Israel in the maelstrom of global interreligious tension
Too few people today know of the historic agreement in 1919 between the then head of the World Zionist Organization, later the first president of the State of Israel, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and the man who embodied the dream of pan-Arab nationalism, Emir Feisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. A statement by the latter published in The Times of December 12, 1918 declared the mutual agreement of "the Zionist Jews ... and the nationalist Arabs, to see [to] fair play in their respective areas [of national interest]."
This historical item testifies to the fact that there was a time and place when Arab and Jewish nationalist leaders saw their interests as compatible, belying the popular assumption that the two were inherently irreconcilable. Moreover, while Weizmann was not a religious figure (as opposed to Feisal, whose lineage from the prophet Mohammed alone made him a religious figure in a society where religious and political leadership were not separate), his aspirations for an agreement with the Arab world which would require compromise on the side of Jewish nationalism were shared by Jewish religious leaders of the time, notably among them Rabbis Kook, Amiel and Uziel.
Indeed, while the Israeli-Arab conflict, and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is territorial and not religious, in recent years there has been an increasing and dangerous "religionization" of the conflict - and not just on one side. However, this particularly became the case with the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada, portrayed in the Arab and Muslim world as a necessary violent struggle to "protect" the holy sites of Islam against "malevolent Israeli intent." This has taken place within a wider context of tensions between the so-called Muslim and Western worlds, and indeed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely presented as the crux of this tension.
In fact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as a lightening rod for the broad and deep sense of injury in the Arab world (which spills out into the Muslim world at large). This goes back well into medieval history, to the early confrontations between Christian and Muslim armies, through the eras of imperial and colonial powers which the Arab world recalls as incessant exploitation and humiliation of their societies. And Israel is portrayed as not just an extension of the historic humiliation, but as a bridgehead and tool of Western arrogance.
It is in this light that United States support of Israel is widely interpreted in the Muslim world, and not as being based upon a shared commitment to democratic values and civil society. (Indeed, significant segments of Western liberal society itself have also bought into this disingenuous presentation of Israel as a foreign implant in the Arab Muslim body politic by Western interests - wantonly disregarding the historic, national and religious ties that bind the Jewish people to this particular land.)
A sense of humiliation leads people to seek "redemption" inter alia, both through violently resisting that/those perceived as responsible and also through a "return" to a more "pristine" and devout way of life, restoring a sense of pride and purpose (often reflecting the well-known proximity of the superiority complex to the inferiority complex).
The result has been a toxic combination of religious devotion and violent hostility toward the West at large and in particular toward the State of Israel, which is reflected in the horrific demonization of Israel all too often in religious language and imagery in media and literature throughout the Arab world, in the Muslim world beyond and exported elsewhere.
However, the fact that Israel serves as a scapegoat for all these complexes must not lead us to conclude that a resolution of the conflict is pointless. That is both to deny us any long-term future and to fall into the trap of the extremists, ignoring the vast sections of the Muslim world and indeed within the Arab world itself, which seek a peaceful, positive resolution to the conflict in "the Holy Land" and constructive engagement between the so-called Western and Muslim worlds.
In fact the very use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to embody an array of grievances makes it all the more important to resolve it, not just for the sake of the Jewish State itself, but for the well-being of the world at large. At the same time, the destructive exploitation of religion urgently requires us to engage the enlightened religious voices that seek a wide platform.
It is common to hear Israeli and Diaspora Jews claim that there are no Muslim voices condemning violence in the name of religion. This is simply not true. There may well not be enough of them and they certainly are not being given enough exposure, but I can personally testify to the many major Muslim leaders whom I know in Israel, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Europe and the United States, who have categorically condemned such violence.
Interestingly enough, when I was at a conference in Indonesia on religion, violence and peace and I presented a Jewish perspective, a former president of the country came up to me and said: "Rabbi, why do we not hear more rabbis speak like you? I only have read the words of one of your past chief rabbis, who said that Arab heads should be dashed out on the rocks, and I have read the words of Rabbi Ginzburg who says that the little finger of the Jew is worth more than any gentile!" I doubt that there are many Jews who know of Rabbi Ginzburg at all, but these racist words were reported as reflecting Jewish teaching for newspaper readers in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.
While one cannot simply blame the messenger, inevitably the media are likely to report on the negative sensationalist abuse of religion and not on its positive expression. But it is not just an issue of public relations. The fact is that politicians who have pursued attempts at conflict resolution have invariably disregarded the religious dimension and actually sought to avoid it. This is a tragic mistake because if one keeps the religious voices that support peace and reconciliation out of the public square, then the only ones that will capture the latter will be the negative sensationalist and violent ones.
In other words, if one does not want religion to be part of the problem, it must be part of the solution.
In a post-9/11 era there is a growing understanding of this reality and more governments are engaging constructive religious voices to support initiatives against incitement and demonization, and to promote mutual respect and understanding. This needs to be a far more significant component on the Israeli political agenda. Religion cannot take the place of politics and it should not do so. Moreover, the degree to which institutional religion in the Middle East in particular is dependent upon political power, perforce limits its positive capacities. However, to ignore religion for these reasons or because it is all too often violently abused, is to undermine any political capacity to succeed in overcoming hostility and distrust.
The constructive engagement of religious leadership is essential in combating prejudice, promoting respect and hope, and providing the psycho-spiritual support to overcome a sense of humiliation and grievance. Such a process inevitably takes time, but if we do not engage in it, there might not be much time left for us at all.
Rabbi David Rosen is international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.