Having been raised in the only country in Asia where Catholics form a majority, I grew up with stories of the bible, conveniently distant from the holy land. Last year, I spent Ramadan praying at the Masjid Al-Aqsa, breaking-fast with my Muslim brothers and sisters. This year, as I traced a long lost Jewish heritage, I diligently wrote notes to the Kotel and observed Shabbat with Jewish families on the other side. I found shared spiritual values beyond the labels of religions that have been influenced by our different human experiences i.e. cultures, historicities, even geography, and of course, politics. My peculiar relationship with Israel and Palestine has got me reflecting on the diversity of things all of us believers try to do, why we do them, and for whom - God, or ourselves? The sacred, or the political? 

With Israel and Palestine, many impediments to the peace process have some connection to the unworthy marriage of religion and politics. Although the conflict is complex on so many levels, and has deeper socio-political-economic roots, it is no secret that political Islam and Judaism (not to mention the Christian version of Crusades) have posed threats to more lives, resources, freedoms at different stages in history. Whether this or that version is actually found in the Quran or Bible, talk about "holy" war, land or person, and believers will go crazy against whoever is the illegal, sacrilegious “other.” 

We do not even need to go back to the time of the Ottoman Caliphate, when Jews and Christians who had earlier settled in the land paid for their liberties to the newly-arrived Muslims, unless they converted to Islam. Not to mention, the number of Palestinian locals killed and displaced by the advent of Zionism. Today, anti-Semitism continues to thrive in the Islamic political party hamas, from celebrating martyrs to insightful Friday prayer sermons. Islamophobic rhetoric lingers in the ultra-orthodox lobby in the Knesset, where the impending nation-state bill threatens to limit the right to self-determination to Jews, illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and halacha law limiting the daily freedoms of Arabs, and Jews who have different expressions of religion, or none at all. Recently, an CIRI index revealed that the state of Israel is already ranked closer to Islamic countries than the democratic West. 

On a lighter note, there have been exemplars of religious coexistence in both communities. Specific to Islamic history, where separation of religion and state has traditionally been unconceivable, the Covenant of Omar was implemented in the very land of then-Palestine. It sought to protect the religious and civil freedoms of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule, resembling the Constitution of Medina of Prophet Muhammad, which put the “People of the Book" under their own religious courts. Lest we forget the Golden Age of Islam in Spain, which went as far as putting bishops and rabbis in official positions in a Muslim-led government, deemed in Spanish as “la convivencia” - coexistence.


Comparably, the Jewish state of Israel has been maintaining its diverse religious courts, freedom to practice religion and multi-ethnic representation at the Knesset as well. Yet until this very day, the quintessential question remains: What exactly does this "coexistence" mean? To exist with the other - is it limited to protecting the right to life? But what does “living” truly mean? And when talking about political rights, who are we talking about - does it include human beings from other religions, or even non-believers? Is there such a thing as "other-ness" in the spiritual realm? How then do the political and the sacred co-exist with each other? I am no religious scholar, but these are merely philosophical and political questions to reflect on. 


In today's discourse, 
Uri Regev is a lead rabbi activist for secular values in Israel, where he once said in reference to religious freedom: "In no other enlightened democracy is the principle of freedom of religion undermined to such a large extent.” He established the Centre for Religious Freedom and Equality (Hiddush), the leading advocacy and educational organization for strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, which has been advancing the civil rights of non-Jews and Jews from different religious or non-religious backgrounds. 


With a slightly different approach, Swiss Egyptian scholar Tariq Ramadan, founded the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) to take the lead in contemporary Islamic legal and ethical thought and behavior. They have engaged more on reforming religious scholarship itself, for instance, through proposing a moratorium for certain shariah laws, to quote: "Islam is being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim majority societies in the midst of collusive silence and chaotic judicial opinions on the ground.”


Evidently, whether it through separating religion and state, or re-interpreting religious text, Abrahamic traditions are on a journey through the signs and needs of the current times. While religions cannot completely withdraw from the politics of its believers, and politics from the religions of its citizens, it is truly every believer and citizen's duty to uphold the basic mandate of every religion, and every government: To realize genuine "coexistence." By embracing our shared values and respecting diverse human experiences, we are not only able to venerate the holy land that worships the same One God, the source of all that is Good, we are also able to more clearly shed light on the deeper roots of the conflict, and the more pressing humanitarian issues on the ground. 

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No place on earth can bring together believers like Israel and Palestine. But isn't it ironic that it has become a seemingly perpetual war zone from the time of the pagans, to the Crusaders, the Islamists, the Zionists, and other political or religious fundamentalists following suit? 


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