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Peace will only come when the faiths of Jews and Arabs are acknowledged

“If religion is part of the problem, then it must necessarily be part of the solution.”

| September 22, 2020

Rabbi Yakov Nagen on a visit with a neighbor in the Hebron hills
Rabbi Yakov Nagen on a visit with a neighbor in the Hebron hills (photo credit: Eyal Shani)

Together with my students, I am sitting in an enormous and magnificent tent in the Hebron Hills. Before us are baskets overflowing with fruit, a generosity characteristic of traditional Arab hospitality. Out of respect for the Jewish guests, consideration has been given to the dietary laws of kashrut.

Our host, the leader of one of the largest clans in Hebron, looks at the students and directs his words principally to them.

“We, the adults, have failed. You need to repair. Oslo was missing fundamentals,” he emphatically declares. He explains that because the process was disconnected from the religious and ethnic background of the two nations, it therefore lacked essential foundations. While listening to his words, I could not help but hear an echo of the central claim of my late colleague Rabbi Menachem Froman about the conflict: “If religion is part of the problem, then it must necessarily be part of the solution.”

The very name of the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates symbolizes a paradigm shift. As opposed to previous accords, Camp David and Oslo, named after locations foreign to the Middle East, the “Abraham Accords” expresses the shared religious heritage uniting Jews and Muslims. If religious identity was once a wedge dividing Jews and Muslims, here it is being channeled to create a narrative of connection.

In the context of today’s incendiary world, this narrative could contribute to a shared consciousness of unity within Abrahamic traditions that would have global significance.

On the surface, the potential of shared heritage to connect us should be self-evident. Rabbinic literature respects Islam’s belief in the unity of God. Furthermore, Islam grants a special status to Jews as Ahlul Kitab, “People of the Book,” and the Koran presents the Bible as a guide granted by God to the Jewish people.

However, the grounded realities are much less rosy then the above would imply, and only if the reasons for discrepancy are properly understood can they be resolved. Fueled in part by medieval Muslim-Jewish polemics, Islamic commentaries on the Koran have undermined its explicit favorable approach toward Judaism. Specifically, verses in the Koran that legitimatize Judaism are declared by commentators as having been abrogated or having relevance only in pre-Islamic times.Moreover, the Jewish Bible itself is accused of being a distortion of the original book given to the Jews by God. Jewish leaders, in turn, generally chose an insular approach necessary to preserve Jewish identity as a small minority scattered throughout the Diaspora in often hostile environments. Thus, interfaith activities and theology were often neglected or shunned.

Both religions must now realize how much they benefit from viewing their relationship, not as competing stories, but as complementary components of a shared story. Together they can better meet the challenge of a world in which the alternative for their adherents is not another faith but no faith at all.

While this dynamic is relevant to relationships between all religions, it is particularly significant to the relationship between Judaism and Islam.

Islam is an extension of the story of Judaism. Thus, undermining Judaism and the Torah ultimately undermines Islam, whereas respecting and legitimizing Judaism strengthens Islam’s foundations. This is true also about the theological implications of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

If Islam has superseded Judaism, Islam will not be able to come to terms with Israel’s presence in the Middle East. However, legitimizing Judaism validates Jewish national presence in the Jewish homeland, an idea the Koran often affirms.

From Judaism’s perspective, there is great value in acknowledging Islam as one of the Abrahamic religions that has emerged from within it. Seeing Islam’s success as a fulfillment of the role of Judaism in the world gives added purpose and meaning to Jewish identity. In fact, much of the negative statements about Jews in the Koran actually stem from anger and frustration about the Jewish rejection of Muhammad after his arriving in Medina in 622 CE.

However, rabbis such as the 12th-century Rabbi Natanel al-Fayyumi and the 20th-century Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook acknowledge Islam as a valid path for serving God and achieving salvation. Continuing their legacy can heal this rupture. The biblical prophets who foretold the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel also envisioned a partnership with humanity united in connection to God. The fulfillment of this vision should be seen in part as a shared consciousness emerging from a common Abrahamic heritage.

The 19th-Century Italian Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh interprets the closing verse of the biblical Book of Malachi that tells of reconciliation between parents and their children as a vision of hope for a future relationship between Judaism and the Abrahamic religions that it spawned. Let us work together to make this vision a reality.

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of the Ohr Torah Stone network’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.


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