Conflicting Identities, Conflicting Loyalties - The Case of the Druze in Israel

By Miri - 

Druze Religion

The Druze are a religious community which emerged around the 11th century from Ismailism, the second largest branch of Shia Islam. The main distinguishing factor from other branches of Islam is constituted in the Druze acceptance of the divinity of Hakim, the third Fatimid caliph of Egypt, which also forms the basis of the Druze being considered heretics by many other Muslims. The Druze canon draws on a variety of sources, including Judaism, Greek philosophy and Gnosticism among others. 

The Druze Star, each colour pertains to a metaphysical power
Since its official revelation in Egypt in 1017, the history of the community has been and continues to be a very turbulent one. Spread out throughout the Middle East and under the rule of different sovereigns, the Druze faced severe persecution which at times almost led to their extinction. At other times the community was very much respected by the respective rulers and even gained considerable political powers. 
The experience of persecution, which was mostly, but not exclusively based on religious grounds, led the Druze to the practise of what is referred to as taqiyye, which allows them to conceal their beliefs and to integrate with differing groups, while at the same time continuing their religious belief in secret. Until today, the Druze are considered to be highly secretive and protective about their believes and practices, including towards members of their own communities, which are therefore divided into the uqqal, “the initated”, a minority within the community which demonstrates extreme piety and devotion, and the juhhal, “the ignorant ones”, who live a rather secular life. Another factor which is said to have contributed to the survival of this exclusive community that does not allow conversions and discourages inter-religious marriage, is the Druze loyalty to the land or country they live in, a notion that is being complicated by the fact that the great majority of today's one million Druze live around the contested borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

The Druze in Israel/Palestine

There are currently approximately 100,000 Druze living in Israel, the majority of which lives in the North of the country. The Druze are one of the recognised religious minorities of Israel. As opposed to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Druze and also Bedouins are drafted to the Israeli military and have frequently attained high positions in the forces. Among Palestinians, Druze soldiers and border police are notorious for being especially violent and aggressive, a notion that has resulted from a number of different factors, which brings us straight to the discussion of the complexity of Israeli Druze political identity. 

The Druze in Mandatory Palestine

Druze uqqal, wearing religious dress
As opposed to the Druze communities living in Lebanon and Syria, who played an important role in those countries' anti-colonial struggles, the Druze living in Mandatory Palestine, most of which were peasants and lacked any organised political institutions, remained largely outside of nationalist Arab political activities. 
Before 1948 many Druze viewed the tensions between Zionists and Arabs as a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, which thus did not concern them. There were however small numbers of Druze who supported Arab nationalists and also an increasing number who supported the Jews. Some Arab militias reacted with scorn to what they saw as betrayal and attacked some of the Druze villages. The key moment of the division between the Druze communities and Arab nationalists was however constituted by the demand of the Islamic Waqf, a trust that controls and manages Muslim edifices, to take take over Jethro's Tomb, located west of Tiberias and constituting the holiest site to the Druze. This issue stirred outrage and protest among the Druze communities, including those living in Syria and Lebanon and led them to take a united stance and to petition Muslim and Arab leaders, as well as British officials. Eventually, in 1945 a court decided that the site should remain under Druze control. 
At the same time the Jewish leadership in Palestine took advantage of the increasing tensions between the Druze and the Arab nationalists and started developing relationships with some of the communities and supported and defended them against assaults. Hence in the war of 1948 a number of Druze joined the Hagannah in their fight against the Palestinians. In return, the Druze villages were spared from attacks of Jewish forces and the communities were not expelled. 

The Druze in the State of Israel

At the request of Druze leaders, seeking to gain more political influence and support from the Jewish leadership, but also in order to improve the situation of Israel's Druze communities, a decision was made in 1956 to subject Druze men to compulsory military service. While it is often claimed that both back then and also now the Druze view conscription as a privilege and willingly join the IDF, it should be noted that many were actually opposed to the decision of 1956 and called for refusal to join the military. 
One year later and again at the initiative of the same leaders, the Israeli government designated the Druze as a separate ethnic minority, distinct from other Arabs. Also this move stirred protests as it was seen as another strategy aimed at the “Israelisation” of the Druze and resulting in a further distancing of the latter from other Arabs living in Israel. 

Funeral of a Druze soldier
Samer Swaid from the Druze Initiative Committee, an organisation that calls for refusal and support of those who refuse to serve in the Israeli army, refers to the policies implemented by the Israeli government as a way “to forcing on them the idea that in the Middle East conflict, the Druze and the Jews share common interests as opposed to Palestinians and Arabs”. 
Due to the high importance ascribed to the military within Israeli society, the Druze benefited greatly from conscription in both social and economic terms, as it gave them better access to the labour market, especially, but also beyond the security sector. In addition to that the success stories of many Druze who were promoted to high ranks within the military aparatus, as well as the inclusion of Druze into military rituals, such as parades and other celebrations, “contributed to the deepening of the feeling of belonging to the greater society and the greater Israeli citizenry”. Following Swaid, the number of young Druze men refusing to enlist is growing, a notion that is accompanied by a decrease in the Druze who view themselves as Israeli patriots, according to the “National Strength Survey”. 

