month,” he said. “Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom.”

Adnani also called on Sunnis in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to rise against “tyrannical leaders” and warned them against advancing Shi'ites, pointing to the treatment of Sunnis under a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and in Syria under the Alawites, the Shi'ite offshoot to which President Bashar al Assad belongs.

He said his group was undeterred by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate.

“We will continue, God willing, in our path and will not care even if many nations gang up against us or how many swords we are struck by,” he said.

Adnani also warned U.S. President Barack Obama that Islamic State would retaliate for the attacks against it.

“Obama and your defeated army, we promise you in the future setback after setback and surprise after surprise,” he said.

Sunni tribes in Iraq were joining the militants after the Iraqi government and the United States had failed to bring them into Iraq's political process, Adnani said.

“The Sunni people are now behind the jihadists … the enemies have been petrified by the daily pledges of allegiance by the chiefs of tribes to the Mujahideen,” he said.

In response to the pleading of Iraqi tribal elders, Adnani said, Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given Sunnis working with the U.S.-led coalition and those who were still in the Iraqi army one last chance to repent.

In recent weeks, several major Iraqi tribes in the restive Anbar province announced their allegiance to the militants in recorded videos.

Adnani devoted the bulk of his 29-minute speech to an appeal to Iraqi Sunnis. He said their enemies were Western infidels and Shiites, who wanted to expel them from Iraq and turn it into a Shi'ite state. Iraqi Sunnis were being evicted en masse from areas taken over by Shi'ite militias supported by the Iraqi government, he said.

“Needless to say, you all know the kidnappings, evictions, killings of Sunnis that happen every day in Baghdad,” he said. “Thousands and thousands” were already jailed in prisons in the predominantly Shi'ite provinces of southern Iraq, he said.

Adnani also called on those insurgents fighting the militant group in north and northwestern Syria to stop battling them or face the consequences.

Palestinians given more Temple Mount access during Ramadan


Hundreds of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza will be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount on Fridays during Ramadan.

Israel’s Defense Ministry made the announcement on Tuesday, a day ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month. The Palestinians will also be allowed to visit family members inside Israel and the West Bank, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union has encouraged its members to participate in a letter-writing campaign calling for an end to anti-Jewish harassment on the Temple Mount, a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The campaign by the Jerusalem-based Temple Institute calls on lawmakers to “guarantee the basic freedom and dignity of all citizens.”

“We call upon all Rabbis and Jews of conscience to stand-up and be-counted as their people are attacked and harassed on our holiest site on a daily basis,” said Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute. “Had this type of anti-Jewish sentiment been expressed anywhere outside of the Jewish State, there would have already been outcry and thousands of people would have taken to the streets. The daily incitement and racism demonstrated to Jews has already led to bloodshed and its time that Jewish leaders worldwide take a stand, before more Jewish blood is spilt.”

Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount are not allowed to pray on the site. Jews are routinely harassed there, including by veiled Muslim women who shout insults at the visitors while following them around the site. Israel Police reportedly also hound the Jewish visitors to make sure they are not praying.

In a video spread on news websites, a Jewish visitor last week was prevented by Muslim rioters from drinking from a public drinking fountain on the Temple Mount. A second man who drank from a fountain was arrested by police.

A Knesset committee meeting on Tuesday to discuss allowing an increased Jewish presence on the Temple Mount was halted shortly after it began due to fighting among lawmakers. During the meeting, Arab-Israeli lawmaker Jamal Zahalka of the Balad party warned that “blood will flow” if the status quo regarding Jewish prayer is changed, and lawmakers called each other fascist and terrorist.

What really happened in the battle of Khuzaa, Gaza?


No neighborhood along the eastern half of the Gaza strip — the half closest to Israel — emerged unscathed from the recent 50-day war in Gaza, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead.

But in Khuzaa, a middle-class farming town of around 10,000 in southern Gaza that pushes up against Israel’s border fence, survivors of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground invasion remember a separate kind of drawn-out agony.

During the first four days of the ground war, thousands of terrified civilians in Khuzaa found themselves caught in a tornado of deadly metals — bullets, bombs, shells, shrapnel — with no way to escape. More than in other areas, Khuzaa residents were forced to come face-to-face with armed Israeli soldiers who had taken control of the area.

Based on interviews with these civilians, as well as conversations with IDF soldiers who fought in the area, the Journal has compiled a rough outline of the battle in Khuzaa. None of the soldiers felt they could speak on the record.

Ahmad Al Najjar, 78, described the moment his elderly uncle wandered out into Khuzaa's main street and was shot dead.

IDF soldiers told the Journal they were instructed to fire warning shots at anyone who came too close to them or one of their bases — then to kill them if they came any closer. They said Hamas’ choice of an urban battlefield, and Hamas’ history of deploying plainclothes fighters and suicide bombers, made it impossible to determine who was or was not a threat.

However, more than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, and many more interviewed by Human Rights Watch and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights — non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with operations in Gaza — said they and their neighbors were deliberately targeted by the IDF while trying to flee their homes during the fighting.

The United Nations Human Rights Council suggested a few days into the Khuzaa incursion that both Hamas and Israel may have violated the international laws of war by targeting civilians.

“It is imperative that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said to the council on July 23. “This entails applying the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives; proportionality; and precautions in attack. Respect for the right to life of civilians, including children, should be a foremost consideration. Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Despite repeated requests, spokespeople at the IDF refused to comment on Palestinian witness accounts collected by the Journal.

The IDF’s foreign press branch initially said in a statement to the Journal that the events of the battle in Khuzaa were “currently under investigation” and that “once investigations will be completed, we will be able to supply you with all the information about the different occurrences.”

Later, after additional attempts over several days asking the IDF to respond to Palestinian allegations, the foreign press branch stated: “The events that you requested information about are not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations. If we receive additional details regarding these events they will be looked into again.”

Today, more than one month after the initial invasion, Khuzaa’s residential area is a gray wasteland of crumbled stucco and cement. The air, once sweet, reeks of dust and death. At the edge of Khuzaa, olive orchards have been reduced to piles of sticks and leaves, and shreds of white greenhouses jut like broken wings from sand pits where IDF tanks roamed. All that’s left of the town’s central mosque, one of nine mosques reportedly destroyed in the Israeli incursion, are a dome and a minaret wedged into a mountain of rubble.

The Ebad El Rahman mosque in central Khuzaa, along with an adjacent water tower, was destroyed in the IDF ground invasion.

“This was the best area in all of the Gaza Strip, it was a tourist area — secure and safe, with no problems and good people,” a dazed member of the municipal council told Reuters, standing next to the rubble of his former home. But after the war, he said, “Khuzaa no longer exists. It is like an earthquake hit.”

The ghost town’s demolished exterior also hints at the prolonged human suffering felt here during the first days of the IDF ground operation.

Residents of Khuzaa who were stuck in the city during the messy battles between Israel, Hamas (Gaza’s ruling government party) and other armed Palestinian factions said they tried to arrange an exodus for days. Finally, in small groups, most were able to escape via a dusty farm road on the southeast edge of town — emerging injured, dehydrated and incredulous about the horrors they’d just seen.

More information about their ordeal is likely to emerge as human-rights organizations and a United Nations fact-finding mission sift through the widespread devastation in Gaza and collect more testimony from Khuzaa and other hard-hit areas.

“We don’t know every single story that’s happened so far,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahma, international relations director for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, an NGO in Gaza whose donors include federal agencies from Switzerland, Holland and Norway. “But for us, it’s really important to arrive at the truth. We will only introduce allegations when we are sure that a war crime was committed.”

(Abu Rahma has also been openly critical of human-rights abuses by Palestinian leaders in Gaza. In 2012, he was attacked by masked assailants after he penned an op-ed slamming violence by Palestinian armed groups against Palestinian civilians — and the silence of Gaza authorities, led by Hamas.)

Getting to the bottom of the recent battle in Khuzaa, Abu Rahma said, poses a unique challenge. “In Khuzaa, many people stayed behind,” he said. “So it’s the area where you find the most interaction between the Israeli army and civilians, and for quite a while — four days. That’s why we’re focusing on how civilians in Khuzaa were treated during these days.”

“Clouds of glory”

The Gaza ground incursion began on July 17 as an Israeli mission to take out Palestinian tunnels and rocket launchers used to attack civilian areas. On the first day of the mission, an IDF spokesperson told the Journal that “phone calls were made by IDF representatives to Palestinian leaders in the area to notify the residents of Khuzaa to evacuate the premises.”

Located just a few hundred meters from the Israeli border, Khuzaa has always been on the frontline of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Following the IDF’s brief 2009 ground invasion of Khuzaa, the United Nations found evidence that at least one woman was shot dead there while waving a white flag. At least 16 Khuzaa residents were reported killed in that operation.

