Identification with Religion Can Be a Basis for Finding Common Ground

Article excerpt

In 1993, from the time it was announced that Israel was involved in secret talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, exactly 15 days elapsed.

At that point, I had a conversation with a colleague, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"You know that I've been hoping, praying and working for this moment for decades. But just 15 days to go from being each other's worst enemies to a handshake and a signed statement at the White House? Isn't that a little quick? Don't the people on both sides need time to get over their fears and anxieties, break down their stereotypes, get to know each other as human beings? Wouldn't it have been better to declare that we were involved in a process and then have an actual process - in which Palestinians would be invited to speak in the Israeli media, schools, synagogues, community centres; Israelis would appear in Palestinian media, schools, churches, mosques; there would be grass-roots dialogue, and then, after a few months, the leaders could meet and shake hands?"

My friend replied: "I can tell from this that you're an educator and not a politician; politicians seize the window of opportunity."

Of course, we were both right. He was right on my being an educator and not a politician, but I also think that I was right: that one of the problems with the Oslo process is that there really was no process, on the grass-roots level.

Since Oslo, we have become accustomed to the concept of "two-track diplomacy." One track is the official level, with its many ups and downs; the other level is that of NGOs, people-to-people, which has been progressing slowly, but perhaps more steadily. On this level, religion can play an important role.

Throughout the world, religions are involved in violent conflicts. Often these conflicts have political, national, ethnic, social and economic aspects, as well. But all too often the image of religion in the world today - and, I'm sorry to say, especially in the part of the world where I live, the Middle East - is an image of extremism, of xenophobia and of violence.

Now, I won't argue that this image has no truth to it. In the name of religion, atrocities have been committed. Religion has, in many cases, fanned the flames of extremism. What is it about religion and religions that accounts for this unholy alliance between faith and extreme violence?

To begin with, many people of faith seem to have absolute faith, that allows no questioning of authority and makes no room for other truths. …