From Other to Brother: Tales of Ramadan from Hebron and Jerusalem

If religion is part of the problem, then it will have to be part of the solution. Such was the great insight of Menachem Froman, the late Rabbi of Tekoa, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Belief in God has the power to separate people, but it also has the power to connect them.  For those who believe that the other worships a different God, faith will drive a wedge between the two parties. However for those who believe that we both love, cherish and pray to the same God, belief will only draw us closer together.

When it comes to Judaism and Islam, the two primary religions in the conflict, their theology actually binds far more than it divides. Jewish rabbinic literature values Islam for its belief in the unity of one God. In the Koran, Islam grants a special status to Jews as “Ahlul Kitab” – People of the Book. However, while these theological tenets may lay the foundation in principle, peaceful relations between peoples can and will only be built through direct encounter, through laying down the bricks one at a time. The work comes through real life meetings between persons of different faiths, opportunities to acknowledge and encounter the Other’s religious and ethnic identity.

For years I have been active in interfaith meetings both in Israel proper and the West Bank, largely under the auspices of two groundbreaking organizations – the Abrahamic Reunion (AR) and the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA).  I see the power of these sessions as twofold. First, such meetings have the power to change what the attendees think about the Other. Second, and perhaps more significantly, these encounters take those truths one already knows cerebrally and brings them down from the head to the heart, turning them into a living existential reality.

Human connections alone cannot be a substitute for political solutions, but they create fertile ground for solutions to develop and ultimately flourish. These connections can help ensure success of any future resolution and open up new possibilities to finding an optimal solution for all parties.

Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic once said, “Out there, beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In a conflict with diametrically opposed narratives about its rights and wrongs, we must find that field.

I live in the Hebron region – an area historically riddled with violence and hatred between Jews and Arabs. In the last year alone, my close friend and neighbor Dafna Meir was stabbed to death in her home in front of her children, and just months later, Rabbi Mickey Mark, another dear friend and neighbor as well as the director of the Yeshivat Otniel in which I teach, was gunned down by terrorists while driving his family not far from his home.

Conflict, however, is not the only energy present where I live. There is another dimension of the region that I hope and believe will one day be the dominant milieu. These stories give me hope after a particularly painful year. They give me hope that one day Israelis and Palestinians will live together in peace – a reality that I believe will arise through reframing our religious and ethnic identities into a source of connection, through encountering the humanity of the other, and ultimately through turning the Other into the Brother.

The Best Food in Ramadan

“Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white.” These words of William Blake are apropos to the observance of Ramadan, a holiday which inspires both acts of violence as well as conciliation and generosity. Although the press often focuses on the isolated incidents of the former which are the exceptions, I will focus on the latter which are the rule.

In the context of Ramadan, the Koran stresses the connection between the human and the divine stating, “One who is unable to fast can instead give charity” (Sura 2, Verse 184).The holiday’s traditional greeting “Ramdan Kareem” literally means Ramadan Generosity.

The meal at the end of each day’s fast, the Iftar, provides an excellent opportunity for an Islamic-Jewish encounter. I once attended an Iftar in which elders from Hebron hosted Jewish residents of the region. The topic of the evening was Ramadan customs that are unique to Hebron. The Arabic name for Hebron “Al Khalil” means Friend, referring to Abraham, friend of God. Central to Ramadan in Hebron is the meal of Abraham – thousands of plates are made for the poor in ancient brass pots. We also learned that it is customary for the women of Hebron to briefly leave the kitchen while the food cooks to allow the matriarch Sarah to enter and stir the dishes. We were told this is why Hebron has the best food during Ramadan. Granting this role to Sarah shows an ability to overcome tensions in the family, as Sarah the biblical mother of Isaac had a stormy relationship with Hagar the mother of Ishmael.

A year ago, I attended a most memorable Iftar hosted by the Abrahamic Reunion on a date on which Jews also fast, the 17th of the lunar month of Tamuz.  Muslims end their fast at sundown whereas Jews wait until the stars are visible about 20 minutes later. Upon realizing this discrepancy, Sheik Abed Salem Manasra of Nazareth announced in the name of the Muslim participants, “We will all wait for the Jews to finish their fast before eating, so that we may all eat together.” This was a very powerful gesture of respect and understanding.

