A boy rides his bike on the empty Ayalon highway on Yom Kippur.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Can fasting and quiet introspection coexist with joyous celebration, ample food and music? Can Israel’s Jews and Muslims live together in peace on a day when Yom Kippur coincides with Id al-Adha? Even in relatively quiet times, reconciling the commemoration of these religious holidays – which seem so radically different in tone and intent – is no easy matter. Under present conditions, with tensions at breaking point, the risk of a clash appears to be alarmingly high – particularly in the few towns and cities throughout the nation where Jews and Muslims live together.
Firstly, this is because of the very essence of the holidays.
Id al-Adha – or the festival of the sacrifice – in Muslim tradition commemorates Abraham’s submission to God’s call to sacrifice his beloved son Ishmael. Central to the celebration is the slaughtering of halal animals. According to tradition, a third of the meat is given to the animal’s owner, a third is given to the family, and a third is donated to the poor. Food and (non-alcoholic) drink accompany the meat, as do a lot of music and general partying.
Muslim shopkeepers enjoy a sharp spike in revenues during the holiday. From their point of view, Id al-Adha is one of the most important days of the year for business. In towns where Muslims and Jews live side-by-side, businesses that cater to Muslims are put under tremendous pressure.
On one hand, their Jewish neighborhoods would like them to respect the spirit of Yom Kippur. On the other hand, their fellow Muslims rely on them to provide what they need to celebrate Id al-Adha with the requisite trappings: fancy clothes, lots of food and drink, presents for family and friends, and a general festival spirit.
In contrast, Yom Kippur is the one day a year Jews set aside especially for introspection, self-improvement, and repentance. The conditions needed for this sort of soul-searching are quiet and abstinence from material pleasures.
The faithful spend most of their time in houses of prayer attempting to imitate – if only for one day – celestial angels who eschew anything worldly, from food and drink to productive acts. Even most secular Jewish Israelis adhere to many of the restrictions and the roads are almost uniformly free of traffic – except for bicycles and skateboards – over the 25-hour period.
Loud music and smoke from barbecues are hardly conducive to a Yom Kippur mood. In 2008 in Acre, three days of rioting by both Jews and Muslims was set off when a Muslim, who said he was unaware it was Yom Kippur, drove into a Jewish neighborhood with his radio blaring. A few Jews proceeded to beat the man, hardly behavior befitting the Day of Atonement. When the Muslim man returned to his neighborhood and told what the Jews had done to him, a Muslim cleric reportedly recruited his congregants into action, setting in motion violent clashes.
But it is not just the very different characters of Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha that create a volatile situation. Both Judaism and Islam present problematic perspectives of the other faith. In Islam, the biblical story according to which it was Isaac, not Ishmael, who was bound by Abraham, is portrayed as a Jewish lie. Judaism tends to portray Ishmael, the father of Arab the peoples, in negative terms. Both religions see members of the other faith in stereotypical terms that serve to dehumanize the other or view the other as essentially flawed.
On top of all of this, Arab-Jewish tensions are high right now, particularly in the Jerusalem area. Last year, when the two holidays also coincided, Muslims showed a willingness to take into consideration the religious sensibilities of Jews.
However, this year there seems to be little of this goodwill.
Jews are fed up with the daily Arab stone-throwing, which last week took the life of Alexander Levlovitz, 64, and this week endangered the life of five-month-old Batya Gamss and her mother, Sara. In short, unless cool heads take control, the stage is set for a potentially explosive day of interfaith clashes.
A number of initiatives have attempted to maintain dialogue between Jews and Muslims, most notably Nislach, which is organizing interfaith activities in Rahat, Gush Etzion, and Abu Ghosh. But the feeling is that there is more animosity than any of these groups could ever handle.
We can only pray that this Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha, both Muslims and Jews remember a basic tenet of both monotheistic faiths: every human being was created in the image of God. And this imbues him or her with the right to be respected. Let’s preserve the sanctity of our sacred days by respecting both ourselves and others.