The 2002 Alexandria Summit and Its Follow Up
By Rabbi David Rosen KSG CBE
In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only has religion failed so far to be a significant force promoting peace; in recent decades with escalating violence, breakdown of trust, and mutual alienation, religion has been increasingly enlisted to strengthen the identities of the parties involved, to promote their respective claims while seeking to delegitimize those of the other side as aforementioned.
Accordingly, precisely because religion is associated more with partisan insularity if not downright hostility towards the “other”, there has been an understandable tendency on the part of peace initiatives in the Middle East to avoid religious institutions and their authorities, seeing them as obstacles to any such peace process.
This tendency is comprehensible but terribly misguided, as it fails to address the most deep-seated dimensions of the communal identities involved and actually undermines the capacities of positive political initiatives to succeed.
Naturally, to combat extremist violence in the name of any ideology, physical measures have to be taken to protect our societies. However defensive action alone is not enough. If one does not want the extremist discourse to predominate, it is necessary to proactively empower the moderate voices who in most cases do represent the respective majorities.
The religious manipulation of the conflict, using religious symbols and arguments to justify carnage was especially evident during the second intifada. The very name given to the violent uprising by the Palestinians – the Al Aqsa intifada – portrayed it as a battle for the defence of Muslim Jerusalem.
Indeed my encounters in the Muslim world have revealed to me how much Muslims today overwhelmingly believe that this conflict in the Holy Land is over religious domination and thus involves an assault against Islam whose holy sites are in peril, threatened by Israeli malevolent intent.
In keeping with this abovementioned misconception, there has been an increasing hostile denial in the Muslim world in recent times of the religious connection between the Jewish People and Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This further exacerbates a vicious cycle and had surely played its part in the increasing number of Jewish religious nationalists visiting the Temple Mount precincts to assert historical claims.
Such a “religionization” of the conflict is very dangerous. For if this conflict is seen as what it is in essence, a territorial conflict, then it can be resolved through territorial compromise. But if it is seen as a religious conflict, between the godly and the godless, between good and evil, then we are condemned to unending bloodshed.
It was in this light, that amidst the worst violence of the second intifada in 2002, religious leaders of the Three Faith communities in the Holy Land were brought together for the first time ever in human history – in Alexandria, Egypt – to raise the voices of their respective Traditions in a call for an end to violence and for the promotion of peace and reconciliation.
The then Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres and his deputy Rabbi Michael Melchior played a critical role in this initiative. But precisely because of the insecurity and mistrust that separates our communities in conflict, it required a third party to initiate this meeting. This was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, energetically supported by Canon Andrew White.
Providentially, Canterbury had an institutional relationship with Al Azhar in Cairo, the fountainhead of Islamic learning in the Arab world – indeed in the Muslim world at large – and the grand Imam of Al Azhar Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, encouraged by President Hosni Mubarak, agreed to host the meeting.
This was crucial in facilitating the success of this initiative. For while the Chief Rabbis of Israel do not represent all religious Jews in Israel, let alone in the world, nevertheless most Jews would not object to them representing Judaism for the purpose of advancing interreligious reconciliation. Similarly, while the Patriarchs of Jerusalem do not represent the whole of Christendom, their role as representatives of Christianity in an effort to promote reconciliation in the Middle East would certainly be affirmed by the Christian world at large. But in the Islamic context, the religious leadership within Palestinian society does not have the standing in the Muslim world to ensure that its voice would be heard and respected as representing Islam. Thus the need to have this major institution of Islamic learning support this process was of critical importance. In addition to giving the green light to Sheikh Tantawi to host the gathering, President Mubarak also received the participants at his palace in Cairo for a press conference at the conclusion of the summit.
Arguably the still-present impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center also played its part in this initiative, as for a brief while political leaders were eager to be seen to be on the side of constructive religious engagement. This was of course particularly the case for Muslim leaders – in this context, Mubarak and especially PA Chairman, Yasser Arafat. However it was also the case for the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It was indeed amazing that both Sharon and Arafat encouraged this initiative despite the violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories that was taking place at the time. Indeed they both approved the text of the final declaration – perhaps the only thing they ever agreed upon!
As indicated, this summit was an historic event, as never before had heads of the different three faith communities in the Holy Land ever come together in one place. The participants included four leading Sheikhs from the establishment structure of the Palestinian Authority, including both a PA minister and the head of the PA Supreme Sharia Courts; five prominent Israeli rabbis, including the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel; and all Patriarchs were represented, the Latin Patriarch attending in person.
After much discussion we were able to agree on a text which condemned the violent abuse of religion and called for adherents of the different religions to respect the attachment of the other faiths and their sites. It urged a rejection of incitement and demonization and to promote positive education about one another. It affirmed the essential need to guarantee freedom of worship; and also called on the respective political leaders to eschew violence and return to the negotiating table; to recognize the importance of religion as a force of reconciliation; and enable Israelis and Palestinians to live in dignity and security.
