What Can the Mideast Learn From the Phenomenon of Obama?

Imagine a Jerusalem throughout which centers of learning and interfaith dialogue are built.

Tons of ink have been spilled and terabytes of cyberspace have been filled with the question whether Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is justified.

The centrist consensus is that the Nobel Committee's decision is based not on Obama's achievement, but on his promise. In fact the Nobel Committee has stated that few politicians have evoked so much hope for a unifying function, and Obama has reacted accordingly when he said that he sees the prize as a call for action rather than a recognition of what he has done so far.

Indeed; Obama at this point represents hope more than achievement. But hope has been a very scarce commodity in the Middle East, so this might be a moment to think big; to wonder what we could learn from the phenomenon and symbol called Obama.

His election has been a symbol of hope for many in the world, who didn't think they would live to see an African-American elected president of the US. This election symbolized that we may be capable of overcoming the bigotry and cruelty of the past and to move towards a Universalist vision in which all humans are indeed equal. Many commentators have pointed out that his Nobel Prize primarily an endorsement of Obama's stated goal to work for dialogue and cooperation in world diplomacy and his Universalist Outlook.

What vision for Israel and the Middle East could be derived from what Obama symbolizes? What could be hope that we can believe in this conflict-ridden area? Thinking big has not been a hallmark of Israeli politics during the last decades. And yet it may be time to ask whether we can envisage a future for Israel that is other than being a beleaguered Sparta.

Thinking big is to tackle the problems that seem the most intractable: Jerusalem, which has existed for more than three thousand years, and has been conquered and re-conquered dozens of time. It has become the symbol of all three Abrahamic religions, with catastrophic consequences. Blood has been shed by all three religions in their attempts to prove that Jerusalem is theirs and theirs only.

Jerusalem is the epicenter of the clash of faiths; it is the symbol for the impossibility to mediate between the beliefs that there is one prophet that has the final word about God's final message. It is the node where all apocalyptic visions converge; where the great reckoning, God's final wrath will lead to the point where humanity will finally convert to the one, true belief.

So far, we can be pretty sure only of one thing: the apocalypse may well be on the way. Nobody knows whether Jewish extremists will set it in motion through blowing up the Al Aqsa Mosque, or Muslims will do so, for example through a rocket strike on Tel Aviv from Tehran. Christians are not waiting far behind: there are enough believers in the literal truth of the Apocalypse who are yearning for the Great War to break out in the Middle East.

Is there a way out of this? Can we move beyond the question whose sovereignty will be imposed on the holy places of the three Abrahamic religions?

There is one way to turn Jerusalem from Israel's poorest city, divided by strife into a symbol for the unity of humankind. It is to realize, as many religious thinkers have recently, that behind the various faiths - including secular humanism - there is one human reality; that, in the end, we all desire human flourishing, even though we may have different ideals of the good life. It is to realize that the various prophets are united by the Principle of Compassion which has been at the center of all religious visions, whether monotheistic or other. It means to realize that the three monotheistic religions are not the world?s center, and that their fight for a small piece of land must not define our horizon.

It means to see, as German philosopher Karl Jaspers did, that during the Axial age (roughly 800 to 400 BCE), humankind underwent a transformation in which high civilizations ranging from China to Athens, from India to Israel realized that there is a reality that goes beyond this or that faith. From the Buddha through the Prophet Isaiahto the Greek Philosophers, the first stirrings of a Universalist spirit emerged.

Eminent historian of religion Karen Armstrong is trying to turn this unity of purpose behind the various religions into a lived reality through the Charter for Compassion, an initiative that is about to unveil a vision common to all religions. Her vision is supported by a variety of religious leaders, including Nobel-Prize winners like the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

No city on earth would be more suitable to become the center of dialogue for the world's religions than Jerusalem, because no single city has concentrated so much religious meaning in its history.

Imagine a Jerusalem throughout which centers of learning and interfaith dialogue are built; imagine a city the world seeks out not to conquer and rule, but to dialogue, to think and pray together. Imagine a city that is no longer the symbol of dogmatism and religious strife, but the symbol of humanity?s striving for harmony. Imagine how the Jerusalem thrives culturally, spiritually and economically; flooded with scholars and religious leaders from around the world.

Of course this would mean that the holy basin must not be under anybody's sovereignty. Only a body like the UN should be allowed to function as humanity?s plenipotentiary for the world's spiritual center. The very notion of sovereignty is inconsistent with the idea that there can be a unifying vision of compassion for humanity. Thus none of the religions or nations currently involved in the conflict would have to feel that it has lost in the archaic competition for territorial rule, but that all have gained in the process of turning Jerusalem into a center of peace.

Of course all this sounds like unrealistic dreaming. Let us not forget: Obama's presidency is not uncontested. In the US racism keeps raising its ugly head, and there are powerful forces at work that try to delegitimize Obama, with claims ranging from that he is not American-born through those that he is a Muslim to those who accuse him of socialism.

I also have no illusions that the fundamentalists of the three Abrahamic religions will cease claiming a monopoly on religious truth and on Jerusalem's holy sites; and, as usual, Jewish Bigots will attack Universalist visions like the one presented here as a symptom of anti-Zionism or self-hating lack of Jewish self-consciousness.

But without dreams we are condemned to be but shadows. And to those who believe that Bar Kochba and Masada are the pinnacle of Jewish history, I say: in this land, 2700 years ago, Isaiah wrote the sentence: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." It is up to us, which vision we endorse.

Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare

  • A pragmatic vision for Israel's Left: A reply to Benny Morris

  • The future belongs to Jewish liberal universalism, Rosh Hashanah 5770

  • Why Israel must become a secular state: a thought for Yom Kippur 5770

  • Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and the Holocaust: The ethics of memory