Learning about Matters of Faith on a Jewish Holy Day

May 28, 2009
*Special to asia!

Hundreds and thousands of Jews will stay up all night tonight to study the Torah, I am sitting here listening to an old Muslim man teach me about Judaism, the Koran and being Palestinian.

"Do you know the history of the Jewish people?" he asked me, whilst taking a sip of the strong Turkish coffee.

He would proceed on to tell me about how Issac - from whom the Jews descended - and Ishmael - from whom the Arabs trace their ancestry - came to be.

“Abraham had a wife Sara and they had no children. Sara had a servant called Hagar and she had a son with Ibrahim and he was Ismael,” he continued, switching between the Jewish and Muslim name of the common patriarch of the two religions.

“Ibrahim then had a son with Sara when she was very old. Hagar and Ismael went to live in Mecca, and Ibrahim and Sara had the son Issac.”

That was the common lineage of the Jews and the Arabs, and by extension, today's Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and how they both came to revere the city of Hebron, the final resting place of the prophet Abraham.

Sahed had thought it apt to explain to this gentile something about the Jews today. When dusk fell a few hours ago, the Jewish festival of Shauvot had begun

For three days, the Jews will celebrate God's giving of the Torah, or the Ten Commandments, to Moses. It is believed that when God first gave the Torah, they had not been awake to receive it. To make up for it, they now keep a vigil and receive the divine instructions anew for the next year.

In the synagogues, the Jews will be listening to the customary reading of the Ten Commandments. In a quiet room, stashed above one of the cobble-stoned lanes in Jerusalem's labyrinth-like Old City, I was doing the same, only at the feet of an old Muslim man.



jaffa gate


Increased security at the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem's Old City on Shauvot


Sahed was born and bred a Jerusalemite, but his family was originally from Hebron. The city of Abraham, he proudly reminded me. During the 1920s, his grandfather left Hebron like many other Arabs who departed from their homes in what is now the West Bank, to “find a better life” in Jerusalem.

There was no way they could have known that decades later, their quest would leave their descendants here and there by a political divide.

Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the West Bank has partially under the Palestinian Authority, which controls Israeli entry into its territory.

“I have a blue Jerusalem ID, so it is not allowed for me to go to the West Bank," explained Sahed.

"When you go there, you will see a sign saying, 'No Israelis are allowed.' They come at their own risk.”

The sign didn't stop him. Neither did the Israeli Separation Wall with the West Bank, nor for that matter, the Israeli soldiers that stood guard at the border. Sahed had gone back a few times previously to Hebron to visit his extended family there, and each time, the soldiers had closed the proverbial eye, allowing him through and back again.

Sahed has this ease of movement not so readily available to Arabs or Palestinians living in the West Bank due to tight Israeli controls, thanks to his blue ID. Officially it gives him Israeli permission to live in Jerusalem. It also identifies him as an "Arab Israeli", though that is a terminology that Sahed disagrees with.

“They say we are Israelis, but I am not.”

I asked him what he was, and he said he was a Palestinian, and an Arab too, but not an Israeli.

Sahed considered himself to be living under occupation in Jerusalem, a sentiment somewhat echoed by another Jerusalem-born Arab Israeli the other day.

“'Arab Israeli' is an occupation name. They want to make it seem like we are not Palestinians. We are Palestinian-Israelis.”

Being "Palestinian" remains an identity to which they belong, a point which makes some Israelis very uncomfortable.

Every year, as Israel celebrates its establishment on its National Day, Arabs commemorate the Nakba or “catastrophe”, the day when they lost the Palestinian homeland. That this happens as well in Jerusalem among the Arab or Palestinian community troubled some Israeli lawmakers so much, they passed a motion on Sunday, making it illegal to mark the Nakba in Israel.

If the Israeli Knesset give the parliamentary approval, it could become law. The sponsor of the bill believes Israel needed to defend itself from “incitement from the Islamist Movement.”, but not all Israelis agree.

Jewish Michael Eitan from the right-wing Likud party - one of those who voted against the motion in the Committee - said,

“The State of Israel has to be certain of its ability to fight against those who wish to ruin it, not by means of reducing freedom of speech, but by holding on to our beliefs.”

Arab-Israeli Knesset member Dr Afu Aghbaria said the bill was “reminiscent of a Third Reich law”.

“The Israeli government has declared a jihad on the Arab community and is slowly turning Israel to an apartheid state. I will not be surprised if the Netanyahu-Lieberman government will impose other restrictions on its Arab citizens, like barring the use of the Arabic language."

Restrictions are a part and parcel of life for Arabs in Israel, who number over one million, or just under 20 percent of Israel's population.

“It was better before 1993,” Sahed said, referring to the Oslo Peace Accord signed then, under which autonomy in the West Bank was reverted to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

It was lauded then as a breakthrough in the peace process. Yet apart from winning the Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat whom the Israeli would finally recognise as the Palestinians' leader, it did little to improve the lot of ordinary Palestinians.

Historian Edward Said had noted back in an editorial in 1996,

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

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