At the end of May, I was pleased to host Kadi Iyad Zahalka, the new kadi of Jerusalem, for a public lecture in the education center at my place of work, the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel.

Kadi Zahalka is part of a new generation of kadis (Muslim judges) in Israel who are intelligent, effective and energetic in their commitment to their professional work in the Muslim courts of the State of Israel. Born in the village of Kafr Kara, in the Wadi Ara section of Israel, south of Haifa, Kadi Zahalka studied law at Tel Aviv University. Following law school, he was elected as the vice-chairperson of this local council, a position in which he served for three years.

After he discovered that politics was not for him, he became active in the sharia courts of Israel (which have jurisdiction for matters of personal status — marriage, divorce and inheritance – for Muslim citizens of Israel) and served for 6 years as the director of these Muslim courts. In 2009, he was appointed as the kadi of Haifa, and this past March, he was appointed the kadi of Jerusalem.

Kadi Zahalka has written two books and many articles and is now finishing his doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the Fiqh al Aqalliyyat Doctrine, the Muslim Minority Jurisprudence, and its implications for Muslims living as a minority group in a non-Muslim state.

Kadi Zahalka talked to us at the public lecture in May about the “revolution” that has taken place in the Muslim religious courts in Israel. Since the change in the law in 2001, the criteria for becoming a kadi have been dramatically upgraded. Each kadi needs to have higher education in Islam from a recognized university in Israel or he must have at least six years of experience as a lawyer in Israel. In addition, he must be actively religious, and a person of high integrity. Moreover, he must pass a very difficult exam in Islamic law (which he says most candidates fail).

A person of 'great integrity': Iyad Zahalka

A person of ‘great integrity’: Iyad Zahalka (photo: courtesy via via huji.ac.il)

Today there are 11 kadis in Israel — one in each of the eight regions of the country and three on the appeals board. Each kadi has the status of a judge in the civil service of Israel. These kadis are becoming highly respected religious leaders of a community of over 1.2 million Muslim citizens of Israel. When a kadi walks into a mosque, the imam will acknowledge his presence and often ask him to lead the prayers or preach the sermon.

In addition to his work as a judge, Kadi Zahalka is active in inter-religious relations. He gave the keynote address at an Iftar seminar and dinner that I hosted a little over a year ago, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and he is always open to meeting Jews from abroad who visit Israel, as well as Jews in Israel, to share his thoughts with them.

In recent years, I am glad that I can call Kadi Zahalka – and several other kadis in Israel – a friend and a colleague. He is a person of great knowledge and integrity, with superior communications skills — qualities that make him a sought-after lecturer in Israel these days.

Moreover, since I believe that it is important that people from abroad — as well as the citizens of Israel — know that there is a new generation of kadis in Israel who are not only earning the respect of their own community but also of the Jewish community in Israel as well, later this year I will be traveling with him for 16 days to the US, where we will offer briefings and lectures to a wide variety of groups of different faiths — Jewish, Christian and Muslim. During this speaking tour, the kadi and I will have a chance to share our views of moderation and religion, as well as about the goals and challenges of inter-religious dialogue in our part of the world.

In light of growing Islamophobia and increasing anti-Semitism (often masked as anti-Israel protests), we feel that our message of moderation and our method of dialogue and education is more important than ever before. We believe strongly that Jews and Muslims can live in peaceful coexistence together, in Israel, with greater mutual knowledge and understanding that can be the fruit of more dialogue in the years to come.