Fast friends

Deputy minister hosts first-ever iftar dinner under PMO auspices

While Israel is a Jewish state, it ‘respects the traditions and the heritage of our region,’ Michael Oren tells his Muslim guests

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Deputy Minister Michael Oren, third from left, with Arab dignitaries at an event marking Ramadan at the Knesset, June 12, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Deputy Minister Michael Oren, third from left, with Arab dignitaries at an event marking Ramadan at the Knesset, June 12, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Deputy Minister Michael Oren on Tuesday evening hosted the first-ever fast-breaking event in honor of Ramadan held under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The traditional iftar dinner was originally planned to take place at the PMO itself — where Oren (Kulanu) has an office — which would have also marked the first time an event marking the holy month of Ramadan was held at the epicenter of Israel’s executive branch.

But Oren said that the PMO could only accommodate 70 people, and since more than 100 guests responded to his invitation, he had to relocate the event to the parliament.

It may not have been the first iftar there, he allowed, but the event was still the “first-ever multi-partisan iftar here at the Knesset.”

“The State of Israel is proud of its minority populations, who enjoy freedom of religion — Druze, Bedouins, Circassians and Christians,” Oren said. “This is true democracy.”

While Israel is a Jewish state, it is situated in the Middle East and “respects the traditions and the heritage of our region,” he said. “Against the hatred and the terror that surrounds us, it is especially important to strengthen the ties between us through tolerance and mutual respect, to show that it’s possible to create a different Middle East.”

Oren, who served as Israel’s US ambassador between 2009 and 2013, recalled that he started a tradition to hold an iftar dinner at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

“I used to get invitations to iftar dinners from the French embassy and the German embassy, the British embassy — everyone had their own iftar. And I asked myself: wow, we have a Muslim population that, by percentage, is much higher than France or Germany. Why is there no Israeli iftar?”

His staff in the DC embassy “were a little surprised, but I insisted,” and so the next year, the Israeli mission to the US hosted its first iftar dinner, he recalled.

It’s a tradition that is still observed by the current ambassador, Ron Dermer, every year, he added. “When I left I asked my successor to please continue with that tradition,” Oren said. “I am very proud of it.”

Tuesday night’s event was attended by members of Israel’s Arab, Druze and Bedouin communities, including religious leaders, heads of regional councils and social activists. A handful of foreign diplomats, including the ambassadors to Israel of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Paraguay, were present as well.

For about half an hour, the Muslim dignitaries, speaking in Hebrew, praised Oren for being the first senior representative of the Prime Minister’s Office organizing an iftar dinner, with one official urging it to become a permanent fixture, similar to the President’s Residence’s annual event marking Ramadan.

“It’s an historic evening,” said MK Akram Hasson (Kulanu), the only other lawmaker Oren had invited. While it wasn’t the first iftar at the Knesset, it was the first such event in which members from all of Israel’s various Muslim communities were represented, he noted.

The event was mostly apolitical, though Akram urged participants to join mainstream parties that have a chance of joining the government, as opposed to Arab lists that by default sit in the opposition, so as to more effectively serve their communities.

The last speaker, Refaat al-Asadi, a singer from the Galilee town of Deir al-Asad, declared that he was a proud Palestinian and urged the Israeli government to step up efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

“We need two states for two peoples, especially for the Palestinian people,” he exclaimed. “I believe that Abu Mazen is a strong leader and a partner. I know him personally,” he said, referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

“You need to take this opportunity [to negotiate a peace deal with him], or you will regret it,” he added, before breaking out in a song.

After he finished singing, participants quickly moved from the Knesset’s Jerusalem Hall to the cafeteria for the actual iftar dinner. On the menu were, perhaps surprisingly, not typical Arab delicacies, but rather the standard fare of Israeli canteens: kebabs, chicken, couscous, rice, and carrot salad.

Most Popular
read more: