Reporter's notebookParticipants felt like they were in a parallel universe

At interfaith Ramadan iftar in Jerusalem, breaking fast under the shadow of war

Members of the Interfaith Encounter Association share a meal and find common ground through religion in a bid to send a message of coexistence and unity

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An interfaith Ramadan Iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem, April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)
An interfaith Ramadan Iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem, April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)

As diners sat at the table waiting for the last minutes of the Ramadan fast to pass so the food could be served, Nahid Sakis bragged that she could make excellent gefilte fish – a recipe she learned from her Jewish neighbors.

“It’s as good as the Ashkenazim’s,” boasted the practicing Muslim, using the term for Jews of Eastern European origin. Sakis, from the mixed Arab-Jewish coastal city of Jaffa, pointed to the black hijab on her head and quipped, “I wasn’t always a ninja.”

She became observant and started covering her hair after the death of the principal of the high school where she used to teach Hebrew literature to Arab pupils, she recalled. The principal was a Jewish man she greatly admired, and his passing plunged her into a life crisis, prompting her to reconsider her views on mortality and faith. Sakis said, “If there is a Paradise in the afterlife, why wouldn’t I want to go there?”

Sakis’s life story, straddling the Arab and the Jewish worlds, secularism and religious devotion, was not a rarity among the participants in the Ramadan Iftar organized last Thursday by the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) in Musrara, one of the oldest neighborhoods of modern Jerusalem.

Hosted in the delightful, secluded courtyard of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission and sponsored by USAID, the post-fast dinner brought together about 80 Muslims, Jews and Christians from throughout Israel and the West Bank. On the menu was a kosher festive meal of maqlouba, a traditional Palestinian dish of chicken and rice, preceded by water and dates to break the fast before the food was served, in line with Muslim custom.

Nahid Sakis (L) and Ezra Waxman, two participants in the Ramadan iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem on April 4, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

This year, the interfaith iftar held special significance amid the ongoing war in Gaza sparked by Hamas’s infiltration of southern Israel during which it murdered 1,200 people and took 253 to Gaza as hostages. The event aimed to send a message of unity and solidarity at a time of conflict and mistrust between religious and ethnic groups in the Holy Land.

“Everyone was just so thirsty for an event like this,” said organizer Carolina Frimer, IEA community manager, at the end of the night, adding that there had been a long waiting list to participate.

“Some people told me that when they arrived here tonight, they had a feeling of being in a different country, in a parallel universe. Coming here is a statement, because many will tell you that this is not the time to meet. We’re telling them quite the opposite. Now is exactly the time to meet,” Frimer said firmly.

Participants in the Ramadan iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem on April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)

Bringing people together in war and peace

The Interfaith Encounter Association is a grassroots Israel-based nonprofit founded in 2001 at the outbreak of the Second Intifada to create a movement for peace and mutual understanding among Israeli citizens of different faiths –  Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Baháʼí.

Executive director Yehuda Stolov established it in the belief that peaceful relations on the grassroots level are a prerequisite for any sustainable political solution to the conflict.

Today, the organization numbers 40 local chapters with about 10 members each, including in the US and the West Bank, where Israelis meet with Palestinians. The groups are conducted in a mix of Arabic, Hebrew and English, depending on the members.

Participants come together at least once a month to discuss religious issues and discover commonalities and differences between their reciprocal traditions.

The organization has expanded into new territory, and today organizes other types of activities, such as regular language exchange meetings between Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking women in Jerusalem.

From left to right: Carolina Frimer, Abier Abdalnabi and Yehuda Stolov, co-directors of the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), at an interfaith Ramadan Iftar in Jerusalem, April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)

The interfaith iftar is a longstanding IEA tradition, offering old and new members a chance to meet and reconnect. Organizers and participants concur that the event has particular significance in the current climate.

“We see this as a seed of the reality that should happen,” said founder Stolov. “When you come here, you see everyone sitting together like it is natural. And to me, this is natural.”

“We have all these prejudices and demonization of each other, because we don’t have the chance to meet each other. This year, those images of ‘the other’ are magnified and multiplied; therefore, it’s especially important to come back together, look at each other in the eye, and be reminded that we can live together,” he continued. “We don’t need to like everyone, but we can find people that we connect with.”

Abier Abdalnabi, a Muslim woman from Jerusalem and office manager at the IEA, said the events of October 7 and Israel’s ensuing war against Hamas in Gaza brought back memories of the tense years of the Second Intifada.

“I put myself in the shoes of the hostages, and then in those of the civilians in Gaza. This situation is very hard for both Arabs and Jews, and it’s even worse with people around us trying to stoke tension. This iftar is what we can do now to bring back hope,” said Abdalnabi. “But the main thing is not to lose our faith. If you don’t believe things can get better, you won’t go far.”

Participants in the Ramadan iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem on April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)

Others noted that the scars left by past rounds of violence may have had a role in preserving the quiet in the city during the current war. To the surprise of many, this year the Islamic holy month is nearing its end with no major outbursts of violence, with the exception of the police killing of a 13-year-old amid disturbances in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem on the second night of Ramadan. In previous years, the holy month was almost inevitably marred by bloody clashes between young Palestinian men and the police.

Teague Heelan is an Irish-British citizen who has lived in Jerusalem for over a decade working in venture philanthropy, and is involved with the local Christian community. He recalled the heavy tensions between Jews and Arabs in previous rounds of conflict, most recently in 2021, and noted that this time around, Jerusalem has not been caught up in the spiral of violence. “It’s been one of the quietest Ramadans I remember in all my years here,” he remarked.

“There has been a visceral difference from the very first day of the war. I haven’t seen any spitting or cursing or any of that hostile activity; it has been the polar opposite,” he said.

“I see Jews are talking with Arabs going through the Old City on the way to the Western Wall. It looks like everyone is going out of their way to show that whatever is going on right now should not be brought into this local arena,” Heelan noted. “People are asking themselves: ‘Why go down with the ship? Why throw Jerusalem into the losing bargain?’”

Participants in the Ramadan iftar organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem on April 4, 2024 (Tali Webber, courtesy)

Faith is often regarded as one of the main points of attrition in the Israeli-Arab conflict, but organizers of the interfaith iftar maintain that religion can serve as an instrument of reconciliation.

“We hear so much divisive speech, often wrapped in religious language,” said Frimer. “With this event, we are using religious language, food and culture to say the opposite, to show that these things can bring people together instead of dividing them.”

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