Religion as a Source of Peace?

by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, February 24, 2010
[Eilberg is a member of the Board of The Shalom Center. She was the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She directs interfaith dialog programs in the Twin Cities, including at the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning and the St. Paul Interfaith Network.]

I am sorely troubled about Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent announcement on Sunday that two sites of deep religious significance to both Jews and Muslims were added to the list of national “heritage sites” that the Israeli government plans to develop, adding them to an “historical trail” that will snake through Israel, connecting sites of interest in both Jewish and Zionist history. This announcement is disturbing for two reasons, one religious and one political.

There is no doubt but that the Cave of Machpelah, traditionally understood by Jews to be the burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, is a place of profound meaning to the Jewish people. But the place is a treasured holy place for Muslims as well, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque. I have learned that the sacred site known to Jews as the Tomb of Rachel is also known to at least some Muslims as the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. (As with so many other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are conflicting narratives about the history of the latter Muslim site. I will make no attempt to unravel the differing versions here.)

In the predictable barrage of accusations and counter-accusations that followed the announcement, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office issued a statement indicating that Israel would, of course, continue to offer the highest respect to Muslim holy sites. But the damage was already done. The initial announcement had appeared to ignore the fact that these two sacred sites are precious to Muslims as well as to Jews.

More seriously, the addition of sites of Hebron and Bethlehem to a “national historical trail,” at the very least, appears to suggest that Hebron and Bethlehem belong to Israel. Even if the inclusion of places on the list is simply a matter of allocating resources to renovate and preserve historic sites, the announcement, at the urging of a religious party, suggests to right-wing Israelis that these places are rightly a part of Israel, not only in our Biblical history, but in Israel’s present and future.

It does not surprise me that Palestinian leaders were outraged. At this moment of history, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has continued for many years past the declaration of several Israeli governments that Israel is ready to live in peace, side by side with a State of Palestine. Any suggestion that Hebron and Bethlehem are to remain a part of the contemporary State of Israel can only undermine what little trust remains among Palestinian leaders that Netanyahu and his government are serious about making peace with the Palestinian people.

The Judaism that I practice and teach is a religion of peace and justice, a tradition that holds compassion and respect for others among its highest values. To use Jewish religious sensibilities in a way that undermines trust with one’s neighbors is a gross distortion of the religion that I love. As a rabbi and community leader, I must raise my voice in protest against this unholy mixture of Jewish tradition and coalition politics.


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