Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal says standing up against injustice is part of his Muslim identity. (Courtesy photo)

Topics: Justice | Human Rights

3 faith leaders on why the Palestine-Israel conflict is not a religious one

Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal challenges accusations that equate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism


On Laylat al Qadr, the holiest night of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem protested forced expulsions from their homes. Hamas fired rockets from Gaza while Israeli airstrikes destroyed the coastal strip’s only coronavirus testing centre and a building housing various journalists. Several days later, 13 Israelis and 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, had been reported killed. Both sides claimed victory.

Across the world in rural Dutton, Ont. in mid-May, dentist Nehal al Tarhuni was about to inject lidocaine into her patient’s mouth when she glanced at the screen mounted on the ceiling of her office. An episode of Netflix’s The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes series showcased the clifftop mansion of a British businessman and his Israeli wife in tony Herzliya Pituah, just north of Tel Aviv. Suddenly, her chest tightened. Israeli authorities have twice denied her entry to Gaza, first to visit her grandfather and later to visit his grave. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to refugee parents, the 36-year-old Palestinian-Canadian says something broke in her that day.

Soon, she gathered seven Abrahamic clerics for a Nationwide Interfaith Solidarity Prayer for Palestine that livestreamed on Facebook on May 22. A local imam, Abd Alfatah Twakkal, welcomed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem as well as rabbis from Mexico and California to comfort those who reject claims that this 73-year-old conflict is religious and therefore intractable. They say it’s about land.

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Twakkal is a Calgary-born, red beard-sporting former imam of the London Muslim Mosque who now counsels families affected by domestic violence. He’s weary of jingoistic militarism that thinks that Israeli firepower or Hamas rockets can blast their way to victory.

He affirms that this issue is “not limited to one faith tradition… the event was to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people from a human rights perspective.” Reminding me that his Syrian background makes him a Semite, he challenges accusations that equate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. In 2018, the rabbi of Congregation Or Shalom invited him to speak at their memorial for the victims of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting. “It’s part of my Muslim identity to stand against injustices,” he says.

Mennonite pastor Fred Redekop. (Courtesy photo)

Palestinians call their resistance a secular struggle for equality. Their allies agree. Pastor Fred Redekop, who also attended the prayer event, believes those who prayed for Palestine are anti-racists committed to social justice. He ministers to a Mennonite congregation in the hamlet of Poole, just north of Stratford, Ont. He first got involved in Palestinian rights in 1985 after travelling to Jerusalem to meet with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Even then, there was barbed wire and new settlements being built,” he says.

Four years ago, he began conducting Palestinian land exercises, an interactive role-playing activity adapted from an Indigenous model, to educate parishioners on the Nakba, the 1948 mass expulsion and exodus of Palestinians from the newly created state of Israel. He laments the shrinking population of Christian Palestinians, saying that the conflict is “not a religious issue, it’s an issue of power and control and land.” In 2018, his daughter Hannah joined Christian Peacemaker Teams in the occupied West Bank town of Hebron to safely accompany Palestinian children to school and document human rights abuses.

Rabbi Lucia Pizarro. (Courtesy photo)

Mexican-born rabbi Lucia Pizarro used to be a Zionist. A 2002 Tel Aviv-to-London flight transformed her thinking. During the journey, Israeli rabbi Jeremy Milgrom explained the occupation to her. “I was totally shocked,” she says, by his drive to reconcile Jews and Palestinians. “Everything changed for me then.” For four years, she worked for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in Jerusalem, an organization led by Jewish activist Jeff Halper. The angry blowback from fellow Jews seeded self-doubt, but soon the grace and warmth of ordinary Palestinians inspired her. “I got fuel from them” to carry on, she says.

She leads the Hamilton-based Jewish Liberation Theology Institute, which supports Jews who champion Palestinian rights. Al Tarhuni attended one of Pizarro’s Liberation Seders, where guests espouse Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation. Pizarro laughs when recounting the outrage of one Jewish writer who denounced these Passover celebrations as “satanic.”

She says politicians who don’t want this issue resolved frame it as religious, going back to Ishmael and Isaac, but points out that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived on the land together for hundreds of years. “It’s a political issue,” she says. She supports boycott, divestment and sanctions, the Palestinian-led movement to exert pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation. Being Jewish doesn’t automatically equal support for Israel, she says.

“I have to shout very, very loud, this is not me. I’m totally against this. This is the only way I can be Jewish today.”


Ferrukh Faruqui is an Ottawa-based writer and physician fascinated by moral conundrums who lives for “green days in forests and blue days at sea.”

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