On Tuesday, July 15, Jews and Arabs will fast, together. From Texas to Tel Aviv, Kalansuwa to Kuwait, in synagogues and mosques, community centers and public spaces, they will gather to learn, pray and talk to each other as part of Choose Life, a movement looking for a way past the violence, deaths and pain of the last month.
“The timing is right,” said Eliaz Cohen, one of the organizers of Choose Life. “It’s an opportunity for two nations to link back to their roots, to Ramadan and our [Jewish] fast.”
The idea was conceived after the kidnapping and murder of Gil-Ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel, and the subsequent kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. A group of Jews and Arabs, activists from the West Bank who have long worked together, came up with the idea to forge a path of nonviolent protest through a joint fast.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
The 17th of Tammuz, a fast day that commemorates the breach of Jerusalem’s walls before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, falls out on Tuesday. It’s the start of a three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha B’Av, a more well-known fast day that marks the destruction of the temple.
Tuesday is also the 18th day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims fast from dawn till sunset each day for the entire month.
The joint fast “is not a sixties anti-war thing,” said Shaul Judelman, one of the Choose Life organizers. “It’s coming from a religious place, which is tricky when rockets are falling. But our future seems to be here together, and no one’s going anywhere.”
Their effort began on the Sunday after the kidnapping of the three boys, when the Palestinian and Jewish activists found themselves sitting in a field in between their villages and towns, talking for seven hours, said Cohen, who lives on Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the West Bank.
“We heard from the Palestinians that they weren’t sleeping at night, that they found themselves looking at their children, and thinking about the three boys,” said Cohen. “We spoke about our hopes and dreams.”
In the days following the first kidnapping, the group held a joint prayer session, looking for opportunities to talk and share without allowing politics to invade the conversation. But when the bodies of the kidnapped teens were found, and Abu Khdeir was then murdered by Jewish extremists, the group wanted to find another way to mourn, and share their sense of grief.
“The Palestinians wanted to pay shiva calls and so did we,” said Cohen.
They send letters to the families, asking for permission to come as a joint group. Cohen knows Rachael Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, and it made sense to start there.
“They waited for us, we were eight people, and we sat with them, among hundreds of people,” he said. “You could see what it did for the circles of people around us. It was total electricity, there were all kinds of Israelis and you could see the emotion, as people tried to catch every word that was said. It was emotion and confusion, like, what is this? What’s happening here?”
It was on their way home that that Ali Abu Awwad, a fellow West Bank resident and long-time activist, had the idea of creating a joint fast day.
“We felt we couldn’t breathe, and Ali said, enough of the talk, it’s time for action,” said Cohen.
The two men have known each other for many years. Cohen is a well-known poet and second-generation settler who came to peace activism through the leadership of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi with close ties to Palestinian religious leaders. Abu Awwad is a Palestinian activist and pacifist who lives in Beit Ummar, northwest of Hebron.
“Engaging in a hunger strike is a huge statement,” said Abu Awwad. “You don’t make peace in rosy times, and you make peace with your enemies, so you have to find a way to raise your voice and get some recognition.”
He also noted that the joint fast isn’t based on hope or optimism but a belief that “the millions of people in this land have to find a way to manage.”
“Whether you’re right wing or left wing, no one is going to disappear tomorrow,” he said. “Everyone is trying to punish the other side for what he did, and make excuses for the crimes against one another. There is no other side, there is really only one side.”
The organizers began reaching out to other groups and organizations, looking for as many partners as possible. They told Hadassah Froman, Rabbi Froman’s widow, about the plan, said Cohen, and she said, “Wow, that’s what Menachem would have done.”
They brought in other leaders, including Orthodox rabbis Benny Lau, David Lau and Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, and Masorti Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum. They gained the support of powerful yeshivas in Otniel and Maale Gilboa, which wield tremendous influence in the Israeli Orthodox world, and among secular Israelis, like the Tel Aviv public relations firm that offered them free consulting services.
Once the organizers began spreading the word about the joint fast, word spread quickly, said Judelman, through the Facebook page, around the framework of community centers in Jerusalem and beyond, in synagogues, communities and mosques in the US, London, Paris, even Kuwait. Gatherings are taking place mostly during the late afternoon and evening, toward the end of the fast day.
“The timing was right,” said Cohen. “Everyone we talk to, whether on Facebook or in email or on the phone, is interested. We feel like this is the first time we can breathe after this horrible month, and now it’s happening.”
For now, said Cohen, it feels like something could actually emerge from the fast.
He thinks it’s due to the fact that it all began with kids.
“We’re all tied to children in one way or another, and it hurts us in the deepest place,” he said. “It brings us back to our diaphragms, to a place that twists and turns and brings people in. And now there’s the larger story of Gaza, and we’re in this loop. It’s something larger than us, and it feels like a massive earthquake. You feel very small, like there’s nothing you can do.”
The fast, said Cohen, is something small, an act that can be done anywhere, at home, or in public.
“It’s an amazing way to stop everything, and to think a little differently,” he said.
There is a full list of events at the Choose Life Facebook page, and the main gathering will take place at the Gush Etzion intersection at 7 pm Tuesday.