The Druze of the Occupied Golan

The Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan
The Syrian Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 war, have been the home to a large Druze community for a long time. In the course of the war between 80,000 and 131,000 Druze and Circassians fled from the area and only 7000 remained. 
From 1967 to 1981, the Golan remained under Israeli military administration. In 1981 the Golan Heights Law was passed, which signified the application of Israeli laws, jurisdiction and administration, which effectively, though not formally, annexed the region to Israel. 
The continued conflict between Syria and Israel posed a lot of problems for the Druze on both sides of the border. In 1973 both states therefore agreed to open the Quneitra Crossing and to allow for restricted movement across the border. Civilians are usually allowed to cross for the purposes of university studies and marriage, the latter of which usually signifies a one way journey and the brides are not permitted to return back to their own families. 
In the late 1970s, Israel offered all non-Israelis living in the Golan citizenship, but until now more than 90% percent of the Druze reject this offer and remain Syrian nationals, holding only permanent resident status in Israel. The message of the Druze of the Golan is clear, they consider themselves, as well as their land as an inseparable part of Syria. 
With the onset of the Syrian uprising in 2011, and especially with President Assad's excessive use of violence against the Syrian population, many Druze of the Golan have abandoned their feelings of loyalty towards the Syrian government.


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Feminism in Muslim Societies

By Miri -

Both Islamic feminism, as well as feminism in Muslim dominated societies are often considered oxymorons. In the eyes of many in the West, Islam and Muslim societies are synonymous with gender inequality and oppression. At the same time the need to “liberate the oppressed Muslim woman from her plight” has and continues to serve as a pretext for colonial and neo-colonial interventions by Western states, whether within or beyond their national boundaries. Western feminists frequently support these measures, such as the French government's ban or limitation of women from wearing forms of veils in public areas. These feminists clearly fail to see that the denial of religious freedom and to cultural identity constitute a form of oppression in itself and negates the right of Muslim women to choose for themselves. 
Muslim reactionaries, on the other hand, often attack feminist ideas for being imported ideologies from the West, instruments of imperialism and an assault on their cultures, which in turn serves to solidify Western stereotypes. In that sense those two supposedly opposing forces have been playing into each other's hands, while totally ignoring the voices of those they purportedly have set out to support, i.e. women in Muslim societies, who have nevertheless persisted and stayed the course. 

Contrary to common Western perception, the introduction of Islam in the 7th century improved the status of women considerably by recognising women's full personhood. Practical changes included the prohibition of female infanticide, the view of marriage as a contract (rather than as a status) which necessitates women's consent and which consequently also entitled them to file a divorce, a notion that is still absent from Catholicism, for example. Furthermore, women were granted property rights, including inheritance rights. In the rest of the world, including in Western societies, women were not entitled to such rights until centuries later. 
Due to this progressive potential inherent to Islam, religion has always played a central role in the different forms of feminisms, both Islamic and secular, that women in Muslim societies have constructed throughout history. Both Islamic and secular feminism emanated in the late 19th century from within a context of nationalist and anti-colonial struggle as well as independent state building. In the following I will give a brief overview over the two forms of feminisms, bearing in mind however, that they should not be seen as mutually exclusive categories and secular and Islamic feminists have always worked together and continue to do so in order to achieve shared goals. 

Secular Feminism in Predominantly Muslim Societies 

The first feminist meeting in Hoda Sharawi's home
Due to their secular outlook, feminists in Muslim societies seem to be similar to their Western counterparts, yet also secular feminists have created their very own movements, suiting their own societal and cultural backgrounds. Those movements mainly emerged as social movements within a national, or pan-Arab context and were predominantly action oriented. 
One of the pioneering Arab feminists was the Egyptian Hoda Sharawi (1879-1947), who effortlessly worked against restrictions on women's movements and dress. She organised lectures for women on topics of their interest, helped leading women's demonstrations during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and in 1923 became the founder and first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union. One of her most daring acts was probably her publicly removing her veil. 

The women of Nabi Saleh, always at the forefront of the protests, Oren Ziv/Activestills
In Palestine the struggle for women's rights was always deeply entrenched with the fight against the different occupation forces and women have always played a vital role in popular struggles, such as the First Intifada. 
Palestinian women organise themselves in a number of ways, including committees at the local and the national level, unions and clubs, addressing issues pertaining to women's welfare and women's rights. The double burden of life under Occupation and the struggle against patriarchal ideas and practices did however often create and continues to create tensions in terms of priorities. While many stress the importance of national liberation, others point at the experiences of other anti-colonial movements, such as the Algerian one, in which women played an essential role, but were pushed back into their traditional roles once independence was established. 

