Fisk: Jewish and Muslim Perspectives

A point-by point analysis:
“Jewish and Muslim Perspectives on the Land of Israel-Palestine”

This document was authored by Dr. Elizabeth Harris in 2004 during her tenure as Inter Faith Coordinator for the UK Methodist Church.
I have interspersed my comments with the original text.

Jewish Perspectives
In fact, the following paragraphs present not a Jewish view, but a projected interpretation of alleged “Jewish Perspectives”.

Holy Scriptures
The Christian Aid theological report ‘One Land, Many Voices’ touches on three
Christian responses to the Holy Land and calls each of the three great faiths in the
Middle East to think theologically. This theological thought is already taking place
amongst Jews. In the Jewish tradition, robust debate is possible about texts and their
meaning. In the rabbinical tradition, every word of a text can be challenged. Multiple
meanings are sometimes accepted. In connection with attitudes to the 'land' of Israel,
some Jews are also aware that holy texts can be abused. ‘We have a battle for our
holy texts' declared Rabbi David Rosen, of Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem, at
a session on theologies of the ‘Land' at the Parliament of World's Religions in
Barcelona in 2004.

Here Harris contends that there are no boundaries to scriptural interpretation in the Jewish exegetical tradition. This is not the case—there are agreed parameters to scriptural analysis. It is more correct to state that every word may be analyzed, and that, overall, variations in interpretation result in a multi-dimensional approach to text, not diametrically opposed conclusions.

In the second half of the paragraph Harris contends that using scripture to claim land rights is an “abuse” of the texts. This is very much in contradiction to the text itself, in which the first instruction given to Abraham [actually Abram, at Gen, 12:1], the first Jew, is to go to the land of Israel.  Later, in the same text unit, G-d promises Abraham “To thy seed I will give this land” [Gen. 12:7]. Later in Genesis [21:12], the text is clear that this means the progeny of Isaac, not Ishmael.

