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 new generation is stepping forward – help us build Partners to Peace

Jonty Leibowitz

Young Brits, Israelis and Palestinians are no longer willing to watch an older generation lead us down a path of violence, polarisation and a stalled peace process. The time for action has come.

The recent passing of Shimon Peres reminds us that we are further away from peace than we have been in any of our lifetimes. In the two decades since he last served as Prime Minister, it has become more difficult than ever before to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

A whole generation has grown up in a climate of mutual fear and suspicion, without any real concept of what a stable outcome could be. The politics of division have sown themselves deep; so much so that both sides in the conflict are no longer even encouraged to try to understand one another. Only last week, four Palestinians were arrested by the PA for attending a Jewish Sukkot celebration. In Israel, most Jewish children grow up knowing very few Arabs, if any. The result is a lack of trust and communication on both sides.

It is into this space that Yachad Youth are launching our Partners to Peace Campaign. Over thirty students from across the UK are coming together, raising money and awareness for the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian NGO based in Bethlehem. We have chosen the Trust because we saw their work firsthand in September, during the 2016 Yachad Student Trip to Israel & the West Bank.

On the trip, we saw time and time again the impact that generations of conflict has on young people across the region. They have grown up knowing only bombs, guns and a life of conflict – making ‘peace’ seem remote and alien. Whether it’s Israelis who only know Palestinians as terrorists, or young Palestinians who associate all Israelis with the IDF, the consequence is a culture of violence and fear.

The Holy Land Trust seeks to remedy this divide. Working in Bethlehem, the Trust empowers Palestinian young people and encourages them away from violence. We are seeking to raise £8000, which will help fund long-term educational programmes that teach Palestinian young people non-violent methods of change and build critical leadership skills.

The reason behind choosing such a programme is clear: it is by training a new generation of leaders to turn away from the violence of the last generation that we can find hope of a peaceful solution. As young British Jews, we want to see a thriving Israel and a stable, secure Palestine, and know that this yearning is deep in the heart of most in the region. Yet, too often, the debate in Britain about what we can do to help has been stale. We hope that, by launching this project, we can begin to change the conversation.

Partners to Peace stands in a proud lineage of young British Jews working energetically to refashion our community. Since 2011, Yachad Youth has been a tireless voice for young progressive Zionists in the Anglo-Jewish community. We draw on our experiences from across the Jewish community, from our synagogues and Youth Movements. From Youth Movement Workers and Israel Tour leaders to 17 year olds staffing summer camp for the first time, building a network of young people helps us to maximise influence. We seek to harness the fire and dedication of young British Jews, eager to forge new possibilities in the British conversation about Israel. Partners to Peace is the product of this passionate energy, fuelled by a team of volunteers who believe that the time to take action must be now.

Too many children are growing up with a polarised view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the schools and homes of Jerusalem, Ramallah and even Pinner the story is one of polarisation and blaming the ‘other side’. Yet now is the time to build bridges between our communities, rather than embellish the politics of division. Partners to Peace is based on the recognition that we all want a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and that this can only be achieved by cooperation and collaboration. The Holy Land Trust exemplifies the sort of Israel & Palestine we want to forge, and British Jews must reach out to this extended arm of friendship.

We are aiming to raise £8000, but more fundamentally we want to fire the starting gun for a new type of conversation; one which recognises that partnership is our best route to peace and stability. We need each and every one of you to take this message of nonviolence and solidarity back to your communities, schools, synagogues and campuses. Follow us on social media, donate via our webpage, share our articles. Email your shul or school, and get in touch with us to find out how you can play your part.

Our generation could be the ones to end this bloody conflict. We have the will, strength and resolve to reject the years of violence, and seek something better. Join us to help begin the peace process anew.

A Conversation with a Falafel Vendor

Aaron Simons

As I turned down towards Jerusalem’s Ben Hillel Street, a familiar scent floated through the air.

“What would you like my friend?”

Now I don’t often skip meals, but circumstances meant that I had missed lunch. It was early evening and I was gripped by a belligerent hunger, the sort of hunger that demands your attention and doesn’t let you walk past a falafel stall without putting up a fight. I’m a sucker for falafel after a three course meal, let alone in circumstances such as these.

“Go on then. Falafel in pitta please. With all the salads.”

This chickpea temptation was the produce of a kind-looking Mizrahi man, probably in his mid-50s, wrapped up in a scarf and hat against the sharp Jerusalem cold. He refused to serve me the lukewarm falafel sitting under his heat lamp, rolling some fresh mixture instead. Falafel, he insisted, was best served hot.

“So what brings you to Israel?”

“I’m doing some research” I explained. “I’m investigating how British Zionism reacted to the Holocaust.”

He raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the radio in the corner. My Hebrew wasn’t good enough to make out what was being said, but tone alone made clear that the radio host was delivering a harsh invective. I realised that it was international Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The right are complaining. He’s attacking the left. He says that the left keeps comparing the right to the Nazis, by saying that the new law is like forcing the left to wear a yellow star. He’s saying that this is an abuse of the memory of the Shoah.”

In Jerusalem, I imagined, this was a popular radio show. Jerusalem is not a city on the left.

“Do you agree?”

“The right are always complaining. They never admit their own faults. I’m not sure the new law is a good idea. But the left are always exaggerating and talking like the right is the world’s biggest evil.”

I thought about offering my own opinion, but I figured that his would be far more interesting. Caricatures of Israeli politics are so easy to find, but this was a rare opportunity to hear the unfiltered views of a native Jerusalemite.

“And what about you? Where are you, left or right?”

He shrugged sheepishly.

“If I am being honest, I am on the right.”

I put on my most convincing blank face, but he saw straight through it. He could see my disappointment.

“Not the right like that, not the right that is always in the news. Not like the guy on the radio. I’m on the centre-right. I believe in peace, I want peace. I was there with Rabin in the 90s. I was on the streets with him, I believed in him and in the end of the conflict.

But since then things have changed. The Arabs, they do not want peace. They see this as a religious war, this isn’t about land or politics to them. Look, if an Arab wants to stand outside my shop and talk or smoke, he can. But if a Jew were to go to Bethlehem or Hebron and stand outside without the IDF there, he would be dead within 10 minutes.

It is sad. Things are much worse now. I want to be on the left, but I look around today and I can’t be, so I am centre-right. Maybe one day there will be peace. But not today.”

Much has been made of the rise of the Israeli right. Academics, analysts and journalists debate the ideological influence of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, the left’s historic racism towards Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the secular-religious divide, and the impact of sustained exposure to terrorism on Israeli society. Anti-Zionist polemicists argue right-wing dominance reflects a society dedicated to West Bank settlements, violence, and racism.

But this was not a settler, a religious radical, or a member of Lehava. Nor did this Jerusalemite mention religious tensions or Ashkenazi condescension. The rise of the Israeli right is perhaps less complicated than it first appears. Would-be Israeli moderates and peaceniks are gripped by one single, powerful, narrative that took root in the early 2000s and continues to resonate strongly today. Many Israelis simply believe that the Palestinians do not want peace.

It is not a narrative that I think tells the whole story, nor is it one that I completely agree with. But I can see where it comes from. Even West Jerusalemites live in a world where the occupation feels distant but Palestinian violence feels immediate. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis read their recent history as one where offers of peace were returned with nothing but increased violence: Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposals resulted in the second intifada, the Gaza withdrawal lead to Hamas rockets and tunnels.

The dominance of the Israeli right may not be that complex at all. In a political spectrum that places security at one end and peace at the other, Israelis vote for hawkish parties because they simply believe they have no partner for peace.

My new friend was right on one thing though. Falafel is definitely best served hot.