Is religion good for peace?

Head of Jewish-Christian group talks about role of faith in reconciliation.

big three religions 88 (photo credit: )
big three religions 88
(photo credit: )
If everything goes well and there are no surprises, as of next week the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) will for the first time be headed by a woman. Dr. Devorah Weissman, a former professor of Jewish education at the Hebrew University, has since the Eighties been a member of the ICCJ. A modern Orthodox feminist, Weissman is a member of the dovish religious group Netivot Shalom, and for years headed the Kerem Institute for Teacher Training for Humanistic-Jewish Education. This week, the ICCJ, of which the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) is a branch, held its first annual convention in Israel. As of Sunday, Weissman was the only candidate for the job, and while she herself tempered confidence in her election to the post, it nonetheless seemed assured. The election results were to be announced on Wednesday, at the end of the convention - and after press time. Interestingly enough, Weissman believes her election to the position is not the most important issue at stake. Instead, she highlights the question of whether religion has a largely radicalizing influence or a positive impact on the relations between people. In other words, is religion good or bad for peace? The main topic of this year's convention, attended by 160 participants from around the world and Israel, is the contribution of Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue to peacemaking in the Middle East. "There are many groups and organizations that deal with the issue of interfaith dialogue," explains Weissman. "But at the ICCI, and that was one of Rabbi Ron Kronish's [founder and head of ICCI] ideas, we place these dialogues in the framework of the search for peace. We're not interested in interfaith dialogue per se, but as a means to develop and advance peace among people who share something important in common: religious faith." Thus, the ICCI organizes many encounters and dialogues with Muslims. As for which Muslims participate, and just how much sway they have over their constituencies, locally or abroad, Weissman admits that until now, the Muslims who participated in ICCI activities and the recent convention with the ICCJ are unsurprisingly moderate in their views, including sheikhs, imams and Sufi scholars. Still, she adds, "Most of the Israeli population in Israel is what we would call 'religiously influenced,' haredi, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, traditionalists of all kinds," she says. "The part that is radically secular or atheist is really very small - exactly as it is on the other side, in the Arab Muslim society. For me it was clear that the Oslo Accords, for example, were agreements made by the minority Israeli secular sector with the minority Palestinian secular sector, in which there was no place made for the different expression of the faiths we have on both sides." For years, the ICCI , like the ICCJ, has focused its activities on encounters between Jews and Christians. But of late, that focus has begun to shift to include dialogues with Muslims. "It's not that we don't have any more issues to discuss among us [Jews and Christians], but it is clear to us, Jews and Israelis, that the issue of dialogue with our Arab and Muslim neighbors has become a kind of emergency," explains Weissman. "And just think: In the religious dialogue between Judaism and Islam, there are practically no unforeseen obstacles as compared to the theological conflicts we had, and in some way still have, with Christianity," she adds. "Although we should not and could not give exclusivity to the religious dialogue when we try to advance the peace process, we shouldn't ignore it," she continues. "It has to be an important path in all these efforts. Religion and faith are an essential language that should be at the forefront [of peace efforts]; it is a part of the culture of the people in the region, we should not forget that." There are assorted takes on the Torah, and each sees itself as most authentic, says Weissman. This notion is reflected in the Talmudic tradition, which embraces mahloket (dispute), she continues. "What is important is that we learn and understand that all approaches are legitimate and part of one tradition." There are those who maintain that the humanistic tradition is more authentic to the spirit of Judaism, and those who argue the opposite, she explains. "I think that the humanistic approach is indeed closer because more xenophobic attitudes, which predominate in tribal societies, exist independent of the Torah. The message of loving the other, however, is where the Torah comes in." When asked about the potential influence of moderate Muslim voices on furthering the peace process, Weissman says: "I strongly believe that lots of things bring about change in a region enveloped in religion and faith. Every person whose attitude is based on religious belief counts; there is no way we can renounce this aspect of enhancing peace dialogues between us and our neighbors." THE FOUR-day convention drew Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from 20 countries, including Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah and Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Included in the itinerary were meetings with MKs, such as veteran advocate of religious dialogue in the framework of peace, Rabbi Michael Melchior, as well as field trips to Muslim, Christian and Jewish sites in and out of Jerusalem, and a special reception at Kikar Safra, with Mayor Uri Lupolianski welcoming convention participants. Asked about her vision as prospective chairwoman of the ICCJ, Weissman says that though she is a dedicated feminist, she does not intend to pursue a feminist agenda. Weissman, who made aliya 35 years ago from the US, says that she believes the best way to promote feminist ideals is to strive for a mainstream place for women. "What we should do first and foremost is to prove that one can stay attached to one's roots, religion and traditions and still be a part of democratic values," she says. "Rabbi Melchior is an excellent example, and this is the message we should convey to our partners in faith, Christians and Muslims alike: It's possible to be at once deeply rooted in faith and tradition and in modernity and democracy." Weissman admits that presently the number of Muslim participants - local or foreign - in ICCJ dialogues is low, but says increasing such participation will likely constitute a main goal for the organization under her leadership. "Even members of the Islamic Movement in Israel, usually considered radical, are part of our dialogues, like Sheikh Nimer Darwish. And although his group is known as moderate, we still see in this a great hope for the future. I'll say it again: Faith and religion in this part of the world are not incompatible with friendship and peace."