American Task Force on Palestine
February 29, 2012 - 1:00am

Washington DC, Feb 29 -- The American Task Force on Palestine yesterday hosted a Washington dinner for the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL), the consultative body that comprises the most senior official Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders. CRIHL was established as the implementing body of the historic declaration signed in Alexandria, Egypt in 2002 in which Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders pledged to work together to end violence and promote peace. The event was sponsored by ATFP board member Dr. Adnan M. M. Mjalli and moderated by ATFP President Dr. Ziad J. Asali. Numerous CRIHL members spoke at the event, which was a rare instance of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from Palestinian and Israeli societies assembling to promote dialogue and advocate for peace.

In his remarks, CRIHL Convener Rev. Dr. & Canon Trond Bakkevig of Norway noted that his family had lived in Amman, Jordan, before 1967, and travelled to Jerusalem, which is about an hour drive away, on a weekly basis. He said since those formative experiences, he has been committed to seeking peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land. Bakkevig said that leaders in all local communities "need to take responsibility for resolving the conflict" and that what outsiders like himself can do is "help facilitate dialogue and promote understanding." He said the Council from the outset understood that it had to be based on these local religious institutions, and said the Chief Rabbinate, local churches and the Sharia Council all responded very positively when the idea was first floated and did not hesitate to join the Council. He said it is very significant that many of these religious authorities are linked to political institutions, for example the close relationship between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli Prime Minister's office, while Muslim and Christian institutions work closely with the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Wakf and Religious Affairs. Such religious leaders "do not substitute for political leadership," he said, but "they can help guide politicians on religious matters."

Rev. Bakkevig said the Council is visiting the United States in recognition that it has an essential role to play in creating peace in the Holy Land due to its international stature and relations with Israel and the Palestinians. He said, “Our message is that religious leaders in the Holy Land should play a role in the search for peace because religion is so central to so many of the most contentious and difficult issues. Leaders must ensure that religion is a force for peace and not confrontation.” He singled out three specific areas of concern that directly involve religious sentiments. First, he said, there is the issue of control of and access to holy sites. Religious leaders, he noted, can help politicians ensure free and unimpeded access to, and reduce controversies regarding, these contested holy sites. Second, he said religious leaders can help manage the issue of Jerusalem. “All narratives regarding Jerusalem need to be respected,” and “the current status quo regarding control over holy sites should be maintained and defended,” he said. The final issue on which he said religious leaders can help provide guidance to political leaders is the problem of incitement. He said that the Palestinian Authority was pushing for a committee on incitement to be formed and that the Council welcomed this idea, that the ongoing project to scientifically and systematically study Palestinian and Israeli textbooks will be crucial in assessing the level of incitement that actually exists in schools, and that programs to prepare future leaders for tolerance and coexistence are in place, supported by the Council and are necessary to ensure a better future. Bakkevig concluded by noting that the Council is a forum for "open disagreement and open discussion" among leaders of the three religions adhered to by the two national communities in the Holy Land, and that "such dialogue is, ultimately, what can lead to agreement."

In his remarks, Salah Zuheikeh, Director General of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Religious Affairs, cited three principles from the Quran that he said guide him in his work with the Council and dialogue with Jewish Israelis. He cited a verse saying God created different peoples to "come to know and understand each other, not to quarrel." He then cited a second verse that instructs Muslims "to build and not destroy in the world." Finally, he said that the Quran and Islam have taught him that, "mercy, forgiveness, love and compassion are paramount virtues."

Oded Wiener, Director General of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said that over the years the Council had developed a special relationship between religious leaders. He said this relationship is quite unique in the region, given that these leaders come together in spite of their deep and significant differences to discuss crucial matters freely and frankly. “And,” he continued, “We listen to each other,” which he said is another unusual characteristic of Council discussions.

In his remarks Bishop Dr. Munib Younan, Head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, said that while Judaism and Islam are based on law, by contrast Christianity bears the Gospel, the “good news,” and this is that peace is possible because "God wants all of us to live together in peace." He said the Council is a vehicle of hope and noted that none of the religious organizations had any hesitation enjoining it when it was founded. Bishop Younan said what is needed for peace are "political leaders who are willing to take risks to achieve it" and "not to pander to extremists and those who would deny the rights of others." He said that one of the key reasons that peace efforts have failed thus far is that religious leaders were not consulted on key and highly contentious issues. The Bishop said he felt like a minority in the Middle East, not because he is a Christian, but because he is a moderate and that "moderation is in short supply on all sides in the region at the moment." He appealed for support for moderates in all communities, and said, "an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would change the atmosphere throughout the Middle East" for the better.

Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, thanked ATFP and Dr. Mjalli for hosting the important event. He said the meetings the Council was having during this trip to the United States were very important, but that meeting Vice-President Joe Biden was less important than the opportunity for an Israeli such as himself to meet with Palestinians in the delegation. He said, “we are neighbors and must make peace together.” The Chief Rabbi suggested that future meetings or conferences between Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders need not be held in the United States but "could be hosted in Ramallah or Jerusalem."

His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, noted that while the Council was founded in 2005, religious leaders believed in and practiced dialogue long before that. He said that God himself had begun dialogue, first between himself and his people, and then by encouraging people to have dialogue among themselves to make the world a better place. He stressed the need to work with children to create a "culture of dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians." He also noted that, “some people are more afraid of peace than war,” while others “prefer to manage rather than resolve the conflict.”

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor at Tel Aviv University, said that, “If I didn't think there's a solution to the problem, I wouldn't be here,” and that as a person of faith he is “sure there's a solution even if we can't see it clearly now.” He noted that the sun and stars are still present in the sky even when they are not readily visible to the human eye during the day or at night, or because of cloud cover. He said that the Council is “a group of messengers who show through our own activity that a lasting and just peace can be achieved.” He continued, “The Council is an address for those politicians who wish to negotiate to get advice on the crucial and central religious issues that are so often the cause of failure of peace talks.” He also noted that while “the United States is indispensable,” the most important decisions on peace “have to be made by us in the region, and as religious leaders we have to devote real energy to preparing our constituents for painful compromises.”

In his remarks, Dr. Mahmoud Habbash, the Minister of Religious Affairs of the Palestinian Authority, said that, “Peace is not a matter of words but must be achieved through deeds on the ground.” He said the essence of peace is “giving others that same peace that we want for ourselves.” “We dream of a real peace in the land of peace,” he continued, “in the Holy Land, between us and the Israelis.” He said the parties had three options, two of which could lead to a peaceful future, and the third that would mean conflict and destruction. He said the first and preferred option is the creation of a Palestinian state to live in peace alongside Israel. He said that if this proves impossible, then there is the theoretical possibility of a single-state arrangement that also could be a path to peace. Failing either of these, Minister Habbash said, children on both sides will face a future of conflict. “We need to stop talking about peace and start really creating it,” he said, and warned that, “Time is not on our side so we must move quickly to create a real peace in the Middle East.”

Dr. Bruce Wexler, a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, gave a detailed description of a scientific study being conducted into the content of Palestinian and Israeli textbooks that he has been organizing under the auspices of the Council. He also noted that in the Council meeting with VP Biden, Minister Habbash had stressed addressing the problem of incitement, emphasized that his ministry vets all sermons in West Bank mosques to ensure incitement is contained, and proposed the creation of a committee to monitor incitement on both sides. Wexler said the proposal was welcomed by VP Biden as well as the other Council members.

Prof. Wexler described the painstaking methodology being used for the textbook study. He said that he began by consulting the most important internationally renowned experts in the field, then creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian team of academics with impeccable scholarly credentials. They have created a standardized rating form for evaluating portrayals of the other side in the respective textbooks and manuals about how to gather data and evaluate representations, consulted with the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries, and established an international scientific advisory panel to oversee this methodology. Everyone involved in the project is bilingual so that Palestinians and Israelis can evaluate textbooks from both societies. Wexler said that the evaluators submit their reports electronically, secretly and anonymously, and that no one, including himself, has any idea what the data is reflecting so that no sense of emerging trends can influence or skew subsequent evaluations. He said that 2,000 entries have been already compiled at the Yale University-based database for the project, and that the study will be completed next month. Once the data is completed, the project's scientific advisory council will meet and discuss the findings and the methodology, and the results will then be released under the auspices of CRIHL. He said it is essential that all relevant parties commit to the integrity and methodology of the study before anyone, himself included, knows any details about the results or its findings, so that neither the results themselves, nor motivations of any of the parties involved could be legitimately questioned. He called on all interested parties to acknowledge that this project is being conducted at the highest level of scientific precision and integrity, and to agree in advance to accept the legitimacy of its findings rather than questioning the methodology or motives in retrospect if conclusions do not meet anyone's expectations.

Wrapping up the evening, ATFP President Ziad J. Asali noted how refreshing it was to hear religious leaders expressing in harmony a moral voice raised in defense of moderation and peace rather than conflict. This powerful moral message can be used to shape "A Different Future," the name of the organization that Dr. Wexler founded which is presently studying Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. This is an example of the role this moral voice can play in promoting peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, Dr. Asali noted.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017