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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  
04 - 01 March 2010
Using Qur'anic narratives in pursuit of peace
by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf maintains that religion holds one of the keys to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the first article in a special series on Jews and Muslims in each other's narratives.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010)
Can Muslim and Jewish narratives co-exist?
by Deborah Weissman
Jewish educator Deborah Weissman proposes various strategies for "making room for the Other", in this second article in our series on Jews and Muslims in each other's narratives. (Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010)
The language of leaders: Lincoln as a model
by Michael Lame
Analyst Michael Lame suggests learning from former American President Abraham Lincoln that even in times of war we must refrain from vilifying our enemy in order to lay the groundwork for future reconciliation.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010)
Muslim right to the Jewish past
by Yonathan Mizrachi
Archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi argues that sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb, recently added to the list of Israel's National Heritage Sites, have a complex history which must be acknowledged as part of the land's multicultural nature.
(Source: Ha'aretz, 25 February 2010)
Palestinian prime minister to Israeli leaders: We are building a state while under occupation to end the occupation
by Ziad Asali
Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, comments on Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's controversial appearance at Israel's Herzliya Conference.
(Source: The Huffington Post, 24 February 2010)
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The community school at Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam, a mixed Jewish-Arab village in Israel, teaches young students both Arabic and Hebrew from the outset, in order to create mutual understanding.
Using Qur'anic narratives in pursuit of peace
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
NEW YORK - I consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the single biggest obstacle to eliminating Muslim-Jewish antipathy. Although this dispute is fundamentally about the distribution of assets and the power to control decisions, it is frequently portrayed as a religious conflict. And too often, opposing sides have used erroneous or out-of-context interpretations of their scriptures to demonise the other and to provide justification for not striving towards a just peace.

From an Islamic perspective, this could not be more misguided, as we are given a number of powerful principles and narratives in the Qur'an that propel us towards justice, peace and communal harmony. It is my belief, therefore, that while religion is not the primary problem in Israel-Palestine, it is a primary part of the solution.

Scripturally, Muslims and Jews are united by the Prophet Abraham's legacy embodied in the "Abrahamic ethic", which is at its core a monotheism which asserts human liberty, equality, and fraternity. The Qur'an never tires of repeating that its task is to re-establish this ethic and that Muhammad and all the prior prophets came to do just that: "The nearest of people to Abraham are those who follow him, and this Prophet [Muhammad] and those who believe," (The Qur'an, 3:68).

Islam defines itself not so much as the religion of Muhammad, but the religion of God, originally established by Abraham. Stemming from this shared heritage, Jews (as well as Christians) are described by a special name in the Qur'an: "People of the Book", ahl al-kitab, or a "scriptured people". Muslims believe that God sent the Jewish people scriptures containing the divine teachings of God's message through their prophets. As such, they have the true religion. To deny this is to contradict the Qur'an, which does not merely recognise the similarity of Jews to Muslims; it identifies Islam with them. "…Say [to the People of the Book]: We believe in that which was revealed to us as well as that which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is One and the same. We all submit to Him," (The Qur'an, 29:46). This unity means that although disagreements between us certainly exist, these are no more than family disputes.

The Qur'an does criticise Jews for failure to uphold the Torah and for excessive legalism and exaggerated authoritarianism by some rabbis. These passages and others have been manipulated to typecast Jews and unfairly implicate them in contemporary problems. However, there is no criticism that the Qur'an has addressed to Jews that Jews have not addressed to themselves or to their tradition. Furthermore, no Muslim can deny that many of these faults are universal ones, shortcomings that are present in any religious community, including our Muslim community. In fact, the Qur'an never totally condemns any people, since the critical verses stand side by side with those verses that justify the righteous.

Our mandate, therefore, is to not divide our communities into hostile factions on account of religion, precisely as some have done. God's call in the Qur'an to Jews and Christians, as well as to Muslims, still stands as proper, relevant and necessary today as it was when it was first revealed some fourteen centuries ago: "O People of the Book! Let us now come together under a fair principle common to all of us-that we worship none but God, that we associate nothing with Him, and that we take not one another as lords beside God," (The Qur'an, 3:64). This passage and others provide profound inspiration for dialogue, collaboration and, ultimately, peace.

