A disparate assembly of dignitaries descended on the Negev town of Rahat on Sunday evening for the Iftar fast-breaking meal, each offering a particular message of introspection and humility to mark the Ramadan holiday.
Representatives of the United States, European Union and Egypt attended the event, along with local and national government authorities and the head of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
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Sunday marked the first time in the event’s six-year history that the Iftar meal, organized by the advocacy group The Abraham Fund, was held in the country’s south.
Addressing the guests, who included Beduin notables and the heads of adjacent Jewish communities, US Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Goldberger highlighted the pluralistic characters of both Israel and the United States – societies that strive to accept all people regardless of race or faith.
“Every man and every woman should be free to achieve his or her full
potential, free from oppression. This is a blessing that both of our
countries share,” he said.
Goldberger, the former director of the State Department’s Office of
Israel and Palestinian Affairs and a fluent Arabic speaker, reserved
special praise for the Abraham Fund’s Language as a Cultural Bridge
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“This program aims to enable young people, Jewish and Arab, to explain
their language, their culture, their rich and beautiful history to each
other in a way that promotes exchange and interaction. They’re rightly
proud of their history, traditions and culture, and sharing it we hope
will bring joyous occasions like the one we’re celebrating here
tonight,” he told guests outside Rahat’s central community center.
Sandra De Waele, the European Union’s counselor for political affairs
in Israel, highlighted the importance of encouraging Arab women to join
the workforce. Turning to the wider region, she said Ramadan is a time
for patience and introspection – all the more so this year, as people
around the region have risked their lives to demand rights, equality and
With his government in flux ahead of decades-awaited national elections
later this year, Egypt’s consul in Tel Aviv addressed guests briefly,
and with caution.
“It is an honor to see this,” Sameh Nabil said in Arabic. “A Jewish
person breaking his fast next to an Arab, and an Egyptian next to a
Palestinian. I had no choice but to accept and be present here with
Muslims breaking fast with Jews, and Egyptians breaking fast with
Americans, as well as other nationalities.”
He added, “I don’t want to talk too much, but I wanted to be present to
say Egypt is always present, and Egypt will always support coexistence
that leads to peace, and is based on justice and equality.”
The head of the Islamic Movement’s southern branch said Israel’s Bedouins are eager to be better integrated with the state.
“We still feel discriminated against in many aspects of society, and we
hope that this can be a step towards narrowing the gaps between the
various sectors of society,” Hamad Abu Daabes told The Jerusalem Post
“The Arab community – and particularly the Bedouin community – is not
isolationist, wanting to cut itself off from the state or its
institutions. On the contrary, it seeks to integrate itself into all of
the state’s activities – whether social or political – and to
contribute. If we ask for assistance, it’s in the interest of returning
something later to the collective social basket,” he added.
The Islamic Movement’s southern branch is broadly considered moderate in
comparison to its northern counterpart, headed by the firebrand leader
Raed Salah. Neither wing of the movement – itself an offshoot of Egypt’s
Muslim Brotherhood – recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, but its
southern, Beduin-dominated iteration has resisted the northern wing’s
call for an Shari’a state, and supported Israel’s 1993 Oslo Accords with
The mayor of Rahat, Faez Abu Shaiban, also used the podium to call attention to the struggles of Israel’s Beduin.
“At this time of introspection, I want to ask that the State of Israel
strive for social and economic security,” he said. “We’ve just seen
300,000 people take the streets demanding social justice, while for many
years the Beduin community has languished below the poverty line,
shouting to be accepted as part of you.”
Abu Shaiban said recent years’ reductions in family allowances have left
many families without food, clothing and basic necessities.
“This creates a new generation of unemployment, poverty and high school
drop-out rates, because parents can’t pay for education. I hope that
this struggle for social justice brings us relief as well. Still, we
mustn’t only weep and moan, but take advantage of every opportunity
afforded to us in the State of Israel for employment,” he said.
Abraham Fund co-Director Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said he hopes the
organization’s annual Iftar meals help carve a place for non-Jewish
holidays into the national agenda.
“We hope to make the Israeli calendar multicultural, not just marking
the holidays with which the Jewish community identifies. Ramadan and Id
Al-Adha are holidays celebrated by one-fifth of our population, and yet
the Jewish community isn’t exposed to them at all.”
Be’eri-Sulitzeanu lamented what he described as the Knesset’s slide
toward intolerant and anti-democratic legislation, as reflected in last
week’s draft bill to give precedence to Israel’s Jewish identity over
its democratic character.
“These days, when the political trend discourse derives from various
kinds of xenophobic, anti-Arab and nationalistic sentiment, these events
are all the more important in that they show that amid this animosity
and separation of Jews and Arabs, there is an alternative.”
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