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October 27, 2020 5:17 am

Why Religion Must Be Part of the Peace Process

avatar by Hanan Schlesinger


Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan display their copies of signed agreements while US President Donald Trump looks on, at the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington, DC, Sept. 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Tom Brenner.

Notwithstanding legitimate skepticism and criticism of the recently signed Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, tucked away within them may be an earth-shattering breakthrough, one that most people are not paying any attention to.

These days, we Israelis and Palestinians are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud of the failure of the Oslo Accords. Their failure can be attributed to many causes, but one of them is certainly the fact that tragically, the architects of the agreement, moved by both ideals of peace and democracy and by skepticism and suspicion of religion, failed to take into account religious identities and sensibilities on both sides of the fence. The negotiators were by and large secular Jews talking to secular Muslims, whereas most Palestinians and a very large number of Israelis — the people between whom they were trying to make peace — are traditional people who experience the conflict, at least somewhat, in religious terms. The values of the people on the ground were to a large degree ignored. A secular peace was fashioned to solve a conflict that has profound religious elements. It did not work.

On both sides, the people most deeply wedded to traditional values — sacred land, honor, rootedness, history, continuity — blew the peace up in our faces. The accords did not take these people and their values seriously. They were marginalized, disrespected, even humiliated. And they responded — and are still responding — with anger, obstructionism, civil and not so civil disobedience, and violence.

We cannot usher in peace by shunting religion aside and hoping it will go away. It won’t. When religion is ignored or even worse denigrated, it circles the wagons and attacks its perceived enemies with a vengeance. It emphasizes those elements within it that show the folly and duplicity of its opponents. The Oslo Accords exacerbated a process in which Israeli Judaism and Palestinian Islam have brought to the fore their intolerant sides, their respective texts and traditions that vilify the other, that sow distrust and fear of the other, that preach against tolerance and compromise. The voice of moderation has been forced to retreat. Religion has become the enemy of reconciliation. Peace became a bad word, and among religious people, it became a curse word.

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But as Rabbi Menachem Froman, peace be upon him, was wont to say, if religion is part of the problem, then religion must be part of the solution. The motivation and the values of the peace process must be cultivated from within our religious traditions themselves. A similar sentiment was voiced by the noted theologian Hans Küng, who said that there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among religions.

In a clear break from the past, the Abraham Accords indeed fulfill this directive. They constitute a paradigm shift that holds out the promise of a “new Middle East,” albeit one built on a different foundation than the one Shimon Peres had in mind.

The declaration that constitutes the preamble to the agreements states, “We encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity.” The agreement between Israel and UAE goes on to say, “recognizing that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham, and inspired, in that spirit, to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect … The Parties undertake to foster mutual understanding, respect, co-existence and a culture of peace between their societies in the spirit of their common ancestor, Abraham, and the new era of peace and friendly relations ushered in by this Treaty, including by cultivating people-to-people programs, interfaith dialogue…”

In other words, political peace between Israel and the Gulf States is founded upon peace among religions. Furthermore, this peace among religions is founded upon recognition of the common patrimony of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We all are children of the same father. Thirdly, this peace among religions is based upon not only a common patrimony but also a common spiritual legacy of — to use the popular philosophical term — ethical monotheism.

In truth, this fundamental insight is already implicit in the very name given to the accords. These are not the Oslo Accords, or the Camp David Accords, or the Wadi Araba Treaty, and not even the Taba Summit — these are the Abraham Accords. Politics hereby recognizes what religious Jews and Muslims have always known — the Jewish Avraham and the Islamic Ibrahim are one and the same. Peace between Israel and the Arabs is first and foremost family reconciliation between the children who struck out in different religious directions and for years refused to talk to each other.

This is not just window dressing. First of all, language matters. The imagery helps religious people to feel at home with this treaty, to feel comfortable. It speaks to them and invites them to feel that they have a stake in it. But even more than that, it gives this treaty religious motivation and justification. It puts it in a context that can make it meaningful for religious people. No longer merely a secular peace between erstwhile enemies, we have here a historical reconciliation that may be seen as part of a story of thousands of years moving towards its consummation. The Abraham Accords can find their place within — and at the same time serve to resurrect and vivify — a larger religious narrative common to both Jews and Muslims.

(Furthermore, as pointed out by Ofer Zaltzberg in his opinion piece in the Hebrew weekly Mekor Rishon recently, this language recognizes that Judaism is not just a faith but that the Jews are a people — a truth that the Koran makes crystal clear, but that has been denied by secular Palestinian nationalism for decades. Building upon this, while the accords are between the Gulf States and the State of Israel, they read as if they are between “the Arab and Jewish Peoples” — thereby recognizing that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.)

We have here a tremendous breakthrough, one that may pave the way for greater popular support for expanding circles of peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Arab peoples — and not only between Israel and the Arab peoples. A Pew Research Center study from a number of years ago shows that more than 80% of the world’s population are people of faith, and certainly most of the population of the Middle East are people of faith. Secular peacemaking, detached from the identities and values of the people in conflict, will not get the job done.

Earlier this month, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed a Bahraini delegation at Ben Gurion Airport, he proclaimed that Jews and Arabs are all descended from the Biblical patriarch Abraham, “and it is in his name that we have designated this historic peace initiative. In his spirit, we wish to foster a Middle East of coexistence and cooperation, of mutual understanding and mutual respect.”

As far as I know, our prime minister never spoke like this before the Abraham Accords.  The message of Rabbi Menachem Froman and Hans Küng seems to have penetrated.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is the Director of International Relations for Roots/Shorashim/Judur. Click here for an expanded version of this article.

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