Israel Pal flag (do not publish again).
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
While the average secular Israeli thinks that religions and their leaders
exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish and Muslim clergy contend
that religion has the power to be a unifying force between the
This was one of the central conclusions arising from a two-day
conference that took place last week at the Haifa University’s Jewish-Arab
Center with the theme “Religious faith and the Jewish-Arab
'Israel faces threat of becoming a religious state'
Rabbinic conventions to discuss American Jewish life
“What we are trying to do is air painful topics in Israeli
society for public debate,” head of the center Prof. Yitzhak Weismann said over
the weekend about the motivation for the event.
The public voice was
indeed heard at the conference, as the center had commissioned a survey ahead of
it. The survey showed the Israelis’ suspicion of religion as a unifying factor
in the context of the local conflict.
According to the findings, 42
percent of Israeli Jews surveyed maintained that rabbis worsened the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while 14% thought that rabbis improved things, and
29% believed they had no effect.
Of secular Jews, 63% believed rabbis
only made things worse with the Palestinians, while 7% thought they played a
positive role in resolving the conflict.
Regarding relations between
Arabs and Jews within Israel, 45% of Israeli Jews believed religion distanced
the sides, while only 6% thought it could bring the sides closer, and 38%
thought it had no effect.
While a quarter of the national-religious and
haredi Jews surveyed thought religion had an alienating effect on Jews and Arabs
within Israel, a mere 8% of the national religious, and 6% of the haredim,
thought it could be a bridge-builder.
Such public sentiment goes contrary
to the opinion of the rabbis themselves – at least those who spoke at the
A Wednesday panel chaired by Haifa’s Chief Rabbi She’ar
Yashuv Cohen, international director of inter-religious affairs of the American
Jewish Committee Rabbi David Rosen, and head of Tel Aviv’s Masorti
(Conservative) Kehilat Sinai Rabbi Roberto Arbiv, showed that the three rabbis –
who come from very different religious and political backgrounds – all believed
religion is inherently peaceful.
In a Thursday lecture at the conference,
the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, also
stressed that the fundamental role of religion was to provide individuals with
stability, and to help one live in a positive manner – without inflicting harm
or suffering on others.
While differing on their examples, Habbash and
the rabbis were unified in their conviction that religion is being exploited by
people who justify their amoral actions through it – whether it is violent
fanatics from within the religion, or politicians who manipulate it for their
The danger of religious extremism also looms over segments
of Israeli society such as the Muslim community, Weismann said over the
He noted that the only factor that could stem the growing
influence of the extreme northern faction of the Islamic Movement would be if
the more moderate southern faction of that movement were stronger.
20th century was one of expansive secular ideologies that brought unprecedented
disasters upon humanity,” Weismann summarized. “Due in part to demographic
trends and massive movements of renewed interest in spirituality and penitence,
religion is going to become more and more dominant in the 21st
“The conference was part of a broader attempt to arouse civil
society – and ensure that the 21st century will not repeat the same acts of
devastation as the previous century – this time in the name of religion.”