In the area around Gush Etzion, a series of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Shaul David Judelman on Tuesday joined Palestinian friends to write a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, pleading for help. They asked Abbas to order clerics from Al-Aqsa, a Jerusalem mosque that’s the third-holiest in Islam, to go to schools and “teach for calming the city.” Jerusalem, the interfaith group wrote, was feeling different these days, with religious tension escalating.
“There is definitely a different tone echoing through the last two months,” Judelman, an American who has lived in the Bat Ayin settlement for more than 13 years, said in an interview, citing armed attackers a who stormed a synagogue on Tuesday, killing four rabbis and a police officer.
Weeks earlier, a Palestinian tried to kill an Israeli activist campaigning for greater Jewish access to the area of Al-Aqsa mosque, which sits on a hilltop holy to both faiths. Members of both faiths can visit, but only Muslims can pray. Jews call it the Temple Mount, and Muslims refer to as the Noble Sanctuary. The violence has bookmarked a series of protests and clashes between Israeli authorities and Palestinians.
But religion, said Judelman, a leader of Shorashim-Judur, an interfaith organization that joins settlers and Palestinians in cultural exchange and education programs, may also work another way. “People involved in the dialogues and initiatives we’re working on are there from their religion, not in spite of it,” he said.
What’s long been an overtly political conflict with a religious shadow — one where talk is in terms of borders, settlements, checkpoints, bombs, and nationality — has recently flipped on its head. Debates over access to sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, where Muslims say the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and where Jews believe their holy ancient temples were located, have spurred accusations of both sides provoking a religious war. Clergy and interfaith activists, such as Judelman, are asking how faith can play a role in easing the tensions.
“Our conflict has become both a national one and a religious one. Religious extremism, with the help of the mainstream media, is carrying the day,” said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, which includes Christians, Muslims and Jews and focuses on interfaith dialogue and action, such as prayer gatherings. “We need more moderate voices to speak out.”
Clergy from the three faiths came together Wednesday near the site of Tuesday’s synagogue attack. They included interfaith activist and former Israeli legislator Rabbi Michael Melchior, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilis III of Jerusalem, Roman Catholic Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal of Jerusalem, and Sheikh Samir Assi, imam of the Al-Jazaar mosque in Acre in Northern Israel. The Associated Press reported that Muslim leaders from Jerusalem, including the grand mufti who oversees Al-Aqsa, and senior Israeli rabbis were absent.