Judaist Israel, Islamist Palestine

Can U.S. foreign policy respond to competing religious rationales?

By Jack Miles

The oft-told story exists in more than one version, I suspect, with different presidents of Mexico and different prime ministers of Israel. In the version I first heard, President Luis Echeverría says to Prime Minister Golda Meir: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” To which Golda replies, “No, poor Israel, so far from the United States and so close to God.”

So close to God and, it seems, getting closer all the time. The secular, often socialist, sometimes even atheist Zionism that played so crucial a role in bringing the State of Israel into existence has faded away, and in its place has arisen a resurgent religious Zionism with resources and an agenda of its own. The secular, leftist, even communist Palestinian nationalism that played so crucial a role in maintaining national identity after the defeats of 1948 and 1967 has faded away as well, and in its place has arisen a resurgent transnational Islamism that, like the Jewish religious right, has resources and an agenda of its own. Israel vs. Palestine has become, increasingly, the Judaist irredentism of Likud colonists vs. the Islamist irredentism of Hamas terrorists. No informed observer expects this transformation of competing nationalisms into one of competing religions to be reversed. Many expect it to accelerate as, on the one hand, elections bring Hamas members into new positions of sanctioned power in the Palestinian territories and, on the other, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip arouses Judaist militancy in Israel and brings to power a government less inclined than that of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to trade land for peace.

As these antagonists for control of the Holy Land (hereafter, the Land) move closer to God, will they inevitably move further from the United States? The answer to this question depends on whether the United States itself will move closer to God. Not to be facetious, the ability of the United States to function as mediator between two parties who are increasingly defined by their respective Judaism and Islamism may require both a new American attention to religion as an issue in the conflict and a related attention to the actual or perceived religious identity of the United States as it bears on effective mediation.

Religious passion does not respond to pragmatic reasoning. Thus, even on the supposition, which some would debate, that the United States as a secular state can have, by constitutional definition, no religious interest in the Land, American mediation may fail if it insists on passing over in silence the religious dimension of the conflict. To take it on faith that, in the long run, religious passion must inevitably yield to pragmatic concerns may be, paradoxically, unpragmatic. Even if the United States has in fact no religious interest of its own in the Land, it may be required to address the intensely perceived religious interests of the contending inhabitants of the Land. I would maintain, moreover, that the reasonable and predictable Muslim perception of the United States as a religiously interested Christian power and even, to some extent, a Jewish power constitutes a separate reason not to trust that mere silence about religion will adequately convey American religious neutrality. Pragmatism may fail, in short, by too rigidly ignoring that which it would overcome.

Before taking up the question of what the United States needs to say about religion as prelude to effective mediation, I submit that a brief consideration is in order of the deepest and most in-tractable scriptural grounds alleged for competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to the Land. A review of these grounds will lead to the question, highly relevant in the formulation of any American statement about religion, of whether religion can be made an ally in reconciling these apparently irreconcilable claims or must remain, as it has so often seemed in recent years, the consideration most likely to make a long-running conflict eternal.

Let me begin by comparing the claims that Israelis and Palestinians make merely as Jews and Arabs—that is, what might be called their respective, essentially secular claims of ancient, physical priority in the Land. Next I will compare their religious claims as Judaists and Muslims; by Judaist I will mean adherent to Judaism as a religion inasmuch as not all Israeli Jews practice Judaism (or any other religion). Unlike the Jewish and Arab claims, these competing Judaist and Muslim claims rest not on temporal priority but on divine election. These claims are perhaps familiar, yet despite their growing importance, they are rarely considered in their own right. Since some Palestinians and some Arab Israelis are Christian and since Christianity may bear in some way on real or perceived American policy, it will be necessary, finally, to touch on the destiny of the Land in Christian tradition.


Historians of the ancient near east locate the forebears of those who will later be called Jews and Arabs among the many small tribes of pastoral nomads living along the inner edge of the fertile crescent in the second millennium BCE. The ancient Israelites are to be counted among the Canaanite tribes inhabiting the northern and northwestern segments of the arc. The ancient Arabs, corresponding in size and population rather to the Canaanite group as a whole than to Israel alone, comprise a set of related tribes at the southeast and southwest reaches of the arc. Arabic literature does not have an extant text as old as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. As it happens, however, the Tanakh itself presents these two groups as of comparable seniority in the region.

