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The Quest for Peace in Israel and Palestine — Reclaiming the Role of Religion

Our togetherness deepens in times of crisis between our beloved communities. We understand that only then can it be proudly said in heaven: “God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good”
Dr. Yakir Englander is a former Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow and the regional director of Kids4Peace International . Yakir was a visiting Scholar at Harvard Divinity School (2015) and a Fulbright scholar at Northwestern University in Chicago (2012-2014). He served as the Director of Kids4Peace in Israel and Palestine from 2007,and in 2012 became Vice President of Kids4Peace International, a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope among Jewish and

First posted on Times of Israel

This article is dedicated to all the people who were created in the Image of God and were taken from us this past week


In recent years, there has been an important critique of the role that interfaith peace organizations play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The main claim is that most of the violence we face is done in the name of God and that it is useless to expect religion to solve problems created by religious convictions. Moreover, interfaith programs almost never admit that their religions are part of the problem, so they cannot offer a solution to a problem that they do not admit exists.

Defenders of interfaith peace programs explain that religion cannot be blamed for the violence, since people who commit violent acts twist the religious sources. In reality, this is a political conflict with false religious justifications. Others claim that abandoning the religious elements of the conflict will never lead to peace, since in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the three Abrahamic religions are part of the cultural DNA of many local residents. Therefore, ignoring religion will not touch the real identity of the people living within the conflict.

None of these arguments goes on to show that religion offers a unique tool for creating peace. This however, is exactly what I claim. When we examine the phenomenology of religion, we see it can be used to create violence, but also for healing. There is, therefore, a critical need for more serious religious peace organizations.

When I watch the news about the Middle-East, my first reaction is horror and despair. I am afraid for my life, the lives of my family and friends, and for the societies I love so much. As the son of a Holocaust survivor father who had to flee for his life, I am afraid. As the son of a mother whose parents in Auschwitz witnessed the Nazis hang their relatives and kill their child on his first day in this world, I am afraid. It is only natural that I carry with me a deep distrust of humanity. After the Holocaust, it seems to me unrealistic to quote Tchernichovsky’s famous Zionist song: “Rejoice with me / for I still believe in humanity / for I still believe in you.” After Auschwitz – and after Hiroshima, Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria – how can we believe in “humanism,” in the benign nature of people as they are?

If I were a pragmatic secular Israeli, I would be terrified and would try only to be as strong as possible. I would say: “Sorry, but I must defend myself and my people. The Palestinians have two options: to keep suffering or to agree to my terms.” I would also say: “Look at the Middle-East; it is a dangerous place. The Palestinians here have it much better than in most other places in the Middle East, so that is good enough.” If challenged with Europe’s claims that my actions are illegal or unethical, I might say: “My dead family is still waiting for an open dialogue with Europe about ethics in the 20th century!” Are American students and churches discussing B.D.S. (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel? I can say: “Start dealing with the fact that there are as many shooting deaths annually in Chicago alone as there are in Israel and Palestine combined.”

These are the defensive postures of the pragmatic secular Israeli. But I was born in the Hasidic community. I learned from my Hasidic and Talmudic traditions that religion is like nuclear energy. You can use religion to do the most horrible things in the world, but if you are aware of the potential energy, and use it with a deep awareness of your actions, you can do the most significant things, and find means to deal with the pain that we all carry.

But what is unique about religious leadership? What makes Pope Francis and Martin Luther King so admirable, while at the same time many of us can be so disgusted by religion itself?

Religion entails a belief that what we see with our eyes is not the whole story, that there is more to this life and to reality. Believing in God means to believe that there is something above the limits we all feel in our lives. Religion can invoke that unknown power violently, to force others to act according to what my group believes. Or, religion can help us dream and work towards a different reality, even when all odds are against us.

This means, first of all, that it makes sense to be fearful of the abuse of religion and to be skeptical of the way societies manipulate it.  But we need also to recognize the potential of religion to give people courage to try and push their limits in order to be gentle and dedicate themselves to change. This is the meaning of the Talmudic teaching, that even God prays for himself, that his mercy may outweigh his anger. To live this way is somehow more than simply “human.” It means to dedicate ourselves to a divine reflection and working on our behavior.

The Torah says (Deuteronomy 30): “Behold, I have set before you today life and goodness, and death and evil […] You shall choose life.” Most commentators explain that God gives the Jews “free choice,” – either to be good or bad – and we need to choose life. But I have heard a beautiful – and difficult – saying cited in a name of a Hasidic Rabbi: “God orders you to be good, but also to be bad.”  It is undeniable that some portions of the Torah tell us to be good, while other portions push us to do things that are problematic, even violent and evil. Our role is to “choose life” — to embrace the good portions of the words of God and know how to critique the violent parts with love, while refusing to act according to them.

One can ask, “Why does God sometimes tell us to act badly?” One of the rabbis says that since humans have the capacity for hatred and violence, since each of us could become a Nazi, the Torah needs to address these dimensions of humanity. Therefore, Jewish law speaks to these elements and works to sublimate them. As the Talmud says (TB Kiddushin 21a): dibrah ha-Torah keneged yetzer-hara’ (“The Torah addresses the evil inclination”).

