Religion May Prove Key to New Conflict Resolution Approach in Israeli-Palestinian Dispute
Dr Carlo Aldrovandi, of Trinity College Dublin’s Confederal School of Religions, Peace Studies and Theology, was recently awarded funding under the Irish Research Council’s New Horizons Research Project Scheme 2015. His project will investigate the contribution that religion can make to the existing approach of secular diplomacy to conflict resolution, as is seen today in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.One of the main goals of Aldrovandi’s research consists of investigating the role that interfaith dialogue might play towards the inclusion of those Religious Zionist Israelis who would like to be part of a more constructive dialogue with their Palestinian counterparts.
As part of his research, Aldrovandi has conducted a number of field trips to the region. ‘Walking around East Jerusalem or in the narrow allies of the Old City, travelling through the check points in occupied territories or visiting an almost surreal town like Hebron gives you a clear indication of the highly fragmented, divisive and volatile character of that social-political context.’ ‘As an outsider,’ Aldrovandi says, ‘the impression is of a powerful and combustible nationalist, ethnic and religious strife boiling underneath the lid and always ready to explode.’
Obstacles to a New Diplomatic Approach
Aldrovandi’s IRC-funded project entitled ‘Transforming the Conflict over the Holy Land: An Engagement with Israeli Religious Zionism and its Sacred Values’ focuses on a sensitive but contentious issue: the beliefs and political ambitions of the Israeli national-religious camp, an ultra-Orthodox constituency which supports the secular Zionist state, but is also a staunch advocate for the Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories that were occupied by Israel following the June 1967 War.
‘Despite the fact that the Jewish settlement project is today unanimously recognized as “the major obstacle” to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, argues Aldrovandi, ‘little effort has been so far dedicated to developing a more sophisticated understanding of its religious drives and how such drives could be integrated into a meaningful diplomatic negotiation, one which also includes the Palestinian counterparts. I believe that this lacuna was one of “conceptual weaknesses” that led to the systematic failure of every peace plan since the Oslo Accords of 1993’.
One of the major resistances Aldrovandi has encountered in academic and diplomatic circles stems from the fact that Religious Zionism is widely perceived as a ‘fundamentalist movement’ - an allegedly deviant part of Israeli society which cannot be open to critical reflection (let alone compromise) because it is ‘impaired’ by rigid religious worldviews. ‘I find it quite significant that the criteria through which the international community relates to Israeli Religious Zionism tends to mirror those applied when dealing with Hamas, that is - you cannot have any meaningful conversation with the so-called ‘religious fundamentalists’’.
‘When I discuss or present my research to an academic or wider audience, I always have to clarify that engaging with the radicals, be it on the Jewish or the Islamic side, does not mean endorsing their religious views or surrendering to their maximalist political agenda. Instead, it entails looking for “a way in”: a kind of transformative opening in the mindset of those who are willing to explain their point of views, while having a dialogue with people holding a different opinion’.
In more recent years, what has been traditionally seen as a rigid religious mindset has nevertheless revealed a certain degree of flexibility, says Aldrovandi. Several reliable studies conducted after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip have shown that, under appropriate circumstances, some Jewish settlers might be willing to consider a compromise over the integrity of the Land of Israel, or even the prospect of co-existence with local Arab communities, in exchange for the prospect of sustainable peace.
‘If the more moderate voices within the Religious Zionist camp are left out of the negotiations, that will provide fuel for the manoeuvrings of extremist groups (such as the Hilltop Youth) within the settlers’ panorama’. According to Aldrovandi, international diplomatic actors will pay a bitter price if they continue to exclude the more moderate voices within this powerful Israeli constituency.
The Place of Religion in Academia and Diplomacy
In Aldrovandi’s view, mainstream social-political sciences, international relations theory and diplomacy have traditionally misunderstood or undervalued religion and its far-reaching influence on people’s lives, particularly in the Middle East. This exclusion is largely related to common Western misconceptions: ‘on the one hand, scholars and diplomats alike tend to frame sacred values, beliefs and motivations as ‘epiphenomenal’: a kind of meaningless symbolic gloss over the real ‘material interests’ at stake in that dispute (i.e. territory, Israeli security, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories, Jerusalem as undivided capital, water resources, etc); on the other hand, many still hold that religion is too overwhelming and irrational a force to act upon’.