The Book of Genesis presents Abraham, the ancestor of both groups, as an immigrant rather than a native of the Land, an immigrant from points north and east. Once arrived, Abraham begets two sons. Ishmael, born to his concubine Hagar, is his elder son; Isaac, born to his wife Sarah, is his younger. That the text identifies Ishmael, the elder, as the ancestor of the Arabs through his 12 sons (Gen. 25:12 ff.) may be understood as, by the conventions of legend, an admission that the Ishmaelites arrived in the land first. Remarkably enough, in other words, Jewish scripture concedes temporal priority in the Promised Land to the Arabs. Abraham has, moreover, a third wife, Keturah, the names of whose six sons generally evoke regions toward the south and east, in the border-lands of the Arabian Peninsula. Using the narrative vocabulary of legend, the text means to suggest by this sextuplication that the many offspring of Keturah, joined to the offspring of Hagar, are already thick on the ground before the first Israelite—Sarah’s grandson Jacob—has been born.

Looking now beyond the claims of Jews and Arabs to temporal priority in the land lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and considering the religious claims of Judaists and Muslims, the ease with which the Jewish scriptures concede temporal priority to the Arabs acquires a radically new meaning as that very temporal priority becomes a means to demonstrate the religious priority of the Israelites. There may be no older or more deeply intuitive rule of human conduct than “First come, first served,” but God is not bound by such conventions of human conduct. Indeed he demonstrates his sovereignty over all creation and over every human creature precisely by breaking otherwise un-breakable rules. The firstborn son normally inherits, but Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, is not his heir. We read in Genesis 25: “Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham’s sons by his concubines Abraham [merely] gave gifts while he was living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East.” And lest this seem a conventional decision to favor his wife over his concubines, a bolder reversal comes in the next generation. Esau and Jacob are equally legitimate as sons of Isaac’s wife Rebekkah, but God favors the younger, Jacob, over the elder, and his favor brings with it tacit exoneration when Jacob swindles Esau. God’s principle, in short, is “Second come, first served—when I say so.”

Facing God, humankind has no property rights: God, who made everything, owns everything,  gives it to whom he chooses,  and takes it back when he chooses to give it to someone else.

God’s most spectacular application of this rule comes at the con-quest of Canaan, for the Promised Land is not empty. On the contrary, God boasts that it is a planted, settled, and developed land that, in order to demonstrate his power, he has chosen to take from its erstwhile inhabitants and award to Israel. Moses explains:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vine-yards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 6:11–12)

Those flourishing cities, full houses, and hewn cisterns, those fruitful vineyards and olive groves are the equivalent of what our era might call facts on the ground; but for God, a fact on the ground is never anywhere but on the ground. It is not in the law, for God writes the law and overwrites it when he chooses. Facing God, humankind has no property rights: God, who made everything, owns everything, gives it to whom he chooses, and takes it back when he chooses to give it to someone else.

God can and does decide, for example, to take Canaan away from the Israelites and give it to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar. Speaking to Jeremiah, he thunders:

I by my great power and outstretched arm made the earth and the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give them to whom I please. Now I have handed all these countries over to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, my servant: I have even put the animals of the wild at his service. . . . (27:4–6)

God makes promises, yes, but his sovereignty is so unqualified that he may unmake them at will. The question for those who would serve him is thus not what he once wanted but what he now wants. What human agency is now the instrument of his will? Last year it may have been you, but this year—who knows—it may be me, and woe unto him who does not keep abreast. When the remnant of the tribe of Judah, henceforth the Jews, returns from exile, it finds the remnant of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, hence-forth the Samaritans, laying claim to the land in an alliance that includes Geshem, an Arab prince. What does God have in mind? From this point on, claims to divinely granted possession of the land will remain in ceaseless contention.

