From Jerusalem to the heart of Hebron:
Islam of a different kind
The trip from Jerusalem to the heart of Hebron, a neighbourhood that is
considered the stronghold of Palestinian opposition movements, takes only
half an hour by car, but it is light years away in Middle Eastern terms. I
went to Hebron to express condolences to the family of the Hebron sheik,
Talal Sider, who in the past few years was a senior and full partner to the
attempts to persuade the leaders of the three faiths to turn religion into a
lever for peace, brotherhood and hope.
The tens of thousands of people who participated in the funeral bore witness
to the fact that despite the change in direction that Sheik Talal, one of
the founders of Hamas, underwent, he remained a venerated religious and
spiritual leader. The courageous path he chose, until he served in the
Palestinian Authority as a minister and participated in the interfaith
meetings, teaches us that despite everything it is possible to change. His
change was not a tactical political move but stemmed from a pure religious
Despite a difference in political positions and cultural dissimilarities, it
turns out that the common religious denominator has the strength to create a
different language. Contrary to what some Israelis think, the Palestinians
are also sick and tired of things. They also want their children to come
home safely. They also want to live.
The tendency to see the half-empty glass sometimes makes us forget the other
half, the full one. In the past three decades, ever since the messages sent
by Anwar Sadat at the beginning of the 1970s and his historic visit to
Jerusalem, there has been a slow but steady and constant process among the
22 Arab countries of coming to terms with, and reconciling to the idea of,
the existence of the state of Israel.
This process has not yet seeped down completely to the Muslim religious
leadership. The rise in strength of Islam as an extremely significant force
in politics has created a certain differentiation between the positions of
the Muslim states and their spiritual leaders. Alongside expressions of
hatred, some of them purely anti-Semitic, the first seeds of acceptance of
the existence of Israel and a wish to become reconciled with it are starting
to blossom among the spiritual leaders.
This voice was heard loud and clear in the interfaith meetings with the
spiritual and educational leaders, in courageous and intensive programs, and
even in some religious rulings that emanated from the schools of learning of
religious sages in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the territories. Everything must
be done so that this positive trend can create a positive response in our
religious camp, so that the message can also seep down among us.
The half-full glass of the Mecca Agreement could be the one to show the way.
With the Hamas victory in the elections, that organization found itself in
charge of an administration whose right to exist came from the Oslo
agreements. When it looked out from the roof after the victory celebrations,
Hamas discovered to its great anxiety that there was a ladder below it
offering a way to climb down from the roof, from the utopian Muslim ideology
to the ground of reality, a large part of which was the need to reconcile
with the existence of the state of Israel.
The agreement is far from satisfying all the requirements laid down by the
Quartet to the PA. But if the sides know how to use the ladder, they will be
able, with its help and with the required caution, to reach another
diplomatic horizon, one of hope and reconciliation. The group picture of the
Palestinian leaders, dressed in white in Mecca, once again stresses the
important place and the great power of the religious path on the way to
solving the conflict. We, too, no less than the others, need to climb down
It is not possible to make peace with only half of the Palestinians. Abu
Mazen cannot supply all the goods himself. The authority he received from
Hamas to hold negotiations and a referendum has both political and religious
significance. Even the terrorist, Khaled Meshal, has unwittingly started to
speak a different language. This man has not yet accepted the state of
Israel as an accepted fact, but even his declarations that the PA is obliged
to uphold the agreements with Israel is indeed "a new diplomatic language"
that Hamas has adopted because of "national necessity".
Together with Israel's uncompromising demand for the eradication of terror
and for maintaining security, we must also broaden the existing channels of
dialogue. Those who do not want the current leadership will tomorrow get
Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda instead. If we bury all hope about the current
alternative, we will find ourselves facing an Arab world united behind the
Iranian intentions to annihilate Israel.
The continuation of the present situation will bring upon us nothing but
disaster. With the lack of a diplomatic alternative, it is merely a question
of time until the Israel Defence Force returns to Gaza. If we allow despair
to overcome us, it will do so quickly and easily. Among us also there is a
need to realize that without the peace we yearn for, it is not possible
morally to continue ruling over the lives of 3.5 million Arabs who do not
want us. This moral position must drive us also to make the effort to try to
climb the ladder of opportunity that has been placed at our side.
* Rabbi Michael Melchior is Chief Rabbi of Norway and a
member of Israel's Knesset, having served previously as Deputy Foreign
Minister and Deputy Education Minister. He is chairman of the Knesset's
Education and Culture Committee.
Source: Ha'aretz, 5 March 2007,
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