Religion Must be Part of the Solution

by Rabbi David Rosen
Jerusalem - Taking up the metaphor of "a window of opportunity," one might point out that someone bent over in pain will be hard-pressed to see any light from the window, or even believe it exists. This applies to a large segment of the Israeli and Palestinian populations, which, even if not suffering directly from the violence of the last four and a half years, has been substantially traumatized by it.

Personally, however, I have no doubt that we are at a remarkable turning point. No less significant than the impressive democratic Palestinian support for Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) is the remarkable political turnabout of Ariel Sharon. One has to grasp the almost metaphysical meaning of "settlement" in Zionist mythology in order to appreciate that the advocacy of dismantlement of even one of the settlements - and led by the man who symbolized their establishment - is a development of enormous positive significance toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is of course possible that the vagaries of Israeli politics may postpone implementation. However, there is no doubt in my mind that even if lamentably delayed, this Rubicon will be crossed and an inevitable and inexorable dynamic will ensue. Already, security cooperation has advanced with rapidity, and the likelihood is that Israel's unilateral disengagement will increasingly be bilateral and cooperative. As events on the ground begin to change, the populations' skepticism will change as well.

The greatest danger, of course, comes from extremists on both sides. To my great distress as a religious person, such extremist violence usually occurs under the pretext of religious duty. Indeed, the Oslo Peace Process was torpedoed substantially on both sides by the use of religion as justification for violent actions. We have to do our best to neutralize such extremists, and while this requires effective security and legal action, this is not enough.

For better and worse, religion is inextricably bound to the identities of the parties involved in the conflict, and it is exploited even by those who are far from the spiritual and ethical values of its heritages. For this reason, there has been a tendency on the part of politicians and others, while pursuing a peace agenda, to avoid religious institutions and their representatives, viewing them as an obstacle. In the shadow of all the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion, this is understandable. However, I believe it to be a tragically counterproductive approach.

If we don't want religion to be part of the problem, we must make it part of the solution. During the last four and a half years of violence, the territorial conflict has increasingly been presented as a religious one. Not only was the last Intifada portrayed in religious terms (in the name of Al-Aqsa), but propaganda has increasingly used religious terminology to de-legitimize and even demonize the other. This "religionization" of the conflict is extremely dangerous. As long as the conflict is perceived as a territorial one it can be resolved through territorial compromise. If, however, it is seen as a struggle between the Godly and the godless, then we are doomed to an eternal cycle of bloodshed.

Galvanizing the religious leadership to support peaceful reconciliation, to oppose incitement and prejudicial misrepresentation on all sides, is thus an urgent imperative - and it is possible, especially if political leadership supports it. In addition, to really combat extremists, and not just contain them, we need to give the moderates (whom I am convinced are the majority) more visibility. Because their voices are not sensational or bloodthirsty, they are hardly heard at all in the media, leading to a distorted public perception and a destructive cyclical process.

There is already positive movement in this regard. Three years ago, when violence between Palestinians and Israelis was at its height, fifteen religious leaders and representatives of the three main Faiths in the Holy Land - including the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, the President of the Palestinian Sharia Courts, the Latin Patriarch, and deputies of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs - were all hosted in Alexandria by Sheikh Mohamad Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. The initiator of this gathering was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey. This historic gathering (the first ever summit of leaders and representatives of the three main religions of the Holy Land) issued an important declaration condemning violence in the name of religion as desecration of religion, and calling for peace and reconciliation, as well as education towards those goals. The effect of this declaration was substantially lost by the ongoing violence on the ground. However, the signatories did go ahead with the establishment of a committee to help implement educational initiatives for the promotion of peace and mutual religious respect. Centers in Israeli and Palestinian societies have now been established under the auspices of this committee to promote these goals.

In addition, recent interfaith meetings involving notable Israeli and Palestinian religious figures, as well as those from the wider Middle East and beyond, reflect the increasing desire of religious leaders to be part of a process of peace and reconciliation. Arguably the most remarkable of these was the successful gathering of some one hundred and fifty leading rabbis and sheikhs that took place in Brussels last month under the auspices of King Mohamad VI of Morocco and King Albert II of Belgium. The meeting, which received widespread coverage, especially in the European media, sought to emphasize both the past historic legacy of interfaith cooperation, as well as the central shared values of the religious traditions. Sheikh Talal Sidr of Hebron (who is also one of the key protagonists of the Alexandria committee) declared in his remarks on the opening evening that only when the three religious traditions live in mutual respect will there be real peace in the Middle East.

Recognizing the limitations of institutional religion, especially in our part of the world, it would be more than naïve to expect it to spearhead any political breakthrough. However, when there is a political window of opportunity, as there is now, it is essential that religious voices and leadership are actively involved in its support. While religion may not be able to initiate a political resolution of the conflict, it is an essential component for a successful political process, providing the psycho-spiritual glue for long-lasting and effective peace.

* Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, is the International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. He is active in many interfaith, civic, and peace organizations promoting Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, and is a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Source: CGNews, February 25, 2005

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Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality
A Simple Plan
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Only Public Support Can Sustain a Window of Opportunity
Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality by Nizar Abdel-Kader
A Simple Plan by Hady Amr
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity by Dr. Ziad Asali
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution by Naomi Chazan
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon by Mohammad Daraghmeh
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Khaled Duzdar
Only Public Support Can Sustain a Window of Opportunity by Jason Erb
Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves by Shira Herzog
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements by Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes by Daoud Kuttab
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem by Jonathan Kuttab
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges by Hazem Saghiyeh
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement by Michael Young
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East by Dov S. Zakheim