For those of you who don’t watch the news regularly, Israel has been super stressful. Between Hamas’s rocket launches, the Syrian refugee crisis brewing on our border, the Syrian civil war which you can hear from Israel’s north, plus earthquakes and the usual backdrop of yelling and frenetic bargaining. There’s cool stuff here and beautiful nature, but let’s not kid ourselves- between all these problems plus recent homophobic and racist legislation, living in Israel is “lo pashut”. It ain’t simple.
So many times people come here to “solve the conflict”. The first question to them should be “what conflict?” As in which one. Between secular and Orthodox Jews? Between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim? Between LGBTs and the conservative religious establishment? Between Arabs and Jews in Israel? Between Israelis and Palestinians? Between Druze and Muslims and Christians and Jews? The religious conflicts or the ethnic ones? The wealthy and the poor? These are not “stam”, as we say in Hebrew. They are not just the conflicts of every country. They are a blend unique to here. Israel has the widest gap in wealth among developed countries with the exception of the United States. And a much higher rate of political violence and terrorism than any Western nation.
When I arrived to Israel, I came as a deeply religious Reform Jew. I would never have called myself deeply religious (although some friends having jokingly called me ReFrum, a pun on the Yiddish word for “pious”), but most of my friends would say I’m pretty Jewish. I’ve lived and loved Judaism since I was a young kid and discovered its heritage and magic. And through many tough times, I’ve used that magic to try to pull me through and give me hope. And many times, it did give me hope and a sense of community when I lacked one at home.
Although it’s taken me experiencing Israel to understand the limitations, even the disadvantages of religion. Judaism and all faiths. For religion to me is not something inherently bad (or inherently good). The way you interpret religious text says at least as much about you as it does about the text itself. Someone can look at the Bible, Torah, or Quran and come to radically different conclusions, some much more humane than others.
It’s also true that not all conflicts are about religion. The Soviet Union was an atheist government (Russians today are still disproportionately not religious compared to the rest of the world). And it still managed to butcher millions of people. Atheists can manage to be quite violent and extremist- even orthodox in their rejection of faith. A kind of new religion to supplant their old one.
What I’ve noticed in Israel is that religion is quite often a force for evil. Not because religion itself has to be evil (although by definition it leaves some people in and some out). It’s because in practice, it often leads to conflict. While sociological factors often underlie what appear to be purely religious strife, it would be naive to pretend religious dogma plays no role.
Look at the main faiths here- the monotheists- Judaism, Islam, and Christian. Each one has elements of humaneness and kindness. Tzedakah, Sadaqa, charity. Compassion for the weak, the stranger. Even at times calls for varying degrees of religious pluralism. And a repeated emphasis on being morally upright and treating your neighbor with respect.
At the same time, we need to be intellectually honest and recognize each of these faiths’ proclivity for exclusivity and superiority. In Christianity and Islam, this revolves around recognizing the holiness of the main prophet (Jesus or Muhammad) and pursuing the conversion of all nonbelievers. Sometimes this was done by sword, other times by incentive, but the final goal, even among the most pacifistic believers, is for everyone to believe in your religion.
In Judaism, the superiority plays out differently. We are God’s “chosen people”. Israel, our promised land. These are birth rights. For being Jewish. If you want to join us, you can, but it’s quite hard. It has always been. And is increasingly so in Israel where the rabbinate veers far to the right of the Jewish mainstream.
In other words, the superiority argument in Judaism is an exclusive one. It’s not that we want everyone to be like us- we’re explicitly not an evangelical religion (which I like). The flip side, however, is that we’re quite an exclusive club. It’s hard to join and harder to be accepted. And we have a sense, at least among the religiously inclined, that God chose us, our language, our beliefs above all other peoples. If you think I’m making this up, simply look at the aleynu prayer or Friday night kiddush.
There are progressive religious Jews who have, to varying degrees, changed the liturgy and how it’s taught to be more inclusive. That’s cool. The same could be said with certain Christian sects and a small but emerging community of Muslims.
Overall the same problem continues though. These progressive-minded communities are, without a doubt, small small minorities in the scheme of world religions. The vast majority of the world’s religions and religious people are against gay marriage. Even progressive traditions struggle to incorporate women equally in religious leadership. While you could say that there are cultural factors at work (understood), it’s also true that on these and other issues, “nonbelievers” far outperform their religious peers.
