Can religion be a source of peace?

There were things I heard and saw as a Jew that I not only disagreed with, but that were clearly not presented in anything approaching a fair light.

Tzipi Hotovely visits Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Tzipi Hotovely visits Temple Mount
This is the essential question facing Israelis and Palestinians who are the Muslim, Jewish and Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem and the people involved in the battle for control of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary.
In this bifurcated universe where history, law, facts on the ground, politics, military power and resistance all have their role, religion stands above and beyond and apart as the platform for a call to violence that has been and is bedeviling people of all faiths as well as the secular population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The power of faith is great indeed and while at times awe-inspiring, it also has been used as a vehicle to spawn the anger, fear and hatred necessary to kill and maim on a truly grandiose scale.
We carry the scars of centuries of religious persecution from the Crusades, the Holocaust and the Nakba and almost daily acts of unbearable agony.
We live in a world divided by borders and oceans that have been breached by the plague of disease and the disease of war.
To quote the warning of Hunter Thompson; “We are like pigmies lost in a maze. We are not at war, we are having a nervous breakdown.”
If you consider the driver of the car who slammed into a crowd at the rail station in Jerusalem killing three-monthold Chaya Zissel Braun and wounding some eight others including 22-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Karen Yemima Mosquera, who died from her wounds four days later; it is clear that the religious fervor surrounding the license of Muslims and Jews to ascend to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount and face their God is more than enough to motivate the murder of innocents. But is it enough to motivate the realization of peace? There are and have been endless provocations in the words and deeds of politicians, in the actions of the State of Israel to sanction and build more settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, in the demolition of homes in Isawiya and Hebron because they were built without the permits that cannot be secured, and in the Palestinian resort to terrorism.
How do we go forward with so much rage overwhelming the ability of everyone to seek peace and pursue it? I am not a religious scholar, but I have spent time searching for understanding, bringing Muslims and Christians and Jews together in a dialogue group and bringing Israeli Consul General Dan Ashbel and PLO Deputy Chief Representative Khalil Foutah to New Hope, Pennsylvania to appear on a panel together in March 2000 to discuss prospects for peace.
I met a Palestinian American, Mazen, at that event and became friends and was invited to his home on the day of the outbreak of the second intifada.
Mazen was so angry at Israel, at Ehud Barak, at Ariel Sharon, at Yasser Arafat that he wanted to fight and even bring his children. He saw peace being pissed away again (my words not his), and between the corruption of the PA and the oppression of Israel this very smart businessman needed to voice his anger.
I thought about it. Should I get up and leave? Should I argue the things I disagreed with? Or should I give him the honor of my presence at this most difficult moment? I thought for sure there was no one else from my synagogue, that is full of good people, who would sit and listen to this tirade. But I knew, somehow, that Mazen and his family in and around Jerusalem had suffered and that his fury would ebb if I managed to stay and witness it. I was more than uncomfortable and lacked the skills of a social worker or a diplomat. But I knew I needed to stay. And we are friends to this day.
I made my first trip to Israel/ Palestine as a member of the Middle East Citizen Diplomacy Delegation a year later. I was searching for a way in, to better see and comprehend a conflict that seems to outlive politicians and peacemakers alike. I found Leah Green, the director of MECD, who was in the early stages of utilizing a process known as “compassionate listening” that would be shared with and practiced by the members of this delegation as we met Israeli and Palestinian politicians, peacemakers, religious leaders and victims of this war of attrition.
We learned to try and suspend judgment, to listen with hearts and minds open to the stories and truths of others and to allow it to stand independently as its own experience.
I have to say it was not easy.
There were things I heard and saw as a Jew that I not only disagreed with, but that were clearly not presented in anything approaching a fair light.
Leah did (and does) her best and had her own history and feelings to process.
In 2008 I put together the Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation to Israel/Palestine in partnership with Leah Green and her Compassionate Listening Project, and Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy and lay leaders traveled together across the Holy Land. Very early on the first morning in Jerusalem we heard the Muslim call to prayer over the loudspeaker and while our Muslim members went off to al-Aksa I walked along the Via Dolorosa till I came to the Wailing Wall to say my prayers and place the prayers of my family in a crack in the Wall. It was barely dawn and the stone walkway was largely deserted, giving me plenty of room to be alone with my thoughts and prayers.
We met many politicians and peacemakers and on a hectic afternoon making our way from Hebron to the settlement of Tekoa we met the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a truly remarkable man of peace who took us to his “synagogue” – a cliff overlooking the Valley of Blessings. He told us the story of Amos and then about the agreement he had negotiated with Hamas in Hebron and finally of his dream to share his vision of peace with President Barack Obama. We sang “Shalom-Salaam” together and listened as it echoed off the rocky ledges, and we all felt closer to God.
A year later I ushered Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra into the Washington office of special envoy for Middle East peace George Mitchell at the US State Department and on to Capitol Hill, and then to Philadelphia to speak at Temple University on “The Role of Faith in Middle East Peace.” It was clear that the rabbi and the sheikh understood a path to peace that began with enormous respect for each other’s religion. I pray that we learn to listen and accept each other and walk the path to peace together.
The author is president of ICMEP; the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]