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Dateline: Jewish Perspectives on Peacemaking - 2001-11-30

A number of U.S. scholars and peace activists from a variety of religious backgrounds have rededicated themselves to pursuing avenues to Middle East peace since the collapse of the Camp David talks 18 months ago. But Jewish peacemakers are calling on their religious faith to help them achieve peace in the Middle East.

Rabbi Mark Gopin, a professor in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is the author of Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of Religion, Violence and Peacemaking. Professor Gopin says his purpose is to bring together the emerging field of conflict analysis and resolution with the field of religious studies.

"One of the reasons why there are so many failures in diplomacy when it comes to religious communities is the fact that the fields of diplomacy and international relations are so grossly ignorant of religious traditions and texts and myths and metaphors," he said. "A good deal of my research has demonstrated the alternative possibilities that are so important to understand about religious traditions. History is replete with the highly publicized capacity of organized religion to create enormous violence and barbarity and utter depravity and corruption. At the same time, religion quietly sustains the values and vision of a better world for billions of people over history. So, this dual legacy is what we confront."

Mr. Gopin has just completed another book, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East, which Oxford University Press will publish in March. " 'Holy war' is a funny English term that has its basis in various monotheistic interpretations of the justification of violence under certain circumstances," he said. "Even within Christianity, the interpretations of that justification within Catholicism are very different than within Protestantism. And they are completely different in the variety of Protestant churches. The same variety exists within Islam. In Judaism, it moves to the issues of when a war is justified to save lives. There are times when you have to kill in order to save a life when somebody is coming to kill you or is about to kill somebody who is innocent. So, each of these traditions has struggled in different ways with the question of violence."

Professor Gopin says that far more important than any religious theory is the way that people do or do not live their faith. "The fact is that, whether theologians or religious people like it or not, the lived religion of people matters much more than theories about what is religious. I can decide that Rabbi Meier Kahane's Judaism is not my Judaism. And, Meier Kahane, who advocated ethnic cleansing in the state of Israel, misinterpreted Judaism. One of the important things to understand about religious violence is that it takes so few people to create a massive amount of tragedy," he said. "Religions are these blank slates that are filled with texts and myths and ideas that can move in one direction or another especially in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. They can justify violence, and they can justify pacifism. But who pushes it in one direction or another? Generally speaking, it is religious people of conscience, courageous people, charismatic people."

For several years, Professor Gopin has conducted extensive "Track Two" unofficial diplomacy with Jewish and Muslim clerics in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He says they have worked specifically on religious and cultural factors in the conflict. "One of the hardest things for me as an analyst, given where I've come from in terms of my [Jewish] cultural background], was to sit with Yasser Arafat a number of times and to sit with some of his chief deputies one of whom is a religious Muslim. We did this engagement as religious people rabbis and sheiks," he said. "We talked for hours about a religious vision of the Middle East, a religious vision of Jerusalem, and what kind of honorary role that Arafat, as the leader of the Palestinian people, could play in Jerusalem and many, many other things. We talked about justice v. peace and religious ideas of cease-fire. For years now, a number of us have been trying to create a religious cease-fire between Judaism and Islam that Arafat was the only leader to approve of. And believe me, I know his history well. I know what he continues to do. But, at the same time in his mind he has a side that is very religious. That doesn't mean that I don't think, as an objective analyst and as a member of a community that has had so many people killed, that he doesn't have some role in all of this."

Jerusalem is a key issue, Professor Gopin says, where both sides might apply religious principles in the search for a solution. "This needs a much broader Islamic approval for a different status for Jerusalem, for the Old City, and a unique status that would involve a religious vision of peace," he said. "It doesn't mean all the other issues aren't difficult and intractable. But many of these key religious, mythic issues were the things that were unraveled at Camp David and that were never addressed before in any serious format. I was shocked by how many conversations went on between Israelis and Palestinians, and nobody ever talked about the status of the Temple Mount in a religious sense from both sides."

Rabbi Gopin is Professor of Diplomacy at the Fletcher School in Massachusetts. He is also a senior associate in the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Another perspective comes from Georgetown University law professor Jonathan Strum specializes in legal issues in the Middle East peace process. "I've been involved with a variety of organizations geared towards coexistence and understanding, including Seeds of Peace for the Middle East," he said.

Latham: How does your religious perspective inform your views of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East?

Strum: The fundamental principle in Judaism is the concept of being able to save a life. There are 617 commandments in the Torah. All but three of them can be suspended in order to preserve the sanctity of life. Therefore, Judaism commands that we strive towards peace.

Latham: What is the understanding of the responsibility toward the "stranger" in Judaism?

Rabbi Mark Gopin: That's a key principle. Throughout the entire Torah and all the commentaries you have this basic principle that "you shall treat the stranger as yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." That is something that is repeated during the Passover Seder. It is repeated virtually every day during daily prayers as well. And therefore, it is incumbent on us, when we look at others including Palestinians in whatever country they are in you must treat a stranger as you would yourself.

Latham: The state of Israel was founded as a Jewish state, as a homeland for Jewish people from the diaspora. As with all countries, whatever their religious principles, the acting out of them is somewhat at variance. Given the troubled political environment, what can people of faith do to promote peace?

Strum: Israel was founded as a Jewish state, but it is not fundamentally a religious state, even though religion plays a very important role in governmental institutions. It's not a theocracy. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, religion has tended to play a role as a divider rather than as a uniter. We need to be able to find ways to reach agreement between the three major monotheistic religions of the world. All of them have their genesis coming out of Abraham and going forth into Jesus and Mohammed.

Latham: How can people of faith, and particularly religious leaders, work in their communities for the realization of the principles that all the religions share?

Strum: The predominant thing that religious leaders can do is to promote the idea that there needs to be tolerance and understanding of the differences between others. One of the problems we've had in the Middle East is that there tends to be an absolutist position that says that my way is the only way. And therefore, everybody else is wrong. I think religious leaders can, by virtue of their faith, be tolerant and understanding that other faiths exist and no one has a monopoly on right or wrong. There is an organization in Israel called Rabbinic Human Rights Watch that has been in the forefront as a watchdog on Israeli actions in the Territories. When certain things happen, they write about it and demonstrate about it. We need those kinds of activities throughout the Middle East. I think anything that brings the different communities together is worthwhile. Whether it is a soccer game or planting trees or sharing a meal or building a recreation center in an area between two communities anything that brings people together is something worthwhile. Both sides have to work on "de-humanizing" each other and "de-demonizing" each other. If we can begin to work together and understand each other on a one-to-one basis, that makes it much more powerful. One of the experiences I've had is being up at the camp of Seeds for Peace and seeing kids from Arab countries and from Israel. Nobody says that we are all going to agree, but at the end of these summers they have an idea that there are real people on the other side. We tend to group people, and we don't really focus on the fact that every person in the group is an individual. Another way to put it is that not all Arabs are terrorists and not all Jews are terrorists."

Latham: Professor Jonathan Strum of the Georgetown University Law Center says the principles of the Jewish faith place an obligation on believers to seek peace. A true test of those principles will likely lie ahead as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits the United States after restating his demands for one week free of Israeli-Palestinian violence before peace talks can be resumed.