Later that week I was able to return the gesture. A Jewish woman Rebecca Abramson arranged an Iftar in Jerusalem at the house of a leading Rabbi of Israel’s ultra-orthodox community, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz. The guest of honor was a close friend of mine, a prominent Sheik from Ramallah. I was about to begin the afternoon prayer which must be said before sundown when the Sheik called me. He had arrived and was waiting on the corner for me to pick him up and take him to the meal. I made a quick calculation: if I pray now, I won’t bring him on time to the beginning of the Iftar. Every minute of my prayer elongates his fast. Using a Talmudic dispensation that one can pray even while riding a donkey if by stopping he won’t be able to concentrate out of concern about the delay, I recited the prayers while driving to pick him up. At the meeting, Rabbi Schwartz asked the participants to disregard their separate identity labels and to meet as brothers and sisters in loving and serving God. The discourse was so moving that Rachel Shofar, a translator who has devoted her life to Jewish-Muslim reconciliation, broke out in tears, “we have come to this, we have come to this”.

The Tears of Abraham

After the Iftar  in Jerusalem I drove Rachel back to Hebron, and we began speaking about a mutual friend in Hebron. She then told me a story that moved me especially deeply.

Our shared friend is a sort of a Godfather in his hamula (clan). One day, he asked me to write a letter on his behalf to Yariv Ben Ezra, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commander responsible for security in the Jewish part of Hebron. That same day my son, Hillel, was sworn into the IDF in a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Earlier we were told that his battalion, Tzabar, of the Givati infantry brigade, would be serving in Hebron.

I wrote to Yariv telling him that my son would soon be serving under him, and that each Shabbat when he comes home from the army that I bless him to return in peace and return with the peace. “You are in charge of the peace in Hebron and responsible to insure the security of all. Know that we have partners who to seeks to live in peace.” I then listed different acquaintances  for him in Hebron one by one.  I didn’t think my Arab friend could read Hebrew, but I sent him a copy of the letter anyway. I was moved when he called to tell me that he and the other sheikhs pray for Hillel and for all to return from Hebron in peace.

On the drive back, Rachel told me that she happened to be with our Arab friend when he received the letter. “He told me that he wanted to understand each word so he asked me to translate. The way I cried tonight is the way he cried when I read the letter.”

Just as much as religion is a point of connection between Jews and Arabs so too is ethnicity. We both see Abraham not only as a spiritual father but as our ethnic patriarch. We both even name our children after him. In one of the most powerful images in Jewish tradition, the matriarch Rachel weeps for her children. In our current situation, we must all evoke the image of Abraham weeping for his children – all of his children. Hebron – the city of Abraham – symbolizes this connection, as highlighted by both the Arabic and Hebrew names for the city. Just as in Arabic Al-Khalil means “the Friend” referring to Abraham, friend of God, in Hebrew “Chevron” whose first three letters in Hebrew spell out chaver, friend.

Much of the book of Genesis is devoted to sibling rivalry. One could read the text and come away with a discouraging view of family relationships. My father in law, Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University Uriel Simon points out that in each of the three great stories of conflict – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers – the Bible concludes with a carefully orchestrated scene of reconciliation. In each episode, the once feuding brothers come together peacefully to bury their father in Hebron, in the cave of the patriarchs.  The message that emerges acknowledges that rivalries in the family are natural but gives hope that ultimately the family relationship will be a source of everlasting connection.

“My Brothers the Settlers

Part of the challenge of coexistence is the difficulty in expanding our consciousness in so far as who is to be included as a Brother.  Years ago, I participated in a joint prayer for rain by Jews and Arabs near Bethlehem.  The Mayor of Bethlehem addressed the Jews in the crowd and began in Hebrew by saying “My brothers the settlers…”.  The Mayor said a lot to the audience including sharp criticism, however with that one word, “brothers”, he opened the hearts and the minds. During the course of the prayer, calling out together to heavens to bless us with rain, I thought of the verse in Psalms “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity”(133:2). The basis of expanding the concept of brotherhood beyond one’s unique national identity is explicit in the Bible which commands the children of Israel “You shall not despise an Edomite for he is your brother”(Deuteronomy 23:8).

