Last week, we had an interaction that is all too rare today in Israel, the US and around the world. We visited the Israeli Arab village of Ein Rafa which sits at the base of the hill below Kibbutz Tzuba. While there, we met Yasmin and Musa, a Muslim couple from Ein Rafa, and Imam Wisaam who leads the town’s mosques. Given how the media reports what takes place here, many people have the impression that Jews and Muslims only interact in negative ways. Within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, however, positive interactions between Jews and Muslims are common. Jews shop in Israeli Arab towns and eat in local restaurants and vice-versa. Israeli Muslims have Jewish friends and vice-versa.
At this point in the semester, we move from the Biblical and Rabbinic periods to the Medieval era. Straddling this transition is an examination of the development of Christianity and Islam. We learn about both religions, their development and their spread through the region, how Judaism impacted them and how Judaism was affected by their rise. Previously, we visited Ein Karem, a Jerusalem neighborhood, to learn about early Christianity. Now it was time learn about the development and spread of Islam.
Before leaving Tzuba, our students and teachers talked about how to be respectful visitors. For example, modesty and respect are expected in the mosque. Boys and girls must wear long pants. Girls are expected to cover their hair. When entering the mosque, we remove our shoes, enter right foot first, and sit according to the local custom. Every student was appropriately respectful and a “good” guest.
After we were all seated, Yasmin shared her own journey, from non-religious, non-Muslim in England to meeting Musa, her future husband, studying Islam and ultimately converting to become a Muslim. She also shared the basic pillars of Islam and what is expected of a devoted Muslim. The students were captivated by Yasmin’s perfect English, British accent, and passion for her religion.
Imam Wisaam entered the mosque and, after a brief introduction, answered questions from the students. Several questions focused on the differences between the different Islamic groups, Sunni and Shia. Ein Rafa is a Sunni community as are the overwhelming majority of Arab communities in Israel. In the aftermath of the death of Mohammed, a schism developed in Islam and two main sects broke off from one another, the Sunni and the Shia. There has been constant fighting between the two ever since. In answering the question about Shia in general and about extremist Sunni groups, the Imam spoke of these groups as not being Muslim, of not representing the true values of Islam. After the conversation, several students wondered aloud if the Shia would say the same thing about the Sunni. The students asked great questions, listened intently, and learned a lot.
Our group in the spring semester is too large to have everyone in the mosque at the same time. While one group was in the mosque learning about Islam, the other group took a tour of Ein Rafa. They walked freely and safely through the village, led by Musa, who is also a perfect English speaker, and learned about the history of Ein Rafa. I could tell by looking at the group that they felt completely comfortable here. Fear was entirely absent. It was a truly beautiful thing to watch.
After the tours of Ein Rafa and the sessions in the mosque, we head to Abu Ghosh. Ein Rafa, Abu Ghosh and Ein Naquba, form a cluster of Israeli Arab villages outside Jerusalem on the way to Tel Aviv. Abu Ghosh is the main city and is known for fantastic Middle Eastern food. We head to Nadji, one of the most popular restaurants in town. Nadji is the Abu Ghosh equivalent of Manny’s in Chicago or the old Carnegie Deli in New York – It is popular with politicians and performers whose pictures adorn several prominent spaces on the wall. It is also very popular with the locals. It is not, however, near the main entrance to Abu Ghosh. It is well inside town and, once again, there is not a drop of fear in the group. We are in Israel, in an Israeli Arab city, having lunch and it feels like the most normal thing in the world. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch of Middle Eastern mezza – small salads – and falafel. The hummus at Nadji is made fresh every day, all day long. After an incredible meal, we leave and head back to Tzuba for general studies classes and the parents head to Jerusalem for more touring.
Today, the world is divided perhaps more than ever before. It feels like people have less interaction with those who are different, be it of a different religion or country. My Twitter feed makes it sound like fear has overtaken every other emotion, that it controls our decision-makers and, sometimes, our daily lives. On this day, however, we learned that there are more options, choices other than fear: meet the other, talk with the other, learn from the other and share with the other. Visit their town and listen. Eat in the neighborhood restaurant and say, “Shalom, hello and Salaam.” See them as human beings, not as the other, and maybe, just, maybe we can build bridges that ultimately lead to peace.
Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE) In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the experience is like.