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A Rabbi, an Imam and a Bishop: Religious Pluralism in Israel

January 12, 2022

by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer

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A rabbi, an imam and a bishop bump into each other at the market. This isn’t the beginning of a joke; it’s life in Israel, home to the three Abrahamic religions. The Jewish state, while being majority Jewish, hosts churches, mosques and other places of worship alongside the abundant synagogues.

Naturally this brings tension. Last May in particular saw a spike in violence during Operation Guardian of the Walls. The Islamic holiday of Ramadan (one of the Five Pillars of Islam when stringent disciplines are observed) coincided with the Israeli celebration of Jerusalem Day, creating the perfect storm of tension and sparking a volatile 11 days in which terrorist groups in Gaza fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israel, killing 11 civilians. Chaos ensued from all sides, as riots erupted in cities with mixed Jewish and Arab populations, such as Lod.


But amid the turmoil, a bright spot: Magen David Adom, Israel’s ambulance service, posted a photo of two emergency medical volunteers praying together. The photo spread across social media, showing one of the men wearing a tallit, the prayer shawl that Jewish men wear, while facing left (toward the Western Wall, where the two Temples once stood). The other man, a Muslim, is shown kneeling on his prayer rug, praying in the opposite direction, toward Mecca. The picture of two Israelis, one Jewish and one Muslim, taking a short break from saving lives to pray, symbolizes the cohabitation that the news clips don’t show of life in Israel. The Jewish state, the only nation in the world with a Jewish-majority population, is a haven in the Middle East for freedom of religion.

Freedom for All

Israel’s population stands at 9.29 million people as of December 2020, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of that total, 6.87 million (73.9%) are Jewish, and 1.96 million (21.1%) are Arab. The remaining 5%, or 456,000 people, comprises non-Arab Christians, Druze and others. And all those people, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity, are guaranteed freedom of religion in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

“The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”

 Author Yossi Klein Halevi wrote, “The Declaration of Independence implicitly defines Israel in two ways: as the state of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens, and as the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.”

Access for All

Notice the line in the Declaration of Independence that promised Israel “will safeguard the holy places of all religions.” After the Six Day War of 1967, Israel regained access to part of Jerusalem that had been under Jordanian control, restoring Jewish access to their holiest sites in Jerusalem after 2,000 years. But they weren’t going to ban non-Jewish visitors, as had been done to them. After the smoke cleared in 1967, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared: “…to the peoples of all faiths we guarantee full freedom of worship and religious rights. We have come not to conquer the holy places of others, nor to diminish their religious rights, but to ensure the unity of the city and to live in it with others in harmony.”

And Israel has kept its word and maintained open access to its holy sites for people of all faiths. The Temple Mount, which officially remains under the custody of a Waqf (Muslim religious trust), is still under Israeli security and governmental control. Israel allows Christians, Jews and visitors of all faiths to ascend to where the two Temples once stood, the holiest site in Judaism. It’s where the Al-Aqsa mosque now stands, and under Muslim religious authority, non-Muslims are banned from prayer and worship at the site—a restriction never imposed at sites under full Israeli control.   

Safe Haven for Christians

The State of Israel was reborn just three years after World War II and the Holocaust, when six million Jews were slaughtered. After that horrifying genocide, the Jewish people simply wanted a homeland, a haven to live and practice their faith in safety. And that’s exactly what they got—and they have allowed it to be a safe place for other religions to worship freely as well. It’s particularly important for Christians, who have been persecuted throughout the rest of the Middle East.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously declared in 2012 that “Israel’s Christian population will always be free to practice their faith. This is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are fully free to practice their faith. They don’t have to fear; they don’t have to flee. In a time where Christians are under siege in so many places, in so many lands in the Middle East, I’m proud that in Israel, Christians are free to practice their faith and that there’s a thriving Christian community in Israel.”

Looking at the (Somewhat) Full Picture

This is not an attempt to discount or gloss over the violence in Israel. The Jewish state experiences an average of over 16 deaths due to terror attack per year (after 2015, when the Second Intifada ended and the number of terror killings was much higher). Of course there are clashes, tension and unrest in the Land.

But that’s not the only story of life here. Don’t discount the Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, etc. who live side by side harmoniously in Israel every day. This is the land where rabbis, imams and bishops rub elbows. Emergency volunteers of different religions pray next to each other and save all lives, regardless of who they are. Jews serve in the military alongside Muslims, Christian Arabs and Druze to defend the Jewish state—though the Jewish population is required to serve in the military, while Arabs and Druze serve on a volunteer basis. In December, nine-branched hanukkiot burn brightly next to Christmas trees. Muslim-owned shops sell Star of David necklaces, and Jewish shops sell olive wood carvings of Jesus (Yeshua) and Mary. In the Jewish state, many religions are thriving.

Photo Credit: JekLi/shutterstock.com

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