Religion should unite, not divide

I realized the other day just how influential teachers can be and conversely, how impressionable the young minds they shape actually are. "Mommy, my classmate asked Ustaz [Mr.] Adrian if he was Christian or Muslim," my daughter told me one day. "You know what he said? He said, ‘I’m Palestinian.’"

True, my daughter was not sure how that response clearly answered the classmate’s question until I better explained it, but I was in total awe and extremely happy that a teacher in a Catholic School had the good sense to spread the message of nationalism and unity to his young protégés rather than divide them by their religion.

This is not to say that religions cannot unite. If understood and applied properly, they can do more than unite –” they can move mountains. However, religions are also used as weapons, tools of extortion and a means of dividing peoples in ways extremely difficult to overcome. Israel’s exploitation of the Jewish faith is the perfect case in point and it is damaging, not only to the Palestinians who are forced to live under Israel’s rule, but also to Jews as well who do not appreciate their faith being held captive by Zionism.

An example of this came up in conversation between myself and my older sister who was forced to deal with tax issues (what American citizen doesn’t?) and hired a lawyer to help her wade through the sea of government papers and tax returns needed to file correctly. My sister lives abroad and so does her lawyer, who happened to be an Israeli living in the United States. With a shrewd reputation for success preceding him, my sister did not hesitate to hire him "despite" his nationality. (We Palestinians are hyper-sensitive to the word Israeli). And true to his word, he filed her taxes, cleared up any misunderstandings and set her on the path for next year.

That is not why I bring him up, however. When they exchanged life stories, it turns out he is an Israeli citizen but left Israel over 20 years ago, married a German Catholic woman and refused to get his children Israeli citizenship. According to my sister, he said that as long as Israel is occupying the Palestinians, he did not want to come back to Israel to live. Being Jewish was not problematic for this man. It was that Jewishness in Israel came with a heavy political package he was not willing to carry.

Israel has always exploited Judaism to forward its political goals but never, it seems, like today. The repeated call for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is not, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims, simply for the acknowledgement of Jews’ rights here. Nor is it void of sinister undertones. It is further consolidation of Israel’s claim that Jews are exclusively entitled to Palestine and that any concession to that effect is out of Israeli good will and generosity.

Israel is, by all practical means, already a Jewish state. It was founded on this premise and it is no secret that Jews have the right to "return" to Israel from anywhere around the world simply by the fact of their Jewishness. In Jerusalem, Israeli Jews maintain a steep demographic advantage over the Palestinians so that the city does not appear too "mixed." That naturally knocks Palestinians –” Muslims and Christians alike –”several rungs down on the ladder of rightfulness to their homeland, not because they are not good citizens, but because they are not Jews.

This is not to say that other religions have not been guilty of exploiting religion to divide rather than unite. But in the Palestinian case –” barring those fanatical few who would rather revel in disunity than togetherness – this is something we pride ourselves on. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a Muslim, lit Palestine’s Christmas tree in the town of Beit Sahour. Late President Yasser Arafat would attend Christmas mass in Bethlehem every year up until he was barred from leaving his Ramallah headquarters by Israeli tanks. In general, Muslims and Christians in Palestine are united by their "Palestinian-ism" rather than divided by their differences in worship, which it must be said, is one of our crowning achievements. The inclusion of all is always better than the exclusion of some.

In Israel, blatant discrimination against other religions is somehow still disguised as "security" and "self-preservation", even as extremist Israelis take to the streets in endorsement of the 39-rabbi decree to ban Jews from selling or renting to Arabs. Settlers fanatically burn mosques and copies of the Quran in West Bank villages and fundamentalist Israelis spit on Christian priests during religious ceremonies in the Old City of Jerusalem.

There are "crazies" in all societies regardless or race or religion. However, what sets Israel apart is the impunity with which these so-called crazies operate. In any civilized country, this behavior would not be tolerated. In Israel it is given a slap on the wrist at best, encouraged at worst. This is because Israel was founded on the basis of Jewish "supremacy" if you will, which in turn creates a virtual spawning ground for such fanaticism and racism.

While many Palestinians harbor fears that Hamas espouses views of Islamic rule over Palestine, it is highly unlikely that this will ever come to fruition for the mere fact that teachers like my daughter’s are instilling an education of diversity in unity rather than division in our children. As this education –” also historically embodied by the PLO and PA –” takes root in generation after generation, nothing will be able to change that tide.