A Jew, a Muslim and Buzzsaw discuss the Middle East
With the war in Lebanon, Gaza and Northern Israel this summer, the world’s attention was once again drawn to the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Upfront editor Emily McNeill sat down with Michael Faber, Ithaca College’s Jewish chaplain, and Omer Bajwa, the Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association at Cornell University to talk about this summer’s war and the future of the Middle East peace process.
Michael Faber: I can only say I had a lot of conflicted thoughts. First of all, the caveat is that I’m not an Israeli. I’m an observer from outside, even though I’m invested in all that goes on there, but it appears to me that the actual strategic tactics adopted by Israel and the army were a mistake. And there are a number of factors that gave rise to that error in thinking.
There’s no question that much of the world has seen this as a proxy war between the United States and Iran. The United States favored Israel’s strategy of, strictly speaking, an air war, because the United States wanted to see how well it went as a prelude to the possibility of conducting it’s own air war against Iran. So that was the external pressure.
The internal error was that it’s been a long time since Israel has had to fight a full-out ground war like that. They mistakenly thought that an air war would be adequate, partly, maybe, because of the pressures from the United States. The head of the army was the head of the air force, and they thought they could do it that way. It was a terrible error with way more loss of civilian life. So they bungled it. And of course they bungled it in more ways than one – not just strategically. Whatever “moral superiority” they may have started with by being attacked, they certainly lost by the number of civilian casualties, which I think is unacceptable to most of the Israeli public, too, not just to outside observers like me.
Omer Bajwa: I would reiterate much of what Rabbi Michael said, which is that I am, again, also an outside observer. My basic thoughts were just very frustrated. I was very frustrated, very disappointed. It’s an immensely complex region with immensely complex politics on both sides. I would agree that it pretty quickly became apparent that it was a proxy issue with the United States and the Iranians, and it’s very unfortunate that innocent Israelis and Lebanese people got caught in that crossfire. I think it’s tragic, the way that belligerent countries use proxies or their “allies” to do these things. So that’s the first thing.
And the other thing that I will say is, I didn’t travel to the region, obviously, but I had friends who sent me emails and blogs from Israel and from Lebanon and from Syria, and, [from] talking to them, I think moderates on both sides ended up being very marginalized. People became entrenched; whatever negotiating middle ground there was, people just fled from, and that’s very disappointing, because whatever progress they were making on both sides, I think is gone.
BH: You both talked about how you in America are detached from the conflict. What role do you think Diaspora Jews and Muslims have in the peace process, and is the fact that you are detached from it possibly a benefit that Diaspora Jews and Muslims have a responsibility or take advantage of?
MF: My simple answer is that I think it’s the role of people outside the region who have the room to live much more relaxed lives [to] be the real force of moderation. What people live with [in the Middle East], and the intensity of their feelings and passions, is very, very close to the surface and is always boiling over, and we don’t live that way, so it’s hard for us to understand that that is overlaid on top of everything there, and contributes in some ways to the conflict. So in some ways, maybe one of the kinds of moderation we can bring from the outside, those of us in the Diaspora, is dispelling the lightning move to the most passionate kinds of feelings that really give rise to violence.
OB: In terms of the worldwide Muslim community, I think you can break it down into three general categories or reasons why Muslims are interested in [this conflict]. The first is partly the most problematic. There is an overwhelming Muslim population in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and because it is such a salient issue for them, the discourse from that volatile, emotional, political issue flows out into the global Muslim community. That’s a problem because, for a long time, many Muslims have made it the de facto, grand cause that Muslims need to work for.
The second issue is, because there are so many Muslims there, [Muslims elsewhere] feel sympathy for them. Islam has this notion of a global body of Muslims, wherever they’ve dispersed. Muslims worldwide should be mindful of that.
