When Inter-religious Dialogue Isn’t Enough

When Inter-religious Dialogue Isn’t Enough January 14, 2017

I’ve been in Israel and the Palestinian territories nearly 20 times in the last 20 years, and have spent months here studying, teaching, and trying to listen. I’m there again, writing this in hotel lobbies from Jaffa to Tiberius to Bethlehem.

Many things have changed over the last 20 years, but one of the most obvious among my conversation partners is that efforts at inter-religious understanding have gradually re-focused onto what might be called inter-communal understanding and with it dialogue about the way communal identities are negotiated in the realm of politics and economics.

As one long time Palestinian Christian participant said to me three years ago, “I already know that the rabbi and the imam doesn’t hate me for being a Christian. I want to know if they will grant my right to live as a Christian Palestinian with full rights in a Palestinian state.”

Similarly an Israeli Jew might say that dialogue has established that Christians and Muslims don’t hate Jews. The question is whether they grant Jews the right to define themselves as a  a people and not just a religion and therefore that the Jews have  a right to a Jewish state and the right to pray on the ancient site of the temple that is so central to Jewish identity.

Any effort to answer these questions quickly reveals the divisions in these communities. On the Palestinian side there are not only both Muslims and Christians, but there are many different understandings of Islam. For some Muslims a Muslim identity is closely tied to living under Islamic law. For others being religious is more about personal commitment and behavior than enforced norms. Others might be considered “secular” Muslims for whom identity is tied less to religious practice than commitment to ethical ideals and social solidarity.

I know Christians for whom a Christian Palestinian identity, tied closely to a Palestinian state, is critical. I know others who are worried that a Palestinian state will inevitably be Islamic, and that to keep a Christian identity it might be preferable to live under Israeli rule or even move out of their centuries old home. So while both would agree that Israel’s long occupation and expanding settlements threaten Palestinian identity, they would disagree about how it their identity is best preserved.

It is more complicated in Israel. I spent three days in Jaffa and had a chance to talk politics with several different Israelis.

One was young man from a tourist kiosk who identified with Israel’s political left. He was a Jew who has never been to a synagogue. His religion is ethical and its rituals are political support for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem – whom he regards as unjustly oppressed.

The waiter in the Italian restaurant on the square wanted to talk about Donald Trump. Also a young man who regards himself as secular, he’s excited that the US would move its embassy to Jerusalem. But he’s worried about the excessive influence of ultra-orthodox Jews on the government. Indeed, he had some rather negative things to say about the Haredim. The nicest word he used was “parasites.”

The hotel clerk told me, “We Israelis are too obsessed with the news. And always bad news.” He went on to say that he hated everything about the conflict. “I was born here.” Then referring to the vivid pictures of trauma on the TV screen. “We must all pay the price for our parents’ failures, but where can I go? I have no other home.”

In a few days I’ll bring my group on a tour of Jerusalem’s different Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Our guide, an expert in the sociology of Jerusalem, will easily point out a dozen or more Jewish sectarian groups. But that won’t account for the differences among the so-called settlers (those living outside Israel’s borders and within Palestinian territories.) Nor will it really even give a true picture of diversity among Orthodox Jews.

Did I mention a couple of million or more Russians who migrated to Israel in the last 25 years, and who have their own distinctive understanding of what it means to be an Israeli Jew? Or the Ethiopian Jews whose religious practices pre-date the Judaism that emerged after the time of Jesus, and who have problems with racism and integration?

Many Israelis feel keenly threatened by the failure of the Palestinian authority to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But depending on their sense of what it means to be an Israeli they may feel equally threatened by the rapidly increasing political power of certain Jewish sectarian groups, or parts of the settler movement, or (on the other side) those who are willing to accept a two state solution.

So terms like “Israeli” or “Palestinian” are too simplistic to describe the forces shaping these two societies. It isn’t just a question of Palestinians trying to defend their identity against the corrosive force of Israeli occupation. It isn’t just a question of Israelis trying to defend their identity against the constant threat of attack from their Muslim neighbors. Both societies are engaged in a struggle to form a stable shared identity that can contain within it multiple many different related identities. And for both Israelis and Palestinians the threat from within may be as strong as the threat from without. As importantly that threat may come from one’s co-religionists, not just from people of a different religion.

And this is why earlier forms of inter-religious dialogue, while useful, can no longer be regarded as key to the peace of these lands. But going further, it is the reason that external interventions can play only a limited role in resolving these conflicts. The issues between Israelis and Palestinians are deeply woven into the question of Israeli and Palestinian identity, not merely religious affiliation. And only Israelis and Palestinians can decide who they are and will be.

(I note, as an aside, that both the Israeli and Palestinian identities are barely 80 years old. They are about as old as the United States was when it fought a desperately bloody civil war over exactly the question of what it means to be an American. We Americans shouldn’t be too quick to judge either side’s success or failure.)

The best we outsiders can do, and this has long been the theoretical role of the US government, is positively to support every effort at mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, and more generally to help sustain an environment in which neither identity, Israeli or Palestinian, threatens to destroy the other.

If you want to know about one such effort – an an important insiders perspective check out: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/ptsd-preeminence-moral-schizophrenia/?utm_source=January+12%2C+2017&utm_campaign=January+12%2C%2C+2017&utm_medium=email

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