At a time when religious conflicts plague so many areas of the world, we find ourselves asking whether religion is in fact a positive force for humanity. In Israel, especially we so frequently witness atrocities in the name of God that we are left to wonder if religion is in fact the problem or the solution. The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICO), which I helped to establish and have directed for the past seventeen years, addresses this question, asserting:
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all preach peace. Too often,
however, they are corrupted to fuel hatred and violence. In Israel
today, growing numbers in all three faith communities are coming
to see that their beliefs must contribute to the solution, not to
the problem. They understand that faith has an active role in building
a civil, tolerant society and in marginalizing those who would
destroy it. (1)
Tragically, religion in general, and religions in particular, in Israel and the Middle East, especially Judaism and Islam, are generally perceived by the people of the region, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Islam is overwhelmingly identified, both by its own followers and certainly by the Jewish population in Israel, with violence and terror. Some of the Islam's modern-day heroes are the leaders of Al Qaida, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah, and other groups which oppose peace and favor the path of armed conflict and violence as the preferred strategy to defeat Israel.
Similarly, the voices for peace and reconciliation among Jewish religious leaders are not very dominant or loud in Israeli society. Consequently, the prevailing perception among the Jewish masses in Israel is that religious Judaism, (Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in its various branches and streams) is in favor of the occupation (or what some religious Jews call the "liberation" of the territories) and deems the ongoing violence as a necessary means of "self-defense." One rarely hears mainstream Jewish religious leaders in Israel raising their voices for peace. The Jewish peace movement in Israel is overwhelmingly secular, with the exception of small numbers of modern Orthodox religious leaders and even smaller numbers of Reform and Conservative Jewish religious leaders, who unfortunately speak for a very small percentage of the Israeli Jewish population. And the Chief Rabbis, who are functionaries of the State, cannot be counted upon to have a prophetic role in favor of peace and reconciliation in Israeli society.
Consequently, the question of whether religions and religious leaders can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem in Israel is not a simple one. In all candor, one must admit that the process to move in this direction is very much an uphill struggle. Nevertheless, there have been some very significant positive developments in this field of endeavor in Israeli society in recent years.
Moreover, I would argue that there has been too much focus on the negative aspects of religion and not enough on the positive. According to Marty E. Martin, "So preoccupied have we become in asking why religion has been so central to killing that most of us have neglected to explore the potential for people acting in its name to heal." (2) Continually stressing the negative role of religion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has become particularly true in Israeli society, which is largely secular and suffers from anti-religious attitudes which are often exacerbated by the media.
In contrast to the "conventional wisdom" of the dominant secular society which contends that religion plays primarily a destructive role by perpetuating and exacerbating the conflict, we seek to offer an alternative vision and model. In a time when adherence to religion is increasing, we must take notice of the power that religion, religious leaders, and religious individuals can have in creating a positive social change. …