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The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu. To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at www.commongroundnews.org.
Inside this edition  
29 January - 04 February 2010
Palestine between religion and secularism
by Aziz Abu Sarah
In the final article in our series on freedom of religion, Aziz Abu Sarah looks at the role religion and secularism play in Palestinian identity.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 February 2010)
A Palestinian woman enters politics
by Asma Asfour
Asma Asfour relates the challenges that face her as a female Palestinian politician and the need for gender equality to achieve a strong Palestinian state.

(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 February 2010)
Renovated cinema to bring new life to Jenin
by Jon Donnison
Jon Donnison reports on an exciting project to renovate Cinema Jenin that holds great potential for this West Bank city.
(Source: BBC News, 28 January 2010)
Arab MK slams Holocaust denial, wins praise from Jewish colleagues
by Jonathan Lis
"I, Ahmed Tibi, a tall, proud Arab, is happy to be on the same side as prominent Arab intellectuals who came out forcefully against Holocaust denial in the Middle East and other places around the world," proclaimed this member of Knesset during a special session to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. "Those who were victims of that horrible death, which is a byproduct of a malicious exercise of power-a destructive, absolute power-must be attentive to the cries of the bereaved mother whose home was destroyed and whose children were buried underneath it; to the pain and cries of a doctor who lost his daughters; to the victims of the other, even if the other is his victim, the victim's victim." "We must stand and warn with a loud voice against all instances of discrimination, racism, and the politics of hate," Tibi said. "Racism and hatred for anything that is different, including Arabs, have raised their heads here in Israeli society"
(Source: Ha'aretz, 27 January 2010)
Segregation blues
by Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner decries the segregation between Arabs and Jews in Israel and remembers the few times when it did not seem to be an issue.
(Source: The Jerusalem Post, 27 January 2010)
Featured Video
The Merchavim Institute places Arabic teachers in Jewish schools in Israel in order to better integrate Jewish and Arab communities and create a greater sense of shared citizenship.
Palestine between religion and secularism
Aziz Abu Sarah
WASHINGTON, DC - In the last three decades, Palestinian identity has undergone tremendous changes. According to a UNDP poll published last April, 47 percent of residents of Gaza and the West Bank identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims. This is surprising, considering that the Palestinian community was once regarded as one of the most secular in the Arab world, and that three decades ago political Islam had a very limited role in the Palestinian national movement. Tellingly, the study also found that 80 percent of young Palestinians are chronically depressed, demonstrating a widespread belief that the future holds little hope for them.

The Hamas victory in the last Palestinian elections is only one of the latest signs that the community is looking for answers in a time of desperation, corruption and oppression. In their pursuit of change, Palestinian voters turned to Hamas hoping for honesty, inclusion and a vision for the future.

However, polling shows that many Palestinians grew disenchanted with Hamas soon after the elections, as Hamas failed to deliver on its promises for a unified Palestinian agenda. Many voices have been arguing that the Islamic leadership has failed and that religion should not play a role in Palestinian political life. This secular movement claims that religious groups like Hamas and radical Jewish groups are a big part of the problem and therefore should be eliminated from the political and civil process.

But while it is true that religious leaders and organisations have added fuel to the conflict, this doesn't mean that a secular leadership is the only answer. On the contrary, religion can and must play a greater role in solving the problems faced by the Palestinian community.

There is ample historical precedent for the dual role that religion can play in shaping political ideology. In the United States, for example, the period before the Civil War was a time of anger and hopelessness, and then too religion was used to justify oppression and corruption. Religious and political leaders cited Judeo-Christian biblical arguments to teach slaves that they were inferior to whites, and churches and ministers led the effort to preserve slavery in the South. Baptist Reverend R. Furman spoke for many Southerners when he wrote that "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis used the Bible to claim that slavery was established by heavenly decree. Nor did these beliefs end with emancipation: Christian theologians continued to support segregation, terror and racial attacks against blacks in the community well into the next century.

However, religious leaders were also the ones at the forefront of a massive movement toward emancipation and civil rights in the United States. Whites and blacks like Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King Jr. countered religious violence, ignorance and racism with a religious message of love, non-violence and activism. They didn't turn against religion when religious leaders failed them but rather challenged the status quo on religion. It is well known that King Jr. used his church podium to preach a new message of hope.

In a similar way, although Islam has been used by many Palestinians to support violence and even justify corrupt political institutions, people have forgotten that Islam is also rich with scriptures of peace and compassion. Islam's Prophet himself refused to fight for 13 years while in Mecca, teaching and preaching under oppression and torture.

In the Palestinian territories where many people are turning to religion, faith cannot be ignored and should not be handed over to the radicals. We must reject the idea that our political choices are limited to either religious extremism or a purely secular vision.

