On Tuesday afternoon, I headed over to Capitol Hill to meet in the office of Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) to join a meeting with two religious peacemakers, Rabbi Menachem Froman, and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra.
Both men defy stereotypes;
Rabbi Froman is an Orthodox rabbi who makes his home on the West Bank settlement of Tekoa (home of the prophet Amos, who railed against the Israelites for their pride and arrogance), but he has close ties to Palestinians, including Hamas. He has promoted interfaith dialogue, sought to use religion as "a tool and source for recognizing the humanity and dignity of all Palestinians," and emphasized human-to-human diplomacy, at an individual, local level.
Sheikh Ghassan Manasra is an Arab citizen of Israel who lives in Nazareth and Jerusalem, and his projects include training school teachers with tools for teaching tolerance, promoting a message of his moderate, tolerant Sufi Islam, and organizing classes in Islam for Muslims and Judaism for Muslims.
The unique message provided by these religious leaders cuts deep into the heart of conventional wisdoms. For example, it is commonly understood that the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political rather than religious conflict, and certainly that a solution will be political rather than religious.
This notion is based on the idea that competing political claims are subject to negotiation, , whereas conflicting religious claims are incontrovertible and, therefore, irresolvable. This logic certainly makes sense - if you deeply believe that God set aside eretz Yisrael for the Jewish people and not an inch may be relinquished, or that Palestine is an Islamic waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day, compromise must surely mean an abrogation of God's will, right?
Countering this vision, the Rabbi and the Sheikh suggest that excluding religious voices and ignoring the potential for person-to-person reconciliation amplifies the ability of religious extremists to maintain claims of legitimacy. Thus, they argue,secular leaders who operate only in the political realm (rather than spiritual/religious realm) cannot gain the backing of the religious voices at the core of the conflict.
In the aftermath of the recent Gaza War, Rabbi Froman controversially argued
in Haaretz that "to successfully negotiate with Hamas, one needs to understand how the religious organization thinks. From my personal experience, those who understand that best are religious Jews. If so, then we should send our rabbis to speak to Hamas. Common sense shows chances of their succeeding in talks are greater."
Froman's hope is that bringing the possibility of reformation of and reconciliation between religious people on all sides and of all religions, will impart negotiations and agreements with the legitimacy to pacify otherwise agitated or unrepentant religious voices.
One ear Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Manasra have reached is that of Special Envoy George Mitchell, with whom they met for 90 minutes on their visit to Washington, and with whom they will meet again when Mitchell takes his next trip to the region.
Today, Froman and Manasra's lonesome voices cry into the wilderness of dogmatic intolerance that characterizes too many of the religious voices in this conflict. At the very least, public support for their style of people-to-people efforts should lead to their voices becoming a bit less lonely.