A Jew in the mosque

A self-described "average Israeli" talks about his daring journey to pray with the Holy Land's Muslims and Christians -- and why Arafat cannot head a Palestinian state.

Published October 30, 2001 1:05PM (EST)

In the raging, seemingly irreconcilable conflict of the Middle East, the complexity of journalist Yossi Klein Halevi's own experience and opinions seems right at home. The son of an Orthodox Holocaust survivor, Halevi grew up in a Brooklyn community that was angry at and fearful of Christianity. He then married an Episcopalian who converted to Judaism, and she moved to Israel with him 20 years ago. During the first intifada, Halevi served as a soldier in Gaza. In his latest book, "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land," he returns to a Gaza refugee camp to pray. Two years ago, he voted for Ehud Barak because he was willing to see Jerusalem divided in order to create a Palestinian state. After this last year's violence, he no longer believes a Palestinian state is possible as long as Yasser Arafat is in power.

Halevi, the Jerusalem correspondent for the often-hawkish New Republic, has written what is ultimately a blend of memoir, travel book, celebration of worship and experiment. For two years, Halevi met and prayed with Sufi mystics, Muslim sheiks, Armenian Christians and Catholic nuns, embracing Islam and Christianity and their different ways of experiencing God. With each moving, often troubling encounter, Halevi asks whether religion can heal the wounds that politics cannot. Somehow, despite the emerging violence of 2000 and attempts to convert him, Halevi remains hopeful, inspired by what he witnessed in mosques, convents, West Bank towns and a Gaza refugee camp to believe that faith unites the people of the Middle East. "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden" reverberates with mesmerizing prayer, compelling dialogue and surprising humor. Especially now, this important narrative seems like a record of sanity. Halevi's intense, brave questions reveal that there is something in the Holy Land that withstands violence and waits for peace.

Salon spoke to Halevi by telephone from his home in Jerusalem about the failure of the peace process, the fearlessness of Islam and Israel's role in the war on terrorism.

You write that you feel that the Oslo Accords were too secular. How does the peace process neglect religion?

In July 1998, I was at a conference at the island of Rhodes which brought together Palestinian and Israeli journalists. It was sponsored by UNESCO and the European Union. What struck me at that conference was how unrepresentative so many of the journalists were of the cultures they come from. The Israeli journalists were eating calamari and the Palestinian journalists were drinking wine. We could all be cosmopolitan together on the island of Rhodes, but as soon as we came back to the Middle East, the walls went back up again. That incident really encapsulates where the peace process lost touch with the sensibilities of the peoples in the region.

From the very beginning, imams and rabbis should have been brought into the process. The idea that we could leave Jerusalem for last was so clearly a misreading of the significance of religion for both peoples. It all blew up in our faces.

How could this have been done differently?

Some very sincere efforts were made to bring people together on both sides through grass-roots work and encounter groups between psychologists, doctors and students. But religious people weren't brought together. A few peripheral attempts were made but never by the architects of Oslo. They themselves feared and were emotionally cut off from religion. You can't make peace in the Middle East without going through that door.

How does American intervention affect this?

America misunderstood the cultural nature of the Middle East. Separation of religion and state is not only a cardinal principle in America, it's what makes America work. But you can't transfer that concept to the Middle East. There is no separation of religion and state in any of the countries. Both Judaism and Islam see religion as a total experience: For religion to be authentic, it needs to address all aspects of life.

The struggle that we're having in Israel -- and as a religious person, I am very much on the secular side of this struggle -- is to contain religion as much as possible to the private sphere. Yet even people like me who believe in that, don't believe that it can be done completely. This is not the West and if that's true for Israel, it's far truer for the Arab world.

You write that religion pays a price when it's identified too closely with nationalism. Can you explain?

In both Islam and Judaism, there's a sense that you can't separate national identity from either Islam or Judaism. It's too essential. Judaism is a religion that was created through the birth of a specific people, when the Jewish people were created in the Sinai Desert, the Exodus. The Prophet Muhammad identified his followers as the "Nation of Islam." I have to be careful here about advocating a strict separation of national experience from spiritual experience because the two really are entwined. You can't separate them.

But we need to be very careful about identifying a modern state too closely with religious goals. That's true for both Judaism and Islam. We need to remind ourselves that the focal point of the religious experience is the individual's encounter with God. Afterwards, it's the nation's encounter with God.

