The Problem with Religion?

Ben Reiff

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over industrial cities,
It’s hard to breathe.
– Yehuda Amichai, Ecology of Jerusalem

In November 2014, the Yad B’Yad (“Hand in Hand”) bilingual school in Jerusalem – one of six joint Jewish-Arab schools in Israel – was the victim of a religiously-motivated “price-tag” arson attack attributed to Jewish far-right organisation Lehava. Graffiti reading “there’s no coexistence with cancer” and “death to Arabs” was also found at the site. For many, this must have been proof that coexistence and interfaith efforts are futile in the Holy Land. The fact that only six such schools exist throughout Israel-Palestine attests to this further.

I recently visited this school as part of an interfaith trip with other students from my university – a trip that took us from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, and from the Galilee to Bethlehem. Having spent my gap year in Israel last year I’d already seen much of what we were shown in our short time there. I’d also seen enough of the damage done by religion in the region to make me overwhelmingly pessimistic about religion altogether.

The arson attack on the Yad B’Yad school is but another in a centuries-long line of religiously-motivated attacks in the Holy Land which Jews, Muslims and Christians have perpetrated in the name of God – and but another in recent history too. 25 members of the Jewish Underground were arrested in 1984 after being discovered plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, in order to liberate Temple Mount for the creation of a Third Temple. The activities today of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which is preparing items with which to decorate a future Third Temple (under the motto “may it be rebuilt speedily and in our day”) will do little to allay Muslim fears that this phenomenon is in the past. The Second Intifada (or “al-Aqsa Intifada”) saw over 100 Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in little over five years, which were fuelled at least in part by fears over the future of that same piece of holy land – sparked by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon entering Temple Mount/ al-Haram ash-Sharif with other Likud politicians and hundreds of Israeli police officers. And aside from the holy sites themselves, the violence of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) was triggered largely by the kidnapping and murder by Palestinians of three religious Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion.

One of the first people we met on the trip was a Palestinian-Israeli Christian woman from Haifa, named Soher. “In Haifa”, she tells us, “you can’t tell who’s Jewish and who’s Arab. You don’t see people walking around wearing black hats or hijabs.” It has always struck me that Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, is almost never mentioned in the news for incidents of religious violence. When asked why Haifa doesn’t see the violence Jerusalem sees on a daily basis, Soher replies “coexistence is so easy because everyone is secular.”

Secularism creates peace; religion creates war. With the region’s history of religious violence, it seems only logical.

And yet this exact logic, according to Holy Land Trust (a Palestinian Christian organisation in Bethlehem) director Sami Awad, was the reason for the failure of what he calls the “Oslo two-state framework”. “Oslo completely ignored the religious voice”, he explains. “It failed to address, for example, the fact that over 80% of Jewish historic religious sites are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” And the story is similar for Palestinian Christians: “Jesus lived in Nazareth; what did he do in Bethlehem? He left when he was two years old. If you want to study Jesus’ life, it’s Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Galilee. Yet I cannot go there without a specific permit.” Clearly, when the secular elites of Tel Aviv and Ramallah come together to make secular peace, there is always something missing. “We have to have the religious voice involved in peacemaking”, he concludes. “They said religion was the problem, but look what happened when they took religion out.”

We also met members of a grassroots organisation called Roots, which is aiming to build bridges between religious settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank that will serve as the foundations on which a future peace can be based. Shaul, a Jewish Israeli living in a settlement in Gush Etzion, follows a similar line to Sami: “We need to talk about 1948 more [rather than 1967]. Jaffa was a part of Palestine as much as Hebron and Nablus were parts of Israel.” He too is critical of the current formulations of the two-state solution, suggesting that “if a peace agreement is signed tomorrow, there will be terror attacks and price tag attacks on both sides”, since there are too many people – many of them religious – to whom these solutions are unsatisfactory. As such, Roots has set itself the goal of creating trust between the two peoples on a grassroots level. “Negotiation is the so-called ‘short way’ which is actually very long, while grassroots trust-building is the so-called ‘long-way’ which is actually more short.” Another problem, Shaul explains, is the claiming of ownership over the land, which he and his counterparts have a different way of seeing: “The land doesn’t belong to anybody; we belong to the land. Both peoples deeply belong to this land.” The secular peace-makers would do well to bear this in mind.

The religious voice is not some tiny minority that might go away if left on the outside for long enough. In the vast majority of formal and informal peace efforts in recent decades, the religious voice has indeed been excluded, and naturally there is no peace to show for it. Too often it is labelled “extremist” in an attempt to silence it; the peaceful majority are lumped together with the violent minority and the whole lot are stigmatised. But it’s time we learnt to listen to what those voices have to say. Sami explained that “religious leaders here have a much bigger influence on their followers than secular and political leaders.” So regardless of whether or not you believe in God, it is both illogical and dangerous to neglect the religious voice – on either side.

During our tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we were told a story that took place in the 7th century C.E.. Caliph Omar, the Muslim ruler at the time, went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon arrival, he was invited to pray inside. But, knowing that if he did so his Muslim followers would order that the church be turned into a mosque, he declined. So instead he prayed outside the church, and on that location now stands the Mosque of Omar. It serves as a constant reminder of the need for religious understanding.