Islam has an understanding of the absolute territorial sovereignty of God essentially identical to that of ancient Israel. Muslim tradition acknowledges that it was once God’s intention to give the Land of Canaan to Israel. The Qur’an says:

Remember when Moses said to his people: “O my people, remember the favors that God bestowed on you when He appointed apostles from among you and made you kings and gave you what had never been given to anyone in the world. Enter then, my people, the Holy Land that God has ordained for you, and do not turn back, or you will suffer.” (5:20–21)

But this acknowledgment is swallowed up in the larger and politically paramount Muslim acknowledgment that every nation is where it is because God has so ordained and may be sent some-where else if and when he chooses. Thus, though the Qur’an does not recognize any divine assignment of Palestine to the Palestinians corresponding to the Bible’s assignment of Canaan to the Israelites, it need not do so, for it understands God to wish that the whole world to submit to him, with Muslim rule as his usual if not self-evident means to that end. By this token, if the Land came under Muslim rule in the year 638, then God must wish it to reain under Muslim rule. Any other condition, such as Crusader rule in twelfth and thirteenth centuries or Zionist rule in the twentieth and twenty-first, must be regarded as ultimately temporary—just as ancient Israel regarded God’s assignment of the Land to Nebuchadnezzar as temporary. All three monotheistic religions grant that God could wish a permanent rather than temporary transfer of the Land. All three tend powerfully to see their own control of it, whatever form that takes, as his ultimate intention.

Centuries after the Arab conquests, the twelfth-century Jewish exegete Rashi wrote in his comment on the very first verse of the Bible:

Why did the Bible begin with the account of creation [rather than with an account of the revelation of the Torah]? Because of Psalm 11:6: “He declared to his people the strength of His works in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” So if the nations of the world say to Israel: “You are robbers because you took the lands of the seven [Canaanite] nations, [Israel] will say to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He created it and he gave it to whom he wished. When He willed he gave it to them, and when He willed, he gave it to us!”

Rashi knew that centuries before he wrote, the Caliph Abd al-Malik had built the shrine we call the Dome of the Rock on the holiest site in the Land. By the logic of Rashi’s commentary, God was simply exercising his eternal option once again. The Caliph surely would have agreed had he lived long enough to read the commentary. But where God is concerned, the latest time is never necessarily the last time.

But there’s the rub: How can it be known whether a given human seizure of territory is implementing or thwarting God’s will? Every judgment that attributes divine volition to a human military action denies it to some opposing action. The founding motto of the Crusades, spoken by Pope Urban II, was Deus le vult, “God wills it.” Urban’s judgment that God willed the Crusades entailed, necessarily, a judgment that God did not will the assault of the Seljuk Turks upon the Byzantine Empire. So understood, the Crusades were not undertaken as simple wars of conquest but rather as wars of religious irredentism.

Not all forms of irredentism are religious or violent, but all religious irredentism entails a judgment that God does not support whatever state of affairs is to be overturned. The irredentist Palestine Jewish Colonization Association was neither violent nor particularly religious. The irredentist Palestine Liberation Organization has been intermittently violent but, until recently, has been nationalist rather than religious. If these movements have now been succeeded by full-bore, religiously violent and violently religious Judaist irredentism in Israel and Islamist irredentism in Palestine, then the prospect of peace in the Land would seem to be in dire straits—unless, perhaps, each side can find persuasive religious arguments that God does not will outright victory, after all, for either side.


Because any reconciliation of conflicting religious claims to the land by secular mediators has seemed virtually impossible, secular mediators—including all American mediators—have typically confined their efforts to the pragmatic considerations that they have clearly hoped would obviate the need for religious argument. Perhaps this approach will finally succeed, but one must note candidly that it has so far failed. Is it possible, then, to contemplate a religious reconciliation of conflicting religious claims?

Before attempting an answer to that question, let me suggest that among the Muslims of the Middle East, Jews are increasingly seen as Westerners and, to the extent that all Westerners are only imperfectly distinguished from Christians, as quasi-Christians. It matters to this perception that Petah Tiqva, the first Jewish colony established by modern Zionism, was founded in 1878 with British Jewish money during the era when Britain was establishing colonial rule in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Oman,  and Kuwait as well as spheres of influence in Persia. After World War I, as British and French rule replaced Turkish rule from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, Jewish colonization accelerated, and most of the colonists were Jewish Europeans. The 1920s and 1930s attacks by Palestinian Arabs against these Jewish colonists, often seen in isolation, are better seen as part of a pattern of Arab resistance throughout the region to Western or Western/Christian colonization.