This summer’s death toll in Khuzaa is believed to be more than four times as high as in 2009. The Al Mezan organization has counted around 75 deaths inside the town, although it is not known which of those were fighters and which civilians.

“It was the first time Israel attacked this area like that — they didn’t do that before,” the town’s community doctor, Kamal Qdeih, said.  Residents told the Journal that based on past operations, they vastly underestimated the IDF’s intentions in Khuzaa — one reason why thousands of civilians ignored evacuation leaflets, deciding instead to stay home, brace themselves and ride out the attack.

Kamal Qdeih, a doctor in Khuzaa, said he cared for more than 100 wounded residents at once in his small home clinic during the ground war.

Again, on July 20, the IDF said it “informed the citizens of Khuzaa, via telephone and local media, to evacuate the area due to IDF scheduled operations against terror sites and infrastructures in the area.”

But when no bombs had fallen by the night of July 20, hundreds who had fled to Khan Younis, the nearest city — crowding into friends and relatives’ houses and United Nations schools — decided to risk returning home.

Hundreds of Khuzaa residents escaped via one small farm road at the edge of town on July 24, starving, injured and dehydrated after days stuck in the battle zone.

They soon realized their mistake. Residents said that the next day, the IDF bombed craters into the road leading from Khuzaa to Khan Younis, so that no vehicles — including ambulances — could come or go. (An Al Jazeera video report a few weeks later, when fighting had died down, showed this to be true.)

In homes across Khuzaa, electricity was shut off and water stopped running from taps.

In response to an inquiry about the level of threat posed in Khuzaa, the IDF stated: “During the time the IDF forces were in Khuzaa, they exposed many terror sites which were located in central residential areas, including terror tunnels and many weapon caches.”

Daniel Nisman, a military analyst at the Levantine Group and former IDF soldier who participated in Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, said: “Khuzaa, like Shujaiya, is what the Israeli military refers to as ‘the shell’ of Gaza, where the border towns are reinforced and the center is soft. In this context, Khuzaa is the main defense of Khan Younis and east Rafah.”

Like in other neighborhoods where Israel fought Hamas, the initial IDF aerial bombings cleared the way for columns of Israeli tanks and soldiers to more safely enter Khuzaa. According to young Israelis in the battle, the Khuzaa team included soldiers from the Combat Engineering Corps (who specialize in blowing up tunnels), the Paratroopers Brigade and some from the elite Golani brigade.

But they said the majority of Israeli combat soldiers who fought in Khuzaa were from the Givati brigade, the southern infantry brigade trained specifically to fight in Gaza.

As Givati tanks rolled toward Khuzaa, Col. Ofer Winter, the brigade’s commander, famously said in an interview with the Orthodox weekly Mishpacha that “clouds of glory” had guarded the fleet. “Only when the soldiers were in a secure position did the fog dissipate,” he said.

One young Givati soldier, too, told the Journal: “God was with us in every step on the way.”

Mohammed Abu Reeda, 12, peered into a partially destroyed home that IDF soldiers had occupied near their tank staging area.

Once inside Khuzaa, soldiers occupied some of the town’s multi-story, ornately decorated homes — transforming them into bases where they could take turns sleeping, strategizing and watching for Palestinian fighters below.

During various temporary cease fires in August, Khuzaa residents eagerly showed journalists the evidence they’d found of IDF soldiers living in their homes, now trashed and riddled with holes. One boy retrieved a green IDF jacket. Another pointed out a hole in his floor where the IDF had checked for tunnels. Seven-year-old Adam Abu Erjala, wearing a shirt that read “I’m a happy boy,” held out a bag of Israeli bullet casings he’d collected from his cousins’ home and posed with an Israeli mine-clearing device five times the size of his body, which he had found lying in his cousins’ front yard.

Adam Abu Erjala posed with a spent Israeli mine-clearing device he found outside his cousins' house.

Upstairs, in the frilly pink bedroom of Abu Erjala’s cousins, soldiers had drawn maps of the neighborhood onto the girls’ beds in permanent ink.

Adam Abu Erjala, 7, pointed out a map that IDF soldiers had drawn on his cousin's bed.

A pair of reporters who entered an all-girls school in Khuzaa found an anti-tank weapon that Israeli soldiers had left behind in the principal’s office. Stars of David had been spray-painted onto the walls.

Another building on the outskirts of Khuzaa, a partially demolished red-and-white farm house belonging to the Qdeih family, was filled with soldiers’ detritus — a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, an IDF newsletter, snack wrappers, empty toothpaste tubes, rotting tomatoes and heaps of other trash. IDF tanks had ransacked the garden, turning it into a big sand pit by using it as a parking lot for armored vehicles.

But while soldiers were taking up residence in Palestinian homes, panicked civilians were sometimes hiding in homes right next door, just meters away.

“We knew the air force dropped leaflets calling for civilians to evacuate the area, but we also knew some might remain,” a 22-year-old combat soldier in the Givati brigade said. Nevertheless, he was shocked to see so many civilians still in the area when he arrived.

“The most difficult challenge in Khuzaa, in my opinion, was the citizens,” the soldier said. “Most of the fighting was in populated areas that Hamas had turned into a battlefield. And as a result, innocent civilians were injured.”

Multiple IDF soldiers said they were told Hamas was threatening to kill any civilians who left their homes. More than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, however, strongly denied this, and blamed the IDF for refusing to let them leave once fighting had begun.

A Human Rights Watch report released on Aug. 4, based on Palestinian witness accounts, found that IDF soldiers had shot, and sometimes killed, unarmed civilians as they were trying to flee. “The failure of civilians to abide by warnings does not make them lawful targets of attack… since many people do not flee because of infirmity, fear, lack of a place to go, or any number of other reasons,” said the report. “The remaining presence of such civilians despite a warning to flee cannot be ignored when attacks are carried out.”

“Khuzaa is destroyed”

Khuzaa residents sat in the rubble of their homes on the final day of a 72-hour cease fire in August.

One of the oldest men in the village, Mohammed Hussein Al Najjar, a former businessman whose relatives believed he was over 100 years old, wandered out of his home after an Israeli warplane bombed the building next door. “He was almost deaf, so he couldn’t hear us crying for him to come back,” said his nephew, 78-year-old Ahmad Al Najjar, whose dark and wrinkled face was crowned by a red keffiyeh.

Al Najjar said he heard Israeli tank fire outside. The next time he saw his uncle Mohammed, he said the old man was face-down in the road, dead in a pool of his own blood.

“I don’t know why they would do this. They’re going crazy,” Al Najjar said of the Israelis. “I used to believe in peace. But we don’t know anything about peace here.”

The 78-year-old said the Khuzaa invasion was the most horrific battle he’d seen in a lifetime of war.

Because of IDF orders to be suspicious even of apparent civilians, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier in the Combat Engineering Corps who destroyed tunnels in Khuzaa said he and fellow soldiers were forced to shoot an old Palestinian woman coming toward them when she didn’t heed their orders to stop. Even when wounded, he said, she continued crawling in their direction, so they fired again, killing her.

The soldier said he was deeply disturbed by the incident, but that Israeli soldiers had to protect themselves at all costs. While in Khuzaa, he said he was consumed by the omnipresent fear of death. Palestinian bullets were constantly whizzing by — killing one of his friends, the soldier said, and shattering the hand of another.

To effectively destroy the tunnels, IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps had to crawl deep inside them so they could lace them with explosives. They frequently came across Palestinian fighters inside the tunnels, on foot or motorcycle, and killed them on the spot.

The owner of this Khuzaa property said he had no idea how, or with what resources, he would begin to rebuild his house.

However, the young combat engineer said he watched some of his friends shoot indiscriminately at Palestinians in the area without proof they were fighters. He said they also wrote anti-Arab messages on the walls of the homes they occupied.

During a temporary cease fire in late August, evidence of the four-day Khuzaa nightmare was still everywhere in the home clinic of Qdeih, the local doctor, as he spoke to the Journal. His lone cot was streaked in blood; used bunches of gauze littered the countertops and shards of glass covered the floor; a Red Crescent apron lay crumpled in a corner.

Qdeih, a Hamas critic and supporter of the Palestinian political party Fatah, converted his modest Khuzaa home and office into an almost impossibly packed infirmary for more than 100 wounded Palestinians during the long days and nights they were boxed in by fighting, he said.

The first batch of injured was brought to his home after a group of hundreds, including Qdeih, attempted their first escape on July 22.

The group approached the line of Israeli tanks blocking the main road to Khan Younis, Qdeih said, and shouted to soldiers that they were civilians, lifting their shirts to show they weren’t wearing weapons. But, he said, the army began firing at them after telling them over a megaphone that the International Committee for the Red Cross wasn’t waiting for them on the other side, and that they should go home. (Various other witnesses confirmed this account.)

