With the rest of the world, during the past two weeks, I found my attention drawn to the historic city of Toulouse in France, and the assault on a Jewish religious school there. The preceding murders of French Arab and black military personnel in the region had allowed many to avoid what seemed to others an obvious probability: the involvement of an Arab Muslim in the serial atrocities. But that possibility was confirmed by the long siege and firefight between French officers and 23-year old Mohamed Merah, ending in the death of the suspect. Merah was a French citizen of Algerian background.
The violent ideology embraced by Islamist terrorists, and the controversy between Israelis and Palestinians that has been its most prominent backdrop, have been explained as a aspects of "conflicting narratives." Jews recall their historic attachment of the land of Israel, the martyrdom of the Holocaust and the failure of non-Zionist leaders, lacking a Jewish state, to find an adequate solution for the German Nazi threat to the wholesale existence of their people. Palestinians memorialize the nakba or "catastrophe" in which the Arab military challenge to Israeli independence was defeated in 1948, and Arabs were incited by the leaders of Arab countries to flee the new-born state.
Each narrative is enmeshed with its counterpart. Faced with the Holocaust, Palestinians invoke the nakba. The narratives of words sometimes take second place to the narratives of action. Missiles fired into Israel from Gaza provide a narrative of their own. So does the Israeli response to the targeting of Israeli civilians by rockets. Radicals in Gaza shoot into Israel because they know such aggressive action will provoke a response that legitimizes, allegedly, Arab extremism.
I do not perceive moral equivalence in these "narratives." I only suggest that too often they become an empty vocabulary, a set of slogans to substitute for effective conversation between Jews and Arabs. Every time Islamist terrorists kill innocent Jews, a deeper historical narrative is corrupted. That is the truth of Jewish-Muslim friendship over the centuries, which becomes more distant and even improbable in the world's collective memory, and is replaced by the evil vision of these two great religions as perpetual foes.
On March 20, the bodies of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two sons, Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 3, and that of Myriam Monsenego, an 8-year old girl, were awaiting transportation from France to Israel for burial. The same day, an experience in which I shared more directly provided me an alternative vision contrasting with the nightmare in Toulouse. I had gone to Israel, to present a paper at the University of Haifa. My topic was the response of spiritual Sufis, within global Islam, to the worldwide social and financial crisis. I was a member of the sole panel dealing with Islam at the 4th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spiritualities (ICSCS). This series of colloquies has been sponsored by a distinguished group of scholars of religion, including Prof. Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof. Idel is, in my view, the greatest living author on Islamic Sufi influences in Jewish mystical Kabbalah.
The panel in which I participated at Haifa included Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, an Israeli Arab leader of the Qadiri Sufi order, one the largest Sunni Sufi groups in the world. A resident of Nazareth, Sheikh Manasra spoke eloquently in Hebrew and English about his work in the Ibrahimiyya Sufi network, of which he is a founder. "Ibrahimiyya" organizes collective Muslim-Jewish zikr, or recitation of the names of God. It takes its name from the recognition by Jews and Muslims of Abraham (Ibrahim) as the common predecessor of both communities in monotheism.
Terror was, at least temporarily, successful in France, paralyzing and polarizing the country, reviving dreadful images of murdered Jewish children and of the Muslim as a predatory fanatic. But in Israel, at the same time, a Muslim sheikh and Jewish academics were discussing avidly their commitment to practical spiritual cooperation. Sheikh Manasra repeated that he and his Sufi group seek to surpass the endless and fruitless rhetoric of the politicians among both Jews and Arabs, and to find a concrete, common platform for Muslims and Jews to whom peace is a religious commandment, a duty and an obligation in daily affairs.
Jewish-Muslim cooperation for the common good is not a novel suggestion. Later in the week, on March 22, I and a German Muslim colleague, Veli Sirin, visited a splendid exhibit on Judaism at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, a massive Protestant church that is a monument to Dutch Christian history. The exposition included numerous Jewish religious and decorative objects of great value and high aesthetic standards. Beautiful manuscripts and carpets were on display, as well as ritual utensils wrought in silver and gold, created in Islamic countries like Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. The production of such exquisite things could not have taken place if the Jews living in Muslim lands had suffered habitual and profound degradation.
In the months following the bloodshed in Toulouse, appeals for peaceful Muslim-Jewish discourse based on common and contemporary spirituality -- a religious undertaking to revive the long history of Jewish-Muslim conciliation through faith -- may be dismissed as naïve. The first step may be, then, to reply to the false narrative of permanent Muslim-Jewish hatred, encouraged by radicals, with the authentic narrative of Jewish-Muslim affinities, as seen in Kabbalah and Sufism. Sheikh Manasra emphasized in Haifa on March 20 that people of faith may take constructive and positive action when the rules and habits of political and official society are found wanting.