Aldrovandi notices a sort of fatalism imbuing such a view: ‘it is common wisdom, that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is immune to and well beyond the influence of secular diplomacy because of its own “sacralization”: a process through which originally mundane, material points of disagreement become progressively embedded into a transcendental frame of reference.’
‘In my view’, adds Aldrovandi, ‘one needs break the “old habits” of mainstream conflict resolution. That requires the courage to think about the sacred and its influence on politics in an altogether different way. Even a diplomat indifferent to religion or with marked atheist predispositions ought to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what people’s faith is about and how a religious identity interacts with the outer world, often by becoming political. This appears to be the case especially in Western diplomacy towards the Middle East. In that very cultural-social context, the Western line of separation drawn between public-secular politics and private-religious beliefs makes little or no sense, the two dimensions being intimately connected to each other’.
In a highly polarized and radicalized context like the one in question, crossing identity boundaries and building bridges across impossible divides becomes the hardest yet most necessary task - a task which, according to Aldrovandi, religious peacemakers might perhaps be better equipped to deal with than secular politicians or diplomats.‘Religious leaders of all denominations ought to be included in the peace processes as they hold critical information about the religious dynamics at play in the conflict, while exerting a considerable influence upon their respective communities. During the Oslo and Camp David talks, the last two meaningful attempts to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the diplomatic team consulted with almost everyone (politicians, security experts, academics, civil servants, etc.), but left out prominent religious representatives. A top-down diplomatic approach neglecting or side-lining the opinions of Jewish, Christian and Islamic leaders turned out to be the “Achilles’ heel” of the peace negotiations, which found no resonance whatsoever within the local communities’.
The support of the Irish Research Council will enable Aldrovandi to continue his research on a larger scale. The analytical emphasis will be on what is happening at grassroots level, in terms of interfaith engagement on the ground, with a particular attention to those projects that bring together the so-called ‘radicals’ on both sides.
Aldrovandi hopes to show how the work of faith-related organizations like the IEA, Friends of Roots, the Abrahamic Reunion, Citizen’s Accord Forum, the Jerusalem Peacemakers and many others can be a potent catalyst for conflict transformation
During his last field trip to Israel and Palestinian territories, Aldrovandi had the chance to interview top level religious leaders, politicians, academics and conflict resolution experts, but also entertained several conversations with peacemakers from various faith-based organizations, while partaking in their grassroots projects and civil society initiatives. In particular, he was invited to meetings organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), an organisation promoting Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and peace in the Holy Land through interreligious dialogue.
The IEA has been facilitating a transformative dialogue between Arab and Jewish communities for more than 13 years: ‘I was very happy to know that the organization led by Yehuda Stolov, IEA’s founder and executive director, has been recently nominated for the 2016 Civicus Nelson Mandela Award. I found Yehuda’s personal commitment to peace-making at grassroots level truly inspiring’. The IEA projects reach out towards people of all classes on both sides of the conflict, including people who are branded as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, says Aldrovandi. An interfaith encounter can tackle past traumas and common fears, but also daily-life needs and aspirations for the future.
In the coming year, Aldrovandi also hopes to strengthen his collaboration with Friends of Roots, an interfaith initiative led by a joint Palestinian and Israeli committee based in the West Bank. ‘Rabbi Froman, founder of the Roots, famously once argued that when you put an Islamic and Jewish fundamentalist in the room and allow them to have a conversation on what they share religiously, these two fundamentalists simply become human.’
Aldrovandi does not dismiss the importance of an appropriate political plan of action, but believes a political solution will always be ill-fated without the willingness ‘from below’ to support a peace deal with a counterpart which is seen as a sworn enemy. Interfaith engagement at grassroots level can be one of the catalysts for that transformative change.
Dr Carlo Aldrovandi is Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies and Interreligious Studies at the School of Ecumenics - a TCD academic institution whose teaching and research are focused on understanding the causes of conflict as well as the possibilities for peace, reconciliation and dialogue in many and different contexts.
Aldrovandi has recently published ‘Apocalyptic Movements in Contemporary Politics: Christian and Jewish Zionism’ with Palgrave-Macmillan and he is now working on his second monograph, which focuses on the contested holiness of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem and its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace processes.
The Irish Research Council New Horizons Starter Grant is awarded to AHSS researchers for a duration of 15 months, providing funding of up to 100K. Proposals for the prestigious grants are based on a competitive peer review process. Dr Aldrovandi was one of a select number of researchers accepted for the 2015 Scheme.
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