Category Archives: religion

Naftali Rothenberg on “the state’s Jewish character”

Some anti-Zionists are actively painting Orthodox rabbis as fascists.

In Israel, an intense debate is ongoing between – among other dimensions – religiously observant Jewish communities, over what it is to be Jewish and the nature of a Jewish state. Among those involved is Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg of Har Adar, one of many Orthodox leaders who refuses to pursue a conflict path.

Here he responds to the Chief Rabbi of Safed:

“Calls issued by rabbis not to rent apartments to Arabs, including such an appeal delivered recently by the chief rabbi of Safed, belie Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. They contradict the state’s Jewish character no less (and, perhaps, more ) than they undermine its definition as democratic. Much has already been said about the ease with which we allow ourselves to assail the country’s minorities, as though we do not bear a heritage of abuse as a persecuted minority in the lands of the Diaspora. However, it should be emphasized that the most problematic aspect of the rabbis’ calls of incitement is that they completely deviate from Jewish law.”

Read on.

Debates like these are ongoing across the Middle East, a region where minorities fare poorly and most states define themselves in religious or ethnic terms – for example, as Arab like Egypt and Syria or Islamic Republics, like Iran. Greens, like everybody else, should address this situation without prejudice.

Bonus link: Time to End the Reform-Orthodox Wars.

Gaza’s religious hardliners

I don’t need to remind most Green readers about the effects of the blockade of Gaza on life in Gaza. Gisha’s Freedom of Information request to the Israeli government has revealed more about this policy. B’Tselem has been testifying before Israel’s Turkel Commission to investigate May’s Gaza flotilla incident.

“Punishing a million and a half persons because some of them voted for Hamas is not legitimate. At any rate, the siege policy has not achieved its declared purpose: toppling the Hamas government and bring about the release of Gilad Shalit. There is, in fact, evidence that the opposite is true: in the absence of controlled foreign trade via Israel, a Hamas-controlled economy of smuggling via tunnels has developed, through which many kinds of goods are brought into Gaza, including weapons. Both the injustice and the futility of the siege policy are exemplified by the fact that, following international pressure in the wake of the flotilla incident, the government of Israel immediately announced that it would ease restrictions on entry of previously prohibited materials, including items that had been defined as potentially dangerous to state security.”

What we hear less about, because it complicates the dominant stories about Palestinians as barely-surviving victims of Israel alone, is this kind of thing about Gaza City’s Crazy Water Park from Guardian correspondent Harriet Sherwood. Despite its popularity and political correctness – in Gaza this means sex segregation, with only girls aged below 12 permitted to swim – it became the target of religious hardliners with tacit government support.

“The theme park, on the fringes of Gaza City, had suffered a previous arson attack on 20 August during Ramadan, following false rumours that it was hosting mixed-gender parties, and had to close for three days because of the damage.

Then, on 5 September, the Hamas attorney-general ordered the resort’s closure for another three weeks. “We were informed there was an unlicensed water whirl,” said Ala’aeddin al-Araj, one of the park’s five investors. “But it was not the real reason, because there are about 20,000 unlicensed water whirls in the Gaza Strip.”

On 19 September came the biggest attack. Despite the lockdown that Hamas security forces have on Gaza City, a large group of gunmen moved unhindered through checkpoints and, according to Araj, spent considerable time setting fires at the resort. “It was well organised,” he said. “We know the attack took place under government eyes.””

Most people accept that the isolation of Gaza (as distinct from other possible enactments of security, which most of us who purport to care should take the trouble to understand better) exacerbates the problem of religious extremism. Palestinian Centre for Human Rights representative Hamdi Shaqqura:

“The broader picture of isolation in Gaza – international sanctions and closure – is a recipe for extremism to flourish,” said Shaqqura. “We are gradually moving to a monolithic society as interpreted by the ruling party. Their ideology flourishes in poverty and isolation. You can see the impact of this clearly.”

The Green Party has policy on liberating and emancipating Palestinians from Israelis but not from other Palestinians – in other words, building Palestinian civil society. And despite its avid interest in Palestinians, Green Party policy doesn’t acknowledge the threat posed by religious hardliners to women and regional minority groups such as Jews at all.

See also Playing Politics: Gaza’s Summer Camps.

Islam and Judaism in historical context – Tobias Green

One aspect of the Israel-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts is its religious dimension. In fact religion is a minor factor but one which is advanced with an intensity which has come to dominate the wider perception of relations between Israel and its neighbours, leading to the assumption that these two religions have always been in conflict. This is contrary to the truth, and indeed one of the greatest tragedies of the conflict of the Middle East is that it has polarised two great religions which have a great deal of shared histories and rituals.

The shared histories of Islam and Judaism can easily be seen in, for instance, their history in the Iberian peninsular in the medieval period. During the almost 8 centuries during which there were Islamic kingdoms in Iberia, Jews and Moslems lived side by side. In the Moslem caliphate of Al-Andalus, some Jews were viziers and major generals for the Moslem leaders, and there were entire towns famed for being populated by Jews. Jewish culture in turn was heavily influenced by Moslem civilization, as can be seen in the Islamicised architecture of the great syangogue that still stands in Toledo, and in the harmonies and musical style of Sephardic songs and liturgy.Meanwhile, those Jews and Moslems who lived under Christian kingdoms were treated in a similar fashion, each having their own legal codes for certain aspects of communal laws, and each suffering the same proscriptiosn and prohibitions. Moreover, both Jews and Moslems were expelled from Spain within 10 years of each other, in 1492 and 1502 respectively.

From this point on, in fact, Jews generally fared far better under Moslem than under Christian rule. Many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 ended up in the lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire, where they lived in secure communities under protection from the Ottoman emperors and established thriving centres in cities such as Salonica, Dubrovnik, Smyrna, Istanbul and Sofia. Many spanish Jews also fled to Morocco where they lived with Moslems in important settlements in Fez, Casablanca, Essaouira and Mogador. A party of 5 ambassadors sent in 1528 by the emir of Tremecen to negotitate with the Spanish Christians at Oran included two Jews – a typical example of the co-eistence of the faiths at this time.

The fact that Jews generally fared much better in such placed than theyd id in Christian Europe may partly be owing to the fact that Islam and Judaism share many ritual practices in common. The deitary prohibitions are remarkably similar, for instance, as are the colours of mourning and the emphasis on swift burials. Both faiths pray int he direction of their holy cities – Mecca in the Islamic case, Jerusalem in the Jewish case. Mystics of both faiths believe that the scripts of the holy texts of their laws – the Qu’ran and the Torah – hold secrets which can resolve any number of earthly problems if correctly interpreted by sages.

Only in the 19th century, with the increasing pressure on Ottoman provinces caused by the rapid economic and political decline of the Ottoman Empire, did discord and difficultes begin to be wdiespread in this coexistence of Islam and Judaism. This should not obscure the many cultural and historical simialrities which should unite, rather than divide, the two religions. The fact that the current crisis in the Middle East obscures this fact may be but one of many tragedies, but it is a significant one – since only by rediscovering this coexistence can peace hope to return to the region.

Fletcher, Richard (1992): Moorish Spain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Castro, Americo: La Realidad Historica de Espana. Mexico City. Editorial Porua (1954)

Tobias Green is an academic and Green Party member.