In the United States, the only religious group that is more supportive of gay marriage than non-theists is Buddhists. Jews, interestingly, are not far behind, perhaps owing to their decidedly progressive religious tendencies compared to their Israeli brethren, where only 40% of the public believes we should accept homosexuality at all. It’s worth noting that a large portion of American Jews are not religiously Jewish as well.
When I think of specific examples here, I have too many to choose from. The Muslims who looked at me in disbelief when I said I had read the Quran (and not converted to Islam). The Muslims who told me Arabic was the first language and all languages come from it (an absurd claim to make to a polyglot- that’s sacrilegious). The Muslims who laughed at the idea that Jews had ever lived here. The Muslims whose Facebook profiles were adorned with Palestinian flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Islamist iconography. Not to mention the one guy who had written Arabic posts mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day- that was a difficult one for me to confront, but confront it I did. This Jew speaks Arabic.
Before you indulge yourself in bashing Muslims, let me tell you about the Jews who said the Torah *justifies* expelling refugees, even Arabs. The Christians who told me not to waste time dialoguing with Muslims because they could give me a more “realistic” picture of what’s going on here. Or the Christians who said Muslims are animals who breed entire tribes of children to take over the land. Or the Druze man who cut off all contact with me when I told him I was gay- he threatened that if I didn’t do so, he’d cause me “problems”. Not sure what those would be, but considering I travel a lot in Druze country, I wasn’t ready to take the risk to my safety.
Are secular or atheist people just as capable of hatred? Perhaps- depends on the individual, religious or not. In fact, some atheists can be just as orthodox in their certainty and thinking as any religious extremist. Herein lies the danger.
It’s just that most of the world’s extremism and orthodox thinking is concentrated in religion and perhaps hardcore nationalism. Of which there is a potent mix here among so many elements of society in many different directions. Solving Israeli and Jewish nationalism by way of Palestinian nationalism, for instance, will do nothing but create more conflict and bloodshed. And I do believe that in the end, most people, religious or not, really do want a good life. Even if some of their beliefs are getting in the way of that. Humans are nothing if not complex. But I do have hope.
The point is religiosity is in the eye of the beholder. We could argue that the examples I gave of egregious hatred are based on a selective reading of religious texts. True. But so is reading texts only looking for acts of kindness. Conquest is written into the Bible, Torah, and Quran. It is not a new phenomenon, nor one that religious people need to invent today. The Crusades, the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, and Isreal’s expansion into the depths of the West Bank (in some respects, its founding)- these are all rooted in long religious traditions. We can say distorted, complex, for sure. But eminently present.
In the end, religion can provide comfort, community, and hope. It can, and does, mobilize some people for good. Do I personally think it’s worth all the conflict it contributes to? Maybe not. What good is the continuation of Judaism if it becomes nothing more than a series of rituals devoid of ethical meaning? What does Christianity mean when it is used to force gay youngsters into “conversion therapy”, and often suicide? Why is Islam ultimately beneficial when it is used to massacre Yezidis, Christians, Jews, and others? Even other Muslims who don’t agree with them?
It’s not because all religious people are like this. Or that atheists are saints. I’m not exactly sure where I fall myself. I’d say that as I write this, perhaps I just don’t believe in God. I believe in what uplifts the human spirit. I believe in kindness. And I don’t believe in divine retribution nor in the sacrosanct nature of a document so clearly written by humans thousands of years ago. Which may contain some wisdom, but not exclusive authority nor the right to use it to butcher other human beings.
My overall point is that orthodox thinking, the idea that one set of value is always right- that is a problem. Even if not all religious people end up overly protective of their sect’s interests (as opposed to those of humanity as a whole), the idea behind it is problematic. When put into practice, religion more often than not divides people who could share other things in common.
Even though Judaism today in Israel is becoming more and more nationalistic and, with the state’s help, more uniform, it was not always this way. What’s most perplexing about the degradation of religion in Israel is that Judaism was once the playground of questioners. Of people who debated and divided and built energy off diversity. So that whether you believed in the God of Abraham or not, the process itself was unique for its depth of heterodoxy. And at times, its willingness to make room for dissent. Moreso than any other religion of its time.
So one of the greatest casualties of religious conflict in Israel is not just the Filipino kids who will never get citizenship. Nor the Sudanese refugees who will be deported. Nor the Reform Jews who can’t pray together at the Western Wall.
It’s Judaism itself. And perhaps, perhaps my belief in it.
The universe is full of possibility and I’m exploring.
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