Last Friday evening, as the Sabbath descended and Sukkot began, I found myself surrounded by tens of thousands of worshipers, each with a personal supplication to the Lord on the lips. But they were not Jews, and the setting was not some vast outdoor synagogue. Rather, I was at Umm al-Fahm's Salaam Sports Stadium, where the 14th annual "Al-Aqsa is in Danger" rally was taking place before an audience of Arab Israeli citizens from all over the country.
Recent days have seen a rise in inter-communal tension over what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as Al-Haram Ash-Sharif, or simply Al-Aqsa. When political stakes are raised among Jews and Muslims, and among different streams within each religious group, one can count on the focus moving to the Haram. But to learn what Israeli Arab citizens are thinking about Jerusalem, one would do well to listen to what they are saying in Umm al-Fahm, the de facto Arab cultural center of the Wadi Ara region.
Since the inception of the annual rally, one of its key personalities has been Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, who has been pushing the envelope for years with Israeli authorities via his rabble-rousing campaigns to protect Islamic holy sites. Salah has said that the event has two principal goals: first, to increase Islamic awareness about Al-Aqsa Mosque and its tragic circumstances (namely, alleged Jewish designs on it); and second, to encourage Muslims from around the land to travel to Jerusalem and pray in the mosque.
At the rally, which opened with recitations from the Koran and public prayer, seating was gender-segregated, and every woman wore a veil. Of the staff, only female concession workers - including one pouring free cups of tea from an enormous, five gallon silver teapot - and charity-collectors were allowed in the women's sections.
The messages sounded combined a disturbing level of incitement with expressions of real grievances, namely, the increasing number of home evictions in Arab East Jerusalem. Many Umm al-Fahm residents fear that such moves, along with protracted settlement of the West Bank, are a continuation of the same historical processes that turned them into landless, semi-urban-dwelling, second-class citizens in a country not their own. Their rural, "farmer's" accents are testimony to their history. And the rally certainly played to these fears, emphasizing the importance of protecting Al-Aqsa from Jewish attempts to sabotage the structure.
Granted, Muslim accusations of Jewish designs on the Temple Mount as a vehicle for expressing greater territorial anxieties are nothing new, but Sheikh Ra'ad, who several days after the rally found himself banned by an Israeli court from visiting Jerusalem for a month, is relentlessly creative on the subject. Last Friday, he told his listeners that the "supposedly" historical Jewish Temple on Haram al-Sharif is a fairy tale and a lie. The demagoguery may be outrageous, but that doesn't mean it is not compelling and believable to an Umm al-Fahm resident who knows the history of his family and who is now watching the ongoing settlement enterprise.
The message was transmitted artistically as well as via speeches, with one highlight a minimalist political-theater piece depicting tzitzit-clad Haredim wreaking havoc at the Temple Mount and Western Wall plaza. These troublesome, if hapless, Hasidim had their work cut out for them, between praying all day at the Wall like robots, and spending their nights evicting Arab residents from their homes in Hebrew-accented Arabic. The skit ends - I'm going to spoil it for you - with the Haredim dancing around and tormenting a Koran-reciting young girl who reveals to the audience that she personifies none other than the endangered Al-Aqsa. Her head scarf falls off, and she screams, asking where the valiant Arab men are who will defend her. At which point her saviors enter from stage left, to send the Jews packing.
Inside the stadium, Sheikh Ra'ad addressed Prime Minister Netanyahu directly, roaring that "We are a nation that does not surrender ... From the Negev to the Galil ... As long as there is an occupation, we say 'Welcome' to martyrdom!" And yet, incendiary content aside, the rally was, in essence, an opportunity for parents to get out with the kids. People shared candy and food. Children ran around, oblivious to the proceedings, kicking soccer balls into the stands. This was Israel, as evidenced by the signs reading "Mivtza, 15 shkalim" ("Bargain, 15 Shekels," in Hebrew) on the clothing racks and concession stands outside the stadium. But at the same time, it felt like a different country, with its own self-contained set of customs and folklore.
It is easy to mock, or worse, react angrily, to the seeming absurdities of an Al-Aqsa rally. A more constructive response might be to avoid further provocations in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and to step up efforts to empower the Arab citizens of Israel, economically and otherwise. This, combined with the knowledge that no more of their brethren will be forcibly urbanized and disinherited, may be the only thing capable of keeping Sheikh Ra'ad's demagoguery at bay.
Rachel Levine is currently researching constitutions in Muslim-majority states. She is based in Jerusalem.
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