The peace caravan and the Sephardi connection

The unique recognition of the Arabic-speaking Jews by the head of the foremost Muslim theologian cannot be underestimated.

Spanish exhibition, titled Sephardi Portraits: From the Past to the Present  (photo credit: THE DIOCESAN MUSEUM OF RELIGIOUS ART.)
Spanish exhibition, titled Sephardi Portraits: From the Past to the Present
In his recent radical proposal to bring a peace caravan consisting of Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives to Jerusalem, the secretary-general of the religious Mecca-based NGO Muslim World League, Sheikh Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, took an important step toward breaking down boundaries, building bridges and overcoming prejudices. 
“We should send a peace convoy that is representative of all three Abrahamic religions. They should be Muslim, Christian and Jewish and they should visit all holy sites. They should be independent of politics. They should have no political agenda whatsoever. They will be more influential without a political agenda because they are independent. This visit is not from Saudi Arabia and it should not represent Saudi Arabia,” said the former Saudi justice minister.
“It comes from the Muslim world, the Christian world and the Jewish world. It has no relevance to any country whatsoever,” Dr. Al-Issa told Fox News.
The implications of this proposal are multifold. The central premise here is that Dr. Al-Issa proposes decoupling the theological symbolism of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims from the political subtext of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For far too long, demagogues such as Hamas leaders in Gaza have used Jerusalem to divide all affected populations instead of bringing them together toward the recognition that Jerusalem is a city of importance to all Abrahamic religions.
Once this concept gains recognition among theologians, it will catalyze the undoing of the strife and anti-Judaic animus that has birthed UN and UNESCO resolutions that denied Jewish heritage in Jerusalem. It will also implicitly counter the false narrative perpetuated by the Wakf Islamic religious trust’s destruction of Jewish artifacts around the Temple Mount that tries to say Jews have had no historical presence in Jerusalem, and that Jerusalem does not hold religious significance in Judaism.
None of that speaks to any political issues or explicit power struggle. Rather, the peace caravan could be seen as a humanizing step toward recognizing the fact that all three religions worship the same God and share a connection to the Holy City. The denial of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem has been a source of tensions up until this point. Saudi engagement with Israelis and Jerusalem has precedents: In 2016, a Saudi general has visited Jerusalem to meet with government officials.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stated that Israelis have a right to their own “land,” in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. A message from pan-Abrahamic unity is an unusual step, even in the light of the several public meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials. It presents a parallel track for future discussions and provides a platform for agreement and meetings that normally would have been held in secret if at all, due to the political burdens they engender.
TAKING AWAY political agendas and nationalist emphasis liberates members of the peace caravan to bond, to speak freely, and to engage in the process of elevating the discussion away from material concerns.
Dedicated to interfaith relationship-building and open, frank discussion, Dr. Al-Issa and the Muslim World League, with the assistance of another Saudi partnering organization, SAPRAC, hosted the second conference on “Cultural Rapprochement between the United States and the Muslim World,” in the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York on October 4-5. Dr. Al-Issa first articulated his idea about the peace caravan during the opening banquet, which featured Ambassador Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress.
The conference the next day featured a diverse spectrum of international theologians, US government officials, think-tank analysts and others. It also featured several Jewish participants and speakers, including Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, and the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, Jason Guberman Pfeffer. The first conference, held last year, had the groundbreaking moment of inviting the Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein for the first time to any such event. 
This year, the increase in Jewish participation and speakers underscored the progress made in the relationship building by the sponsoring organizations and Dr. Al-Issa’s personal dedication to turning the dialogue into a serious and substantive undertaking. Recognizing the important role of the Sephardi communities, often overlooked even by mainstream overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Jewish organizations in the United States, and in many cases with long standing roots in Muslim majority and Arab lands, was yet another sign of serious intentions on behalf of the Muslim World League. 
The unique recognition of the Arabic-speaking Jews by the head of the foremost Muslim theologian cannot be underestimated. It gives hope that the Jewish communities with direct ties to Arab countries will play an important role in contributing to the peace caravan, healing old wounds, and laying a path for mutual understanding, as they have played historically through trade and openness to other cultures.
Mr. Guberman, who discussed the historic role of Sephardi Jews in bringing together East and the West, said: “The recent tensions and disappearance of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa are an aberration from thousands of years of shared history, going back to the beginning of Muslim-Jewish relations in Medina, a city founded by Jewish refugees fleeing the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Prophet Muhammad grew up with Jewish friends and neighbors and included Jews as part of the “Ummah” – a diverse community in which individuals have equal rights and shared responsibilities – in his landmark constitution.
For developing a concept whereby all people could live together in harmony with equal rights and shared responsibilities, the Prophet Muhammad is honored at the US Supreme Court. Much of this history is forgotten or denied, but the American Sephardi Federation is committed to taking the best from our shared history in order to create the future of our dreams.
ASF REPRESENTS a new generation of Sephardi Jews, many with roots in the region and who are fully conversant in the Arabic language and culture. Join our “Coalition of the Decent” in reviving the Spirit of Medina!”
He underscored Dr. Al-Issa’s central point – that there is no inherent tension between Judaism and Islam. Islam – which recognizes the Jewish prophet Moses, and celebrates the rescue of Jews from drowning in the Red Sea while being pursued by the Egyptian Pharaoh’s army – has historically coexisted with Judaism. It was political tensions, not religious disputes which led to Muhammad’s war with the Jewish tribes. And later on, it was political decisions and wrong-headed religious interpretations that led to the misreading of the mainstream and traditional views on the relations between Muslims and Jews.
Dr. Al-Issa reiterated his dedication to learning about and understanding Jewish communities, their concerns, history and culture by paying a special visit to the American Sephardi Federation, which is located in the Center for Jewish History on 15 West 16th Street in New York. He received a tour of the facilities, including the ASF’s preeminent library of Sephardi scholarship, featuring texts on Islam in Arabic and other languages. He viewed a selection of these texts and documents, as well as a display of artifacts and photos related to the Yemenite Jewish community from a recent conference and exhibit.
During his three hour visit to the center, Dr. Al-Issa, engaged in a discussion with Mr. Guberman, the other staffers and select members of the board, including the Iraqi-born artist Oded Halahmy. Mr. Halahmy spoke with Dr. Al-Issa in Arabic and presented him with his art work – a pair of pomegranates, a common Sephardi cultural symbol that symbolizes love, prosperity and fertility.
Dr. Al-Issa demonstrated great interest in the history of Sephardi Jewry in Muslim lands after the Inquisition. He also had an opportunity to view a video by the Diarna project, which presents digital documentation of sites related to Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa, preserving them for posterity. These sites ranged from Khybar in Saudi Arabia to the well-preserved and functional Chaim Pinto Synagogue in Morocco to the now-destroyed or damaged synagogues in Syria.
Dr. Al-Issa, with his open-minded attitude, curiosity and dedication to engaging with a broad range of Jewish communities, from France and Florence to the Sephardic Jews in New York, shows that anything is possible if one is open to engagement, discussion and sincere and active interest in pursuing long-term relationships with one’s counterparts. The Muslim World League’s conference was a sincere and valuable effort in pursuit of these bridge-building efforts. Along with that, his visit and earnest discussions on many topics of mutual interest presented an optimistic glimpse of many joint events and activities to come.
The writer is a human rights and national security lawyer who writes about geopolitics and the Middle East for US-based and international publications. She was one of the speakers at the Muslim World League’s conference in New York. Jason Guberman Pfeffer is married to the author.