During the past month the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has hit the headlines once again with the eruption of violence. It all began when Palestinians – mostly young – enraged by the continuing occupation, started to plunge knives into Israelis on the streets. And of course, the Israeli authorities retaliated: individual Palestinian assailants shot dead; the homes of their families bulldozed. Each attack provoking a revenge attack …
The only mutuality between the two peoples: mutual hatred, mutual incomprehension, mutual denial of the experience and reality of the other.
In 2000, when the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a walk onto what Jews refer to as har ha-bayit, ‘the Temple Mount’ (literally, ‘mount of the House’), his provocative action sparked a second intifada. Similarly, the recent outbreak of Palestinian rage centres on what Palestinians, witnessing the antics of ‘Third Temple’ Jewish fanatics, understand to be an Israeli plan to take over their holy site. For Palestinians, and Muslims across the world, har ha-bayit has a different name: al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf, ‘Noble Sanctuary’. Har ha-bayit and al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf: Two names, reflecting two different religious traditions, two different historical narratives, two mutually exclusive claims to one sacred place.
Over the years, the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians concerning the disputed land that both peoples regard as their homeland has assumed a religious dimension as fundamentalist fervour has taken centre stage across the Middle East, plunging the region back into scenarios of ‘holy war’ over the ‘holy land’ that have not been seen since the early Middle Ages.
Arguably, the situation is even worse now than it was back then. With so much history of division, the refusal to acknowledge the significance of that holy place to ‘the other side’, is even stronger. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Jews cannot help but acknowledge that the Temple Mount is sacred to Muslims because for over 1300 years it has been the third most holy site in Islam; the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque potent reminders of the Islamic revolution that took place in the seventh century. Meanwhile, many pious Muslims, deny the Jewish claim to their sacred place.
So: a contest between Israeli political power over the land and Palestinian/Muslim religious power at the heart of Jerusalem. Of course, not all the Palestinians are Muslims. But in recent years, Christian Palestinians have been increasingly marginalised.
It’s not surprising that Muslim Palestinians have resorted to playing the religious card, in the context of the political reality of continuing occupation. Meanwhile, ultraorthodox Jewish Israelis continue to assert fundamentalist readings of the Torah in their determination to deny the right of Palestinians to the land that they see as the exclusive inheritance of the Jewish people. Between these two absolutist positions, many, many different voices – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Palestinian, Israeli – urge compromise and mutual recognition. But the voices of moderation and acknowledgement of the other are constantly overwhelmed – particularly, when violence erupts and fear and terror become the order of the day.
Nevertheless, as Liberal Jews, our progressive values and our advocacy of the ethical teachings of our tradition prompt us again and again to turn towards the other. As it happens, the Torah, read for its triumphalist passages by Jewish fundamentalists, contains other teachings. In this week’s parashah, Va-yeira, we read stories about the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. In last week’s portion, Lech L’cha, Abraham learned that his pregnant wife, Sarah, would bear a son named Isaac, who would inherit the Divine covenant. He also learned that Ishmael was heir to a Divine promise (Genesis 17). Indeed, chapter 16 relates that a messenger of the Eternal informed Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, that the child in her womb would be called ‘Yishmael because the Eternal has heard your affliction’ (16:11).
Yishmael means, ‘God will hear’, and in Va-yeira the Divine promise is reiterated: ‘And God heard the voice of the lad. Then the messenger of the Eternal called to Hagar out of heave n, and said to her: What ails you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. / Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by your hand; for I will make him a great nation’ (Genesis 21:17-18).
The context for these two encounters between Hagar and the Divine messenger was the wilderness; the space beyond established settlements. In the first instance, a pregnant Hagar had fled from her mistress, Sarah’s, harsh treatment. In the second, Hagar and Ishmael had been banished from the family home at the behest of Sarah. Sarah expressed what she thought was right from her particular perspective as the mother of Isaac, when she implored Abraham: ‘Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac’ (21:10). But the Torah also includes another, universalistic perspective; the perspective of the Creator of the world and the progenitor of all the peoples. From this perspective, both the son of Hagar and the son of Sarah are heirs to Divine promises.
So, how can a universalistic perspective be realised in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, and in the context of the realities of political conflict and division, mutually exclusive claims to the land – and mutually exclusive claims to Divine promises? As soon as we pose this question, we realise that we have a responsibility as Liberal Jews to articulate a universalistic perspective. We have seen and continue to witness the horrors perpetrated by purveyors of exclusivist and racist religion. The time has come for all those who are committed to liberal and progressive forms of religion to actively promote the ethical teachings of mutual recognition and respect, justice and peace.