The British or French colonies, on the one hand, and the Jewish colonies of Palestine, on the other, were obviously colonies in different senses of that word, and I do not mean to use the word in any disparaging way. However, the differences that loom so large for the colonists (settlers, if you prefer) loom smaller for the colonized or, if you will, those forced to accommodate foreign-born settlers as neighbors. After World War II, the ethnic makeup of the Jewish colony in Palestine changed dramatically when hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Jews moved or were evacuated to Palestine during the years after the establishment of the State of Israel. At that point, Israel ceased to be a state for persecuted Ashkenazim and became one for exiled Sephardim as well. Yet the emigration had a significant and rarely noticed impact upon the sending, Arab countries as well, which by now have been essentially without Jews for nearly half a century. “The World,” a radio co-production of BBC, PRI, and WGBH Boston reported, on March 23, 2005, that the Jewish population of Damascus, some 30,000 before 1948, now stands at barely 100. The effective disappearance of indigenous Jewish populations from Arab capitals like Damascus means that, absent immediate evidence to the contrary, a Jew in that part of the world is assumed to come either from the West or from Israel. Ironically, the very immigration to Israel of many thousands of Sephardim—Arabic in language and variously Middle Eastern in culture—that has made that country less Western in culture, changing its cuisine, its popular music, and much more, has helped create the strange state of rhetorical affairs in which Islamist terrorists rail against Americans as “Jews and Crusaders.”

What have Jews and Crusaders in common? As seen from within the besieged umma, the two groups have “God wills it” in common. Unlike in so many ways, Jews and Crusaders are alike in presuming to invoke the will of God to revoke Muslim sovereignty and impose their own. Palestinian Muslims may be only very slightly aware that President George W. Bush owes his election partly to millennialist Christian evangelicals who see the establishment of the State of Israel as a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. They are well aware, however, that the United States is a majority-Christian nation that has made its enormous military a bulwark for the defense of the Jews of Israel. Just how these American Christians and Israeli Jews rationalize their alliance matters less, from the Muslim side, than does the sheer fact of the alliance. And the fact of this alliance, as it shrinks the perceived distance separating Jews and Christians, makes an American mediator, even an American Christian mediator, between Israel and Palestine suspect in his neutrality.

Even more suspect, of course, is the neutrality of an American mediator who happens to be a Jew. Within the Arab world, national identity is considerably weaker than religious. When an American says, “I am here not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as an American,” American is a powerful trump card for the speaker, but it may well not be recognized as such by an Arab Muslim for whom the comparable statement in local terms—“I am here not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as a Jordanian”—would ring hollow. Thus, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Jordanians said that they regarded themselves as Muslims first, Jordanians second; only 23 percent regarded themselves as Jordanians first, Muslims second (Seventeen-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey; www.pewglobal.org). Worse, to the extent that secularity as a zone of religious neutrality is less well established in the Arab world than in the West, any statement beginning “I am neither a Jew nor a Christian nor a Muslim” may seem to approximate the statement “I am an unbeliever and an infidel” and therefore of dubious morality.


What lessons, if any, for American mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be inferred from all this? Let me propose two.

The first lesson is that the character of the United States as a secular state and, by constitutional definition, a religiously neutral polity is not self-evident, nor is the absence of a religious agenda in any individual American mediator. As mediator in a religiously charged negotiation, it is therefore incumbent upon the United States to relate the character of the American state vis-à-vis religion to the American agenda in the negotiation. In so doing, it may well be useful for the negotiator to dissociate his nation as a nation and himself as a person from adherence to any of the competing, allegedly divine visions of the future of the Land, most especially perhaps the war-welcoming Christian apocalypticism of novelist Timothy LaHaye whose Left Behind series has sold 62 million copies to date, many of them in the “red states” of the 2004 presidential election. LaHaye’s vision, murderously hostile to Jews and all other non-Christians in the long run, is aggressively irredentist on behalf of Israel in the short run. Its well-known popularity among President George W. Bush’s followers must not be allowed to pollute the negotiating atmosphere.

