Last night, my wife and I attended a fabulous concert at the Jerusalem Theatre, which was part of the 17th International Oud Festival. This concert was led by Professor Tayseer Elias, from the Israeli Arab village of Shfaram, who is a renowned violinist and oud player, as well as a professor of musicology at Bar Ilan and also at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He played together with a terrific band of 8 other Arab musicians, along with a fabulous Arab vocalist, Violet Salameh, from Haifa, who sang many of the most popular songs of the famous Egyptian singer, Um Kulthoum (1902-1975). In a completely full auditorium—half Jews and half Arabs—hundreds of people sang and clapped and reveled in a wonderful evening of Arab music in the heart of Jewish Jerusalem! All this happened while the fires were burning in the Galilee and in other parts of Israel, and in an atmosphere where many of our “leaders” were busy fanning the flames of hatred.
It is common to read in our newspapers –and see on our TV screens –about all the problems that affect the relations between Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel and Jewish citizens (the majority) in this state. We hear a lot about the rise in mutual hatred among the youth, about discrimination against Arabs in the workplace and in infrastructure, and much more.
But I insist that the cup is half full. Let me explain.
Yesterday, Thursday, November 24, 2016, while forest fires were raging all over Israel I heard on the radio many offers by Arab leaders in Israel to host Jews who were affected by the fires. On the previous day, I spoke to the mayor of Abu Gosh, Mr. Issa Jaber, who told me that his community was hosting Jews from the nearby community of Nataf which had been severely affected by the fires. And then, this morning, I heard one of the leaders of the major mosque in Haifa on the radio as he welcomed Jews in need from all over Haifa, to be guests in his mosque.
Also, yesterday, I visited the Israeli Arab community of Kafr Kara, in Wadi Ara, an area in central Israel, which is called “The Triangle”, and is populated mostly by Muslim Arabs of Israeli citizenship. I have been in Kafr Kara many times, but this time, I visited the high school with my colleagues, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, rabbi of Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Mazor, Director of ICCI, the Interreligious Department of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Kadi Iyad Zahalka, the head of the Shariya Courts of the state of Israel and a resident of the village. We were all speaking on a panel, chaired by Professor Mustafa Kabha, Director of the Center for the Study of Relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims (JCM center) and chairman of the Board of Alnahada (Arabic for “Renaissance”), which sponsors the first Muslim pluralistic high school in Israel, founded 8 years ago. This high school, which serves students in grades 7-12 from 18 villages in their region, is a beautiful new school, inspiring to see not only because of its physical appearance, but also because of the spectacular spirit of open inquiry and serious learning that characterizes the leadership, the faculty and the students in this unique educational setting in Israel.
I and my colleagues were there to participate in a panel discussion –for 10th graders in this school and their teachers–on the value and importance of Interreligious Dialogue as method of achieving Peaceful Coexistence, according to Judaism and Islam. Not only was the discussion by the panelists well received by the teachers and the students, but they asked many questions, revealing their intense curiosity about this topic. Most of the questions, naturally, were for the rabbis (and we were told that it was probably the first time that any of these students had met a rabbi!). This panel discussion is part of a new outreach effort of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), now the Interreligious Department of Rabbis for Human Rights, during the past year, which we call Abrahamic Teams, which we are sending to speak in Jewish and Arab communities all over Israel.
So, I ask you: is Coexistence among Arabs and Jews within Israel possible? The answer is clearly yes, even though you wouldn’t know it if you only read the mainstream media or relied mostly on social media for your “news.”
And then one more thing happened this morning. In addition to the aid we are receiving from Greece and Cyprus to put out the fires, the Palestinian Authority offered the assistance of some of its firefighters (I don’t know yet if the offer has been accepted). Perhaps this was not just an offer of material aid, but also a symbolic gesture to douse some of the flames of incitement and hatred.