The welcome sign to Khuzaa, a lush farming town in southern Gaza, was cut down in fighting between Israel and Hamas.

According to the doctor, around 30 gravely wounded residents were carried back to his house after the attack. But one was left behind, stuck in her wheelchair: 16-year-old girl Gadir Abu Erjala, who had epilepsy and had received years of medical care in Israel.

Speaking to the Journal weeks later during a cease-fire, the girl’s mother, Hamda, was wracked with guilt about having to leave her daughter in the road. The interview took place in her home — remarkably intact compared to the rest of Khuzaa.

“The tanks were shooting at us and revving their engines,” Hamda said, raising her voice as tears fell onto her hijab. “There is no way we would have survived.”

Hamda said her teen daughter had initially begged not to go outside, but that the family needed to evacuate the girl as soon as possible, as she had run out of medicine. “There were a lot of civilians here, so we didn’t think they would do something like that,” her mother said of the IDF.

Gadir’s brother, Bilal, said he was pushing her wheelchair and approaching the line of IDF tanks guarding Khuzaa when he was shot in the hand. Bilal was forced to let go, and he and his family members — under fire — stumbled too far back to return for Gadir. The young man’s right arm is now wrapped in a thick cast.

Rasan, another of Gadir’s older brothers, said he placed countless calls to the Red Cross in the following days, trying to secure a safe passage with the Israeli army to retrieve his sister. He hoped she might still be alive. But every time he emerged from the house, Rasan said he came under fire again and had to retreat.

The Abu Erjala family lost their youngest sister Gadir, an epileptic 16-year-old in a wheelchair, when they tried to evacuate Khuzaa.

When presented with a detailed account of this alleged incident, the IDF said only that the entire battle of Khuzaa was “under investigation.” When the Journal presented more details about Gadir’s death and asked if the fire that killed her could have come from Hamas, the IDF stated that the entire incident was “not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations.” However, Israeli soldiers, speaking anonymously, said that although they didn’t witness this event, shooting at any Gazan who refused to retreat would be in accord with IDF protocol.

More than a week later, when it was finally safe for the Abu Erjala family to return for their 16-year-old, her corpse was unrecognizable — blown to bits, lying 20 meters from her wheelchair. “She tried to walk toward the soldiers,” Rasan said, his eyes wide and blank.

Her father interjected, furious. “Are there rules against that?” he asked. “Leaving people injured in the road after 10 days?”

Gadir was the light of Abu Erjala household, her mother said, and always made her brothers laugh when they were angry. “We’re missing something from the house,” Bilal said. “We still think this is like a dream. We don’t believe it happened.”

It seems that after this war, nearly every family in Khuzaa has its own tragic story of human loss.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Palestinian mother Faten Qdeih said that after watching her 7-year-old boy killed in the street, she made the impossible decision to leave his body behind and flee with her daughters, still alive. “I would rather I had died than see what I've seen,” she told the paper.

After he escaped Khuzaa on July 24, Mahmoud Ismail, a biomedical engineering student at an Egyptian university, took to Twitter to describe what he saw. “Khuzaa is destroyed… My folks and I came out alive, but I have no explanation as to how or why,” he wrote. (The Journal was not able to reach Ismail for an interview.)

While inside, Ismail said, “I watched from the window in my room, for hours, all the stages of death of a 20-year-old young man.”

The college student described running through Khuzaa with his family, looking for an escape route. “Right in front of my eyes a little boy fell from his mother's arm while she held a white flag in her other hand,” he wrote. “The boy died. She used the flag to wrap him and continued her way with the rest of her children. Horror.”

On July 24, according to the IDF, army planes dropped evacuation leaflets into Khuzaa. “This is part of the IDF's modus operandi to prevent harming civilians,” the army’s foreign press office said. “The leaflets contained messages instructing residents to evacuate areas in which the IDF was to operate. The leaflets were written in Arabic and often included visual aids.”

Another branch of the Qdeih family told the Journal they were still trapped in their basement in east Khuzaa on July 25, badly in need of food and water, when they heard bulldozers crashing into the side of the house and soldiers entering their home upstairs. When the patriarch, 64-year-old Mohammed Qdeih, decided to go upstairs to speak with them, carrying a white flag, his niece Raghad said she watched an Israeli soldier shoot him dead.

The soldier was young, with blonde hair and light eyes that showed “fear and dread,” she said. “He was trembling.”

Raghad said she and her relatives, including women and children, were then held in the house “under an atmosphere of intimidation and horror” for hours as soldiers used it as a base, moving family members into the same rooms from which they were shooting.

She was confused, then, by one small act of kindness by a Druze soldier. “We asked him to bring food for the children, and he brought bread and tuna, but then disappeared,” she said. “But the rest of the soldiers, they were fierce.”

The residents of Khuzaa are also skeptical of Israeli soldiers’ motives in their decision to transport a 75-year-old Palestinian woman to the IDF field hospital on the Israeli side of the border, and later to a hospital inside Israel, to be treated for dehydration.

“It’s confusing,” said Kamal Qdeih, 40, the neighborhood doctor. “Maybe that happened because they want to make the world think they’re OK. But if they’re really humanitarian, they should take care of humans. They shouldn’t kill civilians.”

Hamda, the mother of the epileptic girl who died, was also confused. “Why would they leave a special-needs kid, a 16-year-old girl, in the road, and they care for an old woman?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

Yosef Al Najjar, 55, lives within eyeshot of the Israeli border fence. After his family escaped Khuzaa, he said he returned to their home compound during a brief cease fire to find six Palestinian corpses piled and rotting in the bathroom of his son’s house. Israeli bullet casings were scattered around the home, and a line of bullet holes studded the bathroom wall.

“My son doesn’t want to come back to this house anymore,” Al Najjar said. “He feels there are still souls screaming inside.”

“Khuzaa is a symbol of dignity,” a member of the Al Najjar family wrote a few meters from the bathroom where six Palestinian fighters were found apparently executed.

The human-rights organization Al Mezan has since identified the six victims of the apparent execution as fighters. All between the ages of 21 and 25, the men are “listed as combatants by Al Mezan on our lists,” a spokesman told the Journal.

Both Al Mezan and Human Rights Watch are currently investigating the incident. According to both organizations, if Israel did execute enemy fighters once they were in custody, that could constitute a war crime.

The Israeli army has repeatedly asserted that Hamas is the side committing war crimes by embedding military infrastructure inside civilian areas. For example, battlefield photos and videos released by the IDF show weapons caches and tunnel entrances located in public mosques.

A young Givati soldier who fought in Shujaiya, north of Khuzaa, told the Journal that he saw women and children used as combatants. A boy he estimated to be only about 10 years old came running toward IDF soldiers, the source said, yelling: “Allahu Akbar [God is great]!” After the IDF shot the boy dead, the soldier said they lifted his shirt to find a suicide vest.

But many Khuzaa residents believe the IDF sometimes targeted civilians and city infrastructure not to protect themselves, but to show their strength and avenge fallen Israeli soldiers.

Khuzaa residents set up a tent near their toppled water tower during a brief August cease-fire.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, confirmed to be authentic by the IDF, the army can be seen blowing up a mosque in Khuzaa. Soldiers cheer in the background. “This demolition is dedicated to the memory of three battalion soldiers who lost their lives since the beginning of the operation!” a narrator says in Hebrew, identifying himself as a member of the Givati brigade.

“Soldiers are perfectly entitled to be happy about destroying a tunnel used to carry out attacks against Israel,” the IDF said in a statement to the France 24 news channel.

Col. Winter, Givati's commander, used strong religious rhetoric throughout the war. “History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting [against] the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s forces,” he wrote in a letter to his officers. And in an interview with Israeli media, Winter said of a surprise IDF air assault that killed more than 100 bystanders in Rafah, south of Khuzaa, after an Israeli soldier disappeared: “Whoever kidnaps has to know that he will pay a price. It was not revenge. They simply started up with the wrong brigade.”

The last “checkpoint”

For days at Kamal Qdeih’s home clinic, the wounded from the first mass escape attempt were laid out on every floor surface, waiting to die. Later, speaking to the Journal, survivors of the ordeal said they could see an Israeli soldiers staked out in the house next door through the doctor’s kitchen window.

Over the next few days, explosions rocked the neighborhood, and dozens more wounded were carried to Qdeih’s front door. When the doctor’s own 23-year-old brother, Ahmad, stepped outside to find water, he was killed by a drone rocket that hit just behind the home.

Qdeih’s 12-year-old daughter, Abir, tried to squeeze her neighbors’ open wounds to prevent blood loss. “I was helping my father,” she said. “I was afraid we were going to lose someone. I kept my hand there for as long as I could.”