​The character of the United States as a secular and, by constitutional definition, a religiously neutral polity  is not self-evident, nor is the absence  of a religious agenda in any individual American mediator.

“Malice toward none and charity toward all” is in general a commendable stance to take toward competing religions and religious visions of the future, but that stance will only be credible, at this historical moment, after protracted attention to the widespread perception among Muslims that Jews and American Christians are allied against them, not to speak of a residual Jewish-Israeli suspicion that practicing Christians are residually or unconsciously anti-Semitic. Genteel understatement and discreet elision is neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian style. It must not be the American style either. All such charges, all such suspicions must be anticipated and intercepted. Religious neutrality is an enormous strength and not a liability at all for the United States both at home and abroad, but true neutrality is anything but a default position: It must be actively assumed, strenuously maintained, and carefully explained.

The second lesson begins with the observation that though Judaists and Islamists may hate one another, they have a common enemy in doctrinaire secularism. It may be a fatal mistake, then, when seeking peace between two such intensely religious antagonists, to seem to link the cause of peace tacitly to the triumph of that common enemy. A secular mediator, particularly an hors de combat mediator maintaining a studied silence on the topic of religion, uninterested rather than disinterested, may not be what the situation most requires. But at what point can or should a mediator engage this explosive topic?

Happily, there are text-based, tradition-grounded, and sometimes experience-based arguments for peace. To the confirmed secular mind, these may be inherently no more persuasive than text-based, tradition-grounded, and some-times experience-based arguments for war. In what I take to be the usual case of “Let’s not go there” secular mediation, a mediator determined to avoid the dangerous topic of religion will avoid it even when it arrives talking peace. In this fashion, habitual—I do not say fully ideological—secularism manages to define into political irrelevancy the plethora of faith-to-faith personal encounters that have taken place for years now among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, often involving co-religionists from outside the Land.

The kinds of people who take part in these religious encounters typically make political negotiators psychologically uncomfortable. The encounters themselves strike the politicos as a fu-tile postponement of the economic and military nuts and bolts that must finally be got down to if violence is to be contained and justice done. Yet these encounters are neither few nor casually undertaken, their organizers are not politically naive, and the crucial, potentially crippling question of just what God wants for Israel and Palestine does not so completely escape the language of interreligious discussion as it does that of straight political negotiation. Given the failure of a full generation of straight political negotiation, it seems reasonable to take a small gamble on enlarging the range of acceptable political discourse.

The hoped-for payoff from such a gamble would be, in the first instance, the interception of incipient civil war within each side. It is well understood that Hamas has granted President Abbas at best a provisional grant of legitimacy, while looking past him to Lebanon and to Hezbollah as a model of armed intransigence. Yet internal polarization is, if anything, more extreme among Israelis than among Palestinians:

A recent op-ed by Professors Arieh Zaritsky and Nissim Anzallag in Hatzofeh, the religious Zionist daily, called for “unilateral withdrawal from the state of Israel, including surrender of our Israeli citizenship.” One leaflet circulating among settlers adds, “Their flag isn’t our flag. . . . [The Zionist state] is a rebellion against God, a war against the Torah, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel.”1

Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are both known to be in serious danger of assassination by religious extremists within their own ranks. The cause of peace would be grievously wounded by either assassination. American mediation that would break precedent by validating, dignifying, and foregrounding rather than ignoring the kind of religious leadership and religious thought that delegitimizes religious assassination could pay immediate domestic dividends not just in personal security but also in moral authority for Sharon and Abbas or their successors. But a further dividend may well come as religious refutation of the rationale for assassination—under as bright a spot-light as possible—begins to undermine the rationale for religious irredentism itself, at least of the sort that would spill the last drop of blood for the last inch of territory.

