Several months ago, high quality animated videos explaining Jewish religion and practice began popping up on YouTube. This would have been unremarkable except for one fact: they were in fluent Arabic. Tackling such subjects as kosher food and prayer, the informative and often entertaining clips detailed how these rituals compared and contrasted to Islamic practice. Here, for example, is the video on prayer:
The YouTube channel, called “People of the Book” after the Qur’anic category for Jews, has quietly garnered thousands of views. It is the brainchild of Elhanan Miller, a Jerusalem-born intelligence soldier turned journalist (and Tablet contributor) turned rabbinical student who hopes to use the explainers to foster regional understanding and peace.
The idea first occurred to Miller when he was hired by Shorashim, a coexistence-building organization that brings together Israeli settlers and Palestinians from the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank to work the same field and learn about each other.
“They commissioned a friend and I to teach basically Islam 101 to the settlers in Hebrew and Judaism 101 to the Palestinians in Arabic,” Miller recalled. “I got very basic questions from some of the participants, things that had to do with the traditional clothing that Jews wear, the peyot (sidelocks) that men have, what is tefillin (phylacteries)?”
“So I was teaching these people the basics of prayer, the basics of the Jewish calendar, the festivals,” he continued, “and I was thinking: ‘Why should only 10, 12 Palestinians be exposed to this information that I was working pretty hard on preparing and gathering, when there are 1.5 billion Muslims and a few hundred million Arabs who would be equally interested in the same questions?'”
And so backed by British Jewish philanthropist Celia Atkin, Miller began turning his lectures into punchy animated clips. Produced in Jerusalem, each video features a dialogue between Miller and his friend Suha Halifa, the Israeli Palestinian editor of the Times of Israel’s Arabic edition. He presents the Jewish perspective while she provides the Islamic one. The results are engaging and amusing:
Miller’s love affair with Arabic began in the seventh grade. “From the first moment that Arabic was introduced in school, I really fell in love with the language and really was intent on learning it at the highest level possible,” he told me. He studied Arabic through high school, served as a translator and linguist in the Israel Defense Forces for his mandatory service, then studied Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies at Hebrew University for five years. Later, he became the Times of Israel’s inaugural Arab affairs correspondent, then entered rabbinical school.
In future videos, Miller hopes to tackle everything from the Jewish and Islamic calendars to their distinctive forms of religious dress. While these topics might seem small, Miller’s ambitions are great. “Basically, I see these videos as a form both of education but also of peace-building, or bridge-building,” he explained. “I think that the peace process in Israel was run by secular people and it was also a secularizing project in many ways. Meaning, the people who stood behind it, certainly on the Israeli side, were thinking that once you put religion aside and the religious people aside, then you could solve the conflict more easily. But I think that that attitude has failed because both nations are too invested in religion and are too religious. You can’t just push it aside.”
Judaism and Islam, in other words, are part of any viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Miller intends to use them to broker mutual understanding. “I think that one of the keys to normalizing our presence in the Middle East as Jews is through highlighting the commonalities between Judaism and Islam,” he said, “and especially teaching Judaism as an authentic religion, explained by a practicing Jewish person rather than getting the skewed, somewhat one-sided, in many cases ‘Islamic’ version of what Judaism is.”
Can Middle East peace be brokered one YouTube subscriber at a time? Check out Miller’s channel and find out.