For example, Jews who seek justice for all - Jews and Palestinians - will draw
strength from the Covenant with Noah in Genesis (Genesis 9: 8 - 17). It is a
Covenant which makes no distinction between nations or races. Other Jewish groups
look to ‘later' Covenants, which can be interpreted more exclusively. This intrareligious
dialogue within Judaism must not be overlooked.
Harris is claiming that just-minded Jews who are non-racists reject the Abrahamic covenant. In fact, the covenant of the land is linked with the covenant of circumcision [brit milah]. G-d reiterates his promise of the land, but here adds that this is an eternal covenant “And I will give to you and to your seed after you the land where you are dwelling, all the land of Kena’an [Canaan] as an eternal possession, and I will be their G-d” [Gen. 17:8]. The covenant of circumcision is to be a “sign of this covenant” between G-d and the Jewish people. Until this day, the blessing recited by the father of a newly-circumcised boy includes the phrase “[G-d] has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of our father Abraham.”
Reform Judaism, which is non-traditional—also acknowledges the significance of the Abrahamic covenant:
The covenant is as alive today as it was when first promised and sealed by Abraham and Sarah. New Jews, whether from birth or those who chose to seal the covenant with Brit Mikvah or adult Brit Mila, are welcomed into the Jewish community with open arms.”
In conclusion, whereas Harris refers to those who uphold the Abrahamic Covenant as “other groups”, this covenant remains a demonstrable constant across the Jewish spectrum.
An Ethos of Victimhood
Anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, is another factor that cannot
be overlooked if Christians are to understand Jewish perspectives on the land of
Israel. ‘Israel is the only real answer to the Holocaust' is the message given at Yad
Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Centre in west Jerusalem. Its location (on Mount
Herzl, a hill which is home both to the tomb of the founding father of the Zionist
Movement and the central military cemetery for members of the Israeli Defence
Force) and its symbolic layout undergirds this message. A pilgrimage through the
exhibition rooms of the Centre, which bring home both the horror of the Holocaust
and the vigour of Jewish resistance, brings you out in the open air, overlooking the
beauty of Jerusalem. This perspective is transmitted to young Israelis through visits
to Yad Vashem organised by schools and other groups. When I visited the Centre
with a group from Britain, I noticed that many visitors were not of European Jewish
descent. As Michael Ipgrave, then Secretary of the Churches' Commission for Inter
Faith Relations, wrote in his report of the visit: ‘The Holocaust has come to serve as
a national story embracing also Oriental Jews for whom this was not part of their
family history.' Peace groups in Israel have to work against this backdrop.
There are two problematic themes in this paragraph. The first is that Israel uses the Holocaust as a propaganda tool to justify its existence, and the second is a claim for a racial division of the Jewish people. While it is incontrovertible that had the British allowed immigration into Mandatory Palestine far fewer Jews would have been exterminated by the Nazis, and that the Holocaust finally pushed the British to fulfill their legal obligations to create a Jewish state in Palestine, Israel’s existence is based on historical claims, continuous settlement, and land purchases. Trivializing the Holocaust into a propaganda tool is inexcusable.
The second point, introducing a racial dimension into identification with the Holocaust, is equally reprehensible, and on two counts. Firstly, Harris assumes that she can tell who is of European descent, and who is “Oriental”; she concurs with Ipgrave’s racist assessment.  Israel is a racially mixed society, and it’s often pretty hard to tell who’s from where. Making racist speculations is a bigoted and pathetic business, and I am surprised this ever got past an edit, if there was one. Secondly, Harris is dead wrong about non-Ashkenazi Jews being unaffected by the Nazis. The Sephardi communities of Greece were liquidated in the same manner as those in Poland; 87% were murdered, many at Auschwitz. North African Jews were subject to restrictive laws which paralleled those in Europe, males were interned in camps, and had the Allies failed in their fight against Rommel, Jews of the Maghreb would have met the same fate as their European brethren. In Iraq, an Iraqi Hitler youth group instigated the 1941 Farhud [pogrom] in Baghdad—a two-day rampage in which about 200 Jews were brutally killed.  Perhaps it is inconvenient for her to acknowledge the Nazi role of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a Palestinian icon, who was Hitler’s main ally in the Middle East. (This is an extensively documented topic, too long to expand upon here.)
It is also important to stress that despite some cultural differences, Jews of all communities are one people, and we are all responsible for one another.
Harris’ concluding statement that the Holocaust is an obstacle for the so-called peace-seekers is frankly insulting. Specifically because of our history as Jews and as Israelis we constantly hope for peace and long for an end to the conflict. Contrast this with the cultivated worship of suicide bombers in the P.A., and with Gaza mothers who long for their sons to martyred, and you get a better picture of reality.
What is given at Yad Vashem is an interpretation of history. Not all Israeli historians
would wish to link Zionism and the State of Israel so closely with the Holocaust.
However the influence of the narrative presented at Yad Vashem, one that
emphasises the resistance of the Jewish people in Europe and the importance of
Israel, should not be underestimated. It is salutary and necessary for Europeans, and