Is this a major factor in the debate about the settlement policies?

I have to emphatically say no. That small group of Messianic settlers who initially started the settlement movement were very much motivated by biblical fantasies, but 60 percent of the settlers today are not even religious. Sixty percent are secular. The settlement movement is essentially a response to what Israelis perceive as a life-and-death threat to the country if we withdraw back to the 1967 borders which will leave Israel eight miles wide. One can argue whether Israel is right or wrong to see the 1967 borders as a life-and-death threat. But let's say that after 20 years of living here, I have too much respect for the fragileness of Israel in the Middle East to judge.

What is the debate among Israelis about occupation?

The tragedy of Israel's dilemma is that withdrawal from the West Bank will put us in an existential dilemma, but not withdrawing from the West Bank puts us in an impossible moral dilemma. What we are facing is really security vs. morality and that's what makes the territorial debate for Israelis so wrenching. That's what makes it so wrenching for me. I hate the occupation. I write about what it was like being an occupier, a soldier in Gaza. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. But on the other hand -- and there's always another hand in Israel -- those who warn about the precariousness of the 1967 borders have a very compelling point.

You live right there don't you?

I live on the edge. Right now, I'm looking out at the West Bank.

It's hard to imagine.

Imagine having the Taliban on the next hill! In a way, that's where I'm living.

Is it comparable? You grew up in Brooklyn and were in New York on Sept. 11. Since Sept. 11, people have commented that now Americans know how it feels to live in Israel. Do you think that that is a valid parallel?

Everything that happens in America happens on a much grander scale. Thank God we have not yet experienced anthrax. The scale of the Sept. 11 attack is obviously so beyond anything we've experienced. America is experiencing the kind of trauma in such an intense, concentrated dosage in such a short time span that it can't compare to anything we've gone through in Israel.

On the other hand, Israel is the only democracy in the world that has never known any period without terrorism. That's one of the mistakes that many of my colleagues in the media make when they judge Israel. They don't understand the context of our excruciating internal debates over occupation vs. security or human rights vs. terrorist prevention. All of those issues which the United States is now going to have to start facing, we've been living with from the day of our existence.

I have never known a period in this country where terrorism was not an active consideration of how we live our lives. Israelis used to joke that in Alaska they have to deal with the snow, and in the Middle East we deal with terrorism. That is part of the weather here. In the sense of how you balance daily life with fear and caution, Israel is the world expert.

There are many layers of fear that you deal with -- from the looming fear of terrorism to the act of crossing a border into a dangerous town. Are there fears that are simply part of every Israeli's psychological makeup? Are all of them equally legitimate?

What you refer to is a basic fear -- the constriction of geography. Israel is a very small country to begin with. In the last year in particular, what has happened is that the map has gotten considerably smaller. There are places that an Israeli Jew will never enter and not only in the territories. There are Arab villages within Israel where I used to feel completely comfortable driving in and going to see friends. Now I have to think three times before I go in.

Since the start of this second uprising?

Yes. Again, as we're speaking, I'm looking out at this beautiful village on the hill across from my porch. I have never been in there. I wouldn't dream of getting in a car, literally two minutes away, and driving in and taking a look. I don't know if I would come out alive.

When you went to Gaza, before last year's violence erupted, how fearful were you?

Even before the intifada, you only could go in with an armed guard. The first time I went to Gaza, to this Sufi mosque in the Nuseirat refugee camp, I was given an armed escort by one of Arafat's security services. The second time I went in basically under the protection of providence. There were moments in that experience when I wondered if I would come out alive. It was sheer terror. Joining Muslim prayer in a refugee camp, without armed protection, with a kipah, a skullcap, on my head and clearly identified as a religious Jew, was the moment for me when I felt that I learned something from Islam's fearlessness.

How did you feel about this fearlessness?

What I love about Islam and one of the truly great gifts of Islam to its believers is fearlessness -- a sense of facing death realistically without illusions. Islam manages to convey to its believers the tragedy of human existence, of mortality, and at the same time, to give them a sense of optimism and strength. Being alone in that refugee camp, as a Jew, and really not knowing if I would come out alive -- at that moment I felt that I learned something of Islam's fearless heart.

Did you also see how that fearlessness could become radical and fanatical?

Exactly, that's the dark side of Islam. The suicide bombers. The taunts that we hear from the Taliban or from the Palestinian Hamas: "You in the West and you in Israel love life and are afraid of death. We love death." At its best, Islam does not love death, but it is not afraid of it. The dark side of Islam is this pathological embrace of death.

