Jews, Muslims sit down to work this thing out

"How do two groups of people lay claim not only to the same land, but the same grains of sand?"

That's how Ray Taliaferro, the KGO radio talk-show host and moderator of a panel hosted May 14 by the Commonwealth Club's Inforum division, opened a discussion on the Middle East. The session was meant to be part one of a primer on Mideast history, especially in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in the question-and-answer period, the present took precedence over the past.

For about 45 minutes, two Jews and two Muslims spoke of their respective people's attachment to the land in question, from both a religious and historical perspective.

Rabbi Alan Lew, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, and Souleiman Ghali, founder and president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, represented the religious side. Noel Kaplowitz, a former professor at UCLA and U.C. Davis, and Ahmad Dallal, a professor at Stanford, provided a more historical view. (Later, an audience member asked why a Christian voice had not been included on the panel and whether that was indicative of the lack of Christianity's influence in the region.)

Lew began by saying that the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel is difficult if not impossible to discuss in rational terms.

After the trauma of the Holocaust, he said, Jews living in displaced-persons camps were "desperate to find a place to live and turned to the place they had been yearning for for 2,000 years, not noticing, or perhaps not choosing to notice, that people were already there."

Ghali said that while Mecca was of primary importance to Muslims, Jerusalem also played an important role as a place where humans connected with God.

Unfortunately, he said, "each one of us believes we are the only faith that is correct and true and that God is on our side. Jews and Muslims both don't want to leave it in the hands of disbelievers."

This is why Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could not offer any kind of settlement on sovereignty over Jerusalem.

"There is no way a Muslim leader could compromise on Jerusalem," he said.

While some Jews believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to them, Kaplowitz said, more Jews simply believe that the Jews are entitled to a country. Coming, as it did, after the Holocaust, "it was intuitively felt by the Jewish world that the creation of Israel is the right to life," he said, "which is the highest of all rights on a scale of moral values."

It didn't matter that others were living there, Kaplowitz said. "If the Jewish people don't have a right to the state of Israel, they have no right to anywhere else."

Dallal began his remarks on a positive note. "This conflict, as intense as it may seem, is not as intractable as it may seem to us," he said. "By and large, historically, relationships of Arabs and Jews were quite positive in relation to others."

Dallal said the rise of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was largely responsible for causing trouble, adding, "Nationalism is a newcomer on the scene of world history."

Lew made the point that while there was no getting around religion's importance in the region, fanaticism on both sides was having a harmful effect. "Religion could really be part of the solution if people practiced religion really as it should be," he said.

Ghali, who told the audience he grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, grew more personal than the others, explaining that he was taught to hate the Jews as a child, because "they used to say that we as Palestinians don't exist."

It wasn't until he moved to the United States that he met Jews and then matured in his thinking.

"We need to compromise, to sit down with each other and work this thing out," he said. "I am proud to be a Palestinian, but I am more proud to be a human being."

Lew said that Israel, despite its blemishes, had proven itself to be necessary because "we've learned that we can't rely on the kindness of strangers because often strangers aren't so nice."

But, he continued, "the Palestinians can't rely on the kindness of Israel; they need their own country as well."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."