“The problem is not religion. The problem is political Islam which incites hatred between Muslims and Jews,” French Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who is President of the Conference des Imams de France told President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday.
Chalghoumi, who met Rivlin in Paris during the latter’s state visit to France in January of this year, is leading what he described as “an historic delegation of young Muslim community activists from France and Belgium” who have had a comprehensive tour of the State of Israel, meeting various Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze including army and police personnel in manifold situations. On Monday, they are scheduled to go to the Gaza border.
The visit to Israel was facilitated by ELNET (European Leadership Network), an NGO dedicated to strengthening relations between Israel and Europe.
Chalghoumi, who has been to Israel several times, said that for him, it is always as if it was a first-time experience. He is perpetually impressed by Jerusalem’s holiness, its modernity, and its diversity despite all the difficulties it confronts on a daily basis.
For members of the delegation he said, it was indeed a first visit to Israel and several who had come with preconceived negative notions about the country, were amazed to see how Arabs move freely and how they integrate into mainstream Israel.
In fact, one young woman from Belgium admitted to Rivlin that before coming to Israel, she had been a strong proponent for BDS. She had heard and read that Palestinians suffered terribly at the hands of Israelis and that there was violence and terror everywhere. She was astounded to learn that the opposite is true and that Israel respects human rights. Initially, she was astonished to see Arabs mingling freely in the streets with Israeli Jews. She will be returning home with a completely different impression of Israel, and now believes in Israel’s right to exist, she said.
Chalghoumi, referring to the growing upsurge of antisemitism in Europe, said: “Innocent people are being killed in Europe, only because they are Jews.”
He was convinced that Muslims in France, such as the young people in his delegation, could be a bridge to understanding and hope for a more peaceful future.
He declared that he regards Rivlin as a symbol of hope, and assured him that there are many Muslims in the world who seek reconciliation with Israel.
Rivlin reiterated what he has said many times that Israel does not have a war with Islam, only with Muslim fundamentalists, who he said, are a danger not only to Israel and the Jewish people, but to the whole world.
WITH REGARD to Israel’s negative image in Europe, Rivlin said that it was essential to break through the propaganda web of lies which does so much damage to the truth.
Reminding his guests that Jews and Muslims are distantly related in that both are descended from Abraham who had two sons – Ishmael and Yitzhak, Rivlin spoke of an even more important commonality – a monotheistic faith. “There is no Jewish God, Muslim God or Christian God,” he said. “There is only one God who created us all equally, and whom we each worship in accordance with our different traditions.”
As a Jew, and a multi-generational Jerusalemite said Rivlin, he could not rest easy, if fellow citizens of another faith did not enjoy equal educational opportunities, freedom of worship and freedom of speech.
He noted that prior to the birth of the Zionist movement, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in harmony in the Holy Land, but the Zionist movement is a political movement aimed at returning Jews to their ancestral homeland. This did not sit well with local Arabs or with the populations of neighboring countries, and thus began a conflict which has endured for something in the realm of 150 years.
Rivlin preferred to call it a tragedy rather than a conflict, because so far, neither side is prepared to give way even though both are aware that they are destined to share the terrain until the end of time.
Rivlin emphasized as he has so often before, that no progress towards peace can be made without confidence-building measures on both sides.
The young visitors wanted to know whether Rivlin believed that there would ever be peace in the region considering that such an eventuality would be contingent on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Rivlin replied that he believed with all his heart that there will be peace one day, and noted that the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan have remained in force. “But peace between nations is not enough,” he said. “There has to be peace between people.”
He added that Israel was willing to share her know-how and resources with all her neighbors in the region, even with the people in Gaza, providing they rid themselves of Hamas.
“I want to be the friend of the Palestinians, not their enemy,” he said.
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