Ramadan in Israel

It is important that Israeli leaders and society see Ramadan as a way to engage with the Muslim community.

Saudis watching Ramadan television program 311 (R) (photo credit: Fahad Shadeed / Reuters)
Saudis watching Ramadan television program 311 (R)
(photo credit: Fahad Shadeed / Reuters)
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, began this week. For Israel’s estimated 1.4 million Muslims, the month is particularly salient.
Because Muslims are commanded to abstain from eating and drinking during the day, there is a general slowdown in activity in their communities, and restaurants are closed for the day. However, spending in general increases and at night, when families gather for Iftar meals to break the fast, a celebratory atmosphere predominates.
Israel contains many experts on Islam and Islamic studies. The National Library at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus considers Islam one of its core areas and maintains an extensive collection of books relating to the subject. There is also the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.
Yet much of the study of Islam in Israel focuses either on obscure historical topics or on modern trends that exist outside Israel’s borders, such as the role of Islam in Egypt. This makes for a paucity of research into religious trends among Israeli Muslims.
The Jewish public is, therefore, at a loss in terms of the most simple facts relating to a large segment of Israel’s population, such as how many Muslims actually fast on Ramadan. The Central Bureau of Statistics conducts an annual Social Survey that includes interviews with more than 1,000 Israeli Muslims but does not examine detailed questions associated with religious observance.
During the past decade, there has been a growth in Islamic institutions in Israel, especially among certain sectors such as the Beduin. According to one study published in 2003, “in the past 15 years, the number of mosques in Israel has increased four-and-a-half times, from 80 in 1988 to 363 in 2003.”
The huge investment in new infrastructure is visible on the borders of all of Israel’s large Arab communities, from Taibe to Shfaram, where big mosques are under construction.
Only rarely has this building spree brought about tensions, due to illegal or controversial construction, as in Nazareth in 1999 or in Rahat in 2010.
Several years ago there was increasing fear that Islamic radicalization would also affect Israel. The local manifestations of this were the northern and southern branches of the Islamic Movement and the northern branch’s outspoken leader Sheikh Raed Salah.
But the Islamist political trend has not been as successful as commentators believed. Prof. Elie Rekhess, director of the Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University, said that Salah “certainly sees political Islam as a major factor in the formulation in the coming years in Israel, and he sees his party as having a strong say.”
While Salah often brings headlines, the Islamic Movement’s political success has resulted in the election of two members of the current Knesset, Ibrahim Sarsour and Masud Gnaim, both members of the United Arab List.
The celebration of Ramadan in Israel should be understood as an expression of the freedom of worship that Israel grants its largest minority group.
Burkas and minarets are not banned in Israel. Furthermore, Israel’s political elite, particularly President Shimon Peres, has a long tradition of showing official respect to Islamic holidays, through such activities as inviting Arab dignitaries and journalists to holiday feasts.
Some of Israel’s mayors, such as Shimon Lankri of Acre, have devoted efforts to using the holidays to bring communities together.
It is important that Israeli leaders and society see Ramadan as a way to engage with the Muslim community.
It serves as a time to examine subjects such as national service among Muslims and working to discourage messages of hopelessness, nationalism and alienation.
Holidays such as Ramadan can be used both as a time to work with leaders of the Muslim community, especially in mixed towns with a history of communal tensions, and as a time to discuss issues associated with extremism, xenophobia and irredentism.
Promoting the study of modern trends in Islam at the university and institutional level, as well as encouraging the government to increase the level of knowledge about this community, is important in terms of integrating the country’s largest minority into the fabric of Israeli life.