Islamic Feminism

Islamic feminism predominantly manifests itself as a new interpretation of Islam and gender, grounded in the classic Islamic methodologies of “ijtihad”, the independent intellectual investigation of religious texts, and “tafsir”, the interpretation of the Qur'an. By re-reading the Qur'an and other religious texts from a female point of view, Islamic feminists aim to highlight that much of the classical interpretations, which found their way into Islamic jurisprudence, was based on men's experiences, male-centred questions, and the overall influence of the patriarchal societies in which they lived. Islamic feminists insist that the Qur'an itself affirms the principle of equality of all human beings and argue that the practice of equality of men and women (and other categories of people) has been impeded or subverted by those patriarchal ideas and practices. 
The first explorations of religious texts, mainly by male scholars, preceded the formation of a formal feminist movement and date back to the medieval ages. The first woman to engage with Qur'anic exegesis was the Iranian Fatimih Baraghani, better known as Tahirih, who would later become an important figure of the Babi faith, a religious movement which would break from Shi'a Islam. Tahirih was executed for her revolutionary thoughts, her famous last words being:”You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.


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Progressive Judaism - an Overview


By Miri -

Like most other religions, Judaism is not one static homogeneous belief system. Throughout its history, and throughout the various places that Jews took their beliefs, their practices and culture to, Judaism has changed and developed. From an analytic point of view it may be actually more appropriate to view Judaism as an umbrella term for a lot of very different strands and movements. 
In the following I will attempt to trace back the history of the denominational structure of those movements within Judaism that grew out of the Jewish reform movement and that from this point departed from Orthodox or traditional Jewish thought.  

From Enlightenment and Jewish Emancipation Towards Reform Judaism 

The move away from orthodox Judaism is commonly associated with the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah (Hebrew: enlightenment), a movement that originated in Germany in the 19th century and advocated a “coming out of the ghettos”, i.e. the integration of the Jewish communities into European society. 
In opposition to traditional Jewish scholarship and by seeking modernised philosophical and critical revision within Jewish belief and lifestyle, the Haskalah aimed at adapting Judaism to contemporary European life. The movement that soon spread throughout Europe, succeeded in creating a secular Jewish culture, which emphasised Jewish history and identity, rather than religion. It also influenced and aided the emergence of Jewish political movements striving for emancipation and later also for a Jewish homeland, i.e. Zionism. 
Regina Jonas, first woman to be ordained as Rabbi, Germany, 1935
The Haskalah had however also non-intended side-effects as it contributed to the assimilation of European Jewry and a concomitant demise in Jewish education. In response to that, in the early 19th century another movement of Jewish educators, scholars and rabbis emerged, later to be referred to as the German Reform movement, which sought to modernise Judaism. 
Many of the ideas that were already brought up by the Haskalah, such as the move away from law and obedience to love and community as the defining features of religion, figured prominently in the debates of the reform movement. While many proponents of the movement had no interest in forming separate congregations, the discussions that were stirred during those times ultimately led to a wider diversification and to the emergence of different denominations within Judaism. 
Reform Judaism is by now often used interchangeably with Progressive Judaism and both often act as umbrella terms for various forms of Judaism that grew out of the reform movement. In the U.S. Reform Judaism still constitutes its own denomination which is at the same time the largest one with an estimated 1,5 million members. In many parts of Europe the term Liberal Judaism is also often used. 
In Israel the reform movement is usually referred to as Progressive Judaism. As opposed to their counterparts in the rest of the world, Israeli Reform Judaism has been fighting a much harder struggle for acceptance and it was only in May 2012 that their rabbis would officially be recognised by the state and started to receive state funding just like Orthodox rabbis, a notion that was celebrated as a major breakthrough in terms of equalising the different Jewish streams in Israel.

From Positive-Historical Judaism to Conservative Judaism 

Many rabbis and Jewish scholars agreed with the Haskalah and the reform movement that Jewish orthodoxy in its current form could and should not be upheld, however, many were also opposed to the radicalism inherent to the ideas and reforms of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, founder of what is now considered Positive-Historical Judaism, maintained that the Halakha, the central principle of Jewish tradition, must be followed, but should be viewed as entailing human, historical and dynamic elements, which thus facilitate change and development. This stream of thought which came to form the basis of conservative Jewish reasoning also already explains the term “conservative”, which does not imply an adherence to political conservatism, but highlights instead the conviction that Jews should conserve tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. Due to the potential conflation of the term with political conservatism, the movement is often also referred to as Masorti (Hebrew for “traditional”) Judaism.
A young girl reading from the Torah for her Bat-Mitzvah

Conservative or Masorti Judaism flourished especially in the US, where it soon became the largest Jewish denomination, and was only recently superseded by Reform Judaism. Up until today Conservative Judaism maintains its dynamic view of the Halakha and keeps on introducing new interpretations and changes. Particularly its view on gender issues has led to controversies and to yet another split within the denomination and hence to the foundation of the Union for Traditional Judaism.
The most important changes regarding gender issues include the counting of women in the Minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligation including public prayer, the admission of women to Rabbinical and Cantorial school and more recently the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, as well as the permission of same-sex marriage.

