Public thinks rabbis worsen Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rabbis insist religion is aimed at peace at University of Haifa conference on relation between faith and Jewish-Arab tensions.

Israel Pal flag  (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Israel Pal flag (do not publish again)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 sides.
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 conflict.”
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“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 conference.
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 own interests.
The danger of religious extremism also looms over segments of Israeli society such as the Muslim community, Weismann said over the weekend.
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.
“The 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 century.
“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.”