An Israeli and a Palestinian American Imam Exchange Letters on Disturbing Viral Video

Right-wing Israelis protest in Jerusalem, October 3, 2015.

On the 12th of October, amid growing violence in Israel/Palestine, stories and video began to circulate on social media of Israelis cursing at a critically wounded Palestinian boy. Excluded, or scarcely mentioned, was the allegation that the boy had, moments earlier stabbed two Israelis (along with his cousin, who was killed by Israeli police)

On his Facebook page, Imam Omar Suleiman posted a link to the video with a comment:

Watch this video of this Palestinian kid dying while being cursed at and tell me who the savages really are(The video…

Posted by Omar Suleiman on Monday, October 12, 2015

When Israeli peace activist Yakir Englander saw the post on the page of “one of the most prominent and beloved imams in the US,” he was moved to write the following letter to the imam  (a version of which was posted as a comment.)

Omar Suleiman’s response follows Englander’s letter. – eds

My Dear Beloved Teacher,

My name is Yakir Englander and I am one of the peace activists in Palestine and Israel. I grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. For the last eleven years I have been working day and night with Palestinian and Israeli families—Muslims, Jews and Christians—to heal the pain and bring about a change.

One of our community teachers, the Rabbi from Radin (the Chafets Chaim) once said: “do not critique people if you do not have the language to speak to their hearts.” Why? Since what we need is not to be “right” and feel “good.” Rather, we need to speak to peoples’ hearts and change them.

I have seen your current post, and read many of the comments it prompted. I wonder, with respect, what do you gain through this post? The clip is deeply disturbing, and people shout upsetting things. Even though they just have seen this kid stab two of their community, there is no excuse for their behavior. Their cursing is a failure of our sensitivity. But the comments on your post—not just against the people in the clip, but against all Israelis—are not less terrible and dangerous.

My heart goes out to this young Palestinian boy and his family. I love this boy. I can only imagine how much pain he was experiencing that led him to want to kill. I am working in his home village; many of his neighbors work with me for peace and for dignity in our youth movement, Kids4Peace, challenging the status quo for both Palestinians and Israelis. This is the language I believe we need to use. We, the religious leaders and activists, must stop being “pro-Palestine” and “pro-Israel” and begin being “pro-Image of God.” We must be pro-education and love, offering an “Intimate critique”—a critique that comes from a place of love.

In your vocation as imam, you are a spiritual guide to many, including myself. I beg you, if you want to help, teach life and holiness. Teach us how the holy Qur’an and the Prophet (PBUH) can help us. Come and stand with us as we take action stopping with our own bodies the violence of both sides. I risk my life each day to be with my Palestinian family; show me that you, as a leader, are willing to do likewise.

Lastly, and personally: please keep me in your prayers, and may Allah bless us all with life.

Yakir Englander

Suleiman responds:

Dear Yakir,

I’m sorry I cannot write a very thorough response as I am currently participating in the Parliament of World Religions. But I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you beyond this letter.

I truly appreciate where you are coming from and the efforts that you make to strive for peace. It is clear from your tone that you are a God-conscious man who seeks to bring people together. I too seek to see a Holy Land where people of all faiths can coexist as they did for hundreds of years after the crusades, and before the creation of the state of Israel. The violence in the last few weeks has been heartbreaking and no innocent person on either side deserves to be killed.

With that being said however, the conflict in Palestine is not one in which both sides are on an equal playing field fairly fighting one another. This is a conflict which involves the occupation of a land and people, that has led to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being killed, and millions more living as refugees. Those who live within occupied Palestine suffer daily torture and harassment that rarely is covered by any Western media outlet.

I myself, as a Palestinian American, have never been able to visit my homeland. In this recent wave of violence, 35 Palestinians have been killed in the last month, the vast majority of whom were not seeking to stab anyone. According to statistics, only 14 of those were involved in trying to stab people. As Dahlia Scheindlin points out:

the others were killed during protests or while “disturbing the peace,” such as throwing rocks, maybe being near people who threw rocks, or getting “too close” to the fence in Gaza. Palestinians, therefore, might logically conclude that Israel sees political protest and rock-throwing as capital offenses, with no legal process.

They are pregnant young women, teenage boys and girls, and others that were attacked without cause. In fact, Palestinians are not alone in suffering from this.

When I posted the status above, the assumption was that this was another one of those cases. However, you and I both agree that even if this young boy was involved in the alleged act, it is still entirely unacceptable how he was treated.

The cases of stabbing must also be looked at in a larger framework. These are not random acts of violence. They are the unfortunate result and response to decades of occupation, oppression, home destruction, and, in totality, ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. I believe that in order to bring about a meaningful lasting peace, justice must also be established. This is what God has stressed in all of our respective scriptures revealed to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad (peace be upon them all).

Like apartheid South Africa in recent history, Israel must be held accountable for its crimes on an international setting. When that happens, we can continue to strive for peace on fair terms; Jews, Muslims, Christians, or anyone else, living side by side in a demonstration of peace and plurality in the Holy Land, as they did in Palestine for centuries.

Until then, I advocate for a global non-violent resistance to apartheid Israel. I will however simultaneously continue to work with peace loving Jews, like yourself, here in America and everywhere else to make this world a better place. I have repeatedly condemned, and will continue to condemn, anti-Semitism in all of its forms as I’ve reiterated on social media many times. We, too, by the way, are a Semitic people. I thank you once again for your letter and look forward to continuing this dialogue.

Thank you and peace be with you,