By the morning of July 24, Qdeih estimates that the group sheltering in his home had reached around 140 people. So he squeezed everyone into a larger basement next door, thinking it would be safer.

But when a tear gas canister came flying through the window, Qdeih decided they had no choice but to try to escape again. “Injured people were lying here for days with no water, no food, no electricity,” he said. “There was one 4-year-old child. If we had waited five more hours to leave, he would have died.”

The doctor said his 9-year-old son, Hamza, told him: “Just go, don’t be afraid. I am going to support you.”

Qdeih had coordinated with the Red Cross and knew ambulances were waiting for them a few kilometers away, on the other side of the Israeli tank perimeter.

Khuzaa families searched through what remained of their demolished homes during various cease fires in August.

(The Red Cross and the Red Crescent reported that they had not, up to that point, been granted a humanitarian passageway into Khuzaa. When a Red Crescent ambulance attempted to enter the battle zone on July 25, one medic was killed and others wounded. By July 26, the Red Cross stated that “many more people in need are still in Khuzaa.”)

So the doctor’s group made one last effort, marching toward Khan Younis down a narrow farming road at the southeast edge of Khuzaa. They dragged their feet in the sand, heavy with heat and exhaustion. Survivors remembered children screaming for water.

When they reached what they called an IDF “checkpoint” on the way out of town, the Khuzaa residents said the Israeli soldiers told them to sit down. Soldiers took photos of them, they said, and peered at them through the scopes of their rifles. And after some time, when the soldiers released the group to walk the rest of the way to Khan Younis, witnesses alleged that IDF soldiers fired many rounds over their heads and near their feet to scare them.

“This was the most sad Ramadan we ever had,” the doctor said.

Members of another group that escaped via the same dirt road that same morning told the Journal that a man in their group, Mohammed Al Najjar, was shot dead by the IDF soldiers at the “checkpoint.” (Testimony provided to the Palestinian rights group Al Mezan described a similar incident.)

Khuzaa resident Khaled Al Karaa, 25, showed a reporter the road where he escaped on July 24.

The farming road where Khuzaa residents fled for their lives is now covered in a mash of cactus, greenhouse tents and tank-churned dirt. A few young men showed a reporter the spot where they said the “checkpoint” shooting had occurred.

“I think they did this to show us they’re strong and can kill us inside our own land,” Khaled Al Karaa, 25, said.

Sixteen-year-old Gadir’s wheelchair, too, sat on the main road to Khan Younis for weeks after she was killed, crumpled and gathering desert dust — another reminder to the residents of Khuzaa of all they had lost.

Islamic State’s appeal presents Jordan with new test


He had a good job and a loving family, but it wasn't enough for a 25-year old Jordanian who abandoned his life of privilege in Amman to join the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Handsome, courteous and highly regarded in his profession as a radiologist, the man, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, disappeared in early August after the Muslim Eid holiday. He did not tell his family where he was going.

He later called his parents from an undisclosed location to say he had “forsaken his life for the glory of Islam”, said a relative. “His father is heartbroken, and his mother is in hospital from shock,” he said.

He is among the first known cases of Jordanians joining Islamic State since the group declared a “caliphate” in June after dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

His story points to the widening support for Islamic State among Jordanian Islamist fundamentalists inspired by its recent advances in countries that border Jordan to the east and north. With that support come new risks for a U.S. ally mostly unscathed by the Middle Eastern turmoil of recent years.

Jordan's powerful intelligence services appear to be deploying their full range of tools to counter the threat. King Abdullah has said the country has never been better prepared to face the radical threat sweeping the region.

Islamic State's gains have sparked a fierce debate among Jordanian Islamists from the ultra-orthodox Salafist movement on whether to back the group, whose brutality has been criticized even within radical Islamist circles.

But buoyed by territorial gains, Islamic State’s sympathizers appear to be winning the argument.

“Many youths have changed their distorted view of the Islamic State after they saw their actions on the ground, their achievements, and how the West has ganged up against it,” a well-known Jordanian militant told Reuters under the assumed name Ghareeb al-Akhwan al-Urduni.

“A DREAM” REALIZED

Since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency against President Bashar Assad. More than 2,000 men, ranging from underprivileged youths to doctors and – in one case – an air force captain, have abandoned Jordan for jihad in Syria, according to Islamists close to the subject.

At least 250 of them have been killed there.

But the Islamic State's recent accomplishments are helping to galvanize support like never before among radical Islamists who dream of erasing borders across the Muslim world to establish a pan-Islamic nation.

It raises the prospect of yet more Jordanians crossing the border to fight, but also the risk of Islamic State sympathizers striking in Jordan itself – a country that has suffered Islamist militancy before, notably bomb attacks on Amman hotels by al Qaeda-linked militants during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The appearance of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph”, calling for the support of Muslims in the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul last June acted like a magnet for young Jordanian Islamists.

“Their dream was setting up the caliphate, and now they see it being achieved. This made people consider very seriously joining, especially since the Islamic State had officially invited them,” said Bassam Nasser, a Jordanian Islamist scholar.

The roots of Islamic State can, in one sense, be traced to Jordan. It was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who founded the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda that would eventually mutate into Islamic State. Al Qaeda has now disavowed the group.

In the impoverished Jordanian town of Zarqa, Zarqawi's birthplace and a traditional stronghold of Islamist fundamentalists, support for Islamic State was on full display during Eid prayers that marked the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in late July.

Scores of men dressed in the kind of Afghan-style clothing often worn by radical Islamists waved Islamic State's black flag as they gathered in an open field to listen to Jordanian Islamist Sheikh Amer Khalalyeh praise the group.

“Oh Baghdadi, you who has spread terror in the hearts of our enemies, enlist me as a martyr,” chanted the sheikh over a microphone. The footage was captured in a video posted on YouTube.

“SLEEPER CELLS”

In the assessment of one senior regional security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Jordan could be home to “hundreds if not thousands of potential sympathizers” who could turn into “potential sleeper cells and time bombs”.

The roots of radicalisation in Jordan mirror those commonly cited as its primary cause across the Middle East and include a lack of political liberty and economic opportunity.

King Abdullah, a steadfast U.S. ally who has safeguarded his country's peace treaty with Israel, is seeking to ease concerns in Jordan about the threat posed by Islamic State.

“I am satisfied with the preparations of the armed forces and security agencies. We had planned for surprises several months ago and we were ahead of others. I can assure you -politically, securitywise and militarily our position today is stronger than in the past,” he told politicians.

In an indirect reference to Islamic State, he warned Jordanians not to fall prey to outside parties seeking to exploit their grievances.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian intelligence services have tightened security around sensitive government areas, stepped up surveillance of Islamist fundamentalists and arrested activists seen as a threat, diplomats and officials say.

At least a dozen people have been arrested for expressing support for Islamic State on social media.

It is a new test for the Jordanian security services, which have been a major U.S. partner in fighting radical Islamists.

Jordan's approach to confronting the risk has set it apart from some other Arab states. Its dependence on sophisticated intelligence gathering rather than arbitrary arrests have been credited for sparing Jordan the kind of vendetta-fueled Islamist insurrections seen in states such as Egypt and Syria.

The authorities last month released a prominent Islamist scholar, an influential figure in militant circles, who is one of the leading Islamist opponents of Islamic State.

Sheikh Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi's release has added an influential voice to the debate, but also revealed divisions among Jordan's previously cohesive hardline Islamist community of ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslims.

Maqdisi has mocked Baghdadi's caliphate and expressed outrage at the brutality unleashed by Islamic State.

“It is giving our jihad a bloody texture that we cannot accept. These images of decapitations are painful. This is something we cannot accept, nor Allah (God). Mercy with the infidels dominated during the spread of Islam,” he said this month in an audio message.

That has triggered an avalanche of attacks by Islamic State supporters who have shown none of the deference usually reserved for senior scholars such as Maqdisi. They say he was released not because he had served out his five-year jail term, but with a specific remit to attack Islamic State.

The row has sparked verbal and physical conflict. Two radical Islamists who spoke out against Islamic State's decapitations and indiscriminate killings of Shi'ite Muslims were recently physically beaten by the group's supporters.

Islamic State's black flag was also raised in June by supporters in the historically volatile city of Maan, a tribal stronghold of over 50,000 people about 250 km (156 miles) south of the capital.

Here, crosscurrents of crime, smuggling and tribal disaffection are a combustible mix for the government, which is resented for neglecting the area's development. That has provided fertile ground for Islamist recruitment.

But Mohammad Shalabi, a militant Salafist from Maan who has encouraged Islamists to go to Syria to fight, said Jordan was not a target for Islamic State.

