Judaism & Islam as Anchors to Peace in the Middle East & Beyond

The following is an extremely long and general, but fairly thorough mission statement requested of me by the organizers of the Muslim-Jewish Conference in Vienna, Austria. I might be the only resident of a Jewish town in Judea & Samaria, the only resident of a West Bank settlement, who will be attending (I could be wrong). The fact I am a Religious Zionist makes me the ideal demographic to represent the community. I’m not sure if my spot on the left-right political continuum is as reflective, but this writing is a major exposé for me. I am never this open about certain views I have. I gain nothing from hiding some of my views on these issues, and the Jewish people gain much less by bottling up these views to the world at period in history where Jews’ very rights to free expression, association, religious practice and political independence face scrutiny that no other ethnic or religious group in the world experiences.

I was asked to characterize the conflict between Jews and Muslims, identify causes and then offer some idea for how to resolve that fight. I don’t expect a majority or minority to agree or disagree with me. My views are my own, though I admit I hope they weigh on how people view their own spirituality, politics, diplomatics (coined) and vision of the world . . .

Judaism & Islam as Anchors to Peace in the Middle East & Beyond

The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the southern edge of the Temple Mount Plaza in Jerusalem, a spot sacred to Jews and Muslims. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons)

The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the southern edge of the Temple Mount Plaza in Jerusalem, a spot sacred to Jews and Muslims. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons)

Trying to summarize the caveats and motivations for a general conflict between the Jewish and Muslim communities, or better termed Jewish and Muslims “worlds,” cannot avoid addressing the Arab-Israeli Conflict or in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But those conflicts are ethnic or national, where religiosity plays only a role, though not the central role, to the respective conflicts. Religion has not been the primary motivator for the wars that have taken place between Israel and its neighbors, even if religion easily characterizes some major actors in the fighting – physical and political.

Regardless of one accepting that conclusion, there is a standard assumption that secular actors are easier to bend toward peace agreements than religious camps and their leadership. I personally feel this is erroneous and a product of an increasing distaste for religion in the Western World, that same part of humanity primarily driving the peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab World that involves the division or allocation of central holy places to both Jews and Muslims.

You Don’t Have to be Secular to be a Peacemaker

But secular movements are what instigated the century-long conflict: Labor Zionism and Arab Nationalism, without judging the merits of either movement, are not inherently, if at all, religious movements. Labor Zionists were hardly ever known for their piety; identifying more strongly as Arab than Muslim was an anathema for some Muslim leaders. That today the world is so concerned with groups like Hamas and the influence of individual Islamic preachers, or extremely vigilant of the words written by individual Rabbis in the Religious Zionist movement or actions by their followers, reflects an enormous change in the dynamic of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and its other neighbors.

That being said, as we realize secular actors are no less inclined to quickly negotiate an end to the conflicts of the Middle East, strategists and political analysts should also show more credit to religious groups. The assumption religious groups are too absolute in their views to make peace with each other is one founded on false views about religion in general. At the very least, that religious groups have been marginalized from the central peace process and their particular religious tenets isolated from key talking points in negotiations, anyone concerned with achieving peace should invite religious leaders to build rapport with each other and outline the concerns the two groups have from the perspective of their respective religions’ principles on consecrated land, holy locations and the like. Without a doubt, Judaism and Islam are now anchors in the conflicts in the Middle East. But peace efforts don’t like to focus on taking the top leadership of either group and enabling them to discuss with each other why one holy site is so important to each other’s community. There has been little dialogue, only condemnation, of each group’s respective theological claims to the Holy Land, based on covenants with God (Judaism) or land trusts (Islam).

I cannot offer more than a theoretical vision, and one that might be colored by my own bias as a Jewish person. Jerusalem, as the central city in Judaism and oft-cited as the third-most sacred in Islam, is a city of pilgrimage whose central location has elevated status in both religions. But unknowingly Jews and Muslims view the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif differently, with each group placing emphasis on different parts of the plaza. Jews hold the center of the plaza to be the holiest place in the world; Muslims refer to the area as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, mainly because the plaza’s central element is the Mosque to the southern end of the plaza. That isn’t to say either religion only views these particular spots as sacred, but this view allows for a place to pivot the argument into a discussion on ways to share, split, divide, realign or reimagine the sacred space to accommodate both religious groups.

This is only one possible conduit for a change in a fundamental view on religion in the Jewish-Muslim conflict: that the positions of either group are intractable and non-negotiable.

The issue of sacred space, specific to Jerusalem or generalized to include all of the Holy Land or even the entire Levant, is a central one in interreligious dialogue and just accepting where the other side of the war, if I may, is coming from.

Beyond the Middle East

Before I applied for this conference, I didn’t anticipate a summer war that would enflame passion, perhaps unnerve conference participants and especially spark violent protests throughout Europe. It would be irresponsible for everyone in attendance not to recognize the setback (understatement) that anti-Semitic riots have been for Jewish-Muslim ties. That is not to say there were not people who came to the streets of Paris or Berlin to protest a political event with no intention of projecting anger and blame on local Jews, but the fact that it happened so quickly is a sore spot that demands change.

Jews cannot be targets. Displaced anger at Israeli policies from people who disagree with them doesn’t justify trying to punish Israel’s religious and ethnic kin outside the Middle East. That is a message that has not been made clear, in my view. I cannot help but attach that to the continued, awkward debate about Israel’s legitimacy as a state, a debate that no other established country in the world has to experience just because a country’s government has implemented unfavorable policy or committed war crimes (regardless of whether or not those crimes are proven).

Jews and Muslims face more common enemies abroad than they have reasons to fight. They both are experiencing extremely social pressure in Europe to assimilate and in fact drop their respective religious practices. Legislation and judgments have been handed down that have tried to or have actually banned ritual kosher or halal slaughter, banned ritual circumcision and even gone so far to ban the wearing of religious symbols and clothes in public places. These are unacceptable breaches of personal and communal freedoms that need to be jointly combatted and opposed by the Jewish and Muslim communities of Europe. They are the critical point of departure for establishing a common agenda and basis for cooperation to achieve civil rights for religious minorities in the European Union.

From Brussels Back to Jerusalem

That cooperation, dependent on the initiative of religious leadership, can translate into a better rapport in the Middle East in the future, even if it is one or two or three generations of development away from creating a real change in Jews’ and Muslims’ acceptance of one another.

Speaking as a Jew living in the Land of Israel, living in a West Bank settlement, I can speak for myself and many of my peers to say we did not come back to this land to cleanse it of anyone. We came for ourselves. We came with a cause in mind to cement Jewish footing back in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland, one promised to us by God. That is not a declaration of war.

My community’s vision, inevitably shaped by the modern political and social context, accommodates a vision of Israel where Muslims and other religious groups live freely and worship freely. Our vision does culminate with a dramatic reinstitution of the Holy Temple, though not to the detriment of non-Jews nor to the neglect of their spirituality. Without patronizing, I can only articulate my community’s vision of a House of Peace for all peoples that turns Jewish festivals into global events where pilgrims even outside the country and from non-Jewish groups come to celebrate the festivals alongside Jews, as brothers in worship to God and not as bitter rivals.

I expect this will not jive with everyone attending this conference. It is likely not the vision even of all Jews at this conference. However, we do not gain anything by covering up this vision of the future, particularly a conference that encourages their airing of religious differences so we can see them in context, see them intimately and examine them more closely without assuming what they mean from afar. Simultaneously emphasizing commonalities, I expect we can achieve something in the nearer future, not only the distant one. I came here to hear similarly complex ways of looking at the world, so I look forward to other visions of resolving the Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, and Jewish-Muslim conflicts as well.

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