Cherishing the Moment

On Monday evening last week, November 17th, my organization, The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (which is also the Israel chapter of Religions for Peace), held a book launch for a new book by Kadi Iyad Zahalka, entitled Shariyah in Modern Times. Kadi Zahalka is a Muslim judge of the Shariyah Court of the State of Israel. About 75 people--Jews, Christians and Muslims from all over Jerusalem and beyond--gathered in a crowded meeting room at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, to listen to the learned Muslim judge talk about his book and its implications for Israeli society. The event was co-sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.

There were two respondents to the kadi's presentation. One was Advocate Emi Palmor, the Director-General of the Ministry of Justice for the State of Israel, who began her remarks by saying: "We should cherish this moment of being together -- Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem -- especially in these difficult times."

I and all of the other people in the room were visibly moved by her poignant introductory comment.

Notwithstanding the terrible violence in Jerusalem lately (and this event took place the day before the gruesome terrorist attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem), we were able to hold this event in a major conference center in the heart of Jerusalem, with a full house. But not one single journalist attended, even though many were invited. (They are always so busy reporting on violence and incitement to violence that the don't have time, or interest, in any good news, Heaven Forbid!)

As the new Director-General of the Ministry of Justice (she was appointed in February of this year), Adv. Palmor is deeply engaged in combatting racism and unnecessary hatred in Israeli society, and she has catalyzed hundreds of workers in the Ministry of Justice all over Israel to speak about this in Jewish and Arab Schools. In fact, the principal of the high school in the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem, who was in the audience, confirmed that there had been a meaningful discussion in his school that same day with professional staff from the Ministry of Justice.

In addition, Adv. Palmor chairs an inter-ministerial committee which is working on integrating more and more Israeli Palestinian Arabs in jobs in the public sector in Israel. After all, she told us, this is how she met Kadi Zahalka 10 years ago -- in the work place. The more that Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship will work side by side with Israeli Jews, the more personal relations and mutual understanding will naturally be developed over time -- this ought to be obvious, but unfortunately it is not.

Indeed, I have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know many Israeli Arab Muslims and Christians personally during my 23 years working in the field of interreligious dialogue and education in Israel, and this naturally has radically changed the way I view and understand "the Other" in Israeli society. In fact, this is the way I have become friends with the kadi, but in addition to our professional relationship, we have been in each other's homes and have come to know each other's families.

Kadi Zahalka--who in addition to being the judge in the Shariyah court in Jerusalem, also teaches courses at 3 Israeli universities (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and now Bar Ilan University), spoke eloquently, as he always does, about his liberal, open, modern view of Shariyah Law, and how he and his colleagues are adapting it in Israel. His address was moving and well-received. One of the Jewish participants in the evening told me afterwards: "Hearing this kadi speak gave me some hope!"

There has been a quiet revolution in the appointment of kadis in Israel in recent decades. Almost all of the 10 kadis in Israel hold law degrees -and often additional academic training--in addition to their deep knowledge of Islamic Law and how to apply it in areas under their jurisdiction, which is mainly family law (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.). In addition, these judges are the religious leaders of the Muslim community in Israel, and their knowledge, moral stature and fairness has earned them great respect among the Muslims, as well as among the Jews of Israel. When they walk into any mosque in Israel, they are asked to lead the prayers or deliver the sermon, and they do so with pride and dignity. Yet, because they are judges -and therefore they don't speak to the press often--hardly anyone in the Israeli Jewish community -not to mention the international community--knows of their existence, not to mention the judicial and moral leadership they bring to the Israeli Muslim community, which represents 98% of the Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship.

I was glad to provide Kadi Zahalka with an important audience, in a major Israeli venue in Jerusalem, to present his ideas of moderation, openness, and truth, in a spirit of genuine appreciation. His book, which is available in Hebrew, should be widely read in Israel. And, it is being considered by an important publisher abroad, so hopefully it will be available in English next year as well.

The second respondent, Mr. Eran Zinger, the Arab Affairs reporter for Israeli Radio Channel Two, added to the discussion when he told us that most people in the world are very confused and afraid of the word "shariyah". Reading Kadi Zahalka's book--and listening to him speak--will help people understand the genuine meaning of "shariyah" as a way of life, and then they will have less reason to be irrationally afraid.

Yes, this was a moment to cherish, in the midst of all the craziness in Jerusalem lately. Thank you, Adv. Palmor, for reminding us of this.