President Isaac Herzog’s annual Iftar dinner, the traditional meal to break the Ramadan fast, was attended by around 200 guests at his official residence on Wednesday, including Arab Israeli public officials, religious and civil society leaders and members of the forces of security.
Some foreign diplomats also attended the event at the president’s residence in the capital.
But above Herzog’s festivities and banter were recent security incidents and political tensions, inevitable in the air of Jerusalem. The government is reeling after its whip, Idit Silman of the right-wing Yamina party, left office last week, stripping the fragile coalition of its parliamentary majority, and a series of terrorist attacks have killed 14 people inside Israel in recent weeks.
At a table in the center of the hall for Herzog’s Iftar meal sat Mansour Abbas, leader of the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party, and Knesset member of the faction, Mazen Ghanaim.
“It’s not easy to be an Arab member of Knesset in Israel. You have to swallow a lot. Your coalition partners want things and you have to swallow them,” Ghanaim said.
Last year, Ra’am broke with other Arab Israeli lawmakers, and with tradition, by joining the coalition in hopes of advancing the interests of the Arab community from within the government. The party had to sit down with factions it was ideologically opposed to, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, in a risky political gamble.
This new approach for Israeli Arabs in government has been criticized by Arab society for not yet delivering significant and tangible results.
Sitting next to Ghanaim, his party leader Abbas acknowledged that fine rhetoric, like that of Herzog at the meal, has yet to translate into results for his community.
“It’s a process,” Abbas said, adding that “it’s all part of making things better.”
“When Herzog came to the presidency, he promised to take care of the things that are still sensitive,” Abbas said. “When he talks about Islam and religion, it’s welcomed by Arab society, and you can see he’s making an effort to speak Arabic, even with his accent, you can see he’s trying.”
The discussion at Ra’am’s Iftar table came after Herzog delivered remarks in Arabic and Hebrew, in which he quoted the Quran, praised the month of Ramadan and stressed the need for tolerance, while addressing recent tensions .
“The month of Ramadan, the most beautiful and moving month of the Hijri calendar, reveals another aspect of the beautiful face of the Islamic spirit. It is a month of humility and piety, moderation, compassion and charity, faith in God, family and community,” Herzog said.
“Even as a non-Muslim, I feel a deep sense of identification and connection with the special spirit of this month, which we mark here tonight,” he said.
As a centerpiece, each table in the room had a copy of the Quran, translated into Hebrew by the father of Herzog’s predecessor, Reuven Rivlin. Watching the packed house, Herzog quoted from the book, sharing a chapter that matched its themes of tolerance and coexistence.
Herzog emphasized tolerance as a constant theme throughout his tenure as president and made trips to Arab communities, both for public works and demonstrations of support.
“Herzog came to Kafr Qasim, the site of a 1956 massacre that is still a sticking point between Jewish and Arab society. Rivlin came in the past and said the right things, but this was different. You can tell Herzog cares. It’s part of the healing process,” Abbas said.
That past violence merged with current events at the meal, as Herzog acknowledged the current wave of terror in Israel.
“My friends, when acts of murder and violence are perpetrated in the name of Islam, we must not be silent,” Herzog said.
This year, Ramadan coincides with Easter and Passover, the latter beginning on Friday evening.
Ahead of Passover, an extremist Jewish group offered money to Jews who travel to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a holy site for Jews and Muslims, and perform a biblical sacrifice. The hit provoked some Muslims and drew a threat of retaliation from Hamas.
The Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and is the third holiest site in Islam. The Jewish presence there, now the site of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, has long been a hotbed of violence, and tensions rise during Ramadan.
“In recent days, false information has been circulating on social media about the Temple Mount and the holy sites. I want to take this opportunity to say: these are lies. Israel maintains the status quo on the Temple Mount,” Herzog said.
Einav Shibli, a prison officer from a northern Israeli village also named Shibli, was one of several Muslim military and security service professionals at Herzog’s Iftar.
She said during the meal that recent political tensions had caused her difficulties.
“We had a rough time,” she said.
On Sunday, the leader of the Arab-majority Joint List faction, Ayman Odeh, criticized Israeli Arabs in the state security forces, sparking outrage. A spokesman for Odeh later clarified that the comments were directed at Israeli Arabs serving in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Shibli called Odeh’s comments “terrible”.
She said “it’s not easy where I live” to be accepted as a prison officer in her Arab village, but that her neighbors have “gotten used to seeing me in uniform”.
Amir Mazarib, the chairman of the local council in the town of Zarzir in northern Israel, also pointed to ongoing tensions over the Iftar meal, but with an eye to Jewish extremism.
“We are proud to be citizens. It is important to show the world that we love the country,” the Bedouin municipal leader said, adding that he spent 24 years in the military in combat and intelligence roles.
“But the state is like a father, and a father must take care of all his children,” he said. “There are land problems and the country must solve them. You can’t let someone live in a shack without water or electricity. So there are people who are bitter.
Israeli Bedouins have long claimed government neglect and mistreatment and have struggled to gain recognition for some of their communities, which sometimes lack basic amenities. Abbas’s Ra’am party draws support from Bedouin communities in the south.
“Abbas is trying, but there are also people on the Jewish side who spoil everything,” Mazarib said, specifically pointing to controversial religious Zionism lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir.
Ben Gvir expressed extreme views about Arab Israelis and Palestinians and, among other inflammatory activities, became an agitator in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
“Ben Gvir brings more destruction to Israel than the Arabs,” Mazarib said.