Op-Ed

In Israel, religious differences don’t always lead to ugly conflict

Sewage flows from an outlet into the sea in front of Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. Each day, millions of gallons of raw sewage pour into the Gaza Strip's Mediterranean beachfront, spewing out of a metal pipe and turning miles of once-scenic coastline into a stagnant dead zone. But Israel and Palestinians have recently negotiated a deal to address the problem.
Sewage flows from an outlet into the sea in front of Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. Each day, millions of gallons of raw sewage pour into the Gaza Strip's Mediterranean beachfront, spewing out of a metal pipe and turning miles of once-scenic coastline into a stagnant dead zone. But Israel and Palestinians have recently negotiated a deal to address the problem. AP

The tension on and around Temple Mount, which has gone on for weeks now, should be diffused before it escalates into the worst kind of conflict: a religious war.

Jerusalem already experienced such a war in 1846, when a fight inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre started between priests and worshipers of the various Christian denominations represented on the site. Soon enough, the religious fervor pulled political powers into the conflict, and European countries fought each other in the Crimean War, which left half a million dead. In the immortal lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on the Charge of the Light Brigade: “Someone had blunder’d: Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die.”

Someone had blunder’d indeed.

Following the terror attack by Israeli Arabs on Temple Mount on July 14, the Israeli police hurried to place metal detectors at the entrance to the prayer area. This hasty move ran against the good advice of the Israeli Security Service and the Israel Defense Forces, which warned against the negative repercussions of any change in the fragile status quo on the site. They were right, and only after riots, an incident in Jordan where an Israeli security guard shot dead two Jordanians, and embarrassment to the Israeli government, were the metal detectors were removed.

This could have been Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ great moment. Catching Israel at a weak moment and having the emissaries of President Trump hovering around here praying for any trace of breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he could have seized the opportunity.

But instead of establishing himself as the responsible adult, calling for resumption of talks with Israel under an American umbrella, he pulled the religion card. He not only froze security contacts with Israel, he also refused to encourage Palestinian worshipers to return to Al-Aqsa.

While this dangerous blend of politics and religion goes on, it is heartening to discover that under the radar, Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement for their common good. During his last visit in the region, Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. Middle East representative, announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had reached an agreement in which Israel would provide almost 6 billion gallons of water to the West Bank and more than 2.5 billion gallons to Gaza.

Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said at the signing ceremony that, “All of us in this room proved that water can serve as means for reconciliation, for prosperity, for cooperation, rather than be a cause for tension and dispute.” Mazin Ghunaim, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said that “This will reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people and the crises that they are living through that have increased this summer.”

The following day, July 14, the mayhem on Temple Mount erupted. However, my guess is that, in this case, the basic need for water will overcome both politics and religion.

Then this: As Jerusalem endures punishing heat, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders recently urged people of all faiths to help curb climate change.

Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, Father Francesco Patton, custodian of the Holy Land, and Kadi Iyad Zahalka, head judge of the Muslim Sharia Courts in Israel, spoke about the moral obligation to address what many consider to be the most serious problem facing humanity today: environmental sustainability and climate change.

Rosen invoked the words of Moses to the Israelites: “This day I call the heavens and the Earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Patton quoted from Laudato si, Pope Francis’ encyclical subtitled “On Care For Our Common Home” (a copy of which the pope gave in May to President Trump, who promised to read it). And Zahalka said that Allah delegated his responsibility for the globe to the believers.

When moderator Rabbi Yonatan Neril, director of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, asked each of the panelists to reflect on the personal experience that led them to care about climate change, Patton’s gave what I think is the best response. “In my family estate near Trento, northern Italy,” he said, “we have a little vineyard, called La Vis. When I was a child, we used to harvest the grapes in August.

“ My family still harvests the grapes, but now they do it in October.”

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