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A PROPHETIC PEACE:

JUDAISM, RELIGION, POLITICS

By Alick Isaacs

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The Montréal Review, June 2012

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"A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics" by Alick Isaacs (Indiana University Press, 2011) 

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"A timely, highly original, and important work. . . . What renders this book quite unique is its powerful and truly engaging autobiographical setting that lends Isaacs's argument a compelling first person urgency." -Menachem Fisch, author of Rational Rabbis: Science and Talmudic Culture

"A Prophetic Peace is a remarkable synthesis of Jewish wisdom, soul stirring anecdotes and philosophical speculation. The book will break your heart, challenge your mind and if taken seriously, lead you to reconsider your life's priorities. This one is a MUST READ for all those who care about peace and the soul of Judaism!"

-Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, Congregation B'nai Amoona

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The inspiration to write A Prophetic Peace came from my experiences as a soldier in the Second Lebanon War (fought between Israel and the Hezbollah in the summer of 2006). Like many Israelis I was drafted for reserve duty after the war broke out. I was rather abruptly pulled away from my normal civilian life by a 'phone call' and had to leave my wife, my five children, and my home behind in an instant. In a matter of hours, I was up north for warm-up training and within a few days my unit was inserted into the field of combat. Though this was not my first taste of combat (I had been involved as a reservist over the years in small scale exchanges of fire during the Intifada or at the Lebanese border), it was my first experience of war. My unit spent several weeks inside Southern Lebanon ending up in the village of Ras Bayada.

When I came back from the war I wrote a detailed memoir of all that had happened. I crafted a minute by minute account of the combat and of my internal feelings and emotions throughout the experience. Rather boldly, I included in this a rather strange sensation that I had under fire, of two hands resting on my shoulders. They stayed for three days while I was awake and while I was asleep. I do not attribute any great metaphysical or mystical significance to the hands, but I did take their presence as a call to rethink and re-examine some of my most basic convictions about the relationship between politics and religion in the context of the Middle East conflict.

When I completed the memoir I published it in the inter-disciplinary journal, Common Knowledge. But, once it was published I felt I had a great deal more to write. I abridged the memoir and converted it into the opening chapter of the book simply entitled "Lebanon II" in the hope that this would personalize the more philosophical-political discussion that followed. I wanted the story of the war to give a sense of urgency to the argument I would ultimately present. Thereafter and throughout the book, I continued with this technique of speckling my argument with autobiographical narratives drawn from personal experiences in the military and in Israeli society.

The central idea of the book is that the concept of "peace" that dominates international politics is itself responsible for alienating the religious populations who we think of as radicals or spoilers in the Middle East peace process. It became clear to me that it is the notion of "political peace" developed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment that (with only a few modifications) still drives international politics and shapes the efforts to establish a Two-State solution in the region. This idea of peace is based on principles of compromise, negotiations, shared interests and security assurances. In order for it to work it requires the privatization of religious concerns and their exclusion from the public sphere of political activity. While there are those who propose that a separation of Church and State might help, I venture to suggest that this entire political language is wholly unsuited to a conflict in which the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus and Mohammed are inevitably and always on the line.

The notion of political peace is rooted in the assumption that Western secular political values are universal. It is therefore a commonplace of Western politics that their violation in the name of intractable religious convictions justifies the use of violence "in the name of peace". When you think about it, this ironic truism is what accounts for the recurring cycles of war and violence that have been raging in the Middle East, destroying the lives of so many on all sides, since the Oslo process began. It would seem that a notion of co-existence more radical than "agreement" or "compromise" would be required for all the factions to find a way of getting along without violence.

A second crucial insight of the book is that this analysis applies with equal force to the internal conflicts inside both Palestinian and Israeli societies. While these usually involve a lesser degree of violence than the acts of war and terror that dominate the international news, the radically unresolved internal disagreements are no less an obstacle to Middle East peace. Inside Israel, (the focus of this book) disagreement between religious Zionists - whose support of the settlements is religious and ideological - and the advocates of territorial compromise - whose argument is primarily utilitarian and practical - has created an ideological stalemate that must be resolved if Israeli society is to generate an activist majority in favor of peace. Like the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, deeply religious and symbolic values are at stake in this internal disagreement. Here, once again, the model of negotiated compromise that informs the enlightenment philosophy of international peace is entirely inadequate to the task of establishing a consensual social contract about concerns of religion, land-compromise and politics.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to proposing an alternative understanding of peace that is rooted in the Jewish tradition. Introducing this model as a supplement to the existing political debate allows for a constructive internal dialogue about peace inside Israeli society to begin that can replace the current internal struggle between camps who align themselves as either advocates for or opponents of peace. A dialogue of this nature could be transformative both in terms of the internal conflict and its implications for the international peace process. In this alternative articulation of the concept, peace no longer refers to agreement (as the Latin pax = pact/peace suggests) but 'wholeness' as suggested by the etymology of the Hebrew word, Shalom.

