Religion and cynicism

A synagogue stripped of its Torah scroll, Holy Ark, and even the Mezuzah on the doorframe, is no longer a synagogue. It is not a "holy place", unless, perhaps, hundreds of years of history have imbued the structure with some special significance. The same goes for former mosques and churches. Moreover, a single building can serve as both a mosque and a synagogue, as in Hebron’s Machpelah Cave, or a church and a synagogue, as I’ve seen in New York. The point is, for the most part these are just buildings. It is their content and their usage that give them religious significance.

Seen in this context, the Israeli cabinet’s decision to leave the Gaza synagogues to the Palestinians, rather than Israel dismantling them as originally planned, reflected cynical political calculations and pressures, and nothing more. The structures will either be destroyed, thereby staining the honor of the Palestinian Authority, or they will be preserved, giving Gaza settler diehards a target for irredentist yearnings. Over the decades, Israel has been no kinder in its treatment of several score abandoned mosques than the Palestinian mobs were last week in their attitude toward the synagogues of Netzarim and Neve Dkalim. So much cynicism, so little real religion.

Because religion so easily becomes extremism in this part of the world, I have always believed that God is best left out of the efforts to end our conflict. Yet rabbis who support a peace process based on compromise take a radically different view. They argue that the Oslo framers made a serious mistake in not recruiting prominent religious figures from both sides to give their blessing to the 1993 declaration of principles. Essentially, they argue, you can’t get God out of the Arab-Israel conflict because so much of it is saturated with religion and religious sites, and because identity in the Middle East is inexorably linked to religion; better, then, to recruit God on the side of the peacemakers rather than allowing the anti-compromise forces to maintain exclusive religious sanction for their positions. Throughout recent years of expanded contacts between Israelis and Arabs, many constructive instances of interfaith dialogue between religious figures on both sides have been undertaken. In the diaspora, too, Jews, Muslims, and Christians have been "dialoguing" as never before. While it is hard to point to any concrete political fruits of Jewish-Muslim and other contacts, this religious stream of the peace process can hardly be blamed for what the mainstream political dialogue has also failed to accomplish.

Yet these efforts appear negligible when viewed against the backdrop of extremist religious activity on all sides that seeks to exacerbate the conflict rather than alleviate it, and that advances mutually incompatible agendas. The overwhelming mass of religious energy currently being invested in the Israeli-Palestinian (and, at a more abstract level, Israel-Arab) conflict constitutes a very dangerous zero-sum game. Religious sites, such as Hebron and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, are at the vanguard of the territorial dispute, and in some cases (such as the Jerusalem security fence protruding into Bethlehem to include Rachel’s Tomb) define it. The ultimate disputed religious site is the Temple Mount/ Harem al-Sharif. The one serious attempt to engage this issue, at Camp David II in July 2000 and thereafter, culminating in the Sharon visit to the Mount and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September of that year, showed just how volatile and incendiary the status of this site is.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, probably the greatest leader of the entire peace process, wanted to build a religious sanctuary in Sinai for all three major monotheistic religions. The idea of a holy site uniting rather than dividing Jews and Muslims (and Christians) is an intriguing one. Perhaps this is something that religious Jews and Muslims–those who seek to facilitate peace rather than disrupt it for their own cynical ends–could devote their energies to.