The Muslim religious leaders you met with were Sufi mystics. How much power do they have in their communities?

The Sufis are pretty peripheral in Palestinian Islam. With this qualification, they are highly regarded even by mainstream Muslims as healers and exorcists. But their own communities are very small. That's an important point that I'd like to stress: This journey that I took was really an experiment. The journey was not into mainstream Islam. I would not have been welcomed. That's where extremist ideas and hatred have really penetrated.

That's the mainstream?

That's the mainstream. The kinds of sermons that are broadcast every Friday in most mosques in the Arab world, certainly in Palestine, are so full of the most extraordinary hatred that I knew there was no point for me as a Jew to come close. My journey was really to the edges of Palestinian Islam. That's important to say because I'm very careful about drawing political conclusions from what was essentially a spiritual journey.

How does your fear of Christianity compare to your fear of Islam?

The fear of Christianity is entirely psychological and the fear of Islam is mostly physical. With Christianity there is, embedded in every Jew, centuries of dread. One of the main goals that I set for myself on this journey was to go to the root of my fear of Christianity, which is fear of the cross. I felt that there could never be a genuine Jewish-Christian rapprochement until Jews stopped seeing the cross as a historical symbol and began to relate to it as a religious symbol.

That's why I went to the Armenians for holy week. I wanted to experience Good Friday with a community of Christians who would look at the cross as a symbol of their own nation's crucifixion. [The Armenians were the first people to experience state-sponsored genocide in the 20th century.] As a Jew that would resonate with me. I needed to be with a community of Christians who were victims. On April 24, Armenian genocide day, when I pinned the cross onto my chest, my instinctive reaction was horror. Then I realized that this is the cross of the Armenian crucifixion. Certainly a Christian would put the yellow star on their chest as a sign of solidarity with the mourners at a Holocaust Memorial Day service. The cross was the Armenian's yellow star. At that moment, centuries of fear and revulsion broke.

You write that Arabs and Jews and Christians in Israel don't really show an interest in each other's religions. How does that play out in such a small space?

I'll give you an example. Ramle is a working-class town in Israel, near Tel Aviv. It's 80 percent Jews and 20 percent Arabs. Jews and Arabs have really learned the habit of civility there. They go to each other's weddings and funerals, they're neighbors, there are business partnerships. It's one of those quiet little pockets of decency. Yet there is no crossover of intimacy when it comes to religion. This little mosque that I went to is across the street from a synagogue and people from the synagogue and the mosque have never visited each other's place of worship. That to me is astonishing because what they really have in common is their love of tradition and their consciousness of a reality greater than the material world.

That comes back to the first question about the place of religion in the peace process. For me, the most moving thing about encountering a Muslim is that invariably, in any conversation that you have with a Muslim, certainly about faith, it will come around to the following line: "We're here on this earth for 50, 60, 70 years and that's all. So why make ourselves and each other miserable?" Deeply embedded in this Muslim consciousness of mortality is a wisdom of letting go. Of realizing that what's really important is to take care of your soul.

How does this idea translate for extremists?

What the Muslim extremists have done is to co-opt that wisdom and tell Muslims that the way to really take care of your soul is through hatred and violence. The deeper Muslim wisdom is exactly the opposite. I truly do believe those Muslims who say that Islam is at its root a religion of peace. I have experienced that. By a religion of peace, I mean a religion that realizes that all human conflicts are transient. We have to know how to tap into that Muslim awareness of mortality.

While I was reading I got the sense that some religious people have a different, maybe greater sense of time, patience and history than some secular people. If you consider the history of this region, is there any sense that this struggle might take a much longer time and that it can't be resolved quickly?

This struggle will not be resolved so quickly. Had there been a religious sensibility embedded in Oslo, its architects would never have been so foolish as to create a timetable of seven years to resolve the conflict. That is absolute lunacy. You can't resolve this kind of conflict with a Western timetable.

But in the grand scheme of things, what juncture would you say we're at? It seems like a crucial one.

Shimon Peres used to compare the Middle East to post-World War II Western Europe. The comparison to Western Europe is legitimate, but I would say post-World War I Western Europe. What happened in post-World War I Western Europe was that one side -- the English and the French -- came out of World War I emotionally exhausted and ready to end the conflict. That's what happened to Israel; after the Lebanon war and the intifada, Israel had had enough, except for the hard right which is 25 percent of the population. A solid 70 percent was ready for almost any deal if they could have been convinced that it would really bring peace.

