The Pope, the King, and the Jews

Religion has Begun to Accomplish What Politics Alone Cannot

Notwithstanding legitimate skepticism and criticism of the recently signed Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, tucked away within them may be an earth-shattering breakthrough, one that most people are not paying any attention to.

These days we Israelis and Palestinians are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud of the failure of the Oslo Accords. Their failure can be attributed to many causes, but one of them is certainly the fact that tragically, the architects of the agreement, moved by both ideals of peace and democracy, and by skepticism, and suspicion of religion, failed to take into account religious identities and sensibilities on both sides of the fence. The negotiators were, by and large, secular Jews talking to secular Muslims, whereas most Palestinians and a very large number of Israelis – the people between whom they were trying to make peace – are traditional people who experience the conflict, at least somewhat, in religious terms. The values of the people on the ground were to a large degree ignored.  Secular peace was fashioned to solve a conflict that has profound religious elements. It did not work.

On both sides, the people most deeply wedded to traditional values – sacred land, honor, rootedness, history, continuity – blew the peace up in our faces. The accords did not take these people and their values seriously. They were marginalized, disrespected, even humiliated, and they responded – and are still responding – with anger, obstructionism, civil and not so civil disobedience, and with violence.

We cannot usher in peace by shunting religion aside and hoping it will go away. It won’t. When religion is ignored or even worse denigrated, it circles the wagons and attacks its perceived enemies with a vengeance. It emphasizes those elements within it that show the folly and duplicity of its opponents. The Oslo Accords exacerbated a process in which Israeli Judaism and Palestinian Islam have brought to the fore their intolerant sides, their respective texts and traditions that vilify the other, that sow distrust and fear of the other, that preach against tolerance and compromise. The voice of moderation has been forced to retreat. Religion has become the enemy of reconciliation. Peace became a bad word, and among religious people, it became a curse word.

But as Rabbi Menachem Froman, peace be upon him, was wont to say, if religion is part of the problem, then religion must be part of the solution. The motivation and the values of the peace process must be cultivated from within our religious traditions themselves.  A similar sentiment was voiced by the noted theologian Hans Küng who said that there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among religions.

In a clear break from the past, the Abraham Accords indeed fulfill this directive. They constitute a paradigm shift that holds out the promise of a ‘new Middle East,’ albeit built on a different foundation than the one Shimon Peres had in mind.

The declaration that constitutes the preamble to the agreements states, “We encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity.”

The agreement between Israel and UAE goes on to say,

…recognizing that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham, and inspired, in that spirit, to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs, and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect … The Parties undertake to foster mutual understanding, respect, co-existence and a culture of peace between their societies in the spirit of their common ancestor, Abraham, and the new era of peace and friendly relations ushered in by this Treaty, including by cultivating people-to-people programs, interfaith dialogue …

In other words, political peace between Israel and the Gulf States is founded upon peace among religions! Furthermore, this peace among religions is founded upon recognition of the common patrimony of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We all are children of the same father. Thirdly, this peace among religions is based upon not only a common patrimony but also a common spiritual legacy of – to use the popular philosophical term  – ethical monotheism.

In truth, this fundamental insight is already implicit in the very name given to the accords. These are not the Oslo Accords, or the Camp David Accords or the Wadi Araba Treaty, and not even the Taba Summit – these are the Abraham Accords! Politics hereby recognizes what religious Jews and Muslims have always known – the Jewish Avraham and the Islamic Ibrahim are one and the same! Peace between Israel and the Arabs is first and foremost family reconciliation between the children who struck out in different religious directions and for years refused to talk to each other.

This is not just window dressing. First of all, language matters. The imagery helps religious people to feel at home with this treaty, to feel comfortable. It speaks to them and invites them to feel that they have a stake in it. But even more than that, it gives this treaty religious motivation and justification. It puts it in a context that can make it meaningful for religious people. No longer merely a secular peace between erstwhile enemies, we have here a historical reconciliation that may be seen as part of a story of thousands of years moving towards its consummation. The Abraham Accords can find their place within – and at the same time serve to resurrect and vivify – a larger religious narrative common to both Jews and Muslims.

(Furthermore, as pointed out by Ofer Zaltzberg in his opinion piece in the Hebrew weekly Mekor Rishon this past Shabbat, this language recognizes that Judaism is not just a faith but that the Jews are a people – a truth that the Quran makes crystal clear, but that has been denied by secular Palestinian nationalism for decades. Building upon this, while the accords are between the Gulf States and the State of Israel, they read as if they are between ‘the Arab and Jewish Peoples’, thereby recognizing that Israel is the state of the Jewish People.)

Where does all this come from? Who is responsible for this tremendous breakthrough? Since we have seen no hint of such thinking among the Israeli political leadership, it cannot have originated there!  It occurred to me that perhaps the inspiration comes from – could it be? – Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Avi Berkowitz, and David Friedman, who are all religious Jews. I was stumped … until earlier this week I hosted a fascinating Roots webinar featuring Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee.

Having been involved in covert and overt interfaith dialogue with leading religious and political personalities in the Gulf for over 10 years, Rabbi Rosen had a surprising and unequivocal answer to the riddle: The story begins with none other than the previous king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who initiated a remarkable global interfaith outreach in 2007 after having been profoundly influenced by his historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Palace earlier that year.

From that point until his death in 2015, King Abdullah embarked upon a real religious-cultural revolution in his ultra-conservative kingdom, tirelessly championing interfaith dialogue with Christians and a bit later with Jews as well. He did not go it alone, involving other Arab rulers and especially those in the Gulf. He initiated international interfaith conferences while prodding Saudi, Gulf, and international Muslim commissions and bodies to rethink their traditional insularity.

The king established an international center to promote interreligious dialogue and Rabbi Rosen was appointed as one of the nine directors from the world’s religions. This initiative has been continued by Abdullah’s successor King Salman, and last February Rabbi Rosen was the first rabbi and first Israeli to be received in Riyadh at the royal palace as part of the leadership of the center. He related that the king said to them that originally Islam was a tolerant and open religion, but that over the years political factors had lead to it being replaced by an unfortunate exclusionary conservatism that was now slowly giving way as Islam returns to the glory of its original moderation.

Rabbi Rosen drew a direct line from these seismic upheavals to the recent signing of the Abraham Accords. The language of the accords is not new. Already in November 2008, King Abdullah and his government held a major event at the United Nations General Assembly to “Promote dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and peoples, as well as activities related to a culture of peace” and calling for “concrete action at the global, regional and sub-regional levels.” Even the specific application of these concepts and aspirations to Israel is not new but rather has been germinating for many years in the context of interfaith contacts and discussions.

Religion has begun to accomplish what politics alone was unable to do. A Pew Research Center study from a number of years ago shows that more than 80% of the world’s population are people of faith, and certainly, most of the population of the Middle East are people of faith. Secular peacemaking, detached from the identities and values of the people in conflict, will not get the job done.

Just this past Wednesday, as Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed a Bahrain delegation at Ben Gurion airport, he proclaimed that Jews and Arabs are all descended from the Biblical patriarch Abraham, “And it is in his name that we have designated this historic peace initiative. In his spirit, we wish to foster a Middle East of coexistence and cooperation, of mutual understanding and mutual respect.”

As far as I know, our Prime Minister never spoke like this before the Abraham Accords. King Abdullah’s message – as well as that of Rabbi Menachem Froman and Hans Küng – seems to have penetrated.

Rabbi David Rosen believes that this is the wave of the future. I fervently hope so. Judging from Netanyahu’s words on Wednesday, this indeed may be the case.



*Photo courtesy of KAICIID

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