Israeli-Arab conflict could use more religion

It may seem an audacious title: "Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East." After all, innumerable efforts over decades to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have come up woefully short. And in recent years, religious fervor has grabbed hold of what was predominantly a nationalist struggle and turned it into the most deadly violence since the 1967 war.

Yet this new book by an American rabbi with years of experience in grass-roots conflict resolution in the region offers such a fresh angle from which to view the struggle that it demands attention. Marc Gopin's critique of the failed peace process will be controversial – and perhaps termed naive – among those stuck in a strictly political perspective. But his visionary analysis and imaginative proposals suggest there are human resources that haven't been called upon adequately.

Gopin, who teaches at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has dealt with people on all sides and levels of the conflict (including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat). He contends that diplomatic efforts have failed because they involved only elite political encounters and left both peoples outside the process, ignoring deep needs and values. Had an accord been signed at Camp David in 2000, he says, it, too, would have failed.

Pinning hope on top leaders is delusional, he adds, since most leaders will only do what they can within what they see as their political constraints. They can't act if the people aren't ready for the peace being considered. What is needed is honest self-examination by all involved, including the peace brokers, as to why the people aren't ready and what their roles are in changing that situation.

Gopin argues convincingly for a simultaneous peace process among the peoples, with support for meaningful steps that move them beyond the present-day traumas and begin to build relationships that are essential to restoring trust.

He couples profound insights into the power of metaphor and myth – particularly that of the biblical Abrahamic family in shaping the lives of Jews and Muslims – with practical proposals, based on real-life examples, for drawing on those religious values to move the two peoples toward seeing their enemy in a new way.

Gopin notes that efforts by religious leaders have already begun, even in West Bank settlements, where the most fervent proponents of taking the land for "Greater Israel" are often found:

• Jewish and Muslim clergy are studying sacred texts together, seeking shared values upon which to build relationships. They have produced a Jerusalem Accord, renouncing religion-based enmity and embracing a nonviolent path to peace.

• A West Bank rabbi's sermon on the Torah to his settler students presents a new perspective on the destiny of Isaac and Ishmael to live together. Jews recognize Ishmael as the symbol of Arab Muslim descendants of Abraham, and the rabbi is "deftly inserting a new set of ... possibilities into the nationalist Orthodox imagination."

• Another West Bank rabbi has been engaging in extensive dialogue with Islamic leaders, including fundamentalists.

While both communities are split by secular-religious divides, Gopin explores how the religious myth of the Abrahamic family resonates within the cultures, and perpetuates both conflict and a yearning among many for reconciliation with the "lost brother." He shares a personal experience of walking through Jerusalem's Old City not long after Jewish extremists had upturned the carts of Arab vendors. He stopped briefly to look at some carved figures of Moses and Abraham on one vendor's cart. As the Palestinian merchant's eyes caught his, the man pointed upward and asked, "One Father?"

These two peoples share not only a powerful religious narrative but similarities of experience. Both have suffered a loss of homeland and security. Both have suffered injustice at the hands of Christians as well as each other – Jews over a longer period of time and to much greater degree in the Holocaust. Today, both feel their survival is threatened.

With such intense feelings of injury, alienation, and despair, only religion and cultural values can lead to recovery, hope, and trust, Gopin believes. Politics and economic compensation are ineffective substitutes.

The second half of Gopin's book is devoted to practical steps to "de-escalate the rage and fear" and to build new ties. Recognizing the limitations of dialogue at the grass roots – many people are not in a position to articulate their feelings or to say they are sorry – he proposes the use of ritual and symbolic acts. For example:

• Bilateral gestures of regret, honor, and rededication at every religious space violated in Israel and Palestine.

• Support to injured members of each community from the enemy community.

• Sharing the life situations and fears of ordinary people through the media, to help each side understand the other.

• Commemorative mourning ceremonies and markers at sites where Arabs have killed Jews and Jews have killed Arabs.

• Small-business loans to poor people on both sides.

• Apology and repentance by replanting uprooted trees and burned forests, and rebuilding destroyed homes.

• A joint Museum of the International Refugee, detailing the lives of Jews and Palestinians as exiles and the plight of refugees the world over.

• Use of the two cultures' traditional processes of reconciliation – sulh (Arab) and teshuva (Jewish).

Such steps require the backing of political leaders and third-party peace brokers, which so far has been lacking. But given the record of the top-level peace process, and the obsessive but futile focus on the failings of individual leaders, Gopin's prescriptions ring true as a legitimate, life-affirming, even hopeful complement to official negotiations. They may, in fact, be essential before negotiations can genuinely become fruitful.

• Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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