particularly Christians, to realise that they are implicated in this narrative.
Harris is going back to her earlier premise that the Holocaust is a tool for Zionist propaganda, just because of the drastic contrast between the beautiful views outside the museum and the contents of the exhibits. Notice that she does not specify any actual historians here.  And, yes, Nazism would not have been possible had it not been preceded by centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe—and in Islamic countries as well.
Collective memory of the Holocaust also feeds into an ethos of victimhood within the
Jewish community. Suicide bomb attacks within Israel and the knowledge that some
Arab groups do not want Israel to exist keep this sense of victimhood alive. This can
lead to battles of comparative suffering, Jews and Palestinians each perceiving their
suffering and victimhood to be more intense.
This paragraph shows an overwhelming lack of understanding of Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust. For Israelis, we mourn the loss of every individual, but the Holocaust serves as warning. We are determined not to become victims again. Stating that “some groups do not want Israel to exist” is to ignore the statements of the ruling Palestinian leadership. This includes Hamas, which explicitly states that its goal is to eradicate Israel, and Fatah, which, inter alia, wipes Israel off the map in school text books.  There are no “battles of comparative suffering”, except among Palestinians who even now compare the “occupation” (although Israeli troops pulled out of West Banks towns long ago, and Gaza is has been effectively Judenrein for nearly six years) to a Holocaust and continuous crucifixion.
Peace groups
A growing number of Israeli Jews are involved in groups that work for understanding
between Jew and Arab. Some of these openly contest the victimhood ethos
mentioned above and struggle for Palestinian rights. Rabbis for Human Rights is one
example. Others include: Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; Physicians
for Human Rights; Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel; Israel Inter Faith
Wrong again. Yes Israelis aspire to good relations with their Arab neighbors, but Arab intransigence and escalating Hamas attacks in the form of missile and rocket attacks with increasing range and power have radically diminished the Israeli enthusiasm which initially greeted the Oslo Accords. Right-wing voters are the majority of the electorate, and the shrinking numbers of the once-dominant leftist Labor Party are proof of this disillusionment with the so-called peace process. The groups Harris listed are marginal at best, and at the worst represent views which are little more than apologetics for terror.  Only last week both Hamas and the Al-Aksa Brigades branch of Fatah declared that they are mourning the death of bin Laden.
Muslim Perspectives
Imam Rashied Omar, an imam from South Africa, speaking at the 2004 Parliament of
the World's Religions, quoted the saying - ‘The meaning of a text is often as moral as
its reader'. All texts, he went on, bring the possibility of tolerant and intolerant
readings. Texts can be part of the problem but they can also be part of the solution.
He called for collaborative research projects to be undertaken among Jewish,
Christian and Muslim theologians.
Islamic texts that speak of the land of Israel/Palestine in theological terms exist, but
they are mainly from the Middle Ages and are in Arabic. Not many Muslims have
access to them. The majority of Muslims, though, are aware of the Qur'anic assertion
that the holy Prophet Muhammad visited Jerusalem. Chapter 17 of the Qur'an
describes a night journey that the Prophet made from Mecca to a mosque in
Jerusalem, on the site of the Temple of Solomon (Temple Mount). In the Hadith , an
oral tradition describing deeds and sayings of the Prophet, this is elaborated. The
Prophet is taken to Jerusalem by Gabriel. He is greeted by several other prophets
there, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. He acts as a prayer leader. Then, from
the Temple Mount, he is taken up into the seven heavens, accompanied by Gabriel,
and encounters divine light. Some Muslims interpret this event spiritually and
mystically. Others believe that Muhammad made the journey physically. All Muslims
are united in seeing Jerusalem as holy and sacred because of this. At first the
followers of the Prophet Muhammad prayed in the direction of Jerusalem.
The vast majority of Muslims, whilst considering Jerusalem holy to Muslims, would
not justify violence against Israeli Jews on this basis. The minority that do perpetrate
violence are more likely to appeal to political and economic reasons, though they
may also see themselves as doing the will of God. This perception - that they are
doing the will of God by killing others - is strongly opposed by the majority of
Muslims, many of whom quote the following Qur'anic sentiment: 'Whosoever kills a
human being, it shall be as if he had killed all humankind' (this is an adaptation of the
following part of Chapter 5 verse 32 of the Qur'an, ' For this reason did we prescribe
to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for
mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is
as though he kept alive all men.')
As for the balance of the document, I am not an Islamic scholar, but I do know that Koran does not ascribe Al-Aksa to a specific location, and certainly does not mention Jerusalem anywhere in its pages. The source for ascribing Al-Aksa to Jerusalem, in place of the older supposed location in Medina is found in a later hadith.
For references from experts see here and here.
Finally, for the rest of her references to the peaceable intentions of the Palestinians and other Muslims, I would suggest viewing numerous clips readily available on MEMRI such as this, especially this report at around the seven minute mark.