Dialogue, the first step, offers the opportunity for uncovering the common ground of the shared values and goals that resonate in each of our faiths and forge personal bonds and relationships of trust, which carry the potential to enable collaborative efforts. I advocate for such an action-oriented dialogue that moves beyond talk.

Muslim and Jewish organisations and institutions must build coalitions to partner in peace. Although this should take place within numerous sectors, it is especially critical at the level of religious leadership-between rabbis and imams and among faith-based activists. It is these friendships and partnerships that can help bring a just peace to Israel, Palestine and the broader region and, furthermore, they can transform the relationship between Muslims and Jews globally.

Such work towards transformation could draw its inspiration from the remarkable period of the Cordoba Caliphate in present-day Spain. During its peak in the tenth and eleventh centuries, Cordoba was the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society on earth, one where Muslims and Jews enjoyed a special relationship. My own organisation, the Cordoba Initiative, draws upon this legacy to once again shift Jewish-Muslim relations towards collaboration around our common values and interests. We are utilising a powerful model of action-oriented and faith-based partnership to create a tipping point in Muslim World-West relations within the next decade, including in the context of Israel and Palestine. I believe that this is our Abrahamic mandate.


* Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative which works to improve Muslim-West relations. This article is part of a special series on Jews and Muslims in each other's narratives and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Can Muslim and Jewish narratives co-exist?
Deborah Weissman
JERUSALEM - In his book, Longitudes & Attitudes (2002), journalist Thomas Friedman, citing Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen, suggests that the true clash in today's world is not "between civilisations" (as argued by Samuel Huntington) but within each civilisation or religion-a clash between the forces of extremism and those of moderation, tolerance, or what might be called "religious humanism".

One of the challenges to all of our traditions is to find within them those resources that can help us make room for the Other. There are several strategies for dealing with problematic texts that include de-emphasising them contextualising them historically, putting them in dialogue with other texts and re-interpreting them. Thus we can and must develop a narrative or even a theology of our relationship with members of other communities.

Traditional Jews have often found it easier to relate to Islam than to Christianity. One reason is historical-Jewish communities have suffered more in Christian settings than in Muslim ones. The great scholar Menachem ben Solomon HaMeiri of Provence (1249-1316) maintained that both Christians and Muslims were "peoples disciplined by religion". But most medieval (and even many modern) rabbis see in Islam a "true" faith, non-idolatrous and radically monotheistic.

Islam and Judaism are close not only theologically but also structurally. Both religious cultures emphasise a legal system for the regulation of everyday life. That system, called in Judaism Halakha (from the root "to walk") is like a path which Jews are summoned to walk on a daily basis, the Muslim equivalent being Sharia. The laws govern everything from eating to marital relations to business or medical ethics, so that theological and Prophetic ideals are concretised through incremental steps on a day-to-day basis.

Theoretically, there are at least two religious issues around which Jews and Muslims could make common cause: One involves the availability of kosher/halal food. Both Jews and Muslims are affected by government bans-for example, in Sweden-on kosher meat slaughtering. There are several North American universities that have opened special dining halls to accommodate the dietary needs of Jews and Muslims together. Sitting over a shared meal may facilitate friendly dialogue. The second issue involves circumcision, practiced by both groups and sometimes in jeopardy in some Western societies, where it is perceived as cruel. How interesting-and symbolic-that two religious issues around which Jews and Muslims could unite both involve knives. Would that we could beat our knives into ploughshares…

Among Israelis and Palestinians who engage in dialogue and represent two nations but also three religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam-our experience has often been that people who identify with their respective religions and traditions can find a common language and establish rapport on that basis. There must be some kind of mutual acknowledgement of narratives as a basis for understanding and dialogue.

The Palestinian and Jewish/Zionist narratives must eventually exist side-by-side; less difficult, I believe, would be to reconcile the Jewish and Muslim narratives. In both traditions there are texts that support the idea of religious diversity. Perhaps best-known is Sura 46, 13 in the Qu'ran, in which Allah states that he has created humankind in various groups and tribes, "so that you may know one another".