Moving from intra-national to international peacemaking among Israelis and Arabs, Jewish-Muslim exchanges under religious auspices have at least some potential to step into the breach created by the absence of Jews in any significant number from most Arab countries. Although the most important encounters are surely those that occur within the Land, religious dialogue is uniquely suitable for third-party management in neutral locations. In a recent issue of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, who has lately created an Institute for the Study and Enhancement of Muslim-Jewish Interrelations at the venerable Hebrew Union College, wrote of a January 2005 meeting in Brussels of 100 imams and rabbis. In attendance was an ultra-orthodox rabbi from a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip whom Firestone had previously known only from his writings justifying violence against the Palestinians as a form of divinely sanctioned war, or milchemet mitzvah. At the Brussels meeting, this rabbi, who confessed to having no contact with Muslims other than Arab taxi-drivers, described a conversion experience:

One afternoon, he was riding in an Arab taxi when it was time for minchah, or afternoon prayer. He asked his driver to stop for him where he could do a brief ritual washing and then engage in that short prayer before continuing the drive. The rabbi noticed that his driver also got out of the car and washed himself. The rabbi stood for his prayers facing north toward Jerusalem; his driver stood near him, but faced south toward Mecca. They both stood there, one next to the other, each engaging in the same act. Both offered thanks to the God of the world for their very existence.

The experience transformed the rabbi’s previous implacable enmity into a hunger for reconciliation. A Muslim participant in the breakout session reported a comparable experience.

Firestone comments:

One of our scripted Jewish positions is the self-righteous question: Where are the Muslims? Why don’t they engage in dialogue? Why don’t they condemn acts of violence.

The simple truth is that they do. The Brussels meeting of 100 imams and rabbis attests to Muslim concern and activism. And Brussels was not the first place of involvement for virtually all of them. But such public acts often seem to remain somehow under our radar.2

Who decides which public acts “remain somehow under our radar” and which do not? I submit that American political leadership decides. Yes, media decisions count as well, but even extensive NPR or New York Times coverage cannot put a meeting of rabbis and imams in Brussels on the American political radar in Washington, while even a little attention to such a meeting by the State Department will instantly put it on the media radar screen around the world. Washington owns the biggest radar screen, in short, and Washington’s most powerful contribution to bringing a religious war to a peaceful conclusion might well be putting religious peacemakers on that radar.

Any single such act of interreligious reconciliation may be declared an exception and an anomaly by “hostiles” on either side, but the multiplication of such acts over time and their magnification by political attention can have a powerful effect. Particularly if coupled with even modest improvements of security and prosperity, countering religious demagoguery with intra- and then interreligious debate can delegitimize murderous militancy and (the far greater long-term challenge) religiously legitimize reconciliation even in the aftermath of unpunished crime and horrendous loss: reconciliation while the tears are still wet.

One such effort to delegitimize militancy—if not yet to legitimize reconciliation—was a petition signed by 12,000 religious Zionists in the wake of claims that thousands of Israeli soldiers would disobey orders to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The petition, organized by Yom Pekuda (Day of Reckoning), an Orthodox organization, and partially funded by the New Israel Fund read: “We the children of religious Zionism pledge allegiance to the State of Israel and the Torah and pledge not to reject the laws of the Knesset and other institutions of democracy.”3

A smaller but in one regard more striking effort to legitimize reconciliation is the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education, opened in Nazareth by a Muslim lawyer, Khaled Kasab Mahameed. Mahameed identifies his museum, criticized by Jews and Arabs alike, as Arab rather than Muslim, yet there is an at least incipiently religious dimension in its embrace of a shared future.4 In the opinion of Derek Evans, former deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International and a man with direct experience of post-war mediation, acceptance that the future will be shared is the difference between permanent reconciliation and temporary divorce or mere tactical cease-fire:

My experience is that much of our efforts in conflict resolution and mediation are based on settling the terms of separation, as in a divorce. In many of the situations of severe conflict or abuse that I am familiar with, separation is not viable, nor is it a luxury we can afford in our shrinking world. I believe reconciliation is something very different. It begins when we recognize that, whether we like it or not, we are in each other’s future.5

Separation without reconciliation, Evans maintains, has again and again yielded to renewed conflict and reciprocal atrocities.

