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.