At Ramadan meal in Negev guests call for tolerance

Egypt’s delegate walks fine diplomatic line; Islamic movement official: Beduin yearn to be integrated into state.

By OREN KESSLER
August 9, 2011 04:10
GUESTS GATHER for the ‘iftar’ meal at the President’s Residence on Tuesday evening.

Iftar dinner 311. (photo credit: Yossef Avi Yair Engel/Beit Hanassi)

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 initiative.

“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 accountable leadership.

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 Palestinians.

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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