“The Islamic State … have no interest in targeting Jordan. When I have not consolidated my presence firmly enough in Iraq and Syria I cannot move to Jordan,” said Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. He spent 10 years in prison for militancy including a plot to attack U.S. troops in Jordan.

Shalabi, a respected figure by locals in the city who mediates with tribal chiefs in disputes with the authorities, said his followers had no interest in destabilizing Jordan, unless the government provoked them. “If we felt, God forbid, that injustice is going to befall us or that the circle of injustice is expanding, we will not sit with our hands tied.”

Editing by Tom Perry and Will Waterman

Iran leader calls Israel ‘rabid dog,’ urges arms for Palestinians


Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday called Israel a “rabid dog” for its attacks on Gaza, and urged Muslims to arm Palestinians to enable them to counter what he termed genocide.

About 1,087 Gazans, most of them civilians, have been killed in 22 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. As well as 53 Israeli soldiers killed, three civilians have died as a result of Palestinian shelling.

In a speech marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Khamenei criticized the United States and European countries for what he said were their efforts to limit the military capacity of Palestinian fighters in the enclave.

Of Israel, he said: “This rabid dog, this rapacious wolf, has attacked innocent people and humanity must show a reaction. This is genocide, a catastrophe of historical scale.”

“They have been pounding innocent people day and night and these men women and children are defending themselves with minimum means, and now Americans and Europeans want to take even that away … so that those merciless beasts could pound without qualm.”

Khamenei denounced what he said was a ruling by U.S. President Barack Obama to disarm Palestinians – an apparent reference to U.S. opposition to efforts by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, to obtain weapons such as missiles and rockets. Washington views Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Khamenei said Iran took the opposite view about arming Palestinians.

“Everyone, whoever has the means, especially in the Islamic world, they should do what they can to arm the Palestinian nation … the Zionist regime deeply regrets starting this (war) but has no way out.”

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 with the aim of halting rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies. It later ordered a land invasion to find and destroy the warren of Hamas tunnels that criss-crosses the border area.

Tehran is at loggerheads with Western powers on a range of foreign policy issues including its nuclear program and its support for Hamas, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant movement Hezbollah.

Khamenei's speech to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Tehran was broadcast live on state television. Khamenei was accompanied by senior government officials.

Reporting by Mehrdad Balali; Editing by William Maclean and Robert Birsel

Choose Life: Jews and Muslims working for peace together in Israel


While violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated in recent weeks, a small group is attempting to keep dialogue open between the disparate groups. 

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, 57, Rabbi Shaul Judelman, 35, and a growing number of Israeli West Bank settlers and Palestinians have, since February, been running a center for dialogue and nonviolence training, called Shorashim, based between Gush Etzion and Bethlehem on private Palestinian land. A core group of about 10 locals, including Schlesinger and Judelman, coordinates interfaith dialogue programming for families, schoolchildren, women and local leaders, including a summer camp, language learning and cultural exchanges.

In response to recent developments in the region — the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian teen, military action in Gaza, rockets fired on both sides — the group held an interfaith break-fast on July 15. 

The initiative, called Choose Life, took advantage of a coincidence of the calendar: the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz fell on the 18th day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The event was billed by the organization as “a day of collective reflection for all who feel affected by the violence to join together.” The group asked participants, even those who would not normally fast, to fast as a hunger strike against the violence.

Schlesinger and Judelman, American expats living, respectively, in the Alon Shvut and Bat Ayin settlements, have each spent many years pursuing interfaith dialogue, working with Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Christians and Jews. 

They gathered with more than 100 participants, first at an intersection in Gush Etzion and then at the farmhouse of Ali Abu Awaad, a local Palestinian resident who has been working alongside Schlesinger and Judelman at Shorashim. The group broke fast together over a kosher and halal dinner, to sounds of music and prayer, as the sun set. 

Schlesinger spoke to the group about being an Israeli and a Zionist who had once lived blissfully unaware of his Palestinian neighbors, until he realized that insularity is dangerous. 

Also speaking at the event was Hadassah Froman, widow of Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi known for promoting interfaith dialogue and coordinating discussions with Palestinian religious leaders during his lifetime. 

Judelman read psalms and played music as well. 

The event was promoted on Facebook, which spawned similar gatherings around the world on the same day; approximately 2,400 people RSVP’d on Facebook. Rabbis and imams from Israel, London, Paris, Montreal and across the United States reported back to Schlesinger about the success of their events, in which Jews and Muslims came together to eat, pray and share in conversation. Three churches in the U.S. participated as well: Oakbrook Church of Reston, Va.; More Church of Amarillo, Texas; and The Perfecting Church of Sewell, N.J.

The response to the events was overwhelmingly positive. 

Of an event held in front of the White House, attended by Jews and Muslims, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said, “Some of the Muslims who participated happened to have just been walking by and [saw] it, and a few were moved to tears by seeing people come together.”

Rabbi David Jaffe of Sharon, Mass., reported on an event held at the Islamic Center of New England, which about 50 people attended. “The best part is that a large group, evenly split between Muslims and Jews, wants to continue meeting to listen to each other’s perspectives and experiences with [the] Israel-Palestinian conflict and think about joint action,” he said. 

The flagship event in Gush Etzion generated similar responses. 

“This was the most hope-inspiring place I have been present at in recent times,” said Noa Ilay-Shilo of Jerusalem. 

“In a week filled with sirens, tragedies, rockets, bombardment and war, it was really uplifting to see something with so much promise and hope,” said Rabbi Jason Herman of the West Side Jewish Center in New York, who attended the event. 

“There was a lot of border crossing going on there in many unexpected ways. … There was a group of leftist peace activists who [said] this was the first time they ever came to an event run by settlers. They had done many dialogue groups with Palestinians before but had never wanted to engage settlers. Feeling they needed to support any effort that would get settlers to see the other side, they acknowledged that they, too, were now hearing someone on the other side,” Herman said.

Choose Life was a product of the general feeling of frustration in the community given recent events, according to Schlesinger. 

The kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel — occurred just a little more than a mile from the Shorashim center, and news of the incident broke just 30 minutes after Judelman and Schlesinger had convened a gathering of families for one of their regular programs. 

The kidnappings “set off events, which … could lead us to horrible places again,” Judelman said. 

Judelman and a group from Shorashim paid a shivah call to Naftali Frenkel’s family on the morning of July 5, as the family mourned the death of their son. One of Judelman’s Palestinian partners at the organization had sent an anonymous letter of condolence on behalf of their group to the Frenkels, resulting in the Frenkels inviting Shorashim’s interfaith delegation to sit shivah. 

“It was very powerful to walk into the tent of over 100 visitors and sit, face to face, with the incredible parents, and see the courage and true strength of heart of both our Palestinian partners and the family,” Judelman said. “It is a glimmer of the painful hope that we hold onto here, and is at the heart of what we are trying to nurture and grow in the activities at Shorashim.” 

Schlesinger, who has been working intensively on interfaith dialogue for the last 12 years, came to Shorashim after returning full time to Gush Etzion in June 2013. He had lived in Alon Shvut from 1980 to 2013, and 12 years ago began opening his home to Evangelical Christians who felt a deep connection to Israel. He has also developed a seminar for the local yeshiva, in which Christians study religious texts alongside Jewish students. 

In 2005, Schlesinger was sent as an emissary of Yeshiva University to the Jewish community in Dallas, where he’d spend part of the year coordinating programs. For nine years, he made a point of reaching out to clergy of differing faiths in the area, which culminated in developing with a like-minded pastor a program called Faiths in Conversation, sponsored by the Dallas-based Memnosyne Institute.  

“I worked to create dialogue that was deep and meaningful. I insisted that dialogue focus not only on our commonality, but rather that we endeavor to learn from and to be enriched by each other’s theological uniqueness,” Schlesinger said. 

That same purpose drives Schlesinger’s efforts at Shorashim, where he hopes events such as Choose Life will keep the lines of communication open, generating some measure of understanding. 

SodaStream fires Palestinian employees in Ramadan fast dispute


The SodaStream company reportedly fired 60 Palestinian employees from its West Bank plant over a dispute on breaking the Ramadan fast.

The workers were fired earlier this month, the WAC-MAAN trade union representing the Palestinian workers told The Marker, a business newspaper associated with the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The evening shift workers reportedly received dismissal notices a day after complaining that the food they received to end the daily sun-up to sundown fast during the Ramadan holy month was not enough. They are prohibited from bringing their own food into the plant due to the observance of kosher laws there.

On the evening they complained, the workers were sent home with promises that the issue would be resolved, according to the Marker. They received the termination notices the following day.

SodaStream told the Marker in a statement that the workers were dismissed because they called a wildcat strike, which the company said was without cause.

“SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum proudly presents the plant as an oasis of coexistence between peoples, but the reality is very different,” WAC-Maan Jerusalem coordinator Erez Wagner told The Marker.

