Reasons for optimism in Israel and Palestine

One of the world's leading commentators and writers on religion, Karen Armstrong, has just released a new book entitled The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. It's Armstrong at her best, and a few weeks ago I reviewed it favourably in The Weekend Australian. As well as making a strong case for mainstream religion, in the book she deplores the divisive and destructive rhetoric of both religious fundamentalists and militant atheists.

Recently Armstrong has moved beyond her role as academic observer of religion to become an advocate for interreligious dialogue. This year she launched her Charter for Compassion. Rather than focusing on alienating differences, Armstrong seeks to emphasise the Golden Rule: 'treat others the way you want to be treated'. She argues this is fundamental to all the major religious traditions, and could act as a unifying principle.

The video featured here is from the Charter's website, and it's a slick presentation of Armstrong's message. As she says in the video, 'I want people to hear the compassionate voice of religion. I want to change the conversation and bring compassion to the forefront of people's attention.' (Continues below)

Charter For Compassion from ben kaufman on Vimeo.

Though I am also an advocate of interreligious dialogue, in the face of conflict around the globe generated or inflamed by religion, I must admit to often feeling pessimistic about dialogue helping to change things for the better. But thankfully people or events occasionally come along that challenge this pessimism, and last weekend I experienced one such event.

I was part of a small group which met with three members of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), an umbrella organisation that oversees interfaith dialogue in that deeply troubled and divided country. They were in Australia on a two week speaking tour.

The three visitors were Jewish co-chair of the ICCI, Debbie Weissman, Palestinian Muslim co-chair, Issa Jaber, and Palestinian Christian, Rula Shubeita. All three spoke about how they got involved in dialogue, and the motivation and hopes that sustain them.

Jaber was particularly moving in what he said. He was drawn into this work because of a family tragedy during the first Intifada. One of his brothers who worked in an open-air market in Jerusalem was among several people killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Another brother heard about the blast and rushed to the scene. Some members of the Jewish crowd which had gathered, after learning he was a Palestinian Muslim, set upon him in retaliation. He was bashed to within an inch of his life, and spent five months in hospital recovering from severe injuries.

So Jaber is a living symbol of the horrors of the conflict, and of hope for its resolution. One brother was killed by terrorists from his own faith, and another was almost killed by a Jewish mob. Despite this, Jaber has become a leading activist promoting dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

Jaber, and the other two members of the ICCI, though mindful of huge obstacles, are remarkably sanguine about the future. Within their lifetimes, they expect peace to reign after implementation of the two state solution between Israel and Palestine. And they see interreligious dialogue as one of the tools for creating a climate in which this can happen.

You can hear an interview with Jaber, Weissman and Shubeita conducted by Rachael Kohn on The Spirit of Things on Radio National this Sunday (30 August 2009) immediately after the 6pm news, and it will be available on the program's website. They are testament to the fact that we can overcome conflict between faiths, and that efforts like Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion might actually make a difference.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Karen Armstrong, Case for God, Charter for Compassion, ICCI, Weissman, Issa Jaber, Rula Shubeita, israel



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Existing comments

Peter: thanks for this. Some very positive sentiments.
philip mendes | 28 August 2009

Thank you Peter Kirkwood: It is refreshing to hear of this
example of what is obvious to all aware people : a dialogue between peoples of different persuasions and opinions is an essential prerequisite in the pursuit of peace. An essential prerequisite. Yesiree !
May I be a tad more specific and say that this essential prerequisite - dialogue - is, to again state the obvious, essential if the Palestinian Peoples are to receive justice after their many decades long resistances to injustices.
Then and only then - when Palestinians taste justice - will both Palestinian and Israeli live in the state of peace and harmony that they each deserve.
dee jay aitch | 28 August 2009

Yet again Karen Armstrong and her ilk mouth lovely words and sentiments, all the while ignoring the plain fact that groups such as Hamas do not want peace.

Hamas are inspired by Islam to wage a perpetual war against Jews, not just Israel, but Jews everywhere.

Take the following hadith quoted in Hamas's own charter. "The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him." (related by al-Bukhari and Muslim).

How can there be dialogue with someone who wants to kill?

Fatah is no better. I quote from Article 19 of its constituition. ".. and the Palestinian Arab People's armed revolution is a decisive factor in the liberation fight and in uprooting the Zionist existence, and this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished and Palestine is completely liberated."

True hope is different from naive optimism. Unfortunately, I see only the latter here.
Patrick James | 31 August 2009


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