First, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords, and then Sudan and Morocco normalized ties with Israel. There is a sense of doors opening – that broader potential exists to bridge what was once unbridgeable, with other agreements in the works.
This wave of normalization has reverberated on a person-to-person level, as well. The Accords set the stage for more significant connections across the religious –political divide. If Jews and Muslims in the Middle East can find within themselves what unites them, they can do so elsewhere, especially where hostilities are non-existent or rare.
To that end, what outreach methods can we use to develop these ties? And, using the Abraham Accords as a guide, can we as individuals more easily create allies for Israel?
Jews Against Antisemitism Canada’s recent webinar, The Peace Toolbox: Building Bridges of Peace Part I, held online on March 8th, pro–Israel activists of many faiths discussed these very ideas. They tackled the questions: How will the Abraham Accords change interfaith relationships in the Middle East and the West, and how should we engage with those willing to become allies?
Produced by the organization Jews Against Antisemitism Canada, the seminar’s speakers included among others:
Founder of the Sweden Israel Alliance and President of the Zionist Federation of Sweden, Pantell’s Israel advocacy is known worldwide. After founding the Jewish Student Union at Uppsalla Universitet, she led Jewish Student Union organizations both in Europe and globally.
Sheikh Abukhalil Tamimi
Palestinian cleric and peace advocate, Sheikh Tamimi joined with several Jewish activists in conversations and collaborations to bridge a path towards peace between Muslims and Jews. He is the spiritual leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Salafist Sect in the Palestinian Authority and a member of the Sharia Court. He promotes a vision of Israel as a one-state solution, with Jews and Muslims living as equal citizens.
Born in South Lebanon, his father, a soldier in the Lebanese Army, was forced to flee to Israel for his safety, where he found refuge. Elkhoury and the rest of his family joined his father in Israel a year later. He defends Israel on college campuses throughout the world and has received the Health Minister’s Shield for National Service work at Rambam Hospital.
Pantell, Tamimi, and Elkhoury are atypical when it comes to defending Israel but were drawn towards the cause for different reasons.
“There are a lot of mutual beliefs within the Abrahamic religions. It’s like one people with three different branches,” Tamimi explained. Born into the conflict, he despairs that “people are using Palestinians for political gain,” an issue he believes he and others must confront.
Pantell, on the other hand, joins from a different region of the world. She moved from New York to Sweden as a child, where all too frequently, she saw Nazi imagery scrawled on walls.
“I felt I always had to hide who I was (as a Jew),” she said.
In 2008, she attended Birthright, where she saw the Star of David scribbled as graffiti in place of Nazi symbols. This sight proved a “major turning point” in her life. With the rising Israeli/Palestinian conflict and antisemitism in Europe, Pantell decided that she could no longer remain a bystander.
For his part, Elkhoury felt compelled to correct the misinformation on the Arab street about Israel, especially regarding Arab minorities living there. He paid the price for his efforts. “I was spat on, told to go back to the gas chambers, told I was part of the Mossad because I couldn’t possibly be an Arab who supports Israel.”
Of course, the signing of the Abraham Accords thrilled them all. Still, they acknowledge that this is only the first of many significant steps that must be taken.
“These accords challenge the convention of ‘Just Say No’ to Israel, on all counts, all the time,” Peleg says.
Moreover, the signing of these Accords provides the perfect opportunity for Israel to promote the good it does all around, Tamimi adds.
“Until now, the Israeli government has only focused on security and military, not the fact that they are alone in the region,” he said. “Israel is not aiming to attack the Arab World, but no one [in Israel] talks about this. We must say this directly to the people, not the governments. The [Arab] people need to understand that Israel isn’t coming for them or seeking to expand to their country. This is Israel’s mistake: not appealing directly to the people.”
Elkhoury concurred to an extent. “For people who think Israel hates Arabs, [the Accord proves the opposite.] It shows how Israel wants to do business with and travel to and within Arab nations. The problem is not that we hate each other. We need to find out how to live together.”
While Pantell agreed that there is more work to do all-round as far as bettering Israel’s reputation, she felt that Israel should direct some of that effort towards a Europe that “can’t give Israel any credit or benefit of the doubt.”
The group elaborated on some of the most challenging issues facing supporters of Israel, primarily because, as Pantell pointed out, anti-Zionist organizations “are many and rich” and “hating and bashing Israel is a business.”
She then circled back to Europe, claiming that many of its educational institutions are “teaching a lot of misinformation about both Jews and Israel.”
Elkhoury expanded on the subject. “(College) campuses are brainwashing the next generation regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”
But how can tangible change come about? From his vantage point in Israel, Tamimi pleaded for American and Jewish leaders to “prioritize advocating peace in the Arab World.”
Pantell and Elkhoury both recognized that changes of opinions would likely emanate from online activity.
“Social media is the best place to start,” said Pantell.
Still, there are pitfalls to overcome. Antisemitism that previously existed ‘on the street,’ has now come online. “All platforms have a responsibility to de-platform antisemitism. Don’t be silent. We all must speak out against antisemitism,” she said.
Despite that, social media can ultimately sway the hearts and minds of the youth since that’s where they get most of their information. “People should speak up with educated answers while interacting on social media. They must form groups and stand together to support Israel. It’s easier to stand with other people than to stand alone,” Elkhoury insists.
Interestingly, many young Lebanese are beginning to learn about Israel through online forums. Elkhoury is hopeful that these online participants can help bring about a fundamental change in their country. Even though Lebanon is ruled by despots today, it may be the next state to forge peace with Israel.
“Hopefully, this tide will turn, and Hezbollah [will be kicked] out of power,” he said.
All the speakers reiterated how the Abraham Accords – unimaginable two years ago – are positive steps for multi-faith dialogue and closer relations between Muslims and Jews.
The new Accords show there is cause for hope, and that there is more common ground between us than we know.
(Agnes Imani, founder of Jews Against Antisemitism Canada. lives in Toronto)