Donate to RNS

Can American Muslims and Jews help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians?

A joint Muslim-Jewish call for peace has been backed by more than 600 faith leaders.

Palestinians wave national flags in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem on May 21, 2021, as a cease-fire took effect between Hamas and Israel after an 11-day war. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

(RNS) — An Israeli police raid on the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Old Jerusalem, following an effort to force Palestinian families out of homes they had lived in for more than 50 years, came as Israel’s subjugation of all Palestinians had worsened in recent years. Those efforts were already bearing dangerous fruit in frustrated rage among Palestinian citizens inside Israel’s borders and their fellow Arabs in the occupied areas.

What followed was the 11-day unbalanced war this month that resulted in the deaths of civilians on both sides, the majority of them Palestinian.

Opposition to illegitimate acts should focus on those acts — in this case, the subjugation of Palestinians through occupation and siege and the attacks on civilians — not on the existence of Israel or Hamas. It is the behavior of their leaders that threatens the physical coherence and moral values of both communities.

Hamas, the Palestinian leadership in Gaza, claims to be inspired by Islam. Yet its first reaction to the attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem and to the Israeli police raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque was a rain of missiles on noncombatants in Israel. That served as an excuse for Israelis to drop an estimated 20,000 tons of explosives on Gaza, killing more than 200 noncombatants, destroying property and displacing tens of thousands.


RELATED: Al-Aqsa attacks harmed the mosque, but long-term cost will be Palestinian anger


That disproportionate response brought widespread condemnation on the government of Israel, but brought only death, destruction, financial ruin, misery and continued trauma for Gaza.  

Abu Bakr Al Siddiq, who became the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad died, decreed: “Stop, oh people, that I may give you ten rules for guidance on the battlefield. Among them are, ‘Do not kill a woman, a child or an aged man; do not destroy an inhabited area.‘”

A far more moral and effective alternative for Hamas would have been to call on Muslims worldwide to support a general strike in Israel and in the occupied West Bank. (Several days later, such a strike did arise from the grassroots.)

Such an appeal might have inspired a boycott of American goods, focused like a laser beam on a demand for halting delivery of new U.S. weapons to Israel. A boycott would have felt much more legitimate to many people than a rain of rockets and would have been in line with the Quran, the Prophet and the eminent scholars of major schools who have urged peace.

The Prophet lived in a time when violence was a way of life, yet he did not instigate war. He condemned all attacks on noncombatants and destruction of property. Sometimes he was considered by his contemporaries as too lenient, too gentle and even weak, yet he inspired a movement that would transform nearly one-quarter of the world’s population. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli government’s behavior poses its own threats to the health of the Jewish people as a vital spiritual, religious and ethical presence in the world.

The past half-century of Israeli policy violates the prophetic vision of God, who said in the biblical Book of Amos, “Are not the children of the Ethiopians to me like the children of Israel? Did I not lift up Yisrael, the Godwrestlers, from the tight-and-narrow Land — and also the Philistines from Caphtor, Aram from Kir?”

Both the Philistines and Arameans were often enemies of ancient Israel, in other words, but God cared about them too. 

Amos’ high standard of morality drew many people to honor and admiration for the Jews. Many people, Jews and others, are disheartened by what seems Israel’s abandonment of this ethic. 

The effort to control an empire of “foreigners” inevitably leads governments into tyranny over its own citizens. Israel, which began with the proclamation of a state where all citizens would be equal, has devolved into proclaiming the superior value of its Jewish citizens, while depriving Palestinian communities of basic necessities such as decent roads and schools.

The insistence that Israel’s government represents all Jews falsely turns criticism of the state and its government into antisemitism. More, it traps Jews into what Torah considers the worst of all sins: turning the state itself into an idol, the embodiment of God. The Psalms tell us that an idol has eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, a tongue but cannot speak, legs but cannot walk to somewhere new. Its makers and worshippers become like it — dead. The followers of a living God must also speak, see, hear and change.

The recent events in Israel and Palestine are no accident, but a systematic “ethnic cleansing” of crucial Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem by the Israeli government, police and security forces, in concert with ultra-right-wing elements of Israeli “Jewish” society who are implanting Israeli cities — not mere clusters of a few houses — on Palestinian land.

The four-year alliance between right-wing governments in Israel and the United States has inspired many American Jews (not only “the young,” as some media have reported) to unite with their fellow citizens against white nationalism. These Jews and their allies are alarmed at the intervention of the Israeli right wing in U.S. culture and politics. Both Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, watch with dismay as the Israeli occupation continues and settlements grow without a plan to alleviate Palestinian frustration.


RELATED: Interfaith efforts strained by Israeli-Palestinian violence


As the rockets flew and bombs fell in the past month, we worked with Adem Carroll to write a joint Muslim-Jewish statement expressing our hopes for peace. We invited imams, rabbis and other leaders in each community to sign the statement, ending up with more than 600 signers. More than 100 signed even after the cease-fire agreement, seeking more lasting change.

We urge American Jews, Muslims, non-Muslim Arabs, Catholics, mainstream Protestants and other religious and spiritual communities to pursue “justice, justice” for both sides in this struggle where religious commitment might at last play a healing, not a destructive, role.

Daisy Khan, left, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Images courtesy of WISE, and Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Daisy Khan, left, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Images courtesy of WISE, and Wikimedia/Creative Commons

(Daisy Khan is executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality and author of the forthcoming book “WISE UP, White Supremacy.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow is executive director of The Shalom Center and author of “Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)