In the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, religion has a well-publicized ability to undermine reconciliation. But it has as well the ability to contribute to it, the more so when its efforts are publicized rather than ignored by political leadership. Yet even if political attention is not forthcoming to such efforts in Israel/Palestine, the importance of Judaism and Islam in the Land may well grow, for all signs indicate both that Israel will retain and extend its control of the West Bank and that this fact will suffice in and of itself to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Thus, the status quo that has obtained since 1967—with just one fully legitimate, internationally recognized government functioning between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—may well continue for decades.

Meanwhile, on August 11, 2005, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that “for the first time, the proportion of Jews living in territories under the country’s control has dropped below 50 percent, standing slightly more than 49 percent. The results are based on figures supplied by Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s official statistics bureaus” (Amiram Barkat, “For first time, Jews are no longer a majority between the Jordan and the Sea”).

Abba Eban’s oft-quoted comment that the Palestinians have “never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity” takes on a new complexion as this tipping point is reached, for the message of demography not just to violent irredentists of the Hamas stripe but to all Palestinian nationalists is that time is on their side. In that case, their goal must be, at all cost, not to settle too soon. Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity may have created the condition for seizing an opportunity now at hand.

In any case, as the decades pass and the status quo continues, international legitimation may matter increasingly little, whether the Jewish state is ruling over an Arab majority or merely a very large Arab minority.6 What will matter is simply that two mutually antagonistic populations, approximately equal in size, will not be politically separated but only administratively segregated under a single government. Under such conditions, the role of Muslim and Jewish religious institutions in Israel/Palestine may become that of social negotiators managing the coexistence in default of other managers. A latter-day part of this management may even include mobilizing Muslim leadership to defend a Jewish majority now become, once again, a minority.

Whether, under such circumstances, these religious institutions will foster gradual reconciliation or chronic armed conflict remains to be seen. But during the current period, as the last chance for a two-state solution fades from view, interreligious encounters may be less futile and less optional than they seem to the world of supposedly serious diplomacy. Rather than rely on the vague and faded hope that Middle Eastern religious absolutism will somehow yield to Yankee pragmatism, it may be prudent for American political leadership to seek out and celebrate those religious leaders who have been trying to confront the absolutism of religious war with an answering and equally religious absolutism of peace.


  1. Yossi Klein Halevi, “Jerusalem Dispatch, In Withdrawal,” The New Republic, March 7, 2005, 14–16.
  2. Reuven Firestone, “Rabbis, Imams Find Common Ground,” Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, February 2, 2005.
  3. www.newisraelfund.org. See April 2005 newsletter.
  4. Charles A. Radin, “Muslim Opens Holocaust Museum in Israel,” Boston Globe, May 6, 2005.
  5. www.united-church.ca/exchange/2002/fall/3740. Speaking recently at California State University, Northridge, Evans offered a substantial exposition of the traditional four-part process he speaks of in his interview and a penetrating analysis of why, for all its merits, its results so often prove temporary. For a range of current perspectives on interreligious dialogue as a part of diplomacy, see Donald W. Musser and D. Dixon Sutherland, eds., introduction by Hans Küng, War or Words: Interreligious Dialogue as an Instrument of Peace (The Pilgrim Press, 2005).
  6. David Samuels, writing in the September 2005 Atlantic Monthly, quotes a former Israeli financial operative, Ozrad Lev, on Yasir Arafat and, most pointedly, on Muhammad Rachid, the astute Palestinian counterpart for whom Lev laundered Palestinian Authority money with the connivance of Israeli authorities: “[Arafat] had a plan. Oslo was not his plan. The whole thing about the secret accounts is to keep the financial flexibility to move money to the second stage. He thought that demographically they’re going to win the war, and in order to do that, you have to be patient and let the Israelis bleed. . . . You know, Rachid and I went to the promenade once in Tel Aviv, and he said, ‘I told Arafat many times, the Israelis are their own worst enemies. We don’t have to shoot one bullet—just be patient, don’t have any agreement with them [emphasis added], and all of what you see here will be ours.’ ”
    I repeat: Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity would be ruinous incompetence—unless perhaps missing every opportunity were the strategy from the start.

Jack Miles is senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy and senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. This discussion originated as part of a dialogue sponsored by the Pacific Council, Los Angeles, March 2–3, 2005.

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