In Ireland, Israel’s Religious Right Engages with Ideas for Peace

So much is stuck in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that it makes sense to question habitual premises and take a new approach. For me, that means deepening my engagement with one of the constituencies traditionally seen by outsiders as one of the most intransigent: Israel’s national religious Jewish community.

The more I interact with them, the more I see how detrimental it is that they are excluded from peacemaking. An opportunity to address this exclusion arises when I talk with the British organisation Forward Thinking, which organises study trips to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for parties in conflict to meet two diametrically opposed communities in the north of the country and their interlocutors in Belfast, Dublin and London. After decades of violence, Northern Ireland is managing to implement a peace settlement. I discuss with Forward Thinking the findings of our research about the importance of this constituency. They agree to back a study visit for leaders from this community, if we can pull it off.

There are many reasons this seems like a highly unlikely proposition for all concerned. One is that most of the leaders of the national religious ideological core have never left the borders of Israel due to its sanctity. Some rarely even leave their yeshivas, or religious colleges, where they focus almost exclusively on the study of sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. Most don’t read other languages, and many have a real reluctance even to engage with mainstream Jewish academic literature.

In Israel, this community is perceived by many to be the hawks, the fundamentalists. They are powerful, representing about 15 per cent of society and 20 per cent of the governing coalition. Most of them – though not all – support the settlements that have proliferated in the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the core of any future Palestinian state, and which Jews view as Judea and Samaria and as the mainstay of their ancestral homeland. The ideological core of this community believes redemption will come when, bluntly put, the People of Israel (Jews) rule the entire Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. This notion of organic wholeness leaves no room for Palestinian statehood. It also challenges many liberal notions about separating state and religion and protecting minority rights.

Yet after seven years of Crisis Group work, it is obvious to me that there is no hope of a peace deal at all without engaging religious communities. Up until now, they have been excluded by peacemaking that is essentially a secular project couched in the language of diplomacy and international law. These are wonderful things, but they are not part of the world view of the traditional religious populations. This has led religious communities to view the negotiations as an attempt to override not just their own concerns but also their own legal systems, Jewish and Islamic. For Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to succeed, this will have to be change; indeed, to the extent the three legal systems are incompatible, they will need to evolve, as harmoniously as possible. If a way is not found to make peace that allows religious populations to operate within their worldview and to adjust it, they will fight it and peace efforts will likely continue to fail.

A Neglected Constituency

I first became aware of the national religious right as a community in 2013, while researching a Crisis Group report on their role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have come to understand that they are certainly interested in peace, but that they have a different view of what that peace will be. I also know many of them quite well now. They occasionally know of me too, because the national religious media is mentioning Crisis Group as the first international actor to try to bring their community into peacemaking efforts. I join hands with an energetic well-connected national religious rabbi whom I have known for years, Doron Danino, to convene the group because ownership of the process must be in the hands of the community itself. Approaching leading figures one by one, based on Rabbi Doron’s priorities, we bring the group together: two politicians, the deputy defence minister and the deputy speaker of the Knesset, and six prominent rabbis, including one of the community’s most influential spiritual leaders.

In their minds, the only reason that can overcome their reluctance to leave Israel is if it will do the Jewish people good. For instance, spending four days in Ireland means four days not teaching the Torah, which in their eyes certainly does good for the Jewish people. Two prominent rabbis decline, saying they are certain in their beliefs and there is nothing to learn from outsiders. But among others is a sense that their new political power means they have greater responsibilities. Ultimately, a prominent rabbi says he will go “because we are really trying to save lives, the lives of Jews. We should do anything in our power to avoid bloodshed”.

Myself, I don’t want to go. When the preparation work is completed my work is done, I tell the participants and Rabbi Danino. But they insist that I join the group, as someone with experience bridging Irish and Middle Eastern conflicts, and who speaks Hebrew and English. The clinching argument is that they are only nine people, and in traditional Judaism, we need ten men (a minyan) to hold a public prayer. I have to say yes. For the next week, I pray with the group three times a day. As the days go by, unexpectedly I feel more a participant than organiser. Soon I too begin to look at the conflict in Ireland through a new lens. I see things I have not seen when I visited over a decade ago as a peace activist, taking part in facilitating disarmament workshops. My impression strengthens that religion is being re-interpreted all the time – whatever the religious fundamentalists claim – and that I should do my part as an agnostic person to become more post-secular, in the sense of not thinking that my secular beliefs should be imposed on others.

Mapping New Worlds

I’m not the only one to make new discoveries. A few of the members of our group have never flown in an airplane before. They are excited to discover Israel’s place in the world on the little airplane TV map and to experience the minor modern miracle of airport baggage retrieval belts.

We begin with a guided tour along Belfast’s lines of conflict. My group has a really big surprise. They ask: we are being told there is no violence, so why are these walls still here? On the other hand, they are almost happy to discover that you can end violence and still keep communities apart. That peace doesn’t lead into full, harmonious integration. That you can address a conflict in a way that does not bring the kind of full resolution that leads to assimilation. And for them, this is actually reassuring. Culturally, they are afraid that peace will lead to Jews marrying outside the community, immersing themselves in non-Jewish culture and then stopping being Jews.

In Belfast, we meet religious leaders, political leaders, activists, former negotiators and former militia fighters. It’s a very complex conflict and it’s hard to follow all of the nuances. Broadly, we all gradually get it, and not just on one level. I quickly realise that every question my group asks has two layers: about the conflict in Ireland, of course, but also another about our own conflict and what it means for the reality back home. We naturally contrast the way the Irish employ the term “sanctity of land” and the way national religious Jews do it. When we ask about the way the Irish believe in divine promise we think about what we Israeli Jews believe about divine promise.

Our rabbis have their beards, kippahs, curled hair, and long-held views. It is very challenging for them to listen to pastors and priests, because for most of them Christians are heretics engaging in idolatry and abandoning pure monotheism with their doctrine of the trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And the history of Christian persecutions of Jews, since the early days of the Catholic Church, is ever present in their minds.

Still, the atmosphere in the meetings with the Irish soon becomes relaxed. The actors in the Northern Ireland peace drama meet a lot of visitors, but these are still people with a mission, who really feel that they managed to do something good that they want to share with others. Forward Thinking has us meet the top people: the heads of churches, a former prime minister, people who actually signed the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement. After you go through such a peace process you understand how very complex your conflict is and how easy it is from the outside to misjudge others who are entrapped in conflict.

The Israeli participants prove to be superb listeners, which is more than I expected. Forward Thinking as well said at the end of the trip that the group was exceptionally inquisitive and sharp. Perhaps it’s because there is no need to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defend their own positions. But there’s something else. They are really struck by a priest who discreetly hides his cross in his pocket. They find his attitude toward them is very respectful and it helps develop a deep empathy. They discover that Catholicism has changed dramatically from a few decades ago. Specifically, it no longer argues that Christianity replaces Judaism or that God no longer views Jews as the chosen people. One pastor does offend the rabbis, saying: “Jesus is the messiah and we believe in it and that is the true faith”. But the Forward Thinking organiser apologises profusely without being asked to. Such kindness from non-Jews impresses the rabbis. They came to study Catholics and Protestants killing each other, and they end up thinking about Christian-Jewish relations. One of the rabbis turns to me and says: “I have to revisit everything in terms of our attitude to Christianity. We need to issue new rulings about the kind of interaction that is permissible with Christians. They systematically treated us very decently”.