In Israel Conservative Judaism constitutes a rather small movement, counting approximately 50,000 members, most of which are immigrants from the U.S. Just like Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism was until recently disadvantaged by the Israeli government, which used to only recognise and fun Orthodox institutions. 

Reconstructionist Judaism  

Another branch of Judaism that originated from Conservative Judaism is the Reconstructionist Movement, which developed mainly between the late 1920s to 1940s and founded its first Rabbinical college in 1968 in the U.S..
Following the movements' founder Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism is understood as a progressively evolving civilisation, which should be interpreted within the context of contemporary life, without abandoning its traditional values. Believing in the human authorship of all religious traditions, including their own, the Halakha is not seen as an absolute binding set of commandments, but should be adapted to social conditions, political changes, and cultural influences. Reconstructionist Judaism is therefore a bottom-up approach, which starts with the experiences of the Jewish people and not with god, who should rather be seen as “the sum of all natural processes that allow man [sic] to become self-fulfilled”.
“To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” 
Jewish lesbian wedding, California
With their humanist approach, reconstructionists believe that all peoples are called to build a world of justice and compassion. The absolute equality of men and women is therefore one of the movement's central tenets and women were ordained from the beginning. As opposed to most other denominations, the reconstructionists, together with Reform Judaism, include patrilineal descent, i.e. the acceptance of children of Jewish fathers as Jews and also warmly welcomes mixed marriages. The reconstructionists have also a long history in supporting both LGBTQ civil rights, as well as the inclusion of LGBTQ people in all aspects of Jewish life.

The Reconstructionist Movement is still a rather small branch of Judaism and its communities are mainly, though not exclusively, found in the U.S. and Canada. 


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A Weekend in Palestine

by Fred Schlomka -

My wife Sunita is leaving soon for an extended performing and teaching tour in the USA, so we decided to take a weekend off and spend some time together. For some time I had been wanting to visit the village of Al Aqaba in the north-eastern West Bank, and since they recently opened a hostel there, it seemed like a good destination. We also planned a stop in Tubas to pick up some Camel's Milk soap, and a visit to one of my wife's harp students in the village of Salem. So off we went . . . .

After leaving our home in Kfar Saba, just north-east of Tel Aviv, we entered the West Bank through the Kalkiliya checkpoint and drove to Nablus to pick up my friend Majde who would accompany us on the drive north. Majde is an amazing man who knows everyone in Nablus and is deeply involved in developing Palestinian society, including work with the Labor Union, Palestine People's Party, and organisations at the Balata Refugee camp. He was useful to have on this trip since I hadn't driven through the area north of Nablus for a couple of years. Majde also guides the Green Olive Nablus Tour.

After picking up Majde at Balata Refugee Camp, he helped us navigate the roads out of town and back to the main road north. The scenery is quite spectacular north-east of Nablus, and we passed ever-steeper hillsides, the result of massive earth-shifting at this edge of the rift valley which stretches from the Sea of Galilee to the Red Sea. Periodically there are earthquakes which alter the local topography, in this case creating hillsides that approach the vertical, while retaining just enough topsoil to support a green veneer to supply some fodder for the ubiquitous goats, and the local wild hogs.
View to the east of Nablus
As the hills flattened a bit we passed through the village of Ain al-Beida, renowned for its ancient springs and a tourist destination for Palestinian families. With no time to stop there, Sunita and I decided to visit on the return trip the following day. Another 20-minute drive brought us to Tubas, a town of over 16,000 Palestinians, and home of the Japanese air organisation, NICCOD, which initiates sustainable development projects around northern Palestine. Although their office was not open on saturdays, we decided to track them down in order to return the next day to buy some soap. This is where Majde came in handy. A few questions to locals on the street brought us down some back alleys to a small office building which would be easy to find again. Tubas seems to be a well organised town with some new construction and a bus sling commercial main street. Not a tourist in sight. We were definitely way off the beaten track.

