Putting peace before liberalism is crucial

I developed a starkly unapologetic capacity to pray for terrible things under the duress of battle.

April 2, 2012 22:03
4 minute read.
IDF reservists

IDF reservists 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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My interest in peace work began to grow after I returned from the war in Southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006. I was drafted as a military reservist in the IDF and was, at the grand age of 38, one of the older people to participate in the combat.

Oddly enough, it was the experience of prayer during the course of the war that I found most transformative. That summer I developed a starkly unapologetic capacity to pray for terrible things under the duress of battle. I begged God to protect me, but I also pleaded with Him quite graphically to destroy with vengeance the fearful enemies whose very existence directly threatened my life.

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The revelatory experience that accompanied these prayers was not the discovery that I had it in me to think violent or vengeful thoughts. The true revelation was the realization that the very same prayer texts that I had recited with dovish serenity for years, now yielded quite naturally to the aggressive and hateful interpretations that my acute circumstances elicited from them. As a modern, liberal, peace-loving Jew, I discovered in the texts ideas that supported my political adversaries, whom I had regarded as the enemies of peace.

This discovery planted a thought in my mind which has far-reaching consequences: that it is necessary to reevaluate the way the vast majority of liberal people think about peace.

Many liberal-minded religious people deeply believe that their traditions – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – promote a peace-loving point of view and remain astonished if not aggressive about those who in their judgment distort religion to breed hate and to perpetuate bloodshed. That summer of 2006 made me realize that not only was this is a simplistic attitude, but buried within it came the ironic awareness that my dismissal of others’ interpretations of the texts was doing very little to contribute to peace.

Gradually I understood that more attention should be given to the shortcomings of the liberal humanist approach that has monopolized peace efforts in the Middle East for decades and which might account for the failed efforts to bring about a comprehensive reconciliation.

Efforts to make “progress” that exclude those whose commitments to the land and to God are intractable will always fall into the trap of being more partisan and sectarian than they are peaceful.


The Catholic theologian Charles Taylor delivered a wonderful lecture in 1999 which he titled, “A Catholic Modernity?” In it he comments upon the temptation to build a “common ground” based on “sameness,” shared values, common goals and higher interests. As appealing as this may seem, Taylor insists that this liberal approach is flawed precisely because it coercively excludes those people who do not share its basic assumptions. He criticizes efforts at creating unity among people that is, “bought at the price of suppressing something of the diversity in the humanity that God created.”

“No one can deny that religion generates dangerous passions,” says Taylor, “but that is far from being the whole story. Exclusive humanism also carries great dangers, which remain very under-explored in modern thought.”

My point is that a philosophy of peace based entirely on liberal humanism that fails to acknowledge the role of God in the public and political lives of millions – represents one of the most significant and unacknowledged flaws in the history of Middle East peace-efforts.

THE LIBERAL secular humanism that breeds negotiations and compromise as the only way to achieve peace, simultaneously suppresses the convictions to and desire for peace held dear by many people in the region whose holistic worldview is based on their deeply uncompromising religious beliefs.

The alternative is an approach to peace, or even multiple approaches to peace, that aim at being genuinely inclusive and that seek to learn from the vast wisdom accumulated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as these religions are understood (i.e. illiberally) by the vast majority of their adherents (and the majority of people in general) in the region.

In each of these religions there are visions of peace that long predate the enlightenment, that recognize human diversity from a theological (rather than an exclusively humanistic) perspective and in which the mystical oneness of God, rather than politically coerced agreement between people, is the model for peace and coexistence.

Through my work, I have come to know religiously committed Muslims, Christians and Jews who are unbelievably open to engaging with others about peace on the condition that they are invited to do so on their own terms and not under the coercion of the predetermined rules that modernity and liberalism necessarily impose.

Without harnessing the passions and energies of these populations, and without including the wisdom and the insight that they can bring to the table, lasting peace in the Middle East will not be possible.

By inviting their constructive contribution to the peace-effort, we may be forced to revisit some of our most basic assumptions about peace-making, but given the track record of peace efforts in the last decade or so, that might not be such a bad thing.

The writer is co-director of the Talking Peace Project and author of A Prophetic Peace, Judaism, Religion and Politics, Indiana University Press, 2011

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