SodaStream has been in the news in recent months following the signing of actress Scarlett Johansson as a spokeswoman and the ensuing controversy over its West Bank factory. Johansson resigned as a global ambassador for Oxfam over her position with the company, which employs Jewish and Palestinian workers in Maale Adumim.

For murdered teens, revenge is not enough


When I first heard the tragic news that the three kidnapped Israeli boys had been murdered by Palestinian terrorists, my immediate instinct was to cry out for revenge. What other sentiment could I have? How else to respond to such cruelty? Should we not punish the murderers and their Hamas leaders so as to deter future attacks?

This seems to be the general sentiment here in Israel, where, over the past two weeks, I have seen a nation go from prayer to grief to understandable anger.

Since the day of the abductions, the country prayed for the boys to return home. Somehow, we all thought, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would find a way. But they didn’t. When the three dead bodies were finally found, the country went into that familiar chaotic emotion that blends grief with rage.

You grieve with one side of your heart, you scream for punishment with the other. This instinct to punish is a survival mechanism that dates from the beginning of time. Punishing evil is a way of keeping order, of making sure that the forces of good prevail.

Unrestrained evil is the biggest threat to the survival of our species, and when that evil is done in the name of God, as so often happens in the Middle East, all hell breaks loose, all rules go out the window.

This is what concerns me about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial response to the murders: He’s playing by the usual rules. You kill and I kill you back. Brutal meets brutal. “Hamas will pay,” he declared, and sure enough, one way or another, the IDF will make sure that Hamas pays.

But why are we so sure that the best way to punish Hamas is through the violence they revere? Why are we so sure that violence, even justified violence in the name of justice, is the thing that will hurt them the most?

Don’t get me wrong. We need to find the murderers and punish them. We need to inflict pain on the leaders of Hamas to discourage future attacks. This is infinitely wiser than rewarding them by releasing terrorists in return for hostages.

The problem with this standard kind of punishment, however, is that it doesn’t go deep enough. If we really want to punish the murderers and the ideology they represent, we must introduce something new into the picture: God.

The Hamas charter preaches killing in the name of God. This is a desecration of God’s name. We must turn the tables on the religious murderers and accuse them, loudly and publicly, of desecrating God’s name.

We must shame and humiliate the God-driven killers by using their own language.

“I can assure you that Allah does not want innocent students to be murdered,” Netanyahu must say to the leaders of Hamas. “To suggest otherwise is the ultimate blasphemy.”

Bibi must stop worrying about the Western media and the Western world, and speak directly to Muslims. He must tell them the truth: “The Quran did not sanction the deaths of these three boys.”

In this holy period of Ramadan, Bibi must be relentless and fearless with this message. He must tell the murderers that when they took the lives of these boys, and ripped out the hearts of their families, they also ripped out the heart of Allah.

“Yes, Allah is great,” Bibi must declare. “He is great because He values life, the life of all His children. You, who murder in the name of Allah, owe Him repentance. How will you repent?”

Bibi and others must preach in the name of a loving Allah with the same fiery passion as those who preach in the name of a hateful Allah.

This is bigger than terrorism. It’s bigger than the rules of crime and punishment. It’s bigger than the secular values of law and order.

This is, above all, about God, and helping the loving God win.

This loving God came up in a meeting I had in Ramallah last week with a Palestinian spokesperson. My friend Felice Friedson, who runs a Middle East news service called The Media Line, had arranged the meeting. After a long conversation that was full of polite talking points, I decided to take a chance. I looked him in the eye and said: “You and I have the same father, Abraham. We are children of the same God. We are all created in His image. Why is this not part of the conversation between our people?”

He seemed taken aback by my bluntness.

It felt odd that after a long discussion of politics, I would bring up God. But it got his attention. He nodded quietly. It was obvious that he took the notion of God seriously.

Here’s the point: This is a region where God is taken very seriously. Especially for those who kill in the name of God, nothing is bigger than the Almighty.

We must fight these killers not just with lethal missiles, but with lethal messages.

God-driven murderers who are now rampaging through much of the Middle East must be universally accused, loudly and relentlessly, of dishonoring their own God.

Nothing can hurt them more.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

More Palestinians visiting Israel during Ramadan


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Palestinians are torn between being happy that many have received permits to visit Jerusalem and Israel during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, and being concerned for the West Bank shops which will lose a great deal of business to stores in Israel.

Ramadan is considered the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Religious Muslims all over the world fast from sunrise to sunset. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid Al Fitr where they visit relatives or take a few days off to travel.

On a recent morning, dozens of people were gathered in the Ramallah Liaison office to collect their Israeli permits. Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel without a special permit. During Ramadan, Israel significantly eases restrictions to allow Muslims to visit Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims. Israel has already issued 10,000 permits for Palestinians and the number is expected to grow.

While in Jerusalem, many Palestinians will make the 45-minute drive to the beach in Tel Aviv, or visit Israel’s amusement parks and tourist attractions.

“These numbers would have been multiplied by 10 if we didn’t send out the permits to the local municipalities.” Ghassan Safi, the head of the Liaison office in Ramallah told The Media Line. Due to the large numbers of permits granted in Ramadan, the liaison offices started sending out the permits to the local municipalities in order to ease the pressure.

“My husband and I got a permit for a month, but my son was denied one. We will try to apply again for him. I hope there is still time,” Salma Assi, a 37-year-old employee in a Palestinian company told The Media Line. On Fridays in Ramadan all women and men over 60 years old, are allowed into Jerusalem without a permit.

Assi said that she will go to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray and to the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa to enjoy the beach at night.

Jamal Diab a 25-year-old Palestinian Authority (PA) employee only received a permit for 4 days.

“I followed up with them (the Israeli authorities) and asked to have a permit for 30 days”, Diab told The Media Line. Diab can’t wait to go to the beach with his wife if both of them are granted a permit for the end of Ramadan.

These trips to Israel may be spiritually significant and fun, but they are also costly. Between transportation, entry fees, and food, a one-day trip can cost a family several hundred dollars. Diab says he will bring food from home and only buy drinks and juice in Israel, hoping to keep the tab under $100 for the day.

He might go shopping as well, “I heard that Israeli shops granted special discounts for West Bankers last year and I want to use them,” Diab said. 

Mohammed Etewi, a 40-year-old driver, received a permit this year to visit Jerusalem for the first time in 12 years. Along with his wife and daughter he came to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

“The atmosphere is really amazing; we stayed until it was time to break the fast and ate with the rest of people. We really enjoyed it”, Etewi told The Media Line.

Etewi works for the PA, and earns about $600 each month. He says he wanted to go to the beach, but didn’t because he couldn’t afford it. His trip to the mosque cost about $60 for transportation and a few souvenirs.

“The prices are expensive in Jerusalem, so I only bought ka’ek (a round bread topped with sesame seeds) and falafel, along with some decorations from Ramadan and a few toys to my other kids at home”, Etewi told The Media Line.

Beyond the cost, some Palestinian activists say that Palestinians should be spending their money locally, not inside Israel.

“Last year around this time, we all read about the money that was spent by Palestinians when they got permits and visited areas inside Israel,” Hala Shoabi told The Media Line. “This year, we decided to do something about it.”

A group of Palestinians from Ramallah and Jerusalem, along with Arab citizens of Israel from Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, and Acre have planned an awareness campaign to encourage Palestinians to buy from only Arab-owned shops. They are compiling a list of shops, restaurants and coffee-shops in Israel owned by Arab citizens of Israel.

A group member told The Media Line that they believe that Israel profits from the permits economically.

”The economy in the West Bank is very restricted and Israel decides what it allows into our markets,” Shoabi said. “With such a strong Israeli market and economy, it is already hard for our market to compete. So the least we can do is not help Israelis further especially in the holy month of Ramadan”, Shoaibi told The Media Line.

However, Safi from the liason office believes that Israel’s first priority is security,

“Tourist and economic goals might follow, but if there was a problem in one permit, Israel will not ease the process of giving permits. Last year, the situation was much calmer than it is today,” Safi explained.

Palestinian merchants say the permits are taking away their livelihood. Elias Rishmawi, a clothes shop owner in Bethlehem says many Palestinians buy their holiday clothes in Israel, rather than in Bethlehem.

“We wait for these high seasons when people shop for their festivities. However, Israel takes all of our profit by these permits”, Rishmawi said.

Nevertheless, Palestinian officials say they will never interfere with people’s wishes to go to Jerusalem.

“Our policy in the Civil Administration is to ease the burden caused by [Israeli] occupation. We will never put checkpoints to prevent people from going to Jerusalem just to help merchants make profit,” Safi said. “We help merchants by trying to ease the restrictions imposed on them and not by rejecting people’s right to obtain a permit.”