Al Aqaba village mosque
We drove off to the north and the hills kept flattening as they approached the steep decline into the Jordan Valley, more than 1,000 meters below. In no time at all we were at the entrance to Al Aqaba. the difference was quite stark from the previous villages. The streets are well kept and clean. Short whitewashed walls line the road and marked off the private plots and homes. Well maintained sidewalks line the streets, and the dominant architectural feature is the village mosque, with its unique forked cap on the minaret - emulating the V for victory hand signal we were told later. When we pulled up at the guest house our host Haj Sami Sadeq was there to greet us with his warm smile. Haj Sami is the mayor of Al Aqaba, and has been confined to a wheelchair since being accidentally shot by Israeli soldiers during an army training exercise.

After Majde took his leave of us, we settled into the comfortable hostel as the only guests that night. It is sometimes full when groups come to visit, or when volunteers stay there and teach English to local students. There is high speed wireless internet, modern bathrooms, and a spacious lounge and kitchen for cooking meals and relaxing. Since it was late afternoon we took a nice 35-minute walk back to a neighbouring village to find food for dinner - fresh felafel, hummus, and fruit from a local vendor.

Haj Sami and Fred
After dinner, as dusk fell, we took another walk with Haj Sami, and in between viewing the beautiful landscape we learned about the tragedies of the Al Aqaba. Situated in the middle of a military zone, the villagers are forbidden from building new homes as their families grow and children are married. These villages usually grow organically with new homes added to the edge of the existing built up area. The state of Israel has placed demolition orders on many recently built homes and the villagers live in constant fear that the bulldozers will show up any day. One organisation that has been helping with this situation is the Rebuilding Alliance, a US-based NGO that raises money to fund new homes with mortgages insured against demolitions. We saw three new homes being built that were funded by the Rebuilding Alliance.

Waking up at 5am to the sounds of the birds singing and the goats bleating was truly unforgettable. As the rays of the morning sun stretched over the Jordanian hills to the east, the surrounding hills and village architechture was displayed in sharp relief, it was hard to believe that all this was just an hour and a half drive from Tel Aviv, across the veil of the Occupation and another world altogether.

Sorting dried herbs
After breakfast we toured the tea-bag workshop, funded by the Japanese government. Taking the indigenous mint, sage, and thyme plants, the workshop processes them using modern scaled down machinery, and produces tea bags smartly packaged into colourful cardboard boxes ready for the shelves of shops and supermarkets around the West Bank. I couldn't help but thinking that such projects helped local people much more than the grand infrastructure funding more commonly seen. With the unemployment rate more than 60%, Palestine need a helping hand up, not a hand out, not welfare from abroad. Projects such as the tea-bag workshop provide sustainable employment and keep the donor funds recirculating in local economies, rather than lining the pockets of the big Palestinian contractors who are the main beneficiaries of US-AID and similar government-driven programs.

We said our goodbyes and backtracked along the route of the previous day. In Tubas we went to the NICCOD office where Saafa, the Project Coordinator was more than happy to sell Sunita 20 cakes of the Olive Oil Soap blended with camel's milk. Sunita will be taking the soap to the USA as gifts on her tour. The soap-making project currently employs six local women and current sales are primarily at Palestinian fairs and festivals. Another useful project designed to stimulate employment    and sustainable development.

Saafa and Sunita viewing the soap
We made one other stop before Nablus in Ain al-Beida, where we viewed some of the springs adjacent to the main road. One enterprising restaurant built terraces up the hillside and channels for the cascading water. We has a cup of tea on one of the terraces where we were able to sit at a table with the water flowing through our feet. Very refreshing. The only disappointment was the outrageous price for our tea - 10 shekels ($2.50) each. Ah well, we were tourists after all.

The final visit was in Salem, a small village due east of Nablus where Yasmin, a blind Palestinian woman, learns the harp from Sunita. Due to the generosity of dozens of people around the world we were able to purchase a harp for Yasmin.
Having tea at the spring.
Sunita visits every week to give a lesson. Although I had been to visit the family before, this was my first visit on a harp lesson day. Usually it's a women-only event as Yasmin's mother, sisters and friends come round for a social gathering with 'The Israeli Harp Teacher'. The doors are closed, the headscarves come off, and the ladies let their hair down without men around to bother them with their demands and their conservative notions about what is 'proper' for women.

On this day however, since I was with Sunita, the headgear was worn, and proprieties had to be observed. Yasmin's brothers were also in attendance, and when they had to go off on an errand in thecae, I was expected to go along since an unrelated man could not be left alone at the house with the women. We did have a family lunch, with all of us on the floor, sitting at the edge of the spread tablecloth, eating delicious hummus, egg, lamb bits, luffa (large flat bread), and all washed down with delicious mint tea.