In order to really grasp the point you need to be able to imagine peace not only as a political concept but also as a theological one. The Jewish tradition's most fundamental principle is not simply the oneness of God but the unity or wholeness of God. The distinction is that when you say God is one, you mean simply that there are not two or more of him. In Jewish theology, the idea that God is one suggests that all the forces and the energies in creation all emanate from and culminate in His unity. This paradoxical theological principle therefore posits the idea that opposing forces can co-exist peacefully (as in Isaiah's image of a wolf lying down with a lamb) while the opposition between them is not resolved, agreed upon or compromised out. This form of co-existence is of theological value and its thumbprint that can be found in the vast majority of Jewish literature. Jewish texts most often place opposing points of view together on the same page placing much more emphasis on their co-existence than on the choices that have to be made between them. In this sense, the peaceful co-existence of opposing ideas is always valued above both truth and justice. If you like, you might say that peace, as a theological concept, is a higher or "prophetic" from of both truth and justice. It is this quality of transcending truth and justice that I refer to in the book's title as "prophetic peace". A fuller understanding of this principle allows for a radical openness to the other that, I believe, has far-reaching social and political implications all of which stem from the frame of mind that the central principle of Jewish theology engenders. The Jewish religious frame of mind is one of humble attention to the lives of others that stays the hands of the rash and forceful who - even when they act decisively to accomplish their own visions of political peace - find themselves crushing others and triggering off new conflicts along the way.

The book continues to explore this concept through an analysis of the Jewish tradition's primary prayer texts. The central insight here is that in prayer one must try to internalize as best as one can the significance of the fact that the classical texts of Jewish prayer are worded in the plural. The vast majority of Jewish prayers talk about "us" and "we" and not about "I" and "me". Praying to God for one thing with the consciousness that other people are beseeching him at the same time for the exact opposite thing allows the overarching experience of prayer to be perennially peaceful.

The final sections of the book introduce my practical work in the context of a project called "Talking Peace". The project is a shared initiative that I co-direct along with Dr. Avinoam Rosenak and Ms. Sharon Leshem-Zinger. For me, the work of the project is very much an outgrowth of the book. But, since each of my partners has brought incredible knowledge and insights from their own experience into our work together it is crucial for me to begin by mentioning that this project is a shared venture.

The idea of the Talking Peace project is to try to model an alternative format for moving ahead with constructive discourse about Middle East peace. Our first emphasis was on the ideological conflicts inside the State of Israel which we feel are not given sufficient attention in the arena of international politics. The tenacity with which different factions inside Israel hold to their beliefs is most often painted internationally as an obstacle to peace that must be dealt with internally by any Israeli government that manages to negotiate a deal. In practice, this approach has proved both ineffective and traumatically damaging as was the case in the aftermath of the 2005 disengagement from the Katif Bloc in Gaza. Our first concern was therefore to address this internal conflict about peace in a more open and sensitive way that gives credit to the potential contribution that all the different perspectives can make to a future peace. This work relies on two primary components: sensitivity to group dynamics and insights about co-existence that are rooted in the Jewish tradition's understanding of peace. Since our approach does not alienate religious values and even rests upon them, we were successful in bringing some of the most influential and perhaps one might say 'radical' rabbinic leaders of the settlements into constructive discourse with leaders and thinkers from the Israeli centre and left. As we look to the future, the Talking Peace project is aiming to broaden the circles of discourse, to reach new sectors inside Israel but also to extend our view towards international dialogue with American officials (whose involvement as players in the Middle East peace process must not be ignored or regarded as somehow above the roles of the other parties) Palestinians and ultimately with others as well. Finally, working with the insight that peace - which is a foundational concept in political philosophy - is understood differently in the Jewish tradition (as the book tries to show), the Talking Peace project is tackling the challenge of articulating a vision of what a peaceful Jewish politics might look like. How would decisions be made? Which public institutions must Israeli society evolve in order for its regime to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish tradition about peace and co-existence in both intra and inter-national politics?

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Alick Isaacs is a research fellow at the Hartman Institute's Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish Education and Rothberg School for Overseas Students, both at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is co-director of the Talking Peace project sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem.

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