Are you a part of that 70 percent?

I can speak for myself as Mr. Average Israel. I voted for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and was ready to go along with Oslo. Then when I saw what kind of peace we really were getting in exchange, I went to the right and voted for Netanyahu in 1996. I went back to Barak in 1999 and then I went to Sharon in 2001, along with the Israeli mainstream. I voted for every successful Israeli prime minister in the last decade. I really feel I can speak for the Israeli center. We were ready for any deal -- redividing Jerusalem, 1967 borders -- if the other side had shown the slightest good will and the slightest indication that they were ready to accept our legitimacy here and not to brand us as colonialists and intruders. Had they shown any indication of realizing that we were a people returning home, they would have gotten the deal that they said they wanted.

So then where is the Arab world at this juncture?

The Arab world can really be compared to Germany after World War I, which still nurtured its grievances and still had dreams of military grandeur. If you look all around the Arab world, leaders still dress up in military uniforms. Even Egypt has an annual military parade on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War on Oct. 6. There hasn't been a military parade in this country in 25 years. Nobody would come.

What that really means is that the Arab world hasn't gone through its World War II yet. That's both a very pessimistic statement, but in the long term an optimistic statement because what it's saying is that after the next war -- which I think began with this second intifada and now is unfolding in stages -- I believe that basic sanity could prevail in the Middle East.

How do you think that America's war on terrorism is going to affect all this? Do Israelis feel that they are part it?

We feel that we're the front line. That's partly why Israelis are so hurt by what's happened these last weeks and shocked, really, to see America courting Syria and Iran where terrorism is an active part of the state-sponsored culture. It's cultural, it's not just political. In Israel, we've been trying to warn the world about terrorism for years. After the Entebbe rescue in 1976, when Israel rescued 104 hostages, Yitzhak Rabin said that the world was making a big mistake to assume that this is Israel's problem. I'd say what many of us feel is that Israel is being targeted, not because it's a Jewish state as much as because it's a Western state. We are the only Western state in the Middle East and that's the affront.

I agree with part of Sharon's statement that Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. There is a growing sense among Israelis that we're being set up to appease the Arab world which has nurtured the culture of terrorism. Where I disagree with Sharon was the implicit comparison between Bush and Neville Chamberlain. That was uncalled for. My feeling about Bush is that he's growing into the role. He seems to be proving those people who say that great leaders are made by history rather than the other way around.

Bush is pressing for the creation of a Palestinian state. But as long as this violence goes on, Sharon won't move for a Palestinian state, right?

Absolutely not. Look, as long as Arafat is in power there will not be a Palestinian state. What's changed for centrist Israelis like myself and for many left-wing Israelis who devoted their lives to reconciliation not just with the Palestinians but with the PLO, is that we don't believe that Arafat ever intended to live in peace with Israel. The root of the deep depression that Israeli society has gone into in the last year, more than the violence, is the realization that we were fooled. We brought Arafat here. Nobody forced us to do that. People forget that. We initiated the Oslo process. We took a gamble on this guy. We armed his police. They are shooting at us with weapons that we gave them.

The terrible thing for Israelis like me who really wanted this peace to work is that the Israeli right, whom I still don't identify with, turned out to be right about the peace process. If you want to sum up Israel's dilemma, the Israeli left was right about the occupation and the Israeli right was right about the peace process. Which leaves us in the situation where we can't occupy and we can't make peace.

When violence erupts like this, do you find yourself naturally identifying more with the right?

Almost everyone here does. But it's more of a tactical than an ideological identification. This is the situation we're in now and this is the time to be strong and unified. We'll resume our internal debate at a more appropriate time.

This book is really more of an offering for the future. A sign of hope in a time without hope. That's what it means to me. Sometimes I pick up this book and it seems like it was written so long ago.

It seemed that way reading it too.

It happened on a very small scale, in a very controlled experiment among Muslim mystics, but still the fact is that it proves that Muslims and Jews can pray together and use religion to overcome the deepest political divide.

And when you met them did you believe that they had respect for Israel's right to be there?

Some of them came to it with that, others developed it through our personal relations.

Palestinians sometimes draw parallels between their experience and the experience of the Jews. Could you relate to their sense of exile?

