LOD – Once every 33 years, the holiest day of the Jewish year coincides with one of Islam’s most important festivals. As Jews worldwide mark the fast of Yom Kippur starting sundown on Friday, Muslims will begin celebrating the first day of Id al-Adha, the four-day Feast of the Sacrifice
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For Jews, it will be a day of abstention and repentance. For Muslims, it will be a day of prayer and festivities, topped off with food and revelry. With interfaith tensions already running high in Israel, this particular mix could be a recipe for disaster, many fear.
With that very much in mind, hundreds of Jews and Muslims crammed into a municipal auditorium here Wednesday for an unusual sort of gathering. Its declared purpose was heading off conflict based on misunderstanding.
Among the distinguished panel on stage were both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, the president of the Islamic Sharia Court, ultra-Orthodox Jewish Knesset members alongside their Arab colleagues, the head Islamic judge of Jaffa and representatives of the municipality of Lod, one of a handful of mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel. In the audience, filling up every last seat, were hundreds of Jewish and Arab school children, among them Muslim girls with hijabs and Jewish boys with yarmulkes.
The gathering, organized in less than 36 hours, was a joint initiative of MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) and The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. The message to the Jews was that barbeques and fireworks on Id al-Adha are not meant to be a provocation but simply the way Muslims celebrate this holiday. The message to the Muslims was that wild partying within sound and sight of Jews observing their most solemn of days could be perceived as a provocation. The message to both Jews and Muslims was exercise restraint and demonstrate respect and tolerance.
“Our main objective was to raise awareness of the potential for friction because there is a real danger here,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives. “But also we wanted to give religious and political leaders an opportunity to make statements to the public so that it doesn’t get sucked in by calls for incitement. I believe our message is seeping through, but Saturday will be the real test.”
Yair Revivo, the mayor of Lod, called the event “historic, both for our city and our country.” Representatives of the municipality handed out flyers, written on one side in Hebrew and the other side in Arabic, explaining the significance of Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha and the customs observed on each holiday. These flyers, said the mayor, would be distributed in all of the city’s synagogues and mosques over the weekend.
In the spirit of the gathering, Revivo said that the municipality would break with the longstanding tradition of ordering all shops closed on Yom Kippur and allow businesses in Arab neighborhoods to remain open so that Muslims could purchase food and other necessities for their holiday. Special arrangements would also be made, he said, to allow them to drive their cars without disturbing Jewish neighborhoods.
Michaeli, known as an outspoken feminist, said that only because the cause was so dear to her heart had she agreed to sit on an otherwise all-male panel. “There are so many forces trying to divide and pit Jews and Muslims against one another,” she said. “It’s easy for them because they’re up there and they don’t pay the price. But we cannot let others to use us in their wars.”
Dawoud Zini, president of the Sharia court in Israel, recounted that six years ago on Yom Kippur, riots broke out in his hometown of Acre, another mixed Jewish-Arab city, when an Arab accidentally drove his car into a Jewish neighborhood. “I made the trip down here today to make sure that this scenario doesn’t repeat itself, God forbid,” he said.
MK Ibrahim Tzartzur (United Arab List) urged the schoolchildren in the audience to pass on the message of respect and tolerance to their peers, noting that “this gathering demonstrates that religion is a unifying, rather than a polarizing, force.”
Three weeks ago, The Abraham Fund Initiatives launched a campaign to raise awareness of the potential for conflict resulting from the convergence of the two religious holidays on the same day in order that pre-emptive measures could be taken. Its representatives met with the mayors, as well as community organizers and police officials in the country’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities. They also undertook a major advertising campaign in both the Hebrew- and Arabic-language press.
“This is what happens when there aren’t any government mechanisms for creating a healthy shared society – especially around potential clash points,” said Anton Goodman, the international director of development at the organization. “We’ve basically stepped into the role of government and are filling this void.”