A seminar on the subject: “The role of religion and interfaith dialogue in dealing with the Israeli - Palestinian conflict”

Thursday, April 25

The speakers:

Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem, chairman of the International Council of Christians and Jews. Rabbi Rosen was one of the signatories of the Alexandria Declaration of February 2002.

Mr. Ali Mustafa Rafa, attorney of civil law and an expert in the Sharia (Moslem law), candidate for the position of Qadi.

Unfortunately, Father Elias Shakour, founder and director of Mar Elias College, Ibelin, could not participate, due to illness.

The panel and the open discussion that followed were facilitated by Kamilia A’aref-Bader, MA in international relations and political science, and by Vered Madar, graduate student of folklore.

Both women are active in women’s organizations and in women’s peace organizations.

About 40 people, from NSWAS and from other places, gathered for this meeting.

The first lecture by Rabbi David Rosen

David Rosen is an orthodox rabbi, originally from England. Between 1973 and 1979 he served as a rabbi in South Africa. Later (1979 – 1985) he was the chief rabbi of Ireland.

Since his return to Israel he has been intensively involved in inter-religious dialogue. Currently he chairs the International Council of Christians and Jews.

Rabbi Rosen opened his lecture with an explanation of the origin of the word “fundamentalism”. He explained that this concept was first used in the Christian world to mean: accepting the text of the bible as it is, without the possibility of interpretations.

This is inappropriate in Islamic and Judaic settings, where scripture is understood primarily through interpretation.

Today, when people use the term "fundamentalism" they tend to mean radical or violent religious extremism.

The essential question that arises is this: If each of our religions declare that we are the sons and daughters of the same God, how can it be that people commit terrible crimes in the name of these religions?

Rabbi Rosen claimed that we should look into the sociological/ psychological aspect of religions. These aspects are connected to the issue of identity and the role of the individual in society. Religions serve a very important role here. It is impossible to break the religious framework and, moreover, it can be dangerous to society and to the individuals that comprise it. Instead, we should understand how to use the religious framework in a positive way.

There are two categories of expression in religion: the first is the universal one and the other focuses on strengthening the personal and group identities, when they are threatened.

In situations of insecurity, a family or a society tends to close and try to protect itself by various different means.

Rabbi Rosen gave an example from the prophet Amos. When the people of Israel were safe and secure he called upon them to adhere to universal values of justice and law. But when the people were in exile, he saw it as his duty to strengthen them and their identity. So at that time he did not demand of them to be open and to appreciate universal values.

Religion is so closely connected to our identity. Therefore, it has the role of supporting and strengthening identity in times of insecurity or when identity is threatened.

The religious institutions of both Jewish and Muslim societies are controlled by political systems, and therefore the religions in our region are part of the problem and not part of the solution!

Rabbi Rosen gave some suggestions to address this situation:

1. Separation of the religious institution from the state, for the good of the religions themselves.

2. Giving more power to non-institutionalized religious factors.

3. To encourage the religious leadership to become more involved in peace processes.

The problem in our region is to a large extent connected to feelings of insecurity and the lack of self-dignity. The politicians, who led the peace process in the past, did not involve the religious leaders in this process. However, interreligious encounters can serve the peace processes by giving a sense of security and dignity to all sides, thus helping to reduce the violent reactions of religious extremists.

The second lecture, by Ali Mustafa Rafa.

Mr. Rafa is a lawyer of many years' standing. In addition to practicing civil law, he is also a solicitor in the Islamic court (the  Shari’a, and a candidate for the position of judge (Qadi) of the Islamic court.

Rafa has been involved in interreligious dialogue and is a member of the International and Interreligious Federation for World Peace.

In beginning his presentation, Rafa referred to the extreme and painful political situation in which we are caught just now, and said he wondered whether he could bring any new idea that could help us to extricate ourselves from it.

Rafa then said that according to Islam, the Prophet Mohammed received a calling to free humanity from a state of ignorance and bring mercy and compassion to the world - not only for one people, but for all. We are commanded to be at all times merciful and to behave accordingly, even when there is the need to slaughter an animal. As for our neighbors, the Prophet teaches us to take care of them, to give food to them and to console them in times of need.

Rafa asked whether there is still a place for religion, in these merciless days. What is the role of religion in times of war and in times of peace? What is the role of religion in a society that is under the hegimony of a single superpower?

In the Koran we can find a whole world of ideas. And when we listen to the various interpretations of religious scholars, we find mainly respect and exaltation of humankind, and praise for peace and security.

In the Koran we have suras (chapters) that talk about believers and non-believers. There we are told to respect the others for their own beliefs. ”Your religion for you and my religion for me”.

On the other hand, a Muslim must not live under the custody and the control of others.

The Koran calls the Muslim not to reach peace out of inferiority but always to be prepared for war. This is reflected in Arafat's expression “the Peace of the brave”, referring to peace as a choice and a strategy.

Wishing to bring the political reality that surrounds us into the discussion, Rafa claimed that as long as there is an occupation, there would be a Jihad. So the solution of the problem is to end the occupation.

When the Palestinians get their rights and are respected, then they can respect all others, and can express the high values of their religion.

In the Koran there are some very difficult passages referring to the Jewish people. On the other hand, there are also some very positive ones. If the Palestinians were treated justly by the Jewish people, they would be more open to hearing the positive ones. The choice, then, is in the hands of the occupier, the stronger, “who can conquer our hearts and make us a people of peace”.