Alas our getaway weekend ended all too soon. We left our friends at Salem and re-entered the Israeli bubble, just 40 minutes away, where the majority of the population have no idea about Palestinian Arab society  - the warm friendly people - the rich culture and heritage - and the real desire for freedom and a genuine peace. One day - Insha'allah.
Yasmin learns the harp from Sunita


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Challenging Zionism

by Eldad Brin -

The Middle East is no north European Utopia. It is a thick and often dazzling ethnic and religious soup, still coming to terms with an Ottoman and European Imperialist legacy, a hotbed of religious extremism and social backwardness, poverty and want.

  On the one hand, alleged religious, social, economic and indeed, mental gaps between Israel and its neighbors make it very difficult for both sides to reconcile and move towards mutual recognition, stability and normalization. In recent decades the general discourse regarding the Arabs/Muslims and their clash with Western values has been used more and more to explain why reconciliation is impossible and why rapprochement is nothing but a naïve liberal concept.

  On the other hand, many Israelis, and their supporters and allies in the West, make use of the so-called "primitive" and "medieval" values of our Arab and Muslim neighbors as scapegoat, a means by which to justify Israel's reluctance to make any concessions to the Palestinians languishing under its occupation.

  I was born in Jerusalem – the heart and soul of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which lies at the heart of the wider, protracted Israeli-Arab Conflict – and have lived in it all my life. I spend much time in the Palestinian districts as part of my work as tour guide in the city, and have been involved in efforts to introduce everyday Israelis and non-Israelis to the harsh and unjust conditions which most Palestinians in the city have been experiencing since 1967.

  My life in Jerusalem, my work which revolves around its intricate, neo-colonial geopolitics, as well as my common sense, all allows me the benefit of steering clear of what I perceive as conservative and narrow-minded clichés regarding the Israeli-Arab abyss.

  I seriously tend to believe that the average, run-of-the-mill Palestinian in East Jerusalem, Jenin and even Gaza doesn't have Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations" on his mind when he professes his hatred of Israel. I think what he does have in mind is the memory of the mass uprooting and expulsion of his people back in 1948, and again in 1967. I think he's probably more worried about the land Israel took from him to expand an illegal settlement. I would guess he's more troubled by the curfews, the closures, the bombings, the raids, the humiliating home-searches and the blatant discrimination in social and physical infrastructures. It's the lack of any dignified future, the fact that all he could hope for is more of the same, the fact that with every passing day the chances for real Palestinian self-determination diminish further. I would believe he's more annoyed - to put it mildly - by worsening settler violence, backed up by army indifference and state forgiveness.

  To paraphrase on what presidential candidate Clinton once said: It's the humiliation, stupid. It's the poverty, the lack of hope, in one word - the very living under a seemingly-endless occupation, exacerbated by religious and nationalistic motivations.

The Palestinian Authority is no democracy, that's true. But while the Palestinians are making enormous strides forward, Israel - never much the democracy it was pretentious enough to claim it was - is becoming less and less democratic, and more and more like South Africa during its worst times. Given the horrendous latest legislation wave in our so-called "Jewish Democracy" - an oxymoron if there ever was one - what right do we have of blaming anyone with lack of democracy?

Israel is much, much worse that an "imperfectly realized" democracy, which is how many of us would want to believe. Its relatively tender age and the rough neighborhood its in can only justify so much. With all its amazing achievements in so many fields, the question whether Israel is a real democracy remains open to debate. Sure, our neighboring countries, monarchies and republics alike, are usually worse. That shouldn't be our excuse. Assessing the strength of our democracy only in comparison to certain countries around us is making life too easy on ourselves. A real democracy is an absolute, not relative, notion.

Israel, since 1967, is going through a slow and painful process of suicide. Plain and simple. Sadly, unlike an individual who kills himself in the privacy of their own quarters, this national self-infliction is accompanied by an ongoing, painful and harmful occupation of over four million Palestinians. Fair enough: Arab resent towards the Zionist enterprise galvanized before Israel was born as a sovereign nation, but we can only go so far in placing Palestinian hatred towards under the too-wide umbrella of the Arab world's historical attitude towards Israel. A single settlement in the West Bank has much more effect on the Palestinians and their outlook on Israelis and Jews than any decisions taken in Khartoum 45 years ago (to say nothing of a multitude of other aspects of the ongoing occupation).

The Hamas aside, Israel, with its very own chauvinistic, often racist hands has earned the Palestinian's hatred and mistrust, fair and square. And that goes also for the hatred of other Arab and Muslim people with whom we don't share a border. Why can so many of us, here in Israel, be angry at Chinese violations of human rights – and we're not even Tibetan - but find it so incredulous that an Iranian should have empathy towards the Palestinian's plight?

