Why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Needs Religion

November 15, 2010

Today’s installment in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Ryan Linstrom, a humanist who has studies International Development and Human Rights. His guest piece is a personal reflection the hot topic of conflict in the Middle East, the ramifications of leaving religion out of the conversation, and the nuances of religion as a force for evil and a force for good. Offering an interfaith way forward, Ryan’s piece is a powerful, wise and timely read — check it out!

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Al-Aqsa Mosque - The Dome of the Rock

My first experience of the Middle East was in the Fall of 2005. Though I met with countless numbers of people during the 3 month study abroad program, the interactions that stuck with me most were the meetings with angry Palestinian Refugees, radical Israeli settlers, fundamentalist Christians, and the racist Jewish Rabbis who would take the long way around the Old City of Jerusalem to avoid going through the “Arab part of town.” Needless to say, the trip left me disillusioned, some may even say, bitter.  I ended the trip like most people who have seen the horrors of conflict: convinced that “Religion is the greatest source of evil the world has ever known.”

To an extent, part of me still believes it. Religion has inspired more hate, more intolerance, and more conflict than any other organization known to man. But, it would be presumptuous to end there. To assume that religion has only played a negative role throughout history is to ignore the great good that religion has given us – The Ghandis, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the Mother Theresas. Yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve ignored the religious aspects of the conflict and attempted to bring peace in purely secular terms. As one scholar suggests, this has been fairly unsuccessful:

Since the peace effort has been led by secularists, peace itself has become identified in Israel with (the) secular left, religiously committed people that feel threatened by it. They may not be against peace or compromise, but they see this effort linked to increased secularism. ¹

Now, I think most rational people would agree that religion has played a significant negative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For those of us who saw the religious-infused hate and racism, a secular solution makes a lot of sense. So what’s the problem?

I’m glad you asked.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Powerful narratives exist here.
The negative religious narratives that support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are successful for a reason: they are deeply intertwined with the sense of identity of the inhabitants of the region. The truth is, religion, geography, history and identity are all so intricately woven together that it probably takes more effort to ignore religion in a solution to this conflict than it does to include it.

2. Extremists roam free.
You’ve seen them on the nightly news: Hamas members burning flags chanting “Death to Jews”, Radical Jewish settlers whispering obscenities at Arab women. Extremists on all sides have been allowed, unopposed, to propagate hateful, intolerant messages using cherished religious histories. Without any serious challenges, these hateful messages have become the norm, leaving people with a terrible taste in their mouth towards both peace and religion. Many of those involved, or no longer involved in this conflict have nothing left to fight for. That brings us to #3:

3. Moderates are given no incentive to engage.
As with all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide a framework that can help to make sense of the tragedy of conflict. When radicals hi-jack the predominate religious narrative, moderates have little incentive to participate in the pursuit of peace. Without an alternative story to connect to, the Jewish man living in Jerusalem has to choose between being a “good Jew”, and working towards peace. Similarly, the Evangelical Christian in the U.S. has little choice: What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would support Israel, of course. No Matter What. Jesus was Jewish, ya’ know…

I’ve recently started attending a mutli-religious Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist Church here in L.A. Mingled within the many banners and flags that populate the stage is one that says, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I’ll admit, it’s cheesy, and there is an undertone of idealism that may make the realists in the room groan just a bit, but it’s a principle that this conflict needs to find a way to embrace.

What we need is an inclusive, interfaith narrative that takes seriously the religious stories from each affected group. If there is to be any progress towards peace, we need to find a common story that allows us to stop identifying each other as the negation of the other: Not-a-Muslim, Not-a-Jew, Non-Christian.

A couple examples of inclusive narrative-change comes to mind:

My second trip to Jerusalem left a far better taste in my mouth. As an intern for the Rabbis for Human Rights, I was highly impressed with their mission to positively redefine the term, “Zionist”. Though the word is commonly used pejoratively among peace activists, the Rabbi’s were firm in their conviction that true “Zionists” took care of the “foreigner in their midst”. They work daily to reclaim the religious narrative, interpreting Jewish scriptures in support of human rights and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Another example is that of the Melkite Catholic Priest, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who builds common ground with Christians, Muslims, and Jews by pointing to a shared religious history. In his book, “Blood Brothers”, he says, “We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God”. His school in the Galilee area has become a beacon of hope, for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students that attend, and for the conflict as a whole.

In ignoring the positive contributions that religion can make in this conflict, not only are we excluding populations of passionate people of faith from a solution that they have a stake in, but we are conceding defeat to extremists and allowing “The Holy Land” to become something incredibly un-holy. The passion, community, and deeply-felt historical meaning that religion can bring to the table in this conflict is desperately needed to inspire, unite, and impassion all of those involved towards a peaceful common goal.

1. (Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the Holy Land: Religious Peacebuilding in Israel Palestine. Washington, DC: Peaceworks Series of United States Institute of Peace (USIP).)

This post originally appeared on Aware!

ryan linstromRyan Linstrom recently graduated with an M.A. in International Development and Human Rights. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he plots his next big move. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @ryanlinstrom.

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One Response to “Why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Needs Religion”

  1. Hitch said

    It’s a sad paradox of history that a conflict that wouldn’t exist without religions and their diverging history apparently needs religion and their shared histories.

    What we forget is that by merging abrahamic religions often not the sentiment against the other is diffused, but replaced. For example with such identities as the secular, the non-believer, the non-abrahamic believer.

    But that is the tragedy of stopping a bad situation. Sometimes we have to admit to another bad situation to make it better, but this isn’t a joyful step.

    The very existence of the holy makes people fight over it, so protecting it has to be an act of local pragmatism, not of principle. It encodes a primacy of superstitious beliefs over other views along with the mandate to “defend” it.

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