One of the challenges is that in both Jewish and Muslim traditions, some of the interpretations call for a more monolithic future in which all people will eventually be converted to that particular faith. There are, I would suggest, at least three ways of confronting this challenge. The first is to locate and emphasise alternate texts within the same tradition-texts that allow for diversity even in the "End-Times". Such a text, from the Jewish tradition, might be Micah 4:5: "All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever." The second would be to engage in a serious process of re-interpretation of the more exclusivist texts. Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg has written, "Even the choicest vine needs seasonal pruning to ensure more fruitful growth."

A third strategy, that has been employed in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, is to postpone the fulfilment of the conversionary impulse to the distant future and conduct open dialogue in the here and now. This path is perhaps less satisfactory on some levels but may be more pragmatic.
In any case, it is imperative that Jews and Muslims engage in dialogue, overcome fears and stereotypes and work together for a more peaceful and just world.


* Dr. Deborah Weissman, a Jewish educator based in Jerusalem, is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews (www.iccj.org). The verse from Sura 46, 13 in the Qu'ran quoted above has been adopted by The International Council of Christians and Jews as the theme for its 2010 annual conference, to be held in Turkey. This article is part of a special series on Jews and Muslims in each other's narratives and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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

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The language of leaders: Lincoln as a model
Michael Lame
WASHINGTON, DC - Angry rhetoric now characterises the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, two West Bank burial sites revered by Jews and Muslims alike, were added by Netanyahu to Israel's new national heritage list. Abbas responded by charging that "Israel's attempt to steal the Palestinian heritage is part of a larger scheme to take over religious Muslim sites". Netanyahu countered by issuing a statement accusing Abbas of engaging in a "campaign of lies and hypocrisy".

What's wrong with this picture? Such militant language from each leader may be received with approval by his respective domestic audience, but it temporarily poisons the well of reconciliation from which both peoples must eventually drink.

One consequence is heightened tensions and increased distrust between Palestinians and Israelis. Another is a decreased likelihood that the two sides will do a deal in the foreseeable future.

Being a statesman, and not merely a successful politician, requires viewing the future strategically. In the long run, Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to live together, without violence, terror, oppression or provocative language. This is true regardless of what shape the final settlement takes.

Must a leader who wishes to protect his base of support by exhibiting strength use demeaning rhetoric against his or her adversary? One could examine the language of Sadat, Hussein or Rabin for examples of strong Middle Eastern leaders who at crucial moments were willing to speak in a conciliatory fashion.

For an inspiring perspective on the language of leaders, let's look back to America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln-a war leader and a man of peace.

Lincoln was uncompromisingly aggressive in wartime, refusing to consider any negotiated settlement that would not restore the Union. Yet his language was always amicable and temperate towards the people of the South. Even though he thought slavery was "an unqualified evil", he did not speak abusively of slave owners. .

Lincoln's exemplary magnanimity is most evident in the closing passage of the Second Inaugural Address, delivered while the war still raged: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God give us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Can you imagine any Israeli prime minister or PA president speaking thus?

Of course, no analogy is exact. Southerners were citizens of the United States before they seceded and Lincoln always considered them to be Americans who would one day be welcomed back into the Union. In contrast, Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza speak a different language than do the Jews of Israel, both literally and figuratively. Neither people has ever wanted the other, let alone wanted them back.

Despite profound differences between the two situations, Israelis and Palestinians can learn from Lincoln. The president's determination to defeat a wartime enemy did not lead him to vilify that enemy. On more than one occasion, Lincoln visited and comforted wounded confederate soldiers who had fought against his own troops. His mollifying words and deeds looked past the immediate conflict to a time when the warring parties would live alongside each other in peace.

As this example suggests, one way to change the dynamics of a conflict is to change the language employed. Provocative words can be replaced by words of moderation, respect and compassion. Of course, words alone will not transform the Middle East. But the habits of thinking that shape and are shaped by moderate language can also produce moderate action. Use of a new vocabulary can begin to create a context more conducive to resolving the conflict.

Returning immediately to the negotiating table won't produce this effect. Negotiations must be preceded by a profound change, perhaps beginning with a shift in the language used by the leadership to address the other side.

Obviously this is a difficult process. Despite cooperation at many levels, Israelis and Palestinians remain in an adversarial, occupier-occupied relationship. Yet it's possible for them to pursue a policy which serves their interests without impugning their opponents' motives or character and without disparaging their national aspirations.

The words of leaders matter and the specific words that leaders speak can be of critical importance to their constituents and to their opponents. Now is the time for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to choose words that can help create a new reality in the Middle East.


* Michael Lame is the founder of "Re-Think the Middle East", a new organisation whose purpose is to help elevate the quality of public discourse regarding the future of the Middle East and the roles played by the United States and the international community in creating that future. He blogs at www.rethinkme.org. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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

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Muslim right to the Jewish past
Yonathan Mizrachi
JERUSALEM - The decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb on the list of National Heritage Sites would, at first glance, appear to be one about which every Jew should be pleased. And, in fact, many Israelis believe that historical sites identified with the Jewish past should be under Jewish-Israeli control. They tend to ignore the fact that the past uncovered by the archaeologist comprises dozens of strata which recount the histories of a variety of nations and cultures that lived in the country. Instead, they focus on a particular layer, identified as Jewish, and use it as proof of, and justification for, ownership.

This phenomenon is especially evident in the case of religious holy sites, where belief trumps archaeology. So, for example, almost no one refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs as a structure dating from the first century BCE, as demonstrated by archaeological analysis. The site is referred to as one of the Jews' most holy places, and most holy to other religions as well. The sanctity of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb prevents us from seeing the whole, complex story, instead of which we're bogged down with the biblical accounts of events that, according to tradition, occurred there. The Cave of the Patriarchs is one of the few structures in the country which have stood for more than 2000 years. Rachel's Tomb was built in the 19th century, a focus of sacred traditions of Christians, Muslims and Jews. The site's identification as the location of Rachel's tomb is attributed to Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who came to Palestine after the Byzantine Empire accepted Christianity and "discovered" the sites where events recounted in the bible had occurred. Whether or not she identified the correct site is irrelevant today, because millions of the faithful believe it to be a holy place, and no amount of research will convince a believer to abandon his faith. But the two principal religious sites in the occupied territories are also those testifying to the country's complexity and cultural richness.

A site such as the Cave of the Patriarchs has remained standing for more than 2000 years only because all the nations, religions, cultures and rulers who came to the country recognised its importance, and sometimes its holiness, which had to be preserved on behalf of the believers. Not only for Jews, but also for believers in other religions, particularly Muslims. Had not the Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Mamluks and others recognised the site's importance, and desired its preservation, it is possible that it would have been less central to the Jewish religion today, and perhaps even less important.

The state is still obligated today to preserve Byzantine and Crusader sites identified with Christianity, as well as Muslim sites and those of pagan religions and other nations, no less than those associated with Jewish history. Moreover, the idea that Jewish sites must be owned by Jews is misplaced. Hebron's Jewish past is part of the totality of Hebron's history. The Muslim residents of Hebron have the right to be responsible for preserving their past, the history of their lands, in Hebron and elsewhere. The ancient synagogue in Jericho (Na'aran), the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and other religious structures in the occupied territories should be the responsibility of the local residents, just as the city of Nazareth, which is sacred to Christians, is Israel's responsibility, and Muslim structures in Spain dating from the 8th to the 14th centuries are the responsibility of the Spanish government.

The Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb are undoubtedly Jewish holy sites, but their power transcends any narrow view of their Jewish past. Their uniqueness is based on the multicultural story of this country over the course of thousands of years. A society which is capable of accepting and respecting the culture and beliefs of another will have immeasurably greater success in maintaining its position in the country than one focused only on its own past, ignoring its complexity, blind to the fact that its own past is also that of others as well. When believers of all faiths worship at their holy places, these sites are strengthened, as are the worshippers themselves. Rather than focusing on its national heritage, it would be better for Israel to focus on the country's broader cultural heritage and strengthen the unique multicultural nature of this land.