Many claim that the Palestinians under Israeli control also earned our aversion and mistrust in years of murderous violence against peaceful civilians (and especially the bleeding years of the second intifadah, 2000-2003). According to this view, the Separation Barrier, the military incursions of the West Bank and the bombing of Gaza were all necessary evils by which we try and protect our children against bloodthirsty animals. Still, claiming this is missing the greater picture. Why do we fail, time and again, in realizing that Palestinian parents want the very same for their kids, only their chances of actually realizing that are so much slimmer than ours. Obviously, Jews never blew themselves up on Palestinian buses, but isn't state terror just as bad? Especially when it's been dragging on for four and a half decades, with no end in sight, and is often upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court?

When it's all said and done, and despite so many dead and maimed Israelis, we long ago ceased to be the victim in this mad equation. We're the Goliath, not the David. Sure, there's anti-Semitism and there's the Hamas and Ahmadinejad and in the Gaza Strip murdering your own daughter goes unpunished and a wealth of other excuses, but these are all but welcome diversions to people who won't face up to what lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Sure, Abu Mazen is not the prince on the white horse Israel has been waiting for, but neither were Sadat and Hussein - both ruthless dictators in their own right - but that didn't stop Israel from making peace with them.

Waiting for the Arab and Muslim world to become a Scandinavia-on-a-lower-latitude is waiting for Hell to freeze over. Using that as an excuse to grab land, deny basic rights and keep placing a huge civilian population under our thumb is much worse than cynical; it's downright disastrous. I, for one, was brought up to see what I am doing wrong before blaming others for my situation. What applies to me as an individual should apply to my country as well.

Sadly, we're not anywhere near that.

Eldad Brin is a tour guide for Green Olive Tours. Contact the office if you would like him to lead your tour of Jerusalem or any part of Israel.


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Cousins - the Muslim-Jewish Connection

By Miri -

These days it is way more fashionable to emphasise the distinctions and the conflicts between Judaism and Islam, as well as between its respective followers. There are however way more similarities between the two religions and its communities than is acknowledged in these days of "clashes of civilisations". Since both religions, their different cultural forms and histories are very complex, the following list is by far not exhaustive and should only be seen as a general introduction or overview. 


The languages of the Qur'an and the Torah, are Arabic and Hebrew, respectively. Although by now neither all Muslims, nor all Jews, speak those languages, it attests to a major similarity between the two people - their common origin among other Semitic nations. The term “semitic” in modern day use mainly indicates an affiliation with a shared language family, including amongst others Hebrew and Arabic, but originally referred to a concept derived from the bible, namely the descent from Shem, one of Noah's sons.


Abraham's family
The first and most obvious commonality between Jews and Muslims is of course the fact that they are both monotheistic, believe in the same god and share a common origin through Abraham (in the Qur'an Ibrahim) and, like Christianity, are thus considered to be Abrahamic religions. 
The split in terms of descent between Judaism and Islam came with the second generation, i.e. with Abraham's sons, Isaac and Ismael. According to Muslim tradition, Abraham's first born, Ismael, or Ishmael, is considered to be the Father of the Arabs as well as the prophet Muhammad's forefather, while his younger brother Isaac is referred to as the Father of the Hebrews. This is in line with Judaism, that generally maintains that since Ismael was the son of Abraham's first wife's handmaiden (and later Abraham's second wife), the younger son Isaac was the true heir of Abraham. It is therefore that Jews and Muslims often refer to each other as cousins. 

Since Judaism preceded Islam, we find more Islamic references to Judaism and to Jews than vice versa. The Qur'an for instance references the “Children of Israel” very frequently and in a favourable manner as they were chosen by Allah for a mission: "O Children of Israel! Remember My favor wherewith I favored you and how I preferred you to (all) creatures." [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 47] 
A lot of the prophets recognised by Judaism also hold the same status in Islam and numerous narratives and injunctions are found both in the Torah and the Qur'an. Consequently, the two religions also share a lot of religious concepts, as well as rules of conduct deduced from them. 
Interestingly, Judaism and Islam are probably more similar to each other than Judaism and Christianity. While Judaism and Islam both originated in a Semitic Middle Eastern culture, Christianity emanated from the interaction between Greek and Hebrew cultures. The now common expression Judeo-Christian traditions or value systems are therefore slightly misleading and usually serve to draw a false and inherently political distinction between Western powers and their appointed Muslim enemies.


In the past, Jews have often lived under Muslim rule. Due to them being considered People of the Book, Jews and also Christians, who fall under the same category, were usually accorded with more rights than other non-Muslim communities. 
As opposed to Jewish existence under Christian rule, where they were often forced to convert to Christianity and deprived of any citizen rights, Jews under Muslim rule were generally not persecuted for their religious beliefs or their background, but were also not granted the same rights as Muslims. Those Muslim rulers that did enact forced conversions of Jews to Islam, did so in contradiction to prescriptions of traditional Islamic law. 

