April 24, 2014

Are “peace” conferences a waste of time?

I recently had occasion to attend a conference of politicians and theologians in Vienna. It was sponsored by the InterAction Council, an organization of former presidents, prime ministers, and assorted theologians from all round the world. The council is dedicated to achieving world peace, which it believes it will achieve if it agrees to and promulgates a basic program of ethical, nonviolent, universal tolerance. There were famous names from my youth, now very largely in their dotage. The theologians included a Catholic, a Hindu, a Jew, a Protestant, an Eastern Orthodox, several Buddhists, a Taoist, and a Confucian atheist. There were eight Muslims, ranging from Sunni to Shia; literal jihadis, moral jihadis, a friendly if vocal Wahhabi, and on the reformist side, the ijtihadis. And a leavening of academics. Interestingly, there was only one woman around the table. There were plenty of others on the administration making sure everything ran smoothly.

The proceedings were carried out in an amiable atmosphere, and everyone agreed that peace was “a good thing” and that we should all aim to live together in mutual respect. However it became abundantly clear that everyone adhered to his own narrative and was simply unwilling to entertain an alternative. As you might expect, I found this most obvious in relation to Israel, where almost everyone thought that all the ills in the Middle East today should be laid entirely at the door of Israel as the “original sin”.

The politicians seemed to believe that the Holocaust was the only reason that the United Nations agreed to the 1947 Partition, which offered the Jews a state and led to the Arab declaration of war and invasion. Even if the Holocaust might have been in the minds of many of the signatories, you can hardly say that that was the motive for, say, the Balfour Declaration. And if one argues that the Arabs were occupants of Palestine before the imperial powers intervened, so too were Jews. It is true that nationalism, both Arab and Jewish, brought the two sides into open conflict, but to imply the Jews had no foothold in the Land of Israel historically, and long before the Holocaust, is as dishonest as to suggest there were no Arabs living there either. The unfortunate fact is of two occupants of different culture and religion (or none) fighting over one space. Each has a historical right. Each has a different narrative. This ought by now to be obvious but clearly it is not.

One former prime minister assured me that killing women and children was an ancient Biblical tradition that Judaism perpetuated, unlike Christianity, which he was faithful to and which always stood for love. But when I asked about the Christian religious wars and the Inquisition burning women and children, he blinked, smiled, and returned to his coffee.

Both politicians and divines seemed woefully ignorant of what ultra-Orthodox or Charedi meant. They all seemed to identify them with “the settlers”. No less than a former French president, just back from a visit to Israel, told me how he believed the ultra-Orthodox were to blame for Israel’s intransigence. I tried to explain the phenomenon that “Orthodox” is almost as broad a term as “Christian”. The most extreme Orthodox don’t even want to fight, and the majority are in favor of trading land for peace, provided there were a reliable partner and genuine peace. In Judaism, ironically, the more Orthodox you are, the less militant you are likely to be. It’s the seemingly more modern National Orthodox, the settlers, and the American Orthodox who are gung-ho for a fight and set against concessions. And many on the political right in Israel come from Russia and are not Orthodox altogether. It was all very civilized. Being a gentleman, he thanked me for my mini-lecture.

But then I get back to New York to find that The New York Times (Sunday April 13th) has a laughable article in which a Persian and an Israeli (who ought to know better) argue that Iran is heading away from theocracy, whereas Israel is moving towards it. Clearly neither bothered to check on the results of the last election. If they think the Ayatollahs are in the process of relinquishing their control, they must be dreaming. And if they assume that political trends and religious trends go hand-in-hand, they are living in La La Land. The NYT article says that “the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are. . .against any agreement with the Palestinians”. That’s ignorant, not just wrong.

As for theocracy, the truth is that Orthodox Jews are so divided on almost any issue you care to mention, the chances of their coming to agree on a shared platform for running the Temple, let alone the State of Israel, is as remote today as it was two thousand years ago.

To assume it is the Orthodox who are preventing a settlement is as ludicrous as suggesting Israel is the sole cause of the present impasse. Sadly, most people prefer to think simplistically, in blacks and whites. Presidents, prime ministers, and theologians are as incapable of objectivity as the primitive “street”. Most violence in the world is meted out by mobs spurred on by politicians and religious fanatics. Which is why I have always been skeptical of grandstanding. In the end, personal contact and human interaction are the only ways to try to bridge gaps.

Happy Summer everyone.

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