The time is ripe for a non-violent movement in the Palestinian community to rise up from the least expected places-from the mosques, the religious institutes and the Islamic centres. These places are often accused of being the birthplace of violence, but they can also be the birthplace of positive ideas for change. Faith-based non-violent movements have succeeded in the past to rally the multitude and change the political reality where it seemed impossible, and it can provide the same answers today.

Non-violent methods have already achieved some success in Palestinian villages such as Budrus, where both religious and secular Palestinians joined hands to resist the separation barrier which was slated to run through their land. Their protest was successful and the route of the barrier has been changed. However, the Palestinian non-violent movement is still divided and is mostly secular. I believe that the movement needs a moral and spiritual message of justice that can bind us together, and this cannot happen without the strong presence of religious leaders and religious members of the community. Just as Reverend King and Jonathan Daniels countered violent Christians with a different Christian theology to reclaim their religion and morals, Palestinians too must use religion as a force to unify rather than divide.

Freedom of religion doesn't just mean the freedom to worship-it also includes the freedom to use religion constructively in motivating people to make positive changes in government. In a region where religion has been hijacked for extremist agendas, religion is an essential element for creating a better future. This is why Palestinians today have the opportunity to use religion to inspire the birth of a non-violent movement that can unify them in their pursuit of freedom.


* Aziz Abu Sarah is the Director of Middle East Projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University at George Mason University, and a winner of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Common Ground Journalism. His blog can be found at http://azizabusarah.wordpress.com. Email: azizabusarah@gmail.com. This article is part of a special series on freedom of religion in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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A Palestinian woman enters politics
Asma Asfour
RAMALLAH - In May 2005 I was elected to be the first woman to join the Sinjel Municipality in the Ramallah district. At that time a new law had been passed which set a minimum quota for women's representation in local councils. The assumption underpinning the law was that women should take part in decision-making processes. So, despite the fact that the idea hadn't yet been widely accepted in many rural communities, women from different economic and cultural backgrounds suddenly found themselves taking part in political life.

In 2005 a twenty-six year old woman like me knew nothing about local governance despite advanced educational degrees. It did not even occur to me to nominate myself until it was publicised that the new quota law meant that two women would be joining my local municipality. Jokingly, I wrapped the Palestinian hatta [keffiyeh, or headdress] around my neck and said to my colleagues at work, "I am going to run against Mahmoud Abbas!" My friends looked at me indignantly as if I had broken a taboo, and asked, "are you nominating yourself for the municipal elections?" I wanted to say "yes", but my courage betrayed me. Nevertheless, I decided to overcome my fear because I knew the council - which for the most part was made up of elderly uneducated men chosen for their familial affiliations - did a poor job in addressing women's needs.

This conversation with my friends resulted in a number of men from various parties showing up at my home and suggesting that I join their list of nominees for the Council. Luckily I didn't face any objection from my family but the people close to me wondered if I should really take the risk.

I have learned it is not easy for women to take part in political life. Traditionally, they have been chosen for their political affiliation, not their ability to serve their community. In general women's participation in formal politics has not been proactive. It was rare to find a woman who came forward and nominated herself, especially in the rural areas. When a woman does take part in politics, as I found out, she is assessed twice: once as a politician and secondly as a woman.

My presence on the Council was not met with great enthusiasm, with men finding it hard to accept women who discuss and propose, and perhaps even argue. Some people even suggested that a female presence at municipal meetings was unnecessary and that the relevant documents should simply be brought home. But as I had been working side by side with men within academia I thought, why should I refrain from working alongside men from my local community? The strategy that I employed to accommodate these difficulties was the belief in gradual change.

During my time in the Council I tried to involve myself in various issues. I nominated myself as a member of the municipal finance committee and continually argued with our mayor when he didn't request my attendance at meetings with representatives from other councils to discuss a deal or an agreement. I trusted my ability to initiate projects that achieve a minimal level of prosperity for women in the area I come from. But the political circumstances that accompanied the Hamas victory in 2006 resulted in donors withdrawing their funding and thus my initiative was shelved.

Indeed, things have begun to change since the introduction of the quota. Over the past five years the presence of women in municipal councils has generated a sense among some women that they can come forward and participate in public life. Women who will be elected in the upcoming elections will now have a greater effect on political life. Now more accustomed to women's presence in politics, people are realising that closing their eyes to gender issues and women's participation is counter-productive. It is time to understand that the future of our society should be built by all its members.

As a Palestinian woman, I'm proud of Laila Ghannam and Janet Michael, the two women who hold prominent roles in Ramallah city. Real change could happen when we have a female president in Palestine. Then we, as Palestinians, would finally reach inner reconciliation with ourselves as human beings who believe in equality and democracy.

