Bringing religion back to the frontlines

Because religion was excluded from the solution, it became an ever-growing part of the problem.

michael melchior 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Michael Melchior )
michael melchior 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Michael Melchior )
These thoughts are written at a time when there might be a narrow opening in the political peace process in the Middle East. We are in an important season in the religious calendar - a rare convergence of dates when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Days of Awe are adjacent to each other. The ideas of this sacred season give us reason to believe that we can turn this narrow opening into a wide window of opportunity. Many think that because something has failed once or three times, it is doomed to fail in all future attempts. Judaism teaches us the concept of repentance, which means that even if you have failed as an individual or as a society, you have a possibility of not only building a new future but turning the failures, by learning from them, into successes, or as Rabbi Nachman of Breslev said, if you believe in your power to fail, and to destroy, then you must surely also believe in your power to mend and build. When we look at the successes and failures in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East, we can see that there has been a failure to integrate religion and interreligious dialogue. The repeated attempts to ignore religion's critical role in the search for peace have been wrong. Today, almost no conflicts exist in which religion does not constitute a central component. US President Barack Obama's recent speech in Cairo highlighted the religious component of conflict, and consequently interreligious dialogue, and placed them back in their rightful places. This is the century of religion with both its positive and negative consequences. Religion should be a search for meaning, for values, for subordinating our lives to serve God. In parallel, we also know that religion has been used to crush life and hope and to hold the future hostage. Religion today assumes a very central role in people's lives, even more so than in the last century. In many ways the 20th century, with its nihilistic, totalitarian ideologies, formed a parenthesis in history, when not all conflicts were about religion or ethnicity. There were those who claimed that with the Cold War brought "the end of history." The return of religion brought us back to history, in the sense that we cannot deal with conflict resolution or management without understanding that religion is an important component. THE OSLO peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians was led and developed by people on both sides who wanted to exclude religion from the solution. There were four main reasons: The first was sheer ignorance. Many of the decision-makers were not religious people and could not identify with those who looked to religion for legitimacy and identity, nor understand them. Secondly, many decision-makers believed it would be possible to ignore the process's religious element and it would just go away - things don't always go away, they explode in your face. Thirdly, many decision-makers thought they could deal with the conflict's underlying issues including the religious and cultural aspects after settling the political aspect, as seen in South Africa's the truth and reconciliation commission after the apartheid regime was deposed and a new political framework was in place. This kind of agreement in fact could never be workable because the underlying issues were never addressed. Finally, there is a dominant view among left-wing Israeli and Palestinian policy-makers that peace is a vehicle to secularizing society and that if there were no conflict, people wouldn't need religion. This attitude has emptied the peace process of its soul. Although there are religious components to the conflict, it is a national conflict between two peoples claiming the same piece of land. However, because religion was excluded from the solution, it became an ever-growing part of the problem. It was filled by extremist elements who tried to turn the conflict into a religious one - a conflict between "my God" and "your God" where there can be no compromise and no solution. I never would precondition a peace process on a religious track, but what has happened again and again is that a process that was supported by the whole world, and by a large majority of the people living here, has failed miserably. Every failed attempt just adds to the lack of hope for a different future. THE WAY to narrow the gap between the mess we are in and the place we would like to go could be through religious peace and interreligious dialogue. If it can be proven that religion can facilitate cooperation and peacemaking, that Islam is willing to live with the State of Israel in the midst of the Islamic world, Israelis would be much more open to the peace process, and it would restore hope for real progress. Likewise if the Palestinians would see that Israelis are not here to spearhead the clash of civilizations or to wipe out their national-religious aspiration, the Muslim world would be much more open to creating a different future together with Israelis. The Mosaica Center, which I head, deals with the core questions of coexistence and endeavors to create cooperation particularly among people with religious beliefs, who have been totally excluded from the process until now. This is a difficult move to implement since religion has its own language and narrative that is different from the standard language of conflict resolution. The belief of each religion that it holds the only and absolute truth is an inhibiting factor. However, it is precisely religious people, sure of their identity, who have the strength to bring about the progression toward a common language with the 'other.' We who look toward religion as our main source of identity can find a world not only of common interests but also of common values. THE BURDEN is on us to prove that we are able to rally the forces to do this. The good news, and the reason for optimism, is that over the few years of activity of Mosaica for example, we have already seen that if prepared in the right spirit, interreligious dialogue can make the walls of hatred and suspicion come tumbling down because there are believers on both sides. The two very intensive spiritual months of Ramadan and Tishrei create a double period of spirituality, an opportunity for finding God and for God to find us. As both Judaism and Islam express it, it is a time for us to recognize where the human limitation is and where we need to leave it to the Him to assist us and direct us. May it be God's will that we utilize this unique opportunity to build hope in a world which desperately it. A former Knesset member, the writer leads several civil society movements: Moe'tzet Yachad, a forum promoting dialogue between different strands in Israeli society; Meitarim, a network of pluralistic Jewish schools which enables religious and secular students to study together; the Citizen's Accord Forum, which campaigns for coexistence between Arabs and Israeli Jews and the correction of injustices against Israel's Arab minority; and the Mosaica Center for Interreligious Cooperation, devoted to expanding interreligious dialogue in the Middle East.