And the last thing is, I would hope that Muslims would really look at it this way: that, really, it’s a human rights issue. The human rights and basic rights of Israelis are being infringed upon, and the human rights and basic rights of Palestinians and Lebanese, you know, there are problems there. But Muslims aren’t thinking of it that way. Either it’s that they are my Muslim brothers and sisters, or that Jerusalem is sacred to us and so that’s why we have to go liberate it. But I think that, really, Muslims should have the intelligence, the tolerance and the compassion to speak out about it as a human rights issue. It’s because of concern for the human rights of both sides that we want some sort of resolution, not just because it’s a Muslim religious issue.
BH: It would be easy to argue that religion is one of the causes of all this violence and suffering in the Middle East. But do you think that religion can also be – or is already – a force for peace? What would this look like?
MF: Well I have very iconoclastic views on that, because I think that for a long time in our world – or most of the time – our religious leaders fail us. I really believe that. What passes for religious understanding often baffles me, and I say that about rabbis, about ministers, priests, imams, Buddhists, Hindus. From where I’m coming from in my own spiritual work that I’ve done all my life – very disciplined work both in Jewish practice and in being a serious student of meditation – I’ve come to see that often what passes for religious understanding is really religious misunderstanding. But yes. The ultimate religious vision that any human being is genetically and humanly capable of having, if we were trained to reach for that vision of life, it would be impossible to be living in conflict. But that’s not what our religious teachers mainly train us to do. They train us to be ritually correct, to follow the law in the correct way, to do what’s right, to follow the tradition in the right way and all of that. Life is about seeking the ultimate vision of what life is and what the possibilities are, not whether I’m washing my hands right or making the blessing correctly. That has its importance, too, but the real important stuff that religious sensibility can really teach, I don’t see a lot of it coming from our teachers. So ultimately, yes, if that was where we were coming from then religion could end this conflict instead of fuel it.
OB: Just picking up on the rabbi’s comment, I agree very much with [him] that I think one thing that is missing from so much of the religious leadership across the board, throughout the world, is this sort of compassion for the unity of humanity. If you look at whatever message it is, I think it’s the fact that human beings have to live in some peaceful sort of coexistence in the world, and it shouldn’t be taking blood in God’s name.
But the other thing that I would add is that I think so often the conflict has been misunderstood by many different parties to be this sort of primeval, religious sort of battle that’s been going on – this epic battle. And one of the things, as a student of history, that you look at is that Jews and Muslims lived wonderfully together. Obviously I don’t want to paint a rosy picture, but there is a lot of historical documentation that there’s this period in Islamic Spain, where the Muslims were for 800 years, where you had this flourishing of Jewish culture and literature and theology and thought alongside Christians and Muslims.
MF: It’s called the Golden Age.
OB: Exactly. It’s called that for a reason. And that lasted centuries, and the current conflict is basically less than a hundred years old, and it’s because of political agendas on various sides of the issue. I think that religion has a lot to offer, but I would second that political and religious leaders have really, across the board, failed to meet these challenges.
BH: In what ways do you feel that Jewish and Muslim perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict are being misrepresented
OB: I think the way that it’s being misrepresented is that there are multiple views within the Jewish community, globally, on what does Israel mean, what does it stand for? How do they interact with Zionism – is it religiously inspired, is it secular? And so that’s the one thing I would say [about Judaism] is to acknowledge that there are differences of opinion within the Jewish community, that they themselves are trying to work out what Zionism means being an Israeli, being a devout Jewish person and what not. So I think that is perhaps missing.
On the Muslim perspective, I think the way that it’s been misrepresented is that the Palestinian issue has become this grand cause for Muslims globally. In fact, there are a lot of Muslims who think that way, but I think the way it’s been perpetuated in the media is that this is [what] all Muslims all over the world are continually obsessed about – that they will not rest until the state of Israel is destroyed and it ceases to exist, this whole Hamas and Hezbollah rhetoric. And I don’t think that’s true. There are Muslims that believe that, but there are just as many Muslims who say, “We have an attachment to Jerusalem because it’s a holy place for us, but in terms of Israel and Palestine and the surrounding areas, those are political entities that have to be [dealt with] in political ways.