It stands to reason that a Palestinian society with a greater degree of social equality will be in a better position to reach a sustainable resolution with Israel and to build a strong independent state. The road won't be easy but now that Palestinian women have begun to take part in political life, we can begin to imagine that such a future is possible.


* Asma Asfour is a member of the Sinjel Municipality and is an activist for women's issues. This article was written forthe Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Renovated cinema to bring new life to Jenin
Jon Donnison
JENIN - Standing in the dusty, half-lit lobby of Cinema Jenin with paint splattered builders beavering away all around, it's hard to imagine that this venue was once the place to be on the Jenin social scene.

The cinema in the centre of the West Bank city was first opened in 1957.

But over the years Jenin has seen some of the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the cinema was eventually forced to close during the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the mid 1980s.

But now it is being renovated, and is due to re-open in August 2010.

"It will be finished. It will definitely be finished", says assistant project manager Mamoun Kanan with a cheeky smile, as he stands on the pile of rubble that will eventually be the cinema's main entrance.

The cinema will seat more than 300 people, in the original chairs from the 1950s and 1960s, which are now being restored.

The inspiration for the cinema's renovation followed the success of the film "Heart of Jenin".

The award-winning documentary directed by German filmmaker Marcus Vetter followed the story of Palestinian Ismail Khatib.

Five years ago, Mr. Khatib's 11-year-old son Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for a real one during the second Intifada.

The Israeli military expressed regret for the death.

Lives saved

Remarkably, Khatib chose to donate his son's organs to five children and a woman in Israel. Ahmed's kidneys, liver, heart and lungs were transplanted into Israeli citizens including Jews, Arabs and a Druze girl.

For five of them, the organ donations saved their lives.

"For me this new cinema is for Ahmed", Mr. Khatib says. "It's for all his friends. They can come here and feel Ahmed all around them."

At the time, Mr. Khatib said saving lives was more important than religion, adding "I feel that my son has entered the heart of every Israeli".

I ask him how it would feel to one day watch an Israeli film in Cinema Jenin.

"No problem," he says, "it's all about respecting each other's culture and learning".

Until a few years ago, Jenin was a dangerous place. It was not uncommon to see gunmen from different Palestinian militant groups on the streets.

Incursions from the occupying Israeli army were frequent.

Now things seem relatively calm. The Palestinian Authority has stepped up security and Israel has relaxed some of the checkpoints into the city.

Some militants have sought work in the security forces. One has even opened a theatre company.

"Red carpet"

It is estimated the new cinema will cost close to 500,000 euros. Much of the money has come from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. The German government has contributed 170,000 euros.

The musician Roger Waters from Pink Floyd has also donated a state-of-the-art sound system for the cinema.

In August 2010, the cinema is due to host the first Jenin International Film Festival. "Heart of Jenin" will be shown on the opening night.

"The whole project is a real positive change for Jenin," says Mr. Kanan. "We have high unemployment here and it will provide jobs and boost the economy."

"Also it's fun. People here need something to enjoy."

Kanan says the cinema will eventually show films from all around the world.

"Israeli films?" I ask him. "Yes of course, because we are looking for peace. International movies, Palestinian movies, Israeli movies. It's all the same. We are all human above everything."

A special council is being set up including the mufti, the local Muslim religious leader, to help decide the films that will be shown.

In the 1960s and 1970s, locals say the cinema used to show sex films one night a week.

"There'll be none of that this time," laughs projectionist Franz Macher, who's over from Germany to train young Palestinian projectionists.

"These days society is much more conservative so we need to be careful what we show. We don't want to censor films, but we would rather show a good film censored than not show it at all."

"What about violent films?" I ask.

"Yes the mufti has not forbidden it but he has asked us to be careful about violent films. People have seen enough violence here already."

That will be no problem for five-year-old Safedin, whom I met outside the cinema.

He is keen to see "Toy Story", while his eight-year-old sister Kutel is hoping for "Barbie" on the opening night.

In a ramshackle room at the back of the building sits the old cinema's projector.

Two metres high, the machine still whirs into action after a bit of tinkering from Mr. Macher.

"In the summer we'll be rolling out the red carpet", says Felix Gebauer, who's organising the 2010 Jenin Film festival.

He says they are expecting Hollywood star Leonardo Di Caprio and the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to be among the guests, although neither have given public confirmation of their attendance.

But 15-year-old Ghassan, who runs the food kiosk next to the cinema, is not impressed.

"I want to see the Barcelona football", he demands. "I hear they are coming too."


* Jon Donnison writes for the BBC. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the BBC.