The activists have launched a campaign on Facebook asking Palestinians not to buy Israeli products. A widely shared photo on Facebook reads, “I have a permit but will not buy Israeli products”, another reads “boycott your occupation”.

However, others insist that they want to use the permit to shop. Omar Hassan, a 27-year-old university employee says that shopping in Israel is more cost-effective, as the goods are better-quality.

“You pay a bit more money for clothing but you can still use it for a long period on time. Don’t tell me to support the national product, tell our merchants to have mercy on us,” Hassan said.

The activists encouraged the listed merchants to offer discounts to Palestinians, “We are aware people search for the cheapest prices that sometimes are offered by the bigger chains in Israeli markets, but hopefully people will try to avoid buying from Israeli stores,” Shoaibi added.

Palestinians flock to Jerusalem as Israeli restrictions eased


Israel has unexpectedly eased restrictions on Palestinians looking to visit Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, saying improved security meant it could let in thousands more from the West Bank.

Israeli officials said on Wednesday they had lowered the age limit for men wanting to visit al-Aqsa mosque in the old city to 40 from 50 and had also handed out seven times more permits to Palestinians between the ages of 35 and 40.

Religious authorities said up to half a million people visited the third holiest site in Islam on Tuesday night, many of them from the nearby West Bank, as visitors and pilgrims flowed through the checkpoints on Jerusalem’s Eastern flanks.

“I’m rejoicing and so happy to be in Jerusalem after 10 years of not visiting,” said 42-year-old Mohammed Rashid, from the West Bank town of Yatta, sipping a midnight coffee in a brightly lit old city arcade.

The Israeli Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories’ (COGAT) said that whereas last Ramadan it had handed out just 16,700 entry permits, this year it had distributed 123,514, and had also slashed the age limit.

A COGAT spokesman said the change was “due to the security situation”, adding that Israel wanted “to support and strengthen the economy and allow Palestinian’s freedom of religious worship in the maximum”.

However, the new rules only apply for the last few days of Ramadan, after which the old restrictions come back into force. “Why am I allowed in now, but next week I’m not?” Rashid asked.

The Old City’s stone streets, normally echoing caverns hinting at isolation and hard economic times by night, were a thick flow of pilgrims on Tuesday night, coursing past stalls of traditional cross-stitched dresses, prayer beads, spices and sweets.

“It’s not a question of the number of permits, but why permits are needed at all,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee.

Israel imposed a network of checkpoints and built a broad separation barrier across the West Bank after the eruption of Palestinian uprising beginning in 2000, preventing most West Bankers from entering the country.

Over 1,000 Israelis and several thousand Palestinians died in the violence which petered out mid way through the decade.

Reporting By Noah Browning

Egyptian actors, told they were on Israel TV, turn violent [VIDEO]


Egyptian actors on a hidden camera television show reacted violently upon being told they were being aired on an Israeli TV channel.

Excerpts from the show, part of satellite TV channel Al-Nahar’s special Ramadan programming, were translated and distributed this week by MEMRI-the Middle East Media Research Institute.

In one show, Egyptian artist Ayman Kandeel attacks the producer, who had identified himself as Israeli, and slaps the host, causing her to fall to the floor.

Realizing he has been pranked, Kandeel tells the host that she brought it on herself and offers to rub lotion on her back where she has been hurt.

Actor Mahmoud Abd Al-Ghaffar also reacts violently, pulling a producer by his hair and fighting with other staff members.

“If you weren’t a girl, the moment you told me you were Jewish … I hate the Jews to death,” he said.

“We are all Egyptian. Long live Egypt,” the show’s host says.

In another episode, Egyptian actress Mayar Al-Beblawi calls all Israelis whiners and complains that all they do is “continue to cry over the Holocaust, or whatever they call it.”

The show’s host later praises the actors, saying “I didn’t know there could be such patriotism, but it exists in every Egyptian who breathes the air of this country.”

[Warning: This video contains explicit content]

From Ramadan to Elul: a California Chasid’s spiritual journey


For Lee Weissman, a Breslov Chasid in Irvine, Calif., the recent onset of Elul caps a spiritual journey he began a month ago with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Weissman, a teacher at a Jewish day school in Irvine and a scholar of Southeast Asian religions, says similar themes run through Ramadan and Elul, the Hebrew month of repentance, charity and extra prayers leading up to Rosh HaShanah and the High Holidays. And he says his close ties with local Muslims has helped to put him in the “correct” frame of mind to begin his own month of penitence and prayer.

He recalls attending a talk about Ramadan given a few years ago by an imam in Orange County.

“It was a very bizarre experience—he talked about different levels of the soul, about the animal soul. It was classic chassidus. He could have been talking about Elul,” Weissman said, using the Ashkenazi intonation.

Weissman, 56, says that in the past several years, as Ramadan has coincided with the Jewish High Holidays (two years ago) and with Elul itself (last year), the similar themes have added richness and depth to his own spiritual quest.

“Everybody knows about the fasting part of Ramadan, but there is so much more to it than that,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing experience—people try to give additional charity [the Arabic word ‘zaikai’ is nearly identical to the Hebrew ‘tzedakah’], they try to add extra prayers and they try to concentrate on them, and they try to think about God’s plan for the world and how they can serve Him more completely. That is exactly what Elul is supposed to be for us.”

Weissman says he was attracted as well to the Ramadan ideal of community—an entire society of people working together on their character traits and focusing on repentance. He quotes a Koran verse about Ramadan that refers to a month of repentance.

“So my Elul has absolutely become Ramadan-ized. I now take Elul as a much more complete experience, not just as a lead-up to Tishrei [the month of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur],” he said. “That could even include fasting; I’m not sure yet. Fasting is certainly a legitimate Jewish part of the teshuvah process.”

Weissman says that although his first exposure to religious Islam came while conducting graduate research in southern India in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until he became Orthodox in his Jewishness that he developed a personal appreciation of Islam. Especially attracted to Judaism’s concern with peace, tzedakah and peaceful relations with others, he forged relationships with Muslim students at the University of California, Irvine, during the difficult years of the second intifada in the early to mid-2000s.

Two occurrences in the past 10 years started him on the path to appreciating Islam, he says.

“The Ashkenazi style of selichot always left me feeling a bit dry spiritually speaking,” Weissman said. “So when a Sephardic community developed here in Irvine, I took an interest in their customs, and especially in the full month of selichot prayers, which were much more powerful to me.”

Also, Weissman became involved with the Muslim Students Association at UC-Irvine. In much of the Jewish community, the group is known for its members’ verbal disruptions and heckling during a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at a campus event in February 2010. Several students involved in the outbursts were arrested and are on trial for conspiracy to disturb a meeting. The Muslim Students Union subsequently was suspended temporarily by the university.

For Weissman it was a learning opportunity.

“There was a lot of tension between them and the Jewish students on campus, and I wanted to see what it was all about,” Weissman told JTA. “I’m a generation older than most of the students, which already made me a bit less threatening, and I’m religious, so I could really empathize with some of the challenges and struggles with drinking and sex that religious Muslim students face in an American university setting.”

Weissman blanches when asked if he is a Zionist—though he is not anti-Zionist, he says he is uncomfortable with the triumphalism and nationalism of modern-day Israel. He stresses that his relationship with Muslim students does not touch on politics—“it’s not where my head is,” he says. But like most things related to Arabs and Jews, politics worked its way in.

Weissman recalls a Muslim student at his house on Shabbat picking up a bencher on the table and noticing in the English translation that the Grace After Meals is about giving thanks for the Land of Israel.

“He asked me why that is and we talked about it,” Weissman said, “then all of a sudden the student got it.

” ‘Wait a second. Israel’s like a holy place!’ ” he remembers the Muslim student saying. “That was a concept he could understand. He couldn’t understand why Jews had to [in his opinion] take a country away from other people in order to make really great cell phones, but he could relate to the idea of a holy land.”

Weissman says his relationships with the students also has had a positive effect on campus.

“Once they felt they had a friend in the Jewish community who wasn’t interested in politics or fighting, they were able to hear some of my concerns,” he said. “For instance, they decided last year not to host Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an openly anti-Semitic Islamic preacher, at UCI this year because it wasn’t the image they wanted to spread of Islam and of Muslims. That was their decision. I had nothing to do with it, but it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the true relationship we’ve formed.”

With the start of the 2011-12 academic year at Irvine, Weissman says he will continue to befriend Muslim and Jewish students on campus, but for the next month he will concentrate on transposing the values of Ramadan—charity, prayer, penitence and introspection—onto the Jewish scorecard.

“I think the Jewish community is terrific, but I also think we’ve got a lot to learn from the Muslim community here,” Weissman said. “Many people take their religion very seriously, they go to mosque every day, they pray more and are more careful about how they speak to people. That ethical dimension is very inspiring to me.