There is even an admittedly unpopular claim that Islam saved Jewry. The argument goes that due to the persecution that Jews suffered during the Roman empire, large numbers of the communities either disappeared or assimilated, which also included the loss of the knowledge of their culturally specific languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. Due to the conflict between Persia and Byzantine, this notion was further exacerbated as Jews living under Christian rule were cut off from the one place where Jewish life continued to prosper, Babylon (now Iraq). 
With the rise of Islam in the seventh century and the conquest of basically all the regions that were home to Jews, the demise of Judaism was however prevented. Almost all Jews now lived within the same political entity and a great majority adopted Arabic as their main language and the borders between the different Jewish communities, whether political or language wise, were thus swept away. Along with great improvements in terms of their socio-economic status under Muslim rule, Jewish cultural production, in tandem with and often also mutually influenced by Muslim cultural achievements, started flourishing again. The times of Islamic Spain are commonly referred to as the Jewish Golden Age and brought forth such prominent figures as the Jewish philosopher, physician and rabbi Musa Ibn Maymun, commonly refferred to as Maimonides or RaMBaM. 
With the Catholic Reconquista, which gradually eroded Islamic control in Spain, this age came to a bitter end. 

As of today, the biggest Jewish community living amongst a Muslim majority is Iran, with estimated numbers varying between 25,000 and 35,000.

In conclusion we can state that Jews and Muslims have a lot more in common than is usually acknowledged. Sadly, the conflict surrounding Palestine and Israel is probably the single most important issue defining today's relationships between Muslims and Jews, not just within the area, but globally.


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Microbreweries in Palestine and Israel

By Miri - 

The summer of 2011 is commonly referred to as the Israeli Spring, or at least as an attempt at it. During the course of this summer, the new born social justice movement managed to mobilise thousands of people to the streets, which culminated in the biggest protests in the history of Israel. Almost one year later, the promise of an Israeli social revolution has not fulfilled itself (yet?). Meanwhile, though not mentioned neither in the international, nor in the Israeli mass media, another, more quiet revolution seems to have taken place: the microbrewery revolution.

Example of microbrewery equipment
As opposed to big commercial breweries, microbreweries produce high quality hand crafted beers, using classic brewing techniques and premium ingredients and obviously producing much smaller amounts. Microbreweries also often experiment with your taste buds and apart from the produce of traditional flavours, engage in forging original and new beer creations. By now there are reportedly more than 20 licensed commercial microbreweries in Israel, most of which emerged during the past years, and quite a few more are standing in line, waiting for the final authorisation.
A lot of those beers and ales fall under the category of “boutique beers”, meaning the breweries produce less than 5000 litres a year and are therefore predominantly sold in house. Yet some of them can also already be found at selected pubs and restaurants around the country, so it's definitely worthwhile asking for local beers – beyond the omnipresent local Goldstar and Maccabi, of course.

Interestingly a majority of the Israeli microbreweries have their origin in an Anglo context, with a large number of brewers coming from the U.S. and Britain.
The first licensed microbrewery, the Dancing Camel Brewery in Tel Aviv, brewing officially since 2006, was founded by a recent immigrant to Israel from the U.S.. Some of its kosher beers and ales are enriched with Middle Eastern flavours, such as carob, pomegranate or mint and have funny names, such as Golem Beer or Gordon Beach Blond. According to a recent ranking Dancing Camel is the number one of the microbreweries.
For those of you who appreciate a more traditional flavour, number two of the list, Jem's Beer Factory in Petah Tikvah, may be a better choice. Again, founded by a US immigrant, Jem's Beer brings to the Middle East all the European specialities, ranging from Czech Pils lager to Bavarian wheat beer.

Some of the microbreweries open their gates to the public, they run visitor centres and offer brewery tours. Especially the larger microbreweries also have adjacent pubs, restaurants and some even run German style beer gardens where you can have a taste of their fine varieties.

And what about Palestine? Here the microbrewery revolution started way before the Israeli one, with the emergence and increasing success of Taybeh Beer, the first of its kind in the Middle East. With the onset of the Oslo Peace Accords and after a long stay in the US, the Christian brothers Nadim and David Khoury, returned to their native village of Taybeh, located in the proximity of Ramallah where they started brewing. The foundation of the Taybeh Brewing Company in 1995 fulfilled the Khoury family's dream, and at the same time constituted a conscious and successful effort to boost the emerging Palestinian economy.
By now Taybeh beer is extremely popular and can be found in basically all liquor stores, and alcohol serving bars and restaurants in the Occupied Territories and even some lefty bars in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem proudly offer the Palestinian beer on their menus. In addition, the annual Taybeh Oktoberfest became a great attraction amongst Palestinians, Israelis and international tourists alike.

Green Olive Tours offers tours to Taybeh, which obviously also include a visit of the brewery.


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