Despite anti-Semitism, Russia lures back Jews

Pro-Israel meeting in a Moscow synagogue, 9 August 2006/Alexander NatruskinJews are returning to Russia. For as long as anyone alive can remember, the flow was mostly in the other direction. But Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Sweeney in our Moscow bureau have found a return wave, despite a persistent anti-Semitism there:

Around one million Jews fled during the Soviet era and the post-communist chaos. Those returning now from Israel, the United States and Europe hope to use their new skills and old knowledge to do business.

“Now there are services here, like in New York and Paris, but the lifestyle is more interesting than in either of them — it’s easy to understand why thousands are coming back,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Hard statistics on Jews returning to Russia do not exist, said Satanovsky, but anecdotal evidence is there. He estimates 80,000-120,000 Russian Jews have returned, plus many more who originated in other Soviet republics.

Read the whole feature here.

Jew for Jesus could win Israel Bible quiz

An Israeli with the Jewish Bible, 27 July 2004/Gil Cohen MagenA 17-year-old Israeli girl is a leading contender to win the country’s annual youth Bible quiz, but there’s a controversial twist: She believes in Jesus.

Tipped off about Bat El Levy’s beliefs, an anti-missionary group has called on religious Jews to boycott the May 8 contest, at which she will compete against 15 other teenagers from Israel and abroad for a prize awarded by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The group, Yad L’Ahim, has invoked Israeli law forbidding Christians from proselytizing in the Jewish state. But there is more at stake in the quiz, which is held on Israel’s 60th
Independence Day — the question of who has a better command of holy writ.

Priestly turf wars in the Holy Land

Loving thy neighbour is not always easy, especially, it seems, when it comes to the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Worshipper at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 8 2007

Christian factions have squabbled for years over who controls which parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s divided Old City.

Sometimes they even come to blows.

Priests and worshippers at an Orthodox Palm Sunday celebration on April 20 ended up brawling after Armenian clerics apparently kicked a Greek Orthodox priest out of a shrine at the church — one of Christianity’s holiest.

Passover debate highlights religious rift in Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray as they burn food containing leavening in Jerusalem, 18 April 2008/Gil Cohen MagenEarlier this month an Israeli court decided that stores and restaurants can sell food banned by Jewish ritual law during this week’s Passover holiday. Israeli courts are often arbiters in quarrels between Israel’s influential Orthodox community and its secular majority. This time the ruling has angered the Orthodox.

Ritual Jewish law forbids consuming leavened products known as hametz– from bread to beer– during the week of Passover. The tradition commemorates the biblical Israelites who did not have time to let their bread rise before the hasty exodus from slavery in Egypt.

My article on the Passover debate discusses the details and consequences of the April 3 court decision that overturned the convictions of two restaurant owners, a grocer and the owner of a pizza parlor who sold hametz last year. The court ruled that restaurants and stores can serve hametz because they are not “public areas.”

King David: mighty warrior, fabled monarch and…villain?

Kings III by Yochi BrandesBeloved by Jews and Christians as a biblical hero, King David is famous for slaying Goliath with a single slingshot. Despite some serious moral slip-ups — he seduced the beautiful Bathsheba then sent her husband off to war to die — David is traditionally championed as the fearless leader who vanquishes the Philistines in the name of God.

But in a new biblical novel by Israeli author Yochi Brandes, “Kings III”, David is portrayed as a blood-thirsty warrior and womaniser who mercilessly slaughters his enemies.

“It’s provocative, and it plays with people’s expectations,” Brandes told Reuters in an interview this week. “The reader gets angry at this dictatorial ruler, then discovers at the end it is actually a character they have been taught to love.”

Saudi mufti denies inviting Israeli rabbis

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe call last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for an interfaith dialogue has provoked outraged reactions from Saudi Islamists and praise from Saudi liberals. Saudis of all persuasions were taken by surprise when Abdullah made his announcement, which met with a quick and positive response from religious leaders abroad. The Vatican was said to be especially interested in this idea because Abdullah made a groundbreaking visit to Rome and met Pope Benedict last November.

But one report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot went to the nub of the matter — will Jewish rabbis be able to visit the bastion of Sunni Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites? That would be big news. As the Israeli daily reported it, the Saudi grand mufti, the official government spokesperson on religious affairs, had begun sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis to attend some meeting in Riyadh at an unspecified date.

Well, the report made it into English and led to the mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, issuing a carefully-worded denial. “The mufti clarified that what was published in some newspapers and news agencies saying that he had called on a group of Israeli religious scholars to take part in a religious reconciliation conference in Riyadh is devoid of any truth and has no basis,” the Saudi royal-owned paper Asharq al-Awsat reported on its front page on Wednesday. “He said: ‘I hope everyone will check facts before reporting things’.”

High on Mount Sinai?

There is no end to modern speculation trying to explain how some ancient event in the Bible may have happened. Here’s the latest, picked up by Jeffrey Heller, editor-in-charge in our Jerusalem bureau:

A man prays on Mount Moses on the Sinai Peninsula, 4 March 2007/Goran TomasevicThe biblical Israelites may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, according to a new study by an Israeli psychology professor.

Writing in the British journal Time and Mind, Benny Shanon of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said two plants in the Sinai desert contain the same psychoactive molecules as those found in plants from which the powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca is prepared.

Gay Orthodox Israelis click on new religion Web site

HOD logIt’s been less than a month since an underground movement of gay Orthodox Jews in Israel went online and already tens of thousands of people have visited their Web site.

The site is called HOD (for Homo’eem Dateem or Religious Homosexuals), a play on the Hebrew word hod for glory. It’s the first to cater to gay men living in Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish minority, where homosexuality is viewed as a sin and people are often scared to admit publicly they are gay, fearing harassment or banishment.

Protesters at Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, 21 June 2007/Yonathan Weitzman

Of course, not all of the online visitors fit into that category, said Rabbi Ron, one of the site’s creators. The site was flooded after local media reported on its inception and Ron, a gay Orthodox rabbi who asked that his last name not be mentioned, was interviewed on Israeli radio.

When an Indian pilgrimage becomes a vote bank

Y.S. Reddy comforts boat disaster victim in Andhra Pradesh, 19. Jan 2007/stringerFor an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.

This kind of subsidy is not new. The central government has for years offered subsidies to Muslims wanting to join the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. New Delhi even has a special haj air terminal for Muslims, who account for about 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population. Tens of thousands travel every year from India.

But the latest announcement has sparked debate in India over whether it further eats into the country’s secular ideals.

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?