The peace movement needs religion's wisdom

November 24, 2016 23:21

Just as people said everyone had given up, hundreds of people packed out a conference hall in Tel Aviv last week to hear politicians and analysts drawn from across the religious and political spectrum debating the possibilities of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Sitting on a panel discussing the view of Israel from abroad, I wondered if I had completely misheard the chair when he asked me to represent the views of Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews. Though initially baffled, there were probably fewer degrees of separation between ultra-Orthodox Jews and myself than between me and the other members of the panel - three diplomats from the EU, UN and Turkey, respectively, and a Jordanian political analyst. Perhaps it was a nod to cross-communalism.

The question the panel chair posed was whether a burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population meant an irrevocable shift to the right in Israeli politics. I am hardly privy to the ultra-Orthodox world, but this question was simpler than it seemed.

Starkly, the question contained one of the most widely held misapprehensions about the peace process. Namely, that religion fuels the conflict. Israel's religious parties, the notion goes, are inherently hawkish and hence incompatible with peace. I believe the peace process has materially suffered from this prejudice.

So I responded by citing the views of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the venerated talmudist and the originator and spiritual figurehead of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox political movement, "Shas". Rabbi Yosef was no fringe figure - his funeral in Jerusalem two years ago is reported to have been attended by 800,000 people - 1 in 10 of all Israeli citizens, or more than 1 in 8 of the country's 6 million Jews.

Ovadia Yosef contended that, under Jewish law, it was acceptable to swap part of the Holy Land for peace. To him, the sanctity of life was the ultimate ideal, and trumped Jews' sovereignty over the Promised Land. We can be sure that Rabbi Yosef understood the Jews' historic connection to certain sites in the West Bank. Significantly, he also believed that Israeli settlements were not the priority if maintaining them put the lives of Jews and Palestinians at risk.

By marginalising religious Jews from the peace process, by assuming their centre of gravity lies to the right, the Israeli pro-peace movement loses hundreds of thousands of potential supporters. It loses people for whom land swaps in exchange for peace might represent more than Realpolitik, but a religious imperative. With their extraordinary growth rates - half of world Jewry by 2050 - ultra-Orthodox Jews in particular are marginalised at our peril.

Yosef was not alone. Orthodox rabbi, Michael Melchior, a former member of the Knesset and current chief rabbi of Norway, who also spoke at this conference, believes land swaps are a halachic imperative. He compared the peace process to "driving a car into a cul de sac again and again." Melchior belonged to the left-wing religious Zionist political party, Meimad (an acronym meaning: "Jewish state, democratic state"). He believes each time the peace process is resuscitated, political leadership precludes the possibility of religious involvement. "There will be no peace unless the religious public are included within the peace tent," he says.

I heard Melchior speak alongside another rabbi, though they were hardly cut from the same cloth. This was the rabbi of the Ofra settlement community, Avi Gisser. People visibly baulked on hearing his title. The town is surrounded by a cluster of Palestinian villages and among the most controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Supreme Court of Israel recently ordered Jewish homes constructed illegally on the outskirts of the settlement to be demolished.

Gisser and Melchior were in absolute agreement, though, that a religious voice had the capacity to unfreeze the peace process like nothing else. Speaking in Hebrew, Gisser said: "religion, and religion only, holds a magic tool".

While living in Israel during the time of the Oslo peace accords, I worked with Palestinians and Israelis on what was termed "The People's Peace." Our premise was that no peace agreement would be worth the paper it's written on if it is built only on Realpolitik and the negotiations of political leaders. A look at the demographics shows that any people's peace now must involve religious Jews.

The logo of this peace conference was a dove trapped in a block of ice, a peace process frozen in time. But the dove was not always a symbol of peace. At first, Noah sent out a raven to bring news of the end of The Flood but it returned empty-beaked. Then he sent out a dove, but it again returned without a branch or any sign of the world's survival. Noah had to persist. So he sent out the dove again, and this time it returned with an olive branch in its mouth. It was not peace that the biblical dove symbolised then, but the fact that somewhere, somehow, there was still dry land. Not all had been destroyed. A destination existed. The dove from the logo reminds us similarly that the peace process is not "destroyed" either - it's dormant, frozen out. To reawaken it, we need a strong religious narrative. We need a siddur or two on the negotiating table.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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