This understanding was on display everywhere we went. In Nazareth, we met the Imam of the White Mosque who is preaching passionately in favour of the two-state solution. In Bethlehem, Sami told us how the Holy Land Trust is raising money to send a handful of Palestinian leaders each year to Auschwitz in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish people’s trauma. In Gush Etzion, Shaul told us how Roots activists on both sides pay visits to the sites or families that have just experienced violence or loss, to show solidarity with them and to condemn the attacks. And finally in Jerusalem, at the Yad B’Yad school, we heard how they received messages of love, support and strength from Jews and Palestinians alike, encouraging them to stand up in the face of adversity and persevere with their interfaith mission.

It is critical that religion no longer be viewed only as something that is problematic to peace in the region. A two-state solution will simply not be possible unless the fears of the religious are addressed. But if indeed their concerns are taken into consideration, and their leaders are brought into the peace process, then religion has the ability to serve as the means to that very peace. Religion might just be peace’s best hope.

A week with family and friends in Israel


Jerusalem 11am

Glossy orange bags of expensive coffee line the shelf. Underneath, the dreadlocked cashier tongs shiny sufganyot into paper parcels for Chanukah-giddy customers. We’re still sitting with our empty mugs and croissant crumbs gazing keenly through the big windows onto the endless stream of hats, sticks, buggies, and shades. Every three minutes a silver tram glides past, dispatching the hats, sticks, buggies and shades to Mamila, the Old City, and Machane Yehuda. Inside, our excitable nattering competes with infant squeals and rapid-fire Ivrit from neighbouring tables. We’re revelling in old stories until one of us lowers her glasses and interrupts the familial niceties:

“You know… I hate driving there. The Arabs, if they don’t kill us with bombs they’ll get us on the road!”

‘There’ is a religious Jewish settlement located midway between Ramallah and Nablus. The drive is straightforward: an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on Route 60. ‘There’ is where her son lives with his wife and five children. Once I am over the delicious irony of an Israeli critiquing somebody else’s driving, a series of questions dart across my mind: is her fear of Arabs in cars extrapolated from recent ramming attacks? Is this an ill-judged quip or concerted racism? Can such an endearing woman be capable of concerted racism? Is there genuinely a paucity of quality driving instructors in the area? Did she think we’d laugh? Did she think we’d sympathise? Should we? Why does this son—my cousin—choose to live in a place too dangerous for the grandmother of his children to visit, a place presumably dangerous for his young family too? In a flash we’re onto somebody’s fiancée’s job and I swallow my questions.

Tel-Aviv 8.15pm

The English menu is an iPad and its black leather case is thick. Amid the standard options on the screen—Starters, Pizza, Fish, and Salads etc. — is Vegan. A finger’s punch transports you to a grid of guiltless dishes that make up in colour for what they might lack in calcium. It’s midweek and mid-winter but we’re wedged in, abreast the crowd, at a slender rectangular table. If this is the last supper I’ll pass on the vegan options. The Azrieli Towers glint above the restaurant. They loom behind me, two above my shoulders like good and bad consciences, the third skewering my head. With two big hands on the table one of us, an English-born Israeli, opines:

“Soon contemporary English will become Old English, and Arabic will be what’s known as contemporary English!”

This time somebody conjectures that this might be a bit racist; swiftly somebody else, perhaps averting confrontation, rules out the possibility. The comedian cum demo-linguist is an intelligent man with a big heart; his jest is all the more perturbing for these reasons. In the moment’s pause when I’m expected to laugh but unable to muster the faintest of chuckles, questions bubble: Does the joke reflect his fears about Israel’s demographic course? Is this even related to Israel: maybe he’s parroting xenophobic British relations living among large immigrant populations? What gives him the idea that Arab-directed prejudice suffices as comedy? Is Arab-directed prejudice his best means of finding common ground? The arrival of dessert diverts my attention to waffles.

Suburb near Jerusalem 5.30pm

Here we have the luxury of placing a Chanukia outside the front of the house, as well as on the windowsill. A spread of quiche, salads, cheeses and latkes endure small prods from the children cramming their paper plates. The antics of the various nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren are a welcome distraction. They mitigate the awkwardness of language barriers and meeting relations that you last saw before puberty. The oldest in the room, swelled by the coming together of his progeny, speaks from his armchair:

“The whole world is against us… Anything is better than Barack Obama ”

At last, I can stop teasing political prejudice and social conclusions from off-hand remarks! This is a bold critique of UN Resolution 2334, and a Trump-accepting disavowal of the USA’s 44th President. The statement reflects analysis I’ve heard all week, and matches multiple headlines and Facebook posts I’ve seen. Yet, it shines in its own light, framed by, and adding colour to, the fragments I have already picked out.

From coffee shop, to restaurant, to lounge; and from Jerusalem, to Tel-Aviv, to Suburbia: casual racism, and a sense of having one’s back against the wall, pervades innocuous social interactions. Each of the comments I have extracted, lie somewhere on a spectrum between caution and paranoia; battle-hardened know-how and exaggerated, even fantasised, victimhood.

I did not conduct any surveys nor did I organise any samples. The conversations I had do not represent the varied and complex pockets of Israeli society. But, I think there are two general points we can draw. Firstly, the oppositions we are used to: legal and illegal; tolerant and racist; good people and bad people, are not clear-cut (and I’m not talking about when these lines are intentionally blurred for political reasons). In Israel, tolerant people live in illegal places, and good people say racist things. The web of conflict is tortuous and sticky; it is hard to wriggle every limb free. This leads me to the second point: hostility and fear, whether substantiated or not, grip like pliers on the mind. It will take more than the UN Security Council to abate this, on both sides of the Green Line.