I see the challenge not only in broadening our conception of brotherhood but to do so in a way that does not negate those who are uniquely significant to us.  In small but significant ways, warmth and commitment are developed and nurtured and from there they can expand.  The model I identify with is that of concentric circles, brother through common parents, brother in shared ethnic\religious identities, brother in shared humanity.

Complexity is the Source of Hope

“Naivete” is often defined as seeing only a fragment of reality and being oblivious to the full picture. This definition certainly includes author Oscar Wilde’s character the cynic, the one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yet more often than those who focus on the negative, it is those who focus on the positive that are accused of being naive. Optimists are accused of ignoring the harsh side of reality far more than pessimists are rebuked for turning a blind eye to the rays of hope.

As a resident of a region deep in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am painfully and personally aware of its darkest sides. However, as opposed to those who judge from afar and often demonize or stereotype one side of the conflict or the other, by living so close to the events and people involved, I can see the complexities and multi dimensions of the conflict first hand. It is from this very complexity that hope arises and the belief that we can impact positive change.

Earlier, I mentioned my neighbors, Micki Mark who lived two houses from me, Yehuda Glick three doors down, and Dafna Meir four. Through these very personal and painful events I experience the complexity, the mixture of hatred and humanity. In the terrorist attack that murdered Micki, his wife Havi was critically injured but her life was saved by a Palestinian couple who administered first aid to her and held the daughter Tehilla, also wounded, until more help arrived.  As part of his eulogy held in our yeshiva, the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Benyamin Kalmanson, Micki’s business partner and brother in law, said in front of the thousands who came and thundered “and you Rabbi Yakov, will continue your efforts to lead to peaceful coexistence with our Arab neighbors.”

Dafna Meir was stabbed to death by a Palestinian youth who walked over from the neighboring town, Yata. He explained his deed resulted from rage after watching Arab televisions, presumably referring to their daily invective against the portrayal of Jews and Israel. A relative of the murderer is a friend of Natan, the widower, who came to console him and weep together.  Another Palestinian who came to console the new widower Natan, shared with him his story. He was on the way to a terror attack armed with grenades, when he realized that this can’t be what God wants, and he aborted the attack. And my third friend Yehuda Glick, after recovering from the assassination attempt on his life, a Muslim group from Turkey invited him to an Iftar they were holding in his honor during Ramadan with a thousand guests.

This complexity of the conflict is true also in instances of violence by Jews against Arabs. In the aftermath of the murder of three Jewish teenagers in the summer of 2014, a youth from east Jerusalem, Mohammad Abu Khadeir, was  murdered by Jewish vigilantes. Tzohar, the largest group of religious Zionist Rabbis, prepared a pamphlet about the severity of murder and asked its hundreds of Rabbis to make this murder the topic of their Shabbat sermons. Israel’s leading Rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi, traveled to the neighborhood of the Abu Khadeir family. After the family decided not to receive them, the Rabbis sent a letter to console and express their pain and outrage

In another outrage, three members of the Dawabsheh family were murdered by a Jewish arsonist. After the murder, I joined hundreds of settlers in a prayer vigil in Gush Etzion, and we asked four Palestinian speakers to address us and share their pain. I found the words of Israel Member of Knesset Yair Lapid particularly penetrating. “The conflict isn’t between left and right, religious and secular, Jew and Arab but against the extremists of each group that seek to pit us against the other.”

The fundamental question raised by these and other such heinous acts is not a calculation of how much hatred there is in relation to how much humanity. Rather the reformulated question we must ask is what can we do to move the needle further and further in a positive direction? When enough people realize that this is the question and challenge, we can begin to hope for a tipping point.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is also a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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