An Israeli peace activist, reacting to the failure of peace talks, told me that this reconfirmed her hatred of God and religion. "If only we could get God out of the Middle East," she told me, "we'd find a way to get along."

Yet what strikes me is that it is not God's presence but God's absence from every part of the conflict and negotiations that has been the problem. Politicians and nationalist movements have transformed Jerusalem into yet another piece of territory over which to assert sovereignty and power, when they should have been asking how to make Jerusalem the embodiment of its name, "the dwelling place of peace and wholeness."

In the language of nationalism there is no basis for recognition of "the other" except as a momentary expediency for the sake of one's own national self-interest. The religious language of Jerusalem, on the other hand, has always connected to a utopian vision of a world reshaped by God's loving presence. The earliest stories taught in Hebrew schools tell of two brothers who lived on opposite sides of what is now the Temple mount. Each one ascended to the mount with the intention of bringing the other a gift of love. Where they met was the rock that became the altar to which later generations would bring their gifts to the Temple.

The prophets, already sensing that ritual practices in ancient Israel were beginning to replace our contact with a loving and compassionate God, railed against the growing emphasis on Temple rites as a substitute for creating a world based on love and caring for others. They were unequivocal in their condemnation of the way that Jews were desecrating the holy place by turning it into an idol, rather than using it as an assembly point to strengthen their commitment to a way of life based on justice and mercy.

To the nationalists of their time, they quoted God's powerful message: "My house shall be a house of prayer for ALL peoples." And they heard God's voice communicate a strong rebuke: If you do not create a society based on justice and caring for the oppressed, you have absolutely zero claim on this land and the land will "vomit you out" as God's punishment for your moral insensitivity.

Imagine what a different scenario we might have faced had Ehud Barak used the year since his electoral mandate for peace to create a discourse of peace and reconciliation in Israel, providing him with the popular support to make greater compromises at Camp David. Imagine a prime minister who proclaimed that Israel sought to embody the highest values of the Jewish religious tradition, and that the best way to serve God was to reconcile with our brothers and sisters, the Palestinian people.

In contrast to the religious fanatics who insist that the Bible mandates holding the land, Barak could have aligned himself with the thousands of religious peace activists who provide a very different reading of the holy texts. A prime minister seeking to make peace and build reconciliation not in the name of secular self-interest but in the name of the highest values of Judaism might have inflamed the hopefulness of his Israeli audiences by touching the part of the Jewish psyche that rarely gets air space in the paranoid atmosphere of overheated Mideast politics.

Sharing Jerusalem, creating a system of dual sovereignty, providing a model for two peoples to transcend the discourse of power in the name of the discourse of love and mutual care-this remains the challenge of Jerusalem. It is a challenge that cannot be met in the language of fear and territory and boundaries, but it can be reached when we begin to reconnect to the notion of Jerusalem as "a light unto the nations."

At Passover seder we say, "next year in Jerusalem." But this is said also by people who live in Jerusalem-because the Jewish religious consciousness understands that even in Jerusalem people have not yet reached the creation of a reality that was the Jerusalem of religious imagination: the Jerusalem that was to be a city of peace and love. It is that aspiration that could still be tapped by political leaders who have shown us they cannot reach peace within the frameworks they brought to Camp David. So it's time for a new foundation.

One place to start would be for us, the Jewish people, to use this coming High Holy Day period as one to publicly proclaim our atonement for the sin of not adequately recognizing the humanity and suffering of the Palestinian people. Were we to begin to talk publicly about the ways that the fulfillment of our national aspirations unintentionally led to their expulsion from their homes and into a life of exile, we might begin to unfreeze the dynamics that have led to the current impasse. Hard-nosed politics has failed; why not begin to try some softer and more spiritually oriented approach to peace making?

This approach would require a miraculous transcendence of the cynicism that dominates not only the political leaders but the religious and nationalist constituencies that support them. It is when people circumcise their hearts and open themselves to a new logic, the logic of God's sacred presence, that they can connect to a new way of thinking that acknowledges the God in every human being and recognizes our sacred obligation to rectify injustice and build a world based on love of neighbor. That transcendence of cynicism would be the miracle we need. That is what was missing from the Middle East peace process-too little of God's presence, not too much of it.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad