Israel’s Jewish Engagement with the Muslim World

by Gedalyah Reback

Much ado is being made about the return visit of Oxford Professor for Islamic Studies (and grandson to Islamic Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna) Tariq Ramadan to the United States, after an official six-year ban being brought to an end by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The visit is without a doubt controversial in a country where the political atmosphere enabled such a ban just six years ago, but it no doubt was made possible not by a passive end to the policies of the Bush Administration, but the active ones of the Obama government.

While American engagement with the Islamic world undoubtedly coming at the expense of its relationship with the Israelis, it should raise the prospect of what an Israeli engagement with the Islamic world would look like. Just the same, Israel just saw a potential parallel event, realistic or not, floated by Sheikh Mohammed al-Areefi of Saudi Arabia when he said he intended to visit Jerusalem.

It should be a welcome challenge for the country to bring professors, intellectuals and sheikhs of Ramadan’s or Areefi’s stature to Israel not to lecture Israelis about how they can accomodate Islam, but for Ramadan and others like him to feel the pressure of the Israeli and Jewish perspectives on the world.

In a paradoxical way, Israel should be consolidating its Jewish identity for the purpose of engagement with espousers of Muslim identity. This is essentially vital to Israel’s future prosperity in the Middle East, especially now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is homing in on religious aspects of the fight beyond political and territorial. Progress on Jerusalem will not be as easy to accomplish as were the Oslo Accords (which in their own right have been in danger of being rolled back). They necessitate religious engagement. The value of Jerusalem in terms of a momento or a heritage is undoubtedly overweighed by the religious significance of the center of the city. If Muslims cannot comprehend the vitality of the Temple Mount in Judaism, there will be no reinforced willingness to share the city no matter with whom Israel might have to share it.

The only way this country can maintain a healthy Jewish identity is to make it resilient. The integration of different Jewish communities, obviously referring to the Ultra-Orthodox but potential thousands of liberal Jewish immigrants as well, requires a tough push for Jewish religious identity that will be undoubtedly uncomfortable for virtually every corner of Jewish – not just Israeli – society. Without engagement with each other, Jews will not have a ground on which to stand when approached by the other religious and traditionalist groups of the world.

As lofty as it sounds, such a radical push toward a common approach to Judaism has happened before. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the Land of Israel and the urge to move there reasserted itself on the stage amongst virtually every party in the Jewish world.

The centrality of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, which today are again central tenets of every Jewish demonination, are being challenged by the political climate, which has a momentous cultural advantage over religious observance and identity in the Western world and among the ruling class in most countries. The jobs of the Ministers of Religion, Diaspora Affairs and Interior should be gearing their policies in the directions implied above. At that point, Israel’s engagement with the Muslim world – and every religious people for that matter – will enable a true influence of Jewish values on global affairs and the centrality of Israeli standing in it.

So invite the Tariq Ramadans of the world to Israel. We should want them to come. Make Israel not just a bastion for dialogue but a capital for religious intellectual freedom unchallenged even in the Islamic world. But first get the biggest guns in the Jewish intelligensia together and get their constituents to listen. Those encounters and those debates are what Israeli culture and Jewish religion will need to push forward with a common Jewish identity. Right now Muslims are getting across the message Jerusalem is their third holiest place. Jews are pathetically asserting that it’s their first.

Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University

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