OpinionMiddle East

Do Sephardic religious Jews hold the key to understanding with our Muslim neighbors?

If there is any hope of peace, maybe Jewish religious leaders who understand Arab culture and having lived in Arab lands can converse in Arabic and make some progress.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends morning prayers in Safed, Feb. 6, 2018. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends morning prayers in Safed, Feb. 6, 2018. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

For the better part of the past century, Israel and Jewish leadership around the world have been trying everything possible to make peace with our Muslim Arab neighbors. Interfaith dialogue.  International summits. Offering and actually giving land with the promise of peace. Yet nothing has worked; in fact, the situation has been made worse as our neighbors are emboldened with each territorial gain. (Hence, the concern that surrounds the much-anticipated “deal of the century” to be released from the Trump administration after Israeli elections.)

Why has nothing worked? Because the underlying issue is that this is a religious war, not a political territorial dispute. So why not engage our religious leaders, especially those who speak their language and understand their culture?

The Mufti of Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian leaders, have said this is a religious war in speeches and interviews for their Arabic-speaking audiences. Here is a classic excerpt from the Mufti of Jerusalem (courtesy of MEMRI): “I am filled with rage toward the Jews. I have never greeted a Jew when I came near one. I never will. They cannot even dream that I will. The Jews do not dare to bother me because they are the most cowardly creatures Allah has ever created.”

Palestinian leaders have openly admitted that they purposely hide the religious aspect of the dispute; that for them, Israel is conquered Muslim territory.

If there is any hope of peace, maybe Jewish religious leaders who understand Arab culture and having lived in Arab lands can converse in Arabic and make some progress. Maybe they hold the keys. Interestingly, these are also the people who garner the greatest respect in the Arab-Muslim world.

Here are two interesting counter-intuitive glimpses to illustrate the point.

  • Rav Ovadia Yosef was openly critical of our neighbors and vehemently opposed the disengagement. He called on the government to have “no mercy” on our enemies. Yet in the recent autobiographical book Maran by Yehuda Azoulay, the Maran tells the story of how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought him out and asked for a bracha [‘blessing’]. “After we finished, the President (Mubarak) asked everyone to leave the room … and told me, “Rabbi please bless me. I believe in your blessing.” I put my hands on his head and blessed him: May your presidency last many years.” (It lasted more than three decades.).
  • In June 1967, immediately after the Israel Defense Forces captured the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of Our Patriarchs and Matriachs), an imam appeared and began chastising the soldiers for having their dirty shoes on the rugs in a holy place. Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu was there with the troops and told the imam to “back off.” He said these Jewish boys haven’t seen their Emot (“mothers”) and Avot (“fathers”) in 2,000 years, and that their ancestral parents were thrilled to see them and just fine if their shoes were a little dirty. He then turned to the imam and told him that he, on the other hand, was the son of a slave (Hagar). At which point, the imam left in a huff. The IDF commander began chastising the rabbi for his strong words to the imam. A short while later, the imam appeared again and apologized to the rabbi. Perhaps he understood that now he had the dhimmi status (secondary class of Jews in Muslim and Arab lands). Rabbi Eliyahu turned to the IDF soldiers and said to them, “I know these people. I grew up with them. You tell them the truth, and they understand it.”

Given these two small snapshots, though you would not expect it, Rabbi Eliyahu was respected by Muslim religious leaders. So was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Imams sought their perspectives. The Jordanian papers noted Maran’s fluent command of Arabic; even Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas expressed condolences at his passing. In the Middle East, respect comes from strength and religious commitment.

There may be something to be learned from the Christian world and their enhanced connection to Israel in the past two decades. Obviously, there are vast differences between Christians and Muslims. However, it was Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, a strong Orthodox Texas rabbi and Texas-based Pastor John Hagee who planted the seeds and nurtured the creation of “Christians United for Israel.” Their work was foundational in developing strong U.S. support for Israel. Strong religious leaders who spoke the same language and understood each other’s cultures were able to build connections and change the previously prevailing Christian perspective on Israel. Perhaps this is an important analogous lesson for us in Israel.

So, note to the next government: Nothing else has worked. Please give the Sephardic religious leadership, especially those with Arabic-speaking skills and a history of living together in the region with Muslims, a pivotal role if there are any discussions aimed at reaching increased understanding and see what happens.

Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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