Do Sephardim hold key to dealing with Islam? [CORRECTION]


This original version of this story included an incorrect reference to Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld. The intended reference was to Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Austin, Texas, who has been associated with Texas pastoor John Hagee in the development of Christians United for Israel.

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 land for peace. Yet nothing has worked. In fact, the situation has been gotten worse as our neighbors are emboldened by territorial gains, hence the concern surrounding the much-anticipated “deal of the century” to be released by 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 our neighbors’ language and understand their culture?

The Mufti of Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian leaders, have said in speeches and interviews for Arabic-speaking audiences that this is a religious war. 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, have lived in Arab lands, and can converse in Arabic can 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 counterintuitive glimpses to illustrate the point.

Rabbi 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 biography Maran by Yehuda Azoulay, Rabbi Yosef relates that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought him out and asked for a 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, an imam appeared and began chastising the soldiers for placing their dirty shoes on the rugs in a holy place. Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who was there with the troops, told the imam to back off.

“These Jewish boys haven’t seen their imahot (matriarchs) and avot (patriarchs) in 2,000 years,” he said. “Their parents are thrilled to see them, and it’s just fine if their shoes are a little dirty.” He then turned to the imam and reminded him that he, on the other hand, was the son of a slave — Hagar.

The imam left in a huff, and the IDF commander began chastising the rabbi for his strong words to the imam. But a short while later, the imam appeared again and apologized to the rabbi. Rabbi Eliyahu turned to the soldiers and said to them, “I know these people. I grew up with them. You tell them the truth, and they understand it.”

In these two snapshots, though you would not expect it, you can see that Rabbi Eliyahu was respected by Muslim religious leaders. So was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Imams sought their perspectives. Jordanian papers noted Rabbi Yosef’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, an Orthodox rabbi in Austin, Texas, 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.

So, a note to the next government: Nothing else has worked. If there are any discussions aimed at reaching understanding, 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.

Gary Schiff, a new immigrant to Israel, lives with his family in the eastern sections of Jerusalem bordering several Arab villages.