I think Muslims should be concerned with human rights issues and [have] compassion for all peoples in the conflict, and that’s not seen; it’s just this obsession with, “down with the state of Israel.” I personally believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist in the region, and I think there are a lot of Muslims who think that way, when they really sit down and think about it, but you don’t hear that view. You just hear about angry mobs rioting in the streets, and, yeah, that does happen. But that’s [all that] gets media attention.
MF: Speaking as a person who’s acutely allergic to propaganda, I think there’s been a lot of messy propaganda coming out of both sides of the conflict. The way I can tell that propaganda is propaganda is because it’s always not focusing on one’s own behavior or one’s own nation’s behavior, but the other, and saying, “Look how terrible they are, and look at what they have done.” I had a revelatory understanding a few years ago that it is wrong for me to talk about, “Oh, those nasty Palestinians and look at what they have done.” The mistake that Israelis make or Jews make, the mistake that Arabs or Muslims or Palestinians make, is to focus on the behavior of the other and complain about how terrible [it] is.
I realized a couple of years ago that the only thing that I as a Jew, as a Zionist, or if I were an Israeli, as an Israeli, have control over is our own worldview, our own philosophy, and our own behavior – our own moral stance. And there’s no way that it’s my job to change the mind of the other side, because I don’t have control over what the other side believes or thinks or acts on. That was the mistake of the occupation. The [Israeli] government announced shortly after the war [in 1967], “We’ll give land back.” And the response at Khartoum was, “No negotiations, no recognition, no peace” – the three no’s that Israel has cited, and Israel said at that time, “We don’t have a partner. We can’t give the land back without any guarantees.” Ben Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] came out of retirement and said, “Screw that.” Let them say no all they want. Just give the land back as a gesture of good will, basically because if you don’t, sometime in the future this occupation will hang as an albatross around the neck of the state and completely compromise our morality as a state. Sure enough, that’s what happened. The nation succumbed to the sin of pride. And I have no doubt that the nation of Israel, the Jewish people, have atonement to do. To use religious language, they have repentance to do and they have atonement to make for that terrible mistake they made, thinking there could ever be such a thing as a humane occupation of other people.
BH: A number of events this week have pointed to the possibility of renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Do you think the time is right for these to begin, and what do you think are the key steps to making effective negotiation possible?
MF: From where I’m coming from, the time is always right. It should never be said that conditions aren’t right. If you wait for conditions to be right, they’re going to be waiting another hundred years.
OB: I would second that. The time is now. If people sit around thinking it could be better tomorrow or the day after, it will never happen. They’ll want the imaginary, perfect scenario, so I think it behooves everyone to really make it happen.
MF: And it is really the case that after a time of intense warfare and conflict is exactly the time when negotiations can begin. Everybody’s weary, everybody’s hurt, everybody’s spent, so now let’s talk.
BH: Do you have any final thoughts?
MF: In some ways, the human situation is hopeless. But in other ways, there’s always hope. To cling to hopelessness is to cling to despair and to open the door to doubt and anger, so I think that people of goodwill always have to come from the place of hope that our brothers and sisters in this world will every once in awhile open their eyes and really look at what’s there. If they would really see what’s there, there would be very little room left for conflict to be the dominant mode of human behavior in the world. I live with hope, and we all should, I think, to make ourselves available to the moment when there’s an opening and we can seize that opening to reach out across the divide and embrace the other and know the other as ourselves, so that an end can be put to violence.
OB: I think that a lot of the violence that we see, not only in this conflict, but I would say in most, if not all, the conflicts in the world, have discernible causes. It’s not some mystical, faith issue that goes back; there are discernible reasons on the ground that have to be negotiated about, and compromises have to be made. But I think that message of hope is wonderful, because so much of the violence and animosity that comes out is because of the lack of hope, which is despair. There’s this desperation, and people lash out in whatever ways, be it in ethnic conflicts, or in political conflicts. So I think it’s a wonderful, life-affirming message to end on, that people of goodwill and people of conscience need to keep working to keep that hope in the world. •