Interview'Part of Zionism is the return of Jews to the land of Israel. But the same prophecies also talk about peace with our neighbors'

For West Bank rabbi, a rare and risky trip to Cairo’s ivory tower of Islam

With Islamic skullcap and large beard helping to obscure his Jewish identity, though twice confronted by Egyptian police, US-born Israeli visits Al-Azhar University to meet world’s top Sunni scholars

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Rebecca Abrahamson (left), Dr. Omer Salem (left-center), Rabbi Yakov Nagen (center-right) and Dr. Joseph Ringel in Cairo, Egypt in March 2016. (Courtesy: Facebook/Yaakov Nagen)
Rebecca Abrahamson (left), Dr. Omer Salem (left-center), Rabbi Yakov Nagen (center-right) and Dr. Joseph Ringel in Cairo, Egypt in March 2016. (Courtesy: Facebook/Yaakov Nagen)

A rabbi in a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Otniel took an improbable trip to Cairo last month to discuss his religion with Muslim scholars at the most important institution in the Sunni world, Al-Azhar University.

Rabbi Yakov Nagen, a native New Yorker who arrived in Israel in 1984, says his interfaith work is driven on a personal level by something “almost messianic.”

“Religion is now part of the problem. It has to be part of the solution,” he insists.

Zionism as prescribed by the Bible is not solely about Jews relocating from around the world to the Middle East. Zionism, he holds, has a second essential component.

“Part of Zionism is the return of Jews to the land of Israel. But the same prophecies also talk about our connection and peace with our neighbors,” he said.

Rabbi Yakov Nagen (Courtesy: Facebook)
Rabbi Yakov Nagen (Courtesy: Facebook)

Nagen’s spiritual mentor was the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a giant in the Israeli-Palestinian interfaith community who had personal connections with many Palestinian leaders. It was Froman who cemented in Nagen the need for religion to be a part of the solution.

Furthermore, says Nagen, the fact that belief in the God of Abraham is shared by the major monotheistic faiths means that coexistence should naturally follow.

“If we share a belief in the same God, then our belief is going to connect us,” he said. “A lot of people if pressed to the wall would say Jews and Muslims believe in the same God, but they don’t really feel it in their hearts.”

The Cairo trip for the rabbi from Otniel, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Yeshiva University’s Orthodox Jewish day school, came at the recommendation of his good friend Dr. Omer Salem, a fellow interfaith peace activist and senior fellow at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Nagen had twice invited the Egyptian scholar to speak at his yeshiva and now Salem, who received his PhD from Al-Azhar University, was returning the favor.

On his journey to Egypt, Nagen was accompanied by Rebecca Abrahamson, a Haredi peace activist and mother of 11 from Bnei Brak, and American Fulbright scholar Dr. Joseph Ringel. Nagen didn’t advertise his Judaism to those not in the know, and was twice confronted by Egyptian police during his trip but made it through without major incident.

Nagen is a soft-spoken man, whose words come across as sincere as they are gentle. He spoke to The Times of Israel over the phone from New York, mostly in Manhattan-inflected English, but sometimes in American-accented Hebrew when quoting from Jewish sacred texts.

Dafna Meir, seen in an undated photo, killed in an attack in her Otniel home on January 17, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)
Dafna Meir, killed in a terrorist attack in her Otniel home on January 17, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)

The Times of Israel: When Dr. Omer pitched the trip to Cairo to you, were you afraid or excited?

Yakov Nagen: I was concerned. But considering that I live in the Hebron Hills, and one of my neighbor’s closest friends, Dafna Meir, was murdered, I thought we can’t let fear stop us from letting us do the things we feel are right.

Did they know at Al-Azhar that you are Jewish?

The people who we were designated to meet knew who we were. The rest didn’t know we were Jewish. My Egyptian friend gave me a large white kippah, the kind worn by religious Muslims, and I have a large beard, so I could fit in.

Who did you meet with while at Al-Azhar?

We met with some of the professors there. One professor we met with was Dr. Bakr Zaki Awad, the dean of the School of Theology. His specialty is the relationship between the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran, yet he had never met a rabbi in his life.

Al Azhar University in Cairo (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Pal Coder/Wikimedia Commons)
Al-Azhar University in Cairo (CC-BY-SA Pal Coder/Wikimedia Commons)

He had a lot of powerful questions to raise about Judaism, including about warfare in the Torah. Ultimately, although I thought I could answer the questions about the problems he has with Judaism, I thought by giving straight answers I was just raising the negative energy. So I tried to reframe it.

