Rabbi Yisroel Weiss threw his up arms when a Palestinian woman offered her hand in greeting as he mingled with delegates at the Al Azhar Conference to Support Jerusalem.
A striking figure with the wide-brimmed hat and curled sidelocks of Orthodox Jews, the rabbi was quick to explain that his religion forbade him from shaking her hand, not his politics.
His political stance was made clear by the kaffiyeh draped around his neck and a laminated image pinned to his left lapel of an Israeli flag struck through with a red line and the slogan “A Jew, Not a Zionist" above the pin.
“We oppose the occupation of Palestine in its entirety," he said. "Judaism is to be subservient to God, while Zionism is nationalism. It is a whole different concept, it is contradictory of our religion."
The idea that Palestine is the promised land of the Jews, upon which Zionism pushed its initial movement and justifies its illegal occupation of the land, is "totally false, I can't use stronger language to describe that", Rabbi Weiss told The National.
The Torah, Judaism’s holy book, forbids not only the concept of Zionism but the occupation of any land, said the rabbi, whose grandparents were killed in Auschwitz.
"Since the destruction of the temple, 2,000 years ago, God mandated us to live in exile. It is forbidden to make a safe haven otherwise we would have done so centuries ago.”
Rabbi Weiss said he and his colleagues from the Jews United Against Zionism group attended the two-day conference in Cairo to show the Muslim and Christian world that there are Jews around the world who oppose the occupation and choose to live outside of Palestine because of it.
Historically, Jews turned to Muslims during their times of greatest need, and lived for centuries among them as guests in their land and as mandated by their religion, he said.
“This is a fact across the board: where Jews presided with Muslims we flourished. In Palestine, we lived in the same courtyards and we babysat each other’s children, the most precious thing that we have,” he said. "How dare the Zionists inflict pain on those who hosted and protected us for so long?"
The New York native said it was important to push through the message of differentiating between Judaism, which Muslims acknowledge as a holy religion, and Zionism.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas made the same point at the conference on Wednesday, saying that Jerusalem was a city of religious depth and liberating Palestine did not imply the exclusion of its Jewish people.
“There are many Jews who deserve respect, and talk our language and say the Zionist state is a lie,” he said.
“We wait and sustain our hope that Jerusalem will be a city open to all, the Jews, the Muslims and Christians, because Muslims believe in all the religions,” he said.
Religious scholars at the conference stressed that religions lived in harmony in Jerusalem.
"The relationship between Jews and Muslims, all of history, has been one of unity and love," said Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Najjar, president of Al Azhar's Damietta university. "The conflict we have with Jews now is over land, and if they left Jerusalem there is no reason why we would leave them alone."
He said Zionism was an extremist sect, similar to some in Islam, that should be isolated from Judaism, and that "dignified Jews" remained against this occupation of land.
However, he said it was the responsibility of those Jews to make their message clear and to show the world that Zionism was not synonymous with Judaism.
The grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb, announced that its observatory for fighting extremism would create a school history curriculum that taught about the peaceful coexistence of all three religions in Jerusalem.
The imam said it was a Muslim duty to counter Zionist rhetoric that attempted to religiously justify Jewish occupation of Palestine.
Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Christian priest and member of the Council for Guarding the Holy Land, an advisory body, welcomed the plan to teach the history of Jerusalem as place of peaceful coexistence.
“Jerusalem must be for all. There is no problem with the religion of Jews, the problem is with Zionists,” he said. “You see among us Jews in this hall, and Palestine has always been home for all three religions living in peace, and we want it to return to that.”
Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, reiterated the position of the religious leaders in the conference's closing session.
“We must work together — all sides, all religions — to reopen the Holy Land and to make peace of what is inherently a human problem,” he said.