* Yonathan Mizrachi is a member of "Emek Shaveh", and one of the founders of the Alternative Archaeological Tour in Silwan/City of David - www.alt-arch.org. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Ha'aretz.

Source: Ha'aretz, 25 February 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Palestinian prime minister to Israeli leaders: We are building a state while under occupation to end the occupation
Ziad Asali
WASHINGTON, DC - Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad forthrightly brought his case for building a Palestinian state to Israeli political and military leaders, and they applauded. The new Palestinian attitude towards how to end the occupation that began in 1967 was on full display during Fayyad's speech at the Herzliya conference in Israel earlier this month, and it has had a considerable impact on its Israeli audience.

With reports that "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians will begin soon, attention must be paid to Fayyad's remarks and their reception.

Fayyad did not hold back in presenting the Palestinian perspective to Israel's leaders. He firmly called for a settlement freeze, insisted that a Palestinian state must be fully sovereign and viable with East Jerusalem as its capital, and reasserted that the goal of the national movement is the creation of such a state living alongside Israel in peace and security. Although some Palestinians and Arabs criticised Fayyad for taking part in an Israeli conference on security, he received very strong support from many Palestinians based on the content of his remarks.

Standing on a record of performance and credibility, and cognizant of Israeli policy changes such as reaffirmed commitment to a two-state solution, reduction in checkpoints and security cooperation, Fayyad proposed in his speech the literal creation of a state in spite of the occupation, with the understanding that if such a state becomes an undeniable reality, formal recognition of its existence and an end to the occupation will be irresistible.

Fayyad thought he was going to a panel discussion and arrived at the conference without a prepared text. His extemporaneous comments reflected the systematic logic of serious policies meant to end the conflict and not talk about ending it.

Since last August when Fayyad's cabinet adopted a formal plan for building the institutions of a state, while under occupation, to end the occupation, he has been at the epicentre of a transformation within the Palestinian national movement. With the support of President Mahmoud Abbas and his cabinet colleagues, he has been re-orienting Palestinian energies towards a constructive governmental and social programme aimed at laying the groundwork for establishing a state of Palestine.

Many Israelis seem uncertain how to react to this unanticipated development. The Israeli extreme right wing and settler movement have made their angry objections crystal clear, and denounced Israeli President Shimon Peres for comparing Fayyad to Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

The audience that Fayyad was really aiming at was the Israeli national security establishment that understands that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is a strategic imperative for Israel, but had not seen a credible way of achieving it. His approach provides a way for both peoples to exchange a vengeful, tribal clash for a new paradigm that respects each other's national rights and narratives.

Fayyad's message was loud and clear: We can and will build our state in preparation for ending the occupation, without asking for permission. Addressing criticisms that his programme is unilateral, he insisted that it must be so, for if Palestinians do not build their own state, "who is going to do it for us?"

The Prime Minister cited numerous examples of what this means in practice, including more than 1,000 community development projects that have already been completed, the creation of the nucleus of a Palestinian central bank and the performance of the new Palestinian security services.

He, President Abbas and his cabinet colleagues have had the vision and courage to push the Palestinian national movement into a new phase that embraces the responsibilities of self-government as it continues to insist on the right of self-determination. In Herzliya, Israel was listening.

However, the Palestinians will not be able to fully realise this ambitious and potentially transformative programme on their own. It will require a sustained global effort to provide the Palestinian Authority with the financial and technical support and the political protection that will be required for it to succeed. The Obama administration, the Quartet, Arab governments and the Israeli government have a state-building plan in Palestine. This is the time for them to act.

By turning their attention to establishing the administrative and infrastructural framework of such a state, responsible Palestinians are doing their part to build the infrastructure of peace. They are paving their own way for the people of the Middle East to live in peace with security and dignity for all.


* Ziad Asali is President of the American Task Force on Palestine, and serves on Search for Common Ground's Middle East Advisory Board. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

Source: The Huffington Post, 24 February 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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