I told him that your questions are good and trouble me, but I know what the essence of Judaism is like and I know the essence of Islam. So I brought quotes from the Quran and the Torah about the sanctity and dignity of life and love of God for humanity.

For example, the most humanistic saying from the Mishna [Jewish law text] is: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” This line is written word for word in the 32nd verse of the 5th Sura of the Quran.

Tell us about other troubling questions from Dr. Awad.

One question that seemed to bother him was that Muslims want everyone to be Muslims, but Jews don’t seem to care who becomes Jewish. He saw this as Jewish antipathy towards other people.

I told him that the Torah starts with our common humanity in the story of Adam, where we are told that all of humanity is created in the image of God. Judaism sees itself as having a role to play in the story of humanity, but not that everyone should be Jewish. Our role is to awaken certain values and a connection from God to humanity, which we see for example in the seven Noahide laws. We see in Islam a fulfillment of that vision.

Did you have questions for your Egyptian colleagues?

One question we really asked everyone was about a passage in the 5th Sura [verse 48] in the Quran, where it says: “If Allah wanted he could have given one law to all, but he chose instead to give different laws to different people.” The context here is the Torah to the Jews and the Gospels to the Christians. The answer is that each person should do the right thing.

This is the verse that Omer uses in his doctorate as the basis for religious pluralism in Islam. However, this verse is really open to interpretation so everyone we asked gave us a different answer. We asked, “If a Jew lives according to the Torah and he has respect for Islam, what is his status according to Islam?”

Here we got the full gamut of views: There were those that said Omer’s interpretation was legitimate; there were those that said that the Jews were allowed to be Jewish before the birth of Islam, but now they have to accept Islam.

The one thing everyone agreed on was the phrase: “There is no coercion in the religion.” Meaning, you might go to hell, but they cannot force you to convert.

Did you do anything outside of Al-Azhar?

On the fourth day, there was this anti-Semite who was someone quite important, and when he discovered we were Jewish he got quite infuriated.

He asked me if I cried when Palestinian children were murdered. I told him yes, and that I organized a prayer vigil after the Duma attack.

I asked him when Jewish children are killed, do you cry? He said something like I pray for everybody, but it was clear he got mad. He called the police and security who took our passports and apparently wanted to arrest us. But some people intervened and managed to get us out of there. This was about four days into the trip.

Then we went to Fayoum [in central Egypt] to meet a really lovely professor, Wageeh Abdel Qader El-Sheemy [the first blind lawmaker in the Egyptian parliament, and a member of the Salafi al-Nour Party].

Dr. Omer Salem sitting next to Wageeh Abdel Qader El-Sheemy, a Professor of Sharia at Fayoum University and a member of the Salafi Nour party (Courtesy: Facebook Dr. Omer Salem)
Dr. Omer Salem (left) with Wageeh Abdel Qader El-Sheemy, a professor of Sharia at Fayoum University and a member of the Salafi al-Nour Party (Courtesy: Facebook Dr. Omer Salem)

When he heard we were Jewish, he told us a very sweet story: One day someone came and knocked on the gate of the palace identifying himself as the brother of the Caliph. The visitor is ushered in, but the Caliph isn’t able to recognize his brother. The Caliph asks, “Are you my brother through my mother?” “No” is the reply. “Are you my brother through my father?” Again the answer in negative.

The caliph continues to think and finally asks again, “Are you my brother in Islam?” The visitor answers, “I am not a Muslim.”

“So how are you my brother?” asks the Caliph. “I am your brother as all of us are children of Adam and Eve.” The Caliph responds: “You are right. I will treat you as my brother to demonstrate this to the world.”

Any other stories outside of Al-Azhar?

We met the president of the Jewish community in Egypt. There seem to be only six Jews left in Cairo, all of them women; five of them were over the age of 80 and the president herself is 65.

She had a very moving story. She was married to a Muslim man, and they got divorced. And in Egypt, if the mother is a Muslim, she will get the kids, but if the mother is not a Muslim and the father is, by law he can get custody of the children. And even though she is not religious, she chose to live in fear that her husband would take the children and not give up her Jewish identity .

We also had a humorous incident. It was late at night, while we were looking at the most important synagogue in Cairo. We were dressed like Muslims and were taking pictures late at night. Suddenly, the police came with a task force and they took our passports. We didn’t tell them we were Jewish. Omer Salem did a lot of talking. I have no idea what he told them but we got off in the end.

I confess I really have fun now when I say the phrase, “Each man must view himself as if he went out of Egypt.” Now I can drop the “as if.”

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