Not Your Usual Peace Summiteers


Israeli rabbis have united with a founder of Hamas’ military wing and other Palestinian sheiks, and issued a joint commitment “to relentlessly seek peace.”

The development took place many miles from the pressure cooker of Jerusalem — at a peace summit for religious leaders held in Spain. For years, under-the-radar discussions have taken place between many of the 25 Israeli and Palestinian participants, and finally, the participants were meeting in the open and making their voices publicly heard.

And this time, it wasn’t just the usual suspects. It was not a gathering of the normal dovish dialoguers, but rather mainstream figures from Israel, such as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, and Palestinians such as the Islamist leader who was quoted saying that ISIS has reasonable demands but that its methods are the problem, and a founder of Hamas’ military wing.

Hamad Abu Daa’bas, the head of the Southern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, was quoted two years ago saying that ISIS causes concern because of its methods, but it “raises reasonable demands,” and that “the killing methods of Israel and the U.S. are not better than the crimes of the Islamic State.”

Benjamin Lehman from the faculty of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank was among the rabbis who took part in discussions with Palestinian leaders including Imad Falouji, a founder of Hamas’ military wing, and Fakher Abu Awad, who used to sit on Hamas’ governing council.

In their declaration, the 20 rabbis and sheiks, joined by a handful of Christian leaders, agreed: “We vehemently call for the cessation of incitement, misrepresentation and distortion of the image of the other and of the neighbor. We commit ourselves to educate future generations to uphold mutual respect.

“Drawing upon the religious traditions, and our understanding of what is best for our communities and peoples,” the declaration continued, “we call for a solution that recognizes the right of the two peoples to exist with dignity.”

The leaders decided: “All three religions value the principle of the sanctity of life, and we call for its practice in daily life in our Land. The violence that is conducted, supposedly in the name of God, is a desecration of His name, a crime against those who are created in His image, and a debasement of faith. The proper means of solving conflict and disagreement is by negotiation and deliberation only.”

Before the group parted to return to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, its members decided to establish a standing committee to gain traction for these ideas in their communities.

Shortly after this decision was taken, the summit’s organizer, Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Mosaica Religious Peace Initiative, told me: “Every leader who was there has hundreds of young students who are ready to put [the declaration] into action.” Mosaica ran the summit along with the Palestinian-run Adam Centres for Dialogue of Civilizations. It was hosted by the Spanish government, and sponsored by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

Melchior reflected on diplomatic deadlock between political leaderships in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and said: “It’s a big thing that this can happen with the atmosphere as it is between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” He went so far as to call the event a “miracle,” noting that many of those involved never believed that they would take part in such a meeting.

The summit in Spain was important, as I see it, beyond the discussions it facilitated, the declaration it yielded and the work it will now lead to in communities. It spurs a rethink for many Israelis, Palestinians and members of the international community on how to relate to religion in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A sobering section of the commitment signed by the delegates addressed what they see as the obligations of religious figures — and went a considerable distance to explain why such an unlikely group ended up getting together. They “bear a special responsibility to contribute to the desired peace.” They stated: “We urge the Israeli and Palestinian political leadership to work toward a solution. However, this does not recuse us from our accountability before God and the communities of believers to advance peace, pray for it and tirelessly strive for its achievement.”

Religion is seen as the factor ramping up tensions, propelling clashes, and the factor that makes the conflict so very complicated, it is generally said. There is certainly truth in this, but politics and diplomacy also have their own ways of complicating things and driving conflict. The summit in Spain should be looked on with interest by those in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Washington, the European Union, the United Nations headquarters and elsewhere as a call to inject a little more nuance into assumptions about where religion can fit into the complex picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempts to resolve it. After all, perhaps faith can be part of the solution as well as part of the problem. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.