(A previous version of this story included a photo of Rabbi Dr. Nagen with a sheikh. The photo was mistakenly included in the story and those in the photo have no connection to the story. We apologize for any confusion caused as a result of this error.)
East Jerusalem – that's the only reference point I'm allowed to give for the location of the extraordinary encounter I had with Rabbi Yakov Nagen and Sheikh Ismail, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim cleric who meet on a regular basis, as part of a secret group of rabbis and sheikhs, in an effort to promote dialogue from within the Arab-Israeli conflict's most fiery perspective – its religious aspect.
On the day of the interview, just west of here, in the seam line neighborhoods only a few minutes away, violent clashes are taking place; but here, tucked away inside, in a location accessible to Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority without special permits, the quiet runs deep and the mood is a pastoral one. The three interviewees have come all the way from deep inside Area A. Fearful for their lives, they cannot reveal their names or faces, and will therefore remain anonymous.
For some 13 years now, the group has been responsible for arranging these coexistence meetings, which take place under the radar of the media. Dozens of groups play an active part in the association, with some based on common professional interests (Arab and Jewish midwives, for example) and others coming together according to geographic location. Among others, participants at these encounters also include settler leaders, while one of the group directors is a leading rabbi who recently inherited his late father's congregation.
The leaders of the group of religious figures – one of the most important groups working in the territories – meet once a month, always in a different location, and speak primarily about the religious bond between them and the fact they all do God's/Allah's work.
"True peace isn't made in political agreements," says Dr. Yehuda Stolov, executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. "The relationship between the two groups living here isn’t working. Both sides feed on endless prejudices and warped ideas. This is where the unmediated encounter comes in. Our challenge is also to learn how to agree to disagree, and still to live together and in friendship. For 20 years we have tried to make peace via the leaders. Perhaps we should be starting from the bottom, from the people?"
Distorted interpretation of faith
The group's legal advisor, Abu Walid, who studied at religious schools, among others, and is also an expert in Sharia Law, tells me that he and his fellow Muslim leaders aim, first and foremost, to come out against the radical streams of Islam and their religious interpretations.
"The people of the Book," is the term from the Koran that Abu Walid attributes to the Bible's Jewish prophets.
"Islam includes all the prophets that preceded it," says Abu Walid, laying out the principles of their doctrine to me. "Our religion stems from the same source. The religious ethic that created us also created Judaism and Christianity. The same restrictions God imposed on the Prophet Israel (Jacob) were imposed on us. Later on, additional restrictions were imposed on the Muslims; but the praying, fasting, God's work, charity, slaughter rituals and much more – these are common principles."
And what about Jihad, I ask, and Sheikh Abu Ismail, the Muslim cleric in the group, smiles: "It's all political interests," he says, and his companions nod in agreement.
"Islam cannot be imposed by force, there's no such thing. Religion is only a manner of persuasion, reasoning and choice. The Jihad of the past, at the outset of Islam, only took place when they banned the spreading of Islam and barred Muslims from entering certain territories.
"What we're seeing now is a distorted interpretation of the religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian; we're all God's children. We are all the children of Ibrahim. I'm not even allowed to curse a monk or Jewish rabbi because maybe his rank and faith override mine."
They tell me their group numbers around 12,000 people from Israel and the PA, and hundreds of thousands more from around the world. And, according to them, they adhere to the moderate and correct interpretation of the Koran. But Abu Walid also speaks of persecution, economic mistreatment, and "many agonies."
The sheikh alongside him is pessimistic too. "I'm going tomorrow to meet some people in the Strip in an effort to restore some calm," he says. "I don't know exactly what you are going to write, but if we are identified, our lives will be placed at risk. There are extremists who wouldn't think twice. That's the way it is."
Judaism is not the only human story
Rabbi Dr. Nagen, who heads the group for the rabbis, is moved to tears. "If not for the table between us, I'd hug you," he says. "My fellow rabbis and I aren't able to say that we pay a price for our faith."
Nagen, a writer and the head of the yeshiva in Othniel, which lies over the Green Line, says his inspiration comes from the late rabbi of Tekoa, Menachem Froman. "It's first and foremost one's outlook on life," he says. "Judaism is a large part of the story of humanity, but not the entire story. The Torah begins with the story of humanity, man who was created in God's image, and ends with a vision of the end of days, which speaks about the future of all of humanity.
"Religious Zionism, for its part, talks about action – about the fact that things won't simply happen of their own accord; and for me, a life of peace and harmony for all of humanity together is my image of Judaism. Peace doesn’t only mean peace and quiet or being a part of the Western world; it is also a Jewish vision that the Torah points towards."
Are there no breaking points along this path you have chosen?