I just renovated my apartment. It's a major experience. You're really conscious of home. As I was renovating, there was more than one moment when I thought about what it would be like to suddenly lose your home. I'm thinking about it now because we're facing possible war and we've renovated an apartment literally in the last row of houses before the West Bank. The thought of home and homelessness has been very much on my mind. I've been very conscious of the suffering of refugees who once lived in this land, who once had homes here.

The other level, however, is the sense of political blame. The refugee problem would never have happened had the Palestinians accepted the U.N. partition plan in 1947. It's because of that that I'm not racked with guilt. We accepted partition. The Arab world said there can be no Jewish state. If you look at those borders of what the U.N. envisioned the Jewish state to be, it's a joke. It's slivers of territory and the Arab world and the Palestinians said that's too much for them. The Palestinians have been rejecting statehood since the 1936 British-sponsored Peel Commission. Each time it's never enough. The map of 1936 gets smaller in 1947, then smaller in 2000 at Camp David. I don't know of any other people in the world who have been offered statehood as many times as the Palestinians and have kept turning it down because it's never enough.

Were they suffering before these borders were presented? Had they been forced out of their homes?

That happened with 1948. It happened during the war. Also, there are a million Jews here from Arab countries who came as refugees and lost their homes and property and left everything behind. So that what happened with Israel and the Palestinians is very similar to what happened with India and Pakistan, for example. There was an exchange of populations.

The final point is that when the Jews went into exile 2,000 years ago, we went into inhospitable societies. The Palestinians crossed over into countries where they speak the same language, have the same religion -- but how they were treated from country to country is another story. The truth is that only Jordan offered them citizenship and welcomed them as brothers. In almost every other Arab country, they were deliberately kept in refugee camps, which is a scandal in itself.

Yet Arab countries speak out for the Palestinians. Osama bin Laden has claimed that his jihad is partly about the Palestinians.

Ultimately, the Palestinian issue is a pretext. This intifada is a sham war of liberation. At Camp David, the Palestinians were offered 90 percent of the territories. Then, six months later at Taba they were offered nearly 100 percent of the territories with full territorial contiguity -- which was what the Palestinians were complaining about -- and they still turned it down.

Why do you think so? Which of their concerns do they feel are not being met?

It meant in the end that they were recognizing Israel and accepting that the refugees were not coming back to Israel proper but to a Palestinian state. They couldn't swallow that and weren't prepared to make the most minimal compromise that Israel needed to continue to exist.

Aren't they angry about the occupation and military presence?

When the Palestinians say that this is because of the occupation, it's a lie. Maybe they could have made that case before Oslo, when Israel was set on annexing the West Bank and absorbing it and didn't offer the Palestinians a fair deal. But to talk about Palestinian grievances after they were offered a state on nearly 100 percent of the territory, and even more obscenely, to use that fake grievance to explain Sept. 11, requires a level of chutzpah and fantasy that the Middle East should really be ashamed of.

At this point, does it seem impossible for the Palestinians and Israelis to trust each other?

Yes, absolutely. I know very, very few Israelis who have ever sat inside a mosque, I know fewer Israelis who sat inside a mosque in Gaza and even fewer who actually joined the prayer line. I did that and I feel very much at home in a mosque and I feel very much at home in Islam. I don't just admire Islam, I love Islam. But even so, even for an Israeli like me, I have zero trust, certainly in the Palestinian leadership, and also in the good sense of the Palestinian mainstream.

Do you think that they feel the same way about Israelis?

I'm sure they do, but the violence of this last year is entirely a Palestinian self-inflicted wound. I don't say that about the 100-year conflict. In this long and bitter conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, both sides have ample rights and wrongs. But in this last year, Israel finally made the offer that the international community was demanding that we make all these years. We empowered Arafat. We offered to share Jerusalem, becoming the first nation in the world that ever offered to divide its capital and share it with another sovereignty. All of that has been forgotten, but we did it. What we got back in our faces was a year of terrorism and mob violence. That is something that is going to be very, very hard, even for Israelis like myself, to forgive and forget.

Do you feel optimistic at all?

I'm optimistic in the long term that Muslims and Jews have too much in common -- and Israelis and Palestinians have too much in common -- for us to continue this war indefinitely. At some point, we're going to wake up and recognize each other as brothers or cousins. I really believe that. But we're talking about a very long process of mutual rediscovery.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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