Jerusalem - Perched on a bar stool in Jerusalem, I looked around at the many Israeli men in the room, relaxing, drinking beer and playing pool. I felt serene, but the tired faces of the soldiers told a different story. For them, this was an escape from their enemies who lay intimately bound to them beyond the hills of Jerusalem.
I caught the deep blue eyes of a young man as he stood beside me with a gun slung upon his shoulder and proceeded to order a beer. We exchanged smiles, and he decided to sit next to me.
He began to ask me personal questions. I told him I was from New York and was studying archaeology and the Bible. He asked me why I had chosen such an esoteric topic, and I reminded him that in Jerusalem it was a common topic; everyone came here to seek and understand the roots of the land.
His eyes widened as he gulped his beer, "But surely you know as a Jew that this is our ancestral homeland?"
I realised then, to my amusement, that he had assumed that I was an American Jew visiting my "home".
"Well, no…. First, I am not Jewish, and second, I am not quite sure whose land this is…" I replied calmly.
"If you're not Jewish, then you're Catholic, right?" he asked, downing his drink.
I took a long breath and responded, "No, I'm a Muslim from Pakistan."
He smiled, hoping that I was joking with him, "Come on…. No Muslim comes here to a bar, or for that matter, to Israel…. Especially not a woman!"
To prove it to him, I untied the pocket of my backpack and produced my flashy green passport that read, in Urdu and English gold lettering, "Islamic Republic of Pakistan". He took one look at the passport and shouted something in Hebrew to the others in the bar. Incredible as it sounds, in a flash, everyone but the bartender disappeared. I sat frozen on my stool, both confused and saddened by the disappearance of my former conversationalist.
Eighteen years have passed, and I have since made it my life's goal to foster mutual understanding between Jews and Muslims, so that both sides might overcome this fear of the "other". Today, working with Jews and sharing their hopes for peace has been an illuminating experience.
I have visited Munich and the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, worked with non-profits, such as the Arava Institute and Muslims for Progressive Values, that show mutual respect for Jews and Muslims, and was invited by the Levantine Cultural Center to speak with Muslims who are embittered by the Israeli Defense Forces' policies towards Palestinians, and with Jews who mistrust Muslims because of the violent actions of Muslim extremists.
Along the way, I have found that Jewish-Muslim co-existence and trust has to be rooted in a basic mutual respect for one another's faith. Common ground exists. In both Islam and Judaism, the community looks to respected religious leaders for spiritual direction. And while there are differences in form, the two also share the central practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, dietary laws and ritual purity. These similarities are most evident when comparing Islam to Orthodox Judaism.
As Muslims, we are well served by learning from Jewish history, especially how Jews survived during their tribulations, before and after the Holocaust.
Jews can help Muslims navigate in a post-9/11 world by sharing with them the difficulties that they too faced in Europe and the United States and their attempts to overcome them. At the same time, Muslims can make a better effort to include Jews in their own communities, helping to deconstruct the negative stereotype of Jews as working against them.
If the Jewish soldier I met 18 years ago would have taken the time to understand that I was in Jerusalem to sort out my feelings, not only about Israel but also about Palestine, we could have seen the shared commonalities in our faiths, our national loyalties, and our love for home... and perhaps even established a friendship.
I dream of a day when Muslims and Jews are closer to trusting one another as human beings, thus enabling us to continue the conversation.
* Mehnaz M. Afridi (www.mehnazafridi.com) teaches Judaism and Islam at various Southern California universities. This article is part of a series on Jewish-Muslim relations written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 August 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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