"The crisis point is the starting point; the fact that I live in the Hebron Hills, and that my students were murdered in the dining hall here, or along the road. The fact that evil and killing exists – that's the starting point."
Nagen tells those present about his wife's visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs, close to the time of the muezzin's call to prayer.
"She said that the muezzin's calls had interfered initially with her praying," he recounts. "But then she became aware of the beauty in the muezzin's song. And his song in fact meshed with her prayers. She didn't know if it was a live human voice or a recording, and I related her experience at the group's following meeting, and made inquiries about the voice. And then one of the group members told me that not only was it not a recording, it was actually the voice of one of his relatives, and he conveyed to him my wife's enjoyment of his calls to prayer. This is an example of the connections that always pop up in the group.
"They (the Muslim clerics) have nothing to gain from these meetings with us, only to lose," Rabbi Nagen goes on to stress. "I, personally, have read through the entire Koran; and yes, there are some harsh things in there. But I also see the other side. The chapters always open with the words, 'In the name of Allah, the most gracious and the most merciful.' During the war, a photograph of me and a dear friend, Sheikh Sufi, got endless Shares. So you can argue about how much dark and how much light there is, but it's our task to push towards the light."
Everyone hates Islamic State (and the US)
According to Sheikh Ismail, Operation Protective Edge pushed things years back. He speaks about the rising popularity of Hamas and the almost desperate struggle to change the current reality.
Does it all boil down to a religious war?
"We've been studying the causes of radical religious Islam for six years and we've concluded that the secular Arab rulers are detached and alienated from the needs of the people," Sheikh Ismail says. "Corruption and money that went only into the pockets of close associates who enjoyed the spoils of government left the people in dire straits. And then along came organizations that did indeed help the man in the street, religious organizations with a radical Salafist agenda that did see the little man, and their popularity gained momentum. (Egyptian President Abdel) al-Sisi is now trying to prove that a moderate and secular regime can also look after the regular citizen. If that happens, the extremists will disappear from the map all by themselves.
"Another problem is that the only voices that are being heard in the region today are the voices of the radical religious clerics, the ones who adopt an extremist interpretation of Islam. The late king of Jordan, for example, was wise to keep moderate Muslim clerics among his leadership, and thus there was no room for the extremists. Now, these moderate are inactive, and Israel finds itself between a rock and a hard place – between Hamas and Islamic State."
One mention of the group is enough to fire up the mood in the room. If there's one thing that rattles Jews and Muslims, it's those "men in black," as they are referred to. "I don’t like them at all," Sheikh Ismail is quick to declare. "They're everywhere now, including in the PA, and they are a real threat."
Sheikh Ismail blames the US for the rise of IS. "They supported all the corrupt rulers; they knew where the money was going and they shut their eyes," he says. "They are forcing themselves onto this region due to economic interests, which includes the arming of all the sides. What they did now in the Strip was only detrimental too, and that's why there's no justice and no peace."
You can't ignore the fact that the main dispute between the two religions was and remains a religious one – Jerusalem, the Temple Mount for us, al-Aqsa for you.
"The bottom line is that you need to make a simple calculation. How many Jews are there in the world? Twelve million in total. How many Muslims? Hundreds of millions. If things change for the worse regarding al-Aqsa, there'll be a huge war. The entire Muslim world will unite and fight. Is that what they want to happen?
"I want you to listen to me, sister Tali. I call you sister because we are all human beings. Let's say I'm a Jew and you are only seeing me in front of you in Muslim dress. Why drag your people into a war at the end of which there may not be a single Jew left here? You live in peace with the Western Wall, but the area of the mosque must remain under complete Muslim control – Jordan, the PA, it makes no difference. The Palestinians won't forgo this; they don't have the religious right to do so."
But it's not only control; you don't allow the members of other religions, "the children of Abraham," as you called them, me, to pray there. That site is as holy to me as it is to you. Why not share it? Why can you pray in a synagogue (according to Jewish law), yet I can't pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque?
"Al-Aqsa is indeed off limits to non-Muslims. But, sister Tali, in your case, it wouldn't be a problem. With the right attire and headdress, you'll fit in just fine," he says with a smile. "I assume that when things settle down, perhaps there'll be a chance for quiet personal prayer in the courtyard for everyone. Right now, until there is complete Muslim control, it's too sensitive."
Sheikh Ismail doesn't take risks: "Following a talk with another member of the group, I came to the conclusion that a future peace agreement should include a clause that says that if the Messiah comes, his instructions are to be followed," the sheikh says. "If he orders the building of the Temple, I will personally carry the stones on my back. Until then, let things remain as they are. God created the situation, and I guess that's his will."
The Jewish and Muslim religious figures express wishes for a new and peaceful beginning. "We are here together on land that is called the land of peace. We have no choice but to learn to live together."