Volume 13 Number 2
A New Take on Peace and Religion
01 April 2000

Margaret Smith finds lessons for peacemakers in a book which looks at conflict resolution through the lens of Jewish tradition.

Since the early 1980s the developing field of conflict resolution has drawn together people of many outlooks who recognize that working for a more peaceful and just world cannot and should not be left to governments. Such groups have gained credibility from the fact that in the past 20 years governments have found themselves less able to respond to pressing social needs in the international environment. As a result, officialdom increasingly accepts and recognizes the role of non-government actors in international affairs.

Those engaged in conflict resolution work recognize that healthy processes must include as large a number as possible of those affected by the conflict, giving them a sense of being heard and a sense of ownership of any agreement. They believe in the importance of good negotiation and communication skills, in particular the ability to listen actively as a way of acknowledging the other's concerns. They emphasize the value of a 'third party' who can help those on two sides of a conflict talk through their differences. And they derive their optimism from the overarching idea of 'win-win'--the belief that it is possible to find solutions where all parties feel their fundamental concerns have been met.

Rabbi Marc Gopin identifies himself, broadly speaking, with the conflict resolution movement. His book, Between Eden and Armageddon: the future of world religions, violence and peacemaking (Oxford University Press, 2000), respectfully criticizes certain elements of that movement and attempts to broaden it. Most fundamentally, Gopin challenges the way that concepts of negotiation have had such a defining influence on this field. Emphasis on direct communication, he argues, privileges cultures and individuals who are at ease with the spoken word, particularly those with higher education, and assumes that direct verbal dialogue is, of itself, an agent of change.

Secondly, he questions the pervasive belief in 'win-win', arguing that in certain cases there is no win-win solution, and that the conflict resolver must help the parties mourn those things that cannot be achieved in negotiation. Thirdly, Gopin critiques what he sees as the 'secular liberal' assumptions of the conflict resolution movement--relying as it does on rationality and critical dialogue. Because of this bias, he says, many conflict resolution specialists understand religion only in terms of its capacity to create or exacerbate conflict and fail to understand the 'prosocial' role religion can play in encouraging peaceable behaviour.

In fact, religious actors are getting more acknowledgement for their peacemaking work than in the past, witness the UN's special meeting for religious and spiritual leaders in New York last September. In particular, this acknowledgement has to do with their capacity to play the role of a third party, both in unofficial dialogues and sometimes in official settings.

Gopin is calling for a different take on religion's role in conflict resolution--one that acknowledges the value of religious teaching per se. As an Orthodox rabbi, he develops his thinking mainly with regard to Orthodox Judaism. He proposes that normal processes of rabbinical interpretation could lead Orthodox Jews to develop ideas about peacemaking that are already present in their teaching and pinpoints elements of Jewish teaching that could be developed in this way.

It is impossible to read this book without relating Gopin's arguments to the current situation in Israel and Palestine. Indeed, a subtext of the book is the question 'How can the Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel be brought into a future peace process?' Gopin criticizes the now-defunct Oslo agreement on the grounds that it built on the liberal, secular, pro-peace élite at the 'centre' of Israeli-Palestinian politics. Oslo thus supported the tendency of secular groups to label the religious right in Israel as contributors to conflict and then to ignore them. A fresh articulation of Judaism as a peacemaking faith and culture, he argues, could draw together religious and secular alike in a new conception of Israeli Jewish identity that could lead to gestures of acceptance of the Palestinians.

As a non-Jew I am not qualified to comment on the workability of this proposal. But Gopin's book offers the non-Jew an opportunity to reflect in a fresh way about what it means to be a peacemaker, by looking at this vocation through the lens of Jewish tradition.

Gopin speaks, for example, of the importance of the face to face encounter in Jewish teaching. 'The talmudic rabbis,' he says, 'mandated that one should greet everyone with a loving, or literally "beautiful", face (sever panim yafot). They prohibited the kind of language and actions that make the face turn white with embarrassment, making the latter into a sin akin to murder, literally the shedding of the blood of the face. Conversely, they made the honour of the Other into a supreme mitsvah, the opposite of humiliation of the face of the Other.'

He tells the story of Rabbi Meir (c 135-170 CE), who was once lecturing when a married woman came to hear him speak. The lecture lasted late into the night and when the woman got home her husband was so angry that he would not let her into the house until she spat in the rabbi's face. The rabbi heard of the plight of the woman and went and found her in her place of exile. Pretending that he had an eye ailment, he asked her how to do incantations over an eye that is unwell. She could not remember an incantation for eyes, but he told her not to worry, because he knew that if she would just spit seven times in his eye he would be cured. And so the woman was reconciled with her husband.

Gopin emphasizes that Rabbi Meir lowers himself--allowing himself as a person of elevated spiritual standing to be spat upon--and offers this as a model for third parties, who must be willing to lose a little face in order to open a path to reconciliation. But in addition, the cultural specificity of this story and the rabbi's insight--combining as it does compassion, humour and originality--reminds us that true spirituality involves a creative response to a particular situation that surely cannot be reduced to a science.

Forgiveness, says Gopin, has been much discussed in conflict resolution circles, but usually from a perspective that is Christian without recognizing that this is so. What forgiveness actually means and how it is acted upon varies greatly from person to person and culture to culture. 'It also can and does interact in complicated ways with competing moral and spiritual responses, such as commitments to truth, justice, apology, repentance and penance, among others.'

He speaks of the Jewish process of teshuva, which can mean 'repentance' or 'returning', which he regards as essential for the transformation of relationship. Teshuva should involve restitution, deep remorse, a confession of wrongdoing, and a commitment to change in the future. An experience of deep remorse and critical apology, he argues, is fundamental to real societal change: forgiveness offered without this will not have the same profound impact.

Gopin calls for memorials to past horrors that are not simply to be looked at, but which are places where confessions, apologies and restitutions can be made on an ongoing basis. This continuing process could free everyone involved to mourn the past together with the victims, and foster a new future.

Gopin, wisely, does not attempt to discuss the application of his ideas to Islamic teaching, though he makes it clear he has studied reconciliation processes in Islam and has worked with Moslem students.

The knottier problem that Gopin chooses not to engage in this book is the explosive combination of religion and politics on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the way that so-called fundamentalist traditions tend to reinforce already existing political extremes. Instead he focuses on the fear of annihilation that causes the religiously committed on both sides to emphasize the elements of their religion that negate the Other, because they feel a duty to protect their religious tradition. This is the tendency Gopin seeks to redirect, and he implies that redirecting it will have political consequences.

In the broadest philosophical sense, this book engages the temptation that idealists face to search for a key to unlock the problems of life that works for everyone. Christians in the past have thought, and in some cases continue to think, of their faith in these 'universalist' terms. Other potential universalisms, whether they are based on the 'dialogue group' so popular in conflict resolution circles, or on a belief in liberal values like human rights, may also have validity. But if the claims they make are too great it will be impossible for extremist groups to participate in the process they are offering. Minority groups who take extreme positions need reassurance that their own group is honoured and upheld for what it is before they are willing to move out into a wider forum and participate in reconciliation.

Margaret Smith is an Assistant Professor of International Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution at American University, Washington, DC.