The Palestinians have a problem with the occupiers and not with their religion. God created humanity so that human beings would recognize each other’s right to live in peace.

Rafa ended his speech by saying: “Let us come out of here with a call for peace”.

The discussion:

The discussion included questions and comments from the audience.

Question: does a feeling of security strengthen identity or is it the other way round? Is it true that only a person who feels sure about his/her own identity can be open to the identity of the other?

Rosen: If an identity exists only because of an outside threat, it has no right to exist at all. It is insecurity that causes stirring up of passions. It is important to understand what kind of security is at stake. Is it on the physical level, or on the psychological-spiritual plane? In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must take into account the distress caused by insecurity, which is basic and existential, as could be well heard in Ali Rafa’s lecture.

Question: What are the sources of the conflict – religious? national?  or otherwise?

Rafa: In this conflict everything is mixed up. It’s a conflict over a homeland, it’s a conflict between East and West, it’s a conflict over the holy places, “the secular people claim that it’s a national conflict, while the religious people claim that it’s religious in nature”.

Rosen: I agree to most of what you said, except the last sentence. Historically this is a conflict over territory, security and identity. The religious aspects of the conflict are not so obvious, for instance:

The issue of Temple Mount is not really religious. The Jewish religion, through the majority of the religious establishment, forbids the Jews from entering the site.

The majority of the religious establishment opposes the location of Yosef Tomb Yeshiva. In addition, they condemned the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, which supposedly was a religious act.

The present-day uprising was named “Intifadat El-Aksa”, thus giving the conflict a religious aspect.

The Alexandria Convention was organized so that the message of the religious establishments would be heard more clearly. It is important to separate religion from the state and from the territorial issue, which can be solved on a territorial basis.

Comment: The speakers themselves are not part of the religious establishments.

Rosen: The disagreements I have with the Orthodox Jewish establishment derive from a cultural difference between us. This establishment does not accept the modern approach to religion. As long as it is protected by the political system, changes will be very slow.

Rafa: I do not represent the Islamic movement or establishment but as I am well acquainted with the Islamic texts, I am invited to mosques to give lectures and lessons.

Question: What is the role of women in the religious establishments? Why is the voice of women not heard?

Rosen: There is a new generation of “wise women” in the Jewish religious circles and the number of religious women scholars is larger than ever before.  The status of women and their dignity is one of the most important issues in the modern era. However, as long as there is no change in the political system, it will be very hard to change the status of women.

I am involved in several activities around this issue and I support the Orthodox Equal Community, where both men and women can be leaders of prayers on an equal basis.

Rafa: There are women in the Islamic academies, who can explain Islam better than me. In Islam there is no distinction between men and women in keeping the religious laws.

Question to Rabbi Rosen: In your opinion, why are the Jews, who themselves suffered from oppression, unable to identify with the Palestinians, who are oppressed and do not behave compassionately in accordance with the Jewish religion?

Rosen: As I understand it, oppression does not necessarily motivate more sensitivity in the oppressed. It is more common to see that those who suffered from oppression tend to forget it as soon as they have the power. I accept the criticism of the question and I myself criticize the policy of the Israeli government. However, I don’t see many examples of people who behaved morally in a situation of conflict.

The assumption that the Israelis are not vulnerable is incorrect. Most Israelis feel hurt and scared and we have to take this fact into our consideration, too. It is not just one side that is right.

Question: We experience an aggressive dialogue between the religions concerning the conflict. Might it be that a reconciliation dialogue is some kind of luxury, “a dialogue of the rich”?

Rafa: The Palestinian issue is to resist the occupation and it unites both secular and religious people. The aggressiveness is an expression of rage because of the situation, which makes it impossible to live safely and respectfully.

Rosen: I agree. In addition, we see that the media is more interested to show the aggressive aspects, because they are “spicier”, and does not give much coverage to the reconciliation dialogue. For instance, the Alexandria declaration, which is an historical document, received very little coverage in the Israeli media.

The religions themselves, in this conflict situation, tend to become more political and emphasize the aggressive aspect. Still, support of extreme ideas such as “Greater Israel” or “War of Jihad” do not represent the majority on both sides.

I support the difficult way of sustaining each particular identity and at the same time educating for universal human values.

Question: Where can we find voices of positive thinking and reconciliation in Arabic society?

Rafa: It is hard to talk about reconciliation in these days. Today the Palestinian people are more concerned with the question of how to rid themselves of the occupation. The Palestinians in Israel are busy supporting and giving humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in the occupied territories. There will come a time to ponder reconciliation, but not right now.

Question: We are all in a situation of despair and would like to hear what in your opinion can unite us and bring a better future?

Rosen: We are united by one universal power. All people are created in the image of God, according to the Torah. People are the summit of creation, according to the Quran. We can emphasize justice, compassion and human dignity, each in our own religious context.

Rafa: The Saudi proposal is an opportunity. It includes Israeli withdrawal to the '67 borders, a solution for the issues of the refugees and the right of return, normalization between Israel and the Arab states. In addition, the Palestinians demand to dissolve the settlements and a solution for the status of Jerusalem.

Rosen: The peace processes will need material compensations, rehabilitation of the Palestinian society and economy. On the psychological aspect, the Palestinians should feel that they are treated with dignity. In order to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors, we should see to it that their welfare and dignity are secured.