Religious groups have a key role to play in ending the siege of Gaza and speeding the creation of a viable Palestinian state
Sunny Hundal has wrote earlier this week about the potentially alienating effects of religious voices in the current protests over Gaza.
In some respects, I would agree with him. To regard the Middle East conflict in simplistic religious terms – for example as part of a wider war on Islam – fails to recognise the complexities of Palestinian and Israeli societies and does little to build a broader political coalition. The use of the Middle East conflict to pursue an antisemitic agenda by some Muslims is also morally bankrupt and has done more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.
But if we are to see the development of a stronger political movement for an end to the siege of Gaza and the creation of a viable and free Palestinian state, religious groups and ideas have a key role to play. Groups such as the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel have already played an important part in monitoring human rights violations in the occupied territories, and others including Islamic Relief and Christian Aid are still trying to maintain some kind of relief effort in Gaza. Of particular symbolic importance are groups on the religious Jewish left such as Tikkun and Rabbis for Human Rights whose criticisms and direct action against Israeli policies demonstrate that criticism of Israeli policies are not intrinsically antisemitic, but can reflect a deeper commitment to social justice within the Jewish tradition.
The success of political liberation movements against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the United States owed a great deal both to the ideological critiques and the grassroots resources of religious organisations. The movement for a just peace in the Middle East is no different. If we are to see a broader public coalition emerge in support of peaceful Palestinian aspirations for a free and viable state, then wider religious networks will need to be mobilised. For example, the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival played an important role in popularising support for the drop the debt campaign long before it broke into wider public awareness with the Live8 concerts. If Greenbelt’s long-standing concerns with Palestinians’ sufferings coalesce into a more explicit campaigning position, this could mark a significant moment for the wider protest movement in the UK. Similarly organisations like Christian Aid, Cafod, and the Muslim Council of Britain can play a major role in educating their constituencies about the Middle East conflict and contributing to a disciplined and focused political campaign.
One casualty of such religious mobilisation might be the fragile interfaith contacts that the government and NGOs have sought to build up in recent years. Attempts to repair Muslim-Jewish relations which have become particularly tense on several British university campuses have generally been unable to address the underlying divisions caused by the Middle East conflict. Divisions now seem set to get worse. The Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have previously been very sensitive to criticisms of Israel from other religious groups. But when the editor of the Jewish Chronicle suggests that one of the most constructive responses to the Gazan crisis is to send take-away pizzas to those serving on the front-line with the IDF, it is impossible to defend the moral vacuity of the unquestioning support for Israel shown by some sections of the Jewish community. We can only hope that the worst elements of the Middle East conflict are not imported further into divisions in British society. But perhaps we should also not mourn the loss of an illusory social cohesion based on ignoring the plight of malnourished children in Gaza.
Like Sunny, I was at last Saturday’s demonstration in Trafalgar Square. One of the most striking moments for me was seeing a small number of Muslim men kneeling in prayer in the middle of the road whilst the police and bemused demonstrators looked on. There was something profoundly dignified about that moment that was more eloquent than many of the speakers on the stage. That moment of prayer seemed to me to express a sense of frailty, longing for a peace that seems barely achievable and a connection to a source of hope deeper than the current conflict. Perhaps all of us, religious or secular, need that kind of prayer right now.