This was not your usual Washington embassy party.
On Tuesday night, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and his wife, Sally, had an iftar at the ambassador’s residence.
That’s right, the Israelis had an iftar. That is the breaking of the fast for Muslims during Ramadan, Islam’s most holy month of prayer and reflection. Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown during Ramadan, which arrives at varying times each year. Summer is the worst, because beverages are also prohibited. So when guests arrived, glancing longingly at the nonalcoholic bar and the as-yet-empty buffet table, they were both parched and hungry.
Guests were asked for 7:30. Sundown was at 8:33. As it happened, it was also the Jewish fasting day of Tisha B’Av.
Oren had just returned from Israel, where he had met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so his fast was longer than most because of the time change.
“I will try to keep my remarks short,” Oren said. “Standing between food and hungry people for too long is just asking for a diplomatic crisis.”
The distinguished crowd was indeed mixed. It included Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. House; Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities; Duke University’s Imam Abdullah Antepli; author and professor Akbar Ahmed of American University; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his wife, Ann; and various ambassadors and rabbis.
“I find it interesting,” Oren said, “that on this day, before we break bread together, Jews and Muslims commemorate two totally different religious events through the same act of fasting. Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. On this date, we fast because we are mourning. We mourn the destruction of our first temple in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE, by the Babylonians.”
Then, to laughter, he added, “No offense.” He related several other “tragedies that befell the Jewish people” on that same day.
For Muslims, he pointed out that the day’s fasting was “not a time for mourning, but rather an opportunity to reflect, to take stock and to look within and find ways to self-improve.”
And then he broached the subject that was on everyone’s minds, the elephant in the room.
“I don’t have to tell you that the Middle East is going through profound turbulence and torment. Since our last iftar here, tens of thousands of people have been killed.”
There was murmuring and shuffling in the room. What was he going to say? But not to worry: Oren is a skilled diplomat.
“We are willing to turn inward and ask the uncomfortable and honest questions,” he said. “What have we done wrong? How should we change?
There was silence as everyone reflected on his words. “As this day of fast draws to close,” he said, “let us take this opportunity to look forward to a time of tranquillity, tolerance and peace.”
After he spoke, the imam from Duke gave a stunningly honest appraisal of such events as the one that night, wondering aloud whether it was truly meaningful or just another Washington diplomatic event.
As the speeches were winding down, the blessed sun went down, and waiters appeared with dates and juice to break the fast. Jewish men disappeared into a private room to pray, and Muslim men were ushered into a room adorned simply with a prayer rug.
Ah, and then food arrived, and the atmosphere turned festive, even joyous. The camaraderie was infectious. Platters of chicken in rice, couscous, hummus, okra, lentils and pita. Plates were filled and refilled. The absence of booze did not seem to dampen the evening — unthinkable at most Washington embassy parties, where fortification is usually necessary.
But the questions still remained. Does such an evening do any good? Do such events, playing out throughout the world, have any real effect on the politics of Jewish-Muslim relations? Talking and socializing is always a good thing. Breaking bread together can change relationships. But for how long? Somehow, the image came to me, as I was standing there surveying the crowd, of a scene from the 2002 movie “Silent Night,” in which German and American soldiers take a break from the slaughter to share Christmas dinner during World War II.
In the end, I came away from Tuesday’s gathering with the feeling that you do all you can diplomatically in the hope that eventually you will make a breakthrough. After all, it can’t hurt. Tuesday night, even if just for those few hours, there was peace between Muslims and Jews.
At the end of his speech, Oren gave a Ramadan salutation in Arabic, “Kulu sana wantu tayyibin,” which means something like, “May every year find you in good health.”
May it be so for Muslims and Jews.