Even though a “Permanent Committee for the Implementation of the Alexandria Process” was established, it did not get very far in its objectives. It had no impact on the continuing violence, and furthermore changes in Israeli government meant that this framework was viewed as controlled by opposing partisan political interests. There was also some resentment on the part of the Christian communities that the “process” continued to be managed by external Christian parties. Above all, one of the factors that made the Alexandria summit possible was also its weakness – namely, that the participants had been there ad personam. This meant that their institutions did not have ownership of any “process”. When key figures left office or passed away, the continuity was lost.
As a result, a further initiative ensued involving the official religious establishments. A Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy Land was set up comprising the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs and its Sharia courts, and the Patriarchs and Bishops of the recognized Churches of the Holy Land.
This Council (which may be described as the child of the Alexandria summit) was founded with three declared objectives, the first of which was to facilitate ongoing communication between the religious leadership. In this regard it has been moderately successful. Indeed when the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem faced difficulties with his residence permit, the intervention of one of the chief rabbis played a significant role in resolving the impasse. The second goal was to combat incitement, defamation and misrepresentation. The Council responds to any attacks on the sites or adherents in the name of all three religions and has issued statements condemning violence and calling for mutual respect between religious communities. Generally this is done on the Council’s website, but there have been instances when the religious leaders gathered in solidarity with the victims at scenes of terror attacks against worshippers as well as acts of arson.
Last and not least, the members of the Council declared its purpose to support initiatives to bring an end to the conflict so that two peoples and three religions may live in peace and dignity. In this regard, the Council has been an abject failure.
As indicated, the idea that religious leaders seek to pursue peace and reconciliation runs counterintuitive to the widespread perception in Israeli and Palestinian societies that view the other’s religion as the source of the problem. But the main reason for the futility of such good declared intentions lies with the political authorities themselves.
In Israeli political life, religion is used and abused as a “political commodity” for partisan interests (or competing interests) and it is usually seen as something best avoided by those who have been involved in peace negotiations.
More difficult to understand is the American avoidance of Israeli and Palestinian religious leadership, evidenced in the fact that whether during the ultimately futile visits of George Mitchel, or more recently John Kerry, no Secretary of State or even special envoy met with the Council, or even any of the official Christian leaders in the Holy land, let alone those of the Jewish and Muslim communities. This, despite the fact that the Council at the highest level, had been hosted twice in Washington D.C. (In fact the only US Secretary of State to do so was Condoleeza Rice and this was not in the context of any specific peace initiative.)
This may have to do with vagaries of American separation of church and state, though I suspect again that primarily it has to do with a degree of unfamiliarity and even discomfort in the State Department regarding the religious dimension.
Of course, I do not suggest for one minute that religious figures should replace the politicians. In our part of the world, that would be far from wise (though the present impasse in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict highlights the abysmal failure of our politicians to provide any vision).
Moreover, Israeli and Palestinian official religious leadership leaves much to be desired aside from being substantially subject to the political authorities and thus unlikely to provide any initiative out of the impasse of conflict.
However, all this does not mean that religious leadership is irrelevant, on the contrary. It symbolises the very intangibles of identities that exacerbate the conflict, which can only be resolved if these dimensions are addressed. If we do not want religion to be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution.
The most notable public event for the members of the Council took place two years ago at the Vatican where Pope Francis brought us together for a gathering of prayers for peace in the Holy Land in the presence of the then President of Israel Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, in this instance, the deficiency was the reverse of the aforementioned problem, namely the failure to engage a relevant Israeli political authority or at least to obtain support therefrom. Such a gathering could be of significant value if it took place in the context of real negotiations.
Engagement between Israeli and Palestinian religious figures in particular and with Arab Muslim leaders in general, can be of great psychological value in helping resolve the conflict with ramifications way beyond the specific context. It can have a profound impact in overcoming demonization throughout the Middle East and even globally. The Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy land could play a key role in this regard, but in the meantime it remains a body-in-waiting for a time when political leaders will seek to avail themselves of its potential.
Rabbi David Rosen KSG CBE, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, is AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs and director of AJC’s Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding. Rabbi Rosen is a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Committee for Interreligious Dialogue. He is an International President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, Honorary President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, and the only Jewish member of the Board of Directors of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, established in 2012 by the King of Saudi Arabia together with the governments of Austria and Spain with the support of the Holy See. In 2005, Rabbi Rosen received a knighthood from the Pope in recognition of his contribution to promoting Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and in 2010 he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.
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Thank you, Rabbi David Rosen, for the vital work you are doing internationally You have my very best wishes for success.