Source: BBC News, 28 January 2010, http://news.bbc.co.ukCopyright permission is granted for publication.

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Arab MK slams Holocaust denial, wins praise from Jewish colleagues
Jonathan Lis
JERUSALEM - Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List - Ta'al), one of the most vocal critics of government policy in the Palestinian territories, evoked praise from his fellow lawmakers after delivering what Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin called "one of the best speeches he has ever heard in the plenum" about the Holocaust.

During the parliament's special session to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tibi said that the victims of the slaughter must be attentive to the suffering of others, a remark which hinted at the Palestinian casualties of the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip last year.

The full text of this article can be found at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1145549.html


* Jonathan Lis writes for Ha'aretz. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Ha'aretz.

Source: Ha'aretz, 27 January 2010, www.haaretz.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Segregation blues
Larry Derfner
JERUSALEM - I spent the day in Nazareth recently, doing a story about Israeli Arabs in hi-tech, and when I got in the car with the (Jewish) photographer to leave, I said to him, "Isn't it a relief to talk to Arabs as regular people?" He smiled in agreement.

I had the same feeling when I was doing a story on B'Tselem, the anti-occupation NGO in Jerusalem, and found myself making coffee in the kitchen next to an Arab woman who was getting a glass from the cupboard or something. We were together for about a minute, I don't remember any conversation, any particular notice we took of each other. It was only afterward that I felt this revelation: For a minute, I wasn't living in a segregated country. For a minute, the sharing of space with an Arab, as equals, was unremarkable.

This is a vision of life in this country as most Jews and Arabs, I think, wish it could be-and it's so amazingly rare. We cross paths, but usually on opposite sides of a counter or standing next to each other in line. With few exceptions, we live in segregated neighbourhoods, our kids go to segregated public schools, they play in segregated parks.

Nearly 25 years ago, not long after I moved to Israel, I rented an apartment in the Kababir neighbourhood of Haifa, right on the informal border between the Jewish section and Arab section. The building had two Arab families along with about 10 Jewish families. I'd see one of the Jews talking with one of the Arabs in front of the building, griping about the plumbing, about the noise-the things neighbours talk about. I got to know one of the Arab families, and once they invited me in to their apartment.

It's only in the decades since then that I've realised how rare an experience that was for an Israeli Jew. Before moving to Modi'in, I lived in three different apartments in Jerusalem, two in Tel Aviv and one other in Haifa, but that year in Kababir was the only time I've had any Arab neighbours. In Modi'in, a city of 70,000, the only Arabs I've seen are illegal Palestinian construction workers sneaking into town or under arrest at the police station.

In 20-plus years as a journalist here, I've interviewed hundreds of Arabs, but only had one as a colleague. I've never had an Arab friend or even an acquaintance. I can't recall a party or any purely social, non-professional setting I've been in where an Arab was present.

I know there are quite a few Israeli Jews who do have considerable contact with Arabs, who get to know them through work-especially if they work in a hospital-but the great majority of Israeli Jews, unless I'm badly mistaken, have exactly no Arabs in their circle of friends, co-workers and acquaintances.

Isn't this wonderful? I feel like I left Los Angeles, went back in time and moved to Mississippi.

And let's face it-what we've got in this country is not "separate but equal". We Jews are the privileged ones; the Arabs are the supplicants. They're knocking on our door; we're not knocking on theirs.

This, finally, is why it was such a relief to be talking with Arab hi-tech people in Nazareth, to be puttering around a kitchen next to an Arab NGO employee in Jerusalem. The equality and ease we had, as fleeting as it was, relieved me of my guilt-my guilt at being in a superior position to Arabs in this country, simply because I'm a Jew.

Ah yes, Jewish liberal guilt. I know-I can't stand it, either. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of my first days in Israel are of a field trip to the Knesset, of standing outside in the snow and thinking, "Thank God I don't have to be a liberal anymore. Here my people are the underdogs, I don't have to feel guilty or apologise to anyone." Little did I know.

Things are in sad shape when it's such a rare thrill to be in the same room with an Arab and not have the walls crack from the tension, for the words, "Arab... Jew... Arab... Jew..." not to be running through your head. I don't have the patience for this. I really don't want to set aside a day to take an Arab to lunch. I don't want to have to join a goddamn encounter group for my kids to play one game of soccer with Arab kids.

I'm really not such a big liberal. I don't need Israel to be the rainbow nation, and I don't expect it to be. I actually want it to go on being a Jewish state. I'm just tired of it being a Jewish Mississippi.


* Larry Derfner is a feature writer and columnist for The Jerusalem Post. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Jerusalem Post.

Source: The Jerusalem Post, 27 January 2010, www.jpost.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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