“If I can be encouraging to others, I certainly try to be. And I take encouragement from them, too.”

From Ramadan to Elul: A spiritual journey


For Lee Weissman, a Breslov Chasid in Irvine, the recent onset of Elul caps a spiritual journey he began a month ago with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Weissman, a teacher at the Tarbut v’Torah Community Day School in Irvine and a scholar of Southeast Asian religions, says similar themes run through Ramadan and Elul, the Hebrew month of repentance, charity and extra prayers leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days. And he says his close ties with local Muslims have helped put him in the “correct” frame of mind to begin his own month of penitence and prayer.

He recalls attending a talk about Ramadan given a few years ago by an imam in Orange County.

“It was a very bizarre experience — he talked about different levels of the soul, about the animal soul. It was classic chassidus. He could have been talking about Elul,” Weissman said, using the Ashkenazi intonation.

Weissman, 56, says that in the past several years, as Ramadan has coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days (two years ago) and with Elul itself (last year), the similar themes have added richness and depth to his own spiritual quest.

“Everybody knows about the fasting part of Ramadan, but there is so much more to it than that,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing experience — people try to give additional charity [the Arabic word ‘zaikai’ is nearly identical to the Hebrew ‘tzedakah’], they try to add extra prayers, and they try to concentrate on them, and they try to think about God’s plan for the world and how they can serve Him more completely. That is exactly what Elul is supposed to be for us.”

Weissman says he was attracted as well to the Ramadan ideal of community — an entire society of people working together on their character traits and focusing on repentance. He quotes a Quran verse about Ramadan that refers to a month of repentance.

“So my Elul has absolutely become Ramadan-ized. I now take Elul as a much more complete experience, not just as a lead-up to Tishrei [the month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur],” he said. “That could even include fasting; I’m not sure yet. Fasting is certainly a legitimate Jewish part of the teshuvah process.”

Weissman says that although his first exposure to religious Islam came while he was conducting graduate research in southern India in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until he became Orthodox in his Jewishness that he developed a personal appreciation of Islam. Especially attracted to Judaism’s concern with peace, tzedakah and peaceful relations with others, he forged relationships with Muslim students at UC Irvine, during the difficult years of the second intifada in the early to mid-2000s.

Two occurrences in the past 10 years started him on the path to appreciating Islam, he says.

“The Ashkenazi style of Selichot always left me feeling a bit dry spiritually speaking,” Weissman said. “So when a Sephardic community developed here in Irvine, I took an interest in their customs, and especially in the full month of Selichot prayers, which were much more powerful to me.”

Also, Weissman became involved with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at UC Irvine. In much of the Jewish community, the group is known for its members’ verbal disruptions and for heckling during a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at a campus event in February 2010. Several students involved in the outbursts were arrested and are on trial for conspiracy to disturb a meeting. The MSA subsequently was suspended temporarily by the university.

For Weissman it was a learning opportunity.

“There was a lot of tension between them and the Jewish students on campus, and I wanted to see what it was all about,” Weissman said. “I’m a generation older than most of the students, which already made me a bit less threatening, and I’m religious, so I could really empathize with some of the challenges and struggles with drinking and sex that religious Muslim students face in an American university setting.”

Weissman blanches when asked if he is a Zionist — although he is not anti-Zionist, he says he is uncomfortable with the triumphalism and nationalism of modern-day Israel. He stresses that his relationship with Muslim students does not touch on politics: “It’s not where my head is,” he says. But, like most things related to Arabs and Jews, politics worked its way in.

Weissman recalls a Muslim student at his house on Shabbat picking up a bencher on the table and noticing in the English translation that the Grace After Meals is about giving thanks for the Land of Israel.

“He asked me why that is, and we talked about it,” Weissman said, “and then, all of a sudden, the student got it.

“ ‘Wait a second. Israel’s like a holy place!’ ” he remembers the Muslim student saying. “That was a concept he could understand. He couldn’t understand why Jews had to [in his opinion] take a country away from other people in order to make really great cell phones, but he could relate to the idea of a holy land.”

Weissman says his relationships with the students also has had a positive effect on campus.

“Once they felt they had a friend in the Jewish community who wasn’t interested in politics or fighting, they were able to hear some of my concerns,” he said. “For instance, they decided last year not to host Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an openly anti-Semitic Islamic preacher, at UC Irvine this year because it wasn’t the image they wanted to spread of Islam and of Muslims. That was their decision. I had nothing to do with it, but it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the true relationship we’ve formed.”

With the start of the 2011-12 academic year at Irvine, Weissman says he will continue to befriend Muslim and Jewish students on campus, but for the next month he will concentrate on transposing the values of Ramadan — charity, prayer, penitence and introspection — onto the Jewish scorecard.

“I think the Jewish community is terrific, but I also think we’ve got a lot to learn from the Muslim community here,” Weissman said. “Many people take their religion very seriously, they go to mosque every day, they pray more and are more careful about how they speak to people. That ethical dimension is very inspiring to me.

“If I can be encouraging to others, I certainly try to be. And I take encouragement from them, too.”

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.”

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.

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.”

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot


During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
 
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
 
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
 
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
 
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
 
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
 
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
 
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
 
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
 
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
 
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
 
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
 
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
 
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
 
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
 
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
 
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

Arabs, Jews Mix at Haifa Holiday Festival


Thousands of Jews and Arabs fill the winding stone alleyways
of a Haifa neighborhood, sampling latkes, roasted chestnuts and pastries
dripping in honey at a coexistence festival to mark the holidays of Chanukah,
Christmas and Ramadan.

Walking a path lined with poems by Arab and Jewish poets,
celebrants take in sculptures strung over archways and perched on street
corners, colorful murals painted on walls and photographs based on this year’s
theme, “Utopia.”

“It’s all about the longing for something better,” says Hana
Kofler, curator of the festival’s exhibition, which featured some 100 Israeli
artists. “Everyone wants a better future, both Jews and Arabs.” Â

Now in its 10th year, The Festival of Festivals provides a
rare occasion of unity for Arabs and Jews, who have grown increasingly wary of
each other during the three years of intifada.

Residents of Wadi Nisnas, the majority Arab working-class
neighborhood that hosts the festival, say Israel and others around the world
can learn a lot from their community and from the city of Haifa, a mixed
Arab-Jewish city.

Locals here are proud of a long tradition of Jews and Arabs
working and living together in peace.Â

“We have always gotten along here, and to see all these
people from around the country coming here is fun,” said Hassan Zatut, a
mechanic who lives in Wadi Nisnas.Â

As he speaks, a steady stream of people walk up the hill
outside his family home, which is crowded with merchants selling toys and
crafts.

“We are proud of what we have — this is the way it should
be,” he said.

“It’s an amazing sight to see so many Jews coming to an Arab
neighborhood, when most Jews in the country are terrified to go anywhere Arab,”
said Dan Chamizer, a Jewish artist and member of the Beit Ha’Gafen Arab-Jewish
Center, which organizes the event. “This is the only spot in the Middle East —
maybe in the world –where Arabs and Jews not only live together, but like each
other, work together, make art together.”

In honor of this year’s theme, Chamizer designed a giant
pair of rose-colored glasses made from iron and swirled pink-and-white glass.Â

Painted yellow footprints on the pavement lead visitors
throughout the neighborhood where artwork from festivals of previous years
mixes with new installations.

One artist posted a traffic light called “The Messiah.” When
the light turns green, the words “He is coming” light up; when it turns red,
“He is not coming” appears.Â

The mix of the whimsical and the serious characterize the
collection of art that fills Wadi Nisnas and expands every year. Because of the
festival, tourists come visit year-round.

On Saturday, church bells tolled and children in Santa Claus
hats rang bells and sang Christmas carols in Arabic under a canopy of gold
tinsel.Â

During the week of Chanukah, children’s plays are
performed.Â

To mark the recent end of the Ramadan fast, the public was
invited to join in the feasts and celebrations known as Eid al-Fitr.Â

Festival organizers say the winter festivals of the three
faiths is the ideal opportunity to throw a party. Each year the festival grows,
and nowadays tens of thousands of people come for each of the five consecutive
weekends of celebration. Dance productions, concerts and plays are part of the
festival, which also includes coexistence workshops.Â

The streets are lined with locals selling grilled meats,
Middle Eastern salads and cotton candy. The smell of cardamon wafts overhead as
strong cups of steaming Arabic coffee are poured into cups.Â

“It’s nice to see the folklore and traditions of both Jews
and Arabs,” says Michael Kandero, an Israeli Jewish factory worker from Afula,
who brings his family to the festival. “To connect with Arabs close up is
something we have missed out on in the last few years.” Â

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