Freedom of religion for mutual survival

by Muli Peleg
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NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey - Freedom of religion in Israel and Palestine is not merely a democratic perk or a liberal indulgence but a prerequisite for the survival of both peoples in this troubled land.

Although the trouble between Arabs and Jews began as a struggle between two national movements, religion joined the fray as an engine of mobilisation and a source of incitement to foment and aggravate tensions. Over the years, religion established itself as a major source of friction between the two sides mainly due to accelerated processes of politicisation and radicalisation. To disarm the enemies of peace on both sides, freedom of religion must be cultivated and sustained. It is the antidote against zeal and sacred missions of doom.

In Israel, the rise of religious extremism is a result of years of state support for Orthodox Judaism and an intolerance towards other streams such as the Conservative or Reform movements. The marrying of state politics with Orthodox Judaism resulted in the rise of messianic and militant variants, which, in the late 60s and 70s, became the ideological foundations for the settler movement.

The word “religion” gives rise to as many definitions as there are practicing faiths and creeds. The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about concepts with “blurred edges”. But alas, how would one recognise and what should one look for when the opportunity to encounter religion arises?

For example, what can be learned from Jonathan Swift’s famous adage in the opening of his satirical essay “Thoughts on Various Subjects”: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another”? It can be inferred that religion is capable of eliciting both love and hate, but how does it actually transpire; what are “just enough” and “not enough”?

The variants of religion that makes us hate are the ones that feed ethnic and religious conflicts. They demand from their followers full compliance, commitment and a readiness to make great sacrifices. Loyalty is generated by dehumanising and demonising the other side and consolidating an “us-versus-them” perspective. Group identity is forged and encouraged by denying the rights and needs of the other and underlining the exclusive qualities and pre-eminence of the self.

The spirit and rhetoric of religion under siege is fierce. It is fertile ground for a “chosen-people syndrome”. It emphatically differentiates the believers from the infidels, those who are chosen from those who are not, the saved from the damned. Into this murky domain enter religious fanatics who exploit worshippers’ distress to enhance their power by spreading hate and fear. The sense of common kismet and the confidence that you are right help relax moral inhibitions about conflict and the use of violence.

The Middle East cannot afford such ecclesiastical calculations: it is a tinder box with a short fuse. Freedom of religion could extend the fuse and put off the impending explosion.

The governments in Israel and the Palestinian Territories must defuse the ticking bomb by legitimising greater choice of religious convictions. By so doing, they would make a significant contribution to deactivating the mechanisms which continue to feed violence in the region.

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* Muli Peleg is a Schusterman visiting Professor for Israeli Affairs in the Bildner Center for Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, and a senior lecturer at Tel Hai College in Israel. He also teaches at the Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and is a research fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict Resolution and Negotiation (SCICN). This article is part of a special series on freedom of religion in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 November 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
Redefining the “Jewish” in the Jewish state
Overcoming religious prejudices through education: the experience of Bethlehem University
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Palestine must be a secular state
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Other articles in this series

Redefining the “Jewish” in the Jewish state by Marc Gopin
Overcoming religious prejudices through education: the experience of Bethlehem University by Fr. Jamal Khader
Inclusive Judaism is needed in Israel by Menachem Klein
Palestine must be a secular state by Hussein Ibish
Palestine between religion and secularism by Aziz Abu Sarah