My first brush with Ramadan came when as a ten year old I read King of the Wind, a novel by Marguerite Henry. There I met an Arabic horseboy who accompanied the transport and introduction of Arabian horses into England. At that time I was more aware that Ramadan was a period of prayer and a strict fast from sun-up to sun-down. My next encounter was one summer in Jordan while riding an Arabian mare into the Nabataean city of Petra. Again, it was a horseboy, this time a teenager who was hot, tired, thirsty, hungry and crabby since it was still hours before the summer sun would set. Only later did I realize here in Jerusalem that certain delicacies seemed only to be available during Ramadan. And now that the season of Ramadan has once again arrived, I see the lines outside sweet shops as Muslim women and men seek to purchase katayif and other sweets for their families. Here I have come to see more of the complexity of Ramadan: a time of prayer, of fast and feast, almsgiving and receiving, visiting relatives and friends and offering hospitality - a holy time and a holiday period. But as the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy recently pointed out, "The Israeli occupation, which intrudes on every sphere of life, has reached their [Muslim] holiday tables and will decide for them who is going to eat with whom. On top of that, Israel is also deciding what will be served in the meals. With such a cruel, tight closure, which has created a 40% unemployment rate, according to Israeli data, poverty has turned into hunger. Many Palestinian [Muslim] families will not be serving the traditional meat dishes this year during Ramadan. The presents for children will be more modest, if they are given at all." Palestinian Muslims who desire to pray at Al-Aksa Mosque will not be allowed access. The Israeli government has decided that only residents of East Jerusalem will be permitted to reach the mosque on Fridays. All the other worshippers on the West Bank and Gaza can only dream about freedom of worship. Yet it was this very principle, freedom of worship that the Jewish people and Israel demanded for themselves. On November 15th, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer declared the lifting of travel restrictions for the Ramadan holiday. Yes, that should allow Muslims to be able to pass the checkpoints and worship in Jerusalem, and families to gather for the festive evening meal that ends their daily fast, but roadblocks and checkpoints manned by the Israeli Occupation Force are still in place and the Palestinian population continues to live under the harsh decrees of their occupiers, not able to get their harvest to market and now during this holy season of Ramadan, unable to worship at their third holiest site in the Muslim world, Al-Aksa mosque. This past Friday the checkpoint in Bethlehem was closed to everybody. Even the wife of an European diplomat was denied entrance to Bethlehem! Wherever you are, please join in prayer for justice and peace, for the reunion of families, both Israeli and Palestinian. Please pray that the occupation will end and with that, the terrible bloodbath that soaks this land daily. Only then can Ramadan, Hanukkah and Christmas be a celebration of justice and peace, what these feasts originally were.
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