August 25th, 2011
05:16 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - The Israeli ambassador to the United States hosted a dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday, marking the first time an ambassador from the Jewish state has hosted such a dinner in the United States, the embassy said.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren hosted the dinner at his residence, with about 65 guests in attendance, including imams, rabbis and officials from the White House, Congress and the State Department, according to Israeli Embassy spokesman Lior Weintraub.
Oren said the unusual dinner is fitting at a time when the future of the Middle East is uncertain, as the Arab Spring has unseated regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and as Libya appears poised on the brink of a revolution.
“We’re in the middle of a huge transition in the Middle East, and we see risks, but we also see opportunities there,” he said. “We want to be able to tell people in the Middle East what those opportunities are.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation about Israel, and we want to show we’re open to dialogue and reconciliation,” he said. “We can begin to build bridges on an interpersonal level.”
In remarks at the dinner, Oren cited the biblical Book of Psalms: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity."
Thursday’s Ramadan dinner, called an iftar, featured a call to prayer, during which the dining room at the ambassador’s residence was turned into a Muslim prayer space, the embassy said.
All food served at the meal was halal, meaning it has been prepared according to certain Muslim customs. The meal was prepared under the direction of a Muslim chef, the embassy said.
The fast was broken with traditional Islamic foods like dates, apricot juice and soup.
The dinner's guests included Dennis Ross, a White House adviser on the Middle East; State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland; Farah Pandith, the State Department's first special representative to Muslim communities; and Hannah Rosenthal, state's special envoy to monitor and combat anti-semitism.
Oren said he hopes the meal at the Israeli ambassador’s residence becomes an annual tradition.
“Israel has a very large and vibrant Muslim population, with Muslim members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and in science and academics, and I’m their ambassador as well,” Oren said. “This is very much a state function for us, not just about reaching out.”
The ambassador said he was heartened about prospects for Jewish and Muslim cooperation when his wife visited an Israeli hospital last week for an emergency appendectomy, with the operation and the recovery overseen by Jewish and Muslim doctors and nurses working together.
Oren said he saw medical staff “acting on the basis of common humanity, without any distinction over faith. … Everyone there was an example of how it can be.”
The iftar dinner comes at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and much of the Muslim world, with a rash of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the past week and the Palestinian Authority preparing to make a bid for statehood in the United Nations next month.
Iftar dinners are held during Ramadan to break the daily fast.
President Barack Obama hosted an iftar dinner at the White House this month, a tradition that dates to President Bill Clinton.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.