Some Jewish laws sublimate the possibility of evil by acknowledging it and allowing us to act badly, but within limits. However, throughout history, when our sense of humanity has conflicted with Jewish laws, as we became sensitive enough to recognize those problematic cultural elements, we had to engage in an “intimate critique” and change those laws, with love. Historically, this is what rabbis did with Torah precedents like Ben Sorer Umoreh (which required some parents to kill one of their children) – and thus Jewish courts were stripped of the power of capital punishment in general. Torah precepts about slavery, rape of Jewish women, and abuse of non-Jewish prisoners were all corrected with love by rabbinic “intimate critique.” And this is what I believe we must do today in Israel, not only in issues of sexuality and gender, but also in our relationships with non-Jewish societies who belong to the same land as we do.

“Intimate critique” requires enacting needed changes to the tradition from a place of love. But there is another element of this kind of critique. The problematic portions in our tradition cannot be ignored: we must face them again and again, and always “choose life.” For example, we must continue to study the Torah law dictating how Jewish warriors can rape female prisoners, although our own modern ethics are against any kind of rape. Only by facing up to such laws and fully feeling their problematic weight, can we keep investigating where these violent elements emerge in modern Jewish wars. I am reminded, for example, when reading these ancient laws, how thousands of Palestinian prisoners languish without trial in “administrative detention” in Israeli jails.

Our bond with the Land is especially in need of “intimate critique.” We must keep reading the Book of Joshua in order to remember that we could behave as Joshua did, but we should wish to behave differently. The Jewish Bible is very clear that Canaan is given to the Israelites, and equally clear on how Joshua behaved with anyone who did not accept the Israelite invasion. But we, Jews of today, are free to say “No!” to that violent model.  What I want to learn from 2000 years of exile is not to do to the Palestinians, who have lived in the Holy Land for centuries, what my ancestors did to the Canaanites, or what our persecutors did to us in Europe. Nor should we be satisfied with comparing the situation of Palestinians with the harsh plight of Arabs elsewhere.  The Jewish people are called be holy, not just to be “nicer than the neighbors.”

The Hasidic tradition also taught me that one is not born a sensitive peace leader. The community must be built around creating such leaders. Once I asked my beloved father, “Why is a rabbi called a holy person? Is it because he performs miracles?” My father replied: “Our rabbi is a holy person because every day, from childhood, he has been listening to the suffering of the people who come to receive his comfort. They beg for a miracle, but in order to do one, the rabbi must feel their pain as if it were his own pain.” It sounds beautiful, but how many of us were trained in that way at home and school? Only now that I live in Western society do I understand how my Hasidic education is unique. One must have a community that admires and supports the desire to become holy. The same is true of peace. Peace leaders are not born but created within a society that designs a community where such people can be nourished, where they can learn and practice this difficult (and miraculous) lifestyle.

This is what I see people doing in serious interfaith peace programs. This is what my colleagues try to cultivate in Kids4Peace. We try to practice peace in our lives. We work to create a group of hundreds of youths and young adults who, from a young age, are encouraged to be sensitive towards suffering and learn how to listen to others and to act for change.

In our Israeli-Jewish communities, for many reasons, we do not have examples of Jewish theological leaders who care deeply about members of other religions. None of my Hasidic ancestors fought for the lives and happiness of non-Jews. Moreover, none of my Hasidic ancestors realized that our beloved tradition created suffering of other people. These are two of the many new challenges that religious Jewish peace leaders must face, without models from the past. I, Yakir, must learn to care about my Palestinian brothers and sisters as if they are part of my family. I, Yakir, must learn that my beloved religion, and especially the great religious desire to come back to our land, causes the Palestinians great pain, and not just from 1967, but from the first Zionist journey.

This is a huge realization. It demands the creation of a new Jewish theology. This is our generation’s mission. But in order to have the energy for this, I must work with Muslims, Christians, and other branches of Judaism toward the same goal. There are many ways to move toward a relationship with God and with holiness. Interfaith peace programs are the place where different religions and streams in each religion can provide new paths to holiness. My Hasidic way, with all of its beauty, is not enough. By working with people from other religions, I gain more tools that help me to create change.  Only then I can overcome my fears and start creating and living this new theology.

During the 2008 war in Gaza (‘Cast Lead’/’Gaza Massacre’), when I served as the Director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem, I asked the directors of other peace organizations for advice on how to continue meeting with Palestinians in those painful days. Their reply was clear: “These days are too hard, let’s wait until there is less pain.” I could not accept this. If we do not meet in painful times, it will be a clear proof that we have failed to touch each other and offer an alternative. I met with my Israeli and Palestinian colleagues in Kids4Peace. We could not share clear words, since everyone had family and friends in Gaza, some as Israeli soldiers and some as Palestinian fighters and civilians. Then a Muslim colleague suggested we stop talking and pray, and this was immediately accepted. The religiously observant among us prayed; the others were invited to share the intimacy. Many cried, and the words of the prayers were cracked with sorrow. As I prayed in my Hasidic Jewish way, I felt how prayer was urging me to keep struggling for a different reality, to continue the work even when it did not seem logical. Since then, it is known that in Kids4Peace we keep working together – and praying! – whatever happens. Our togetherness deepens in times of crisis between our beloved communities. We understand that only then can it be proudly said in heaven: “God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.”

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