Rabbi Michael Melchior in conversation. Iconoclasts, BBC Radio 4

I missed the previous Iconoclasts with Peter Singer, but Matt and I were part of the studio audience for the programme which will be broadcast tonight (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/iconoclasts/) in which Rabbi Michael Melchior makes the case for peace as a religious process and is questioned by a panel:

  • Dr Rosemary Hollis is director of research at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.
  • Dame Pauline Neville-Jones was a career diplomat from 1963 to 1996, serving in Rhodesia, Singapore, Washington and Bonn. Between 1993 and 1994 she was chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Subsequently, as political director in the Foreign Office, she led the British delegation to the Dayton negotiations on the Bosnia peace settlement.
  • Dr Salman Sayyid is a research fellow at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds University. He is the author of A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (Zed Books).
  • Yisrael Medad is Information Resources Director at the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem and serves as a spokesperson for the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He was parliamentary aide to members of Knesset between 1981-1994. He immigrated to Israel in 1970 and resides in Shiloh in Samaria since 1981.

There are audio files on the RSA Lectures page.

Michael’s main thrust was that religion can unite as well as divide, that it is untried and untapped as a force for peace. Below are my notes on the conversation which follows. They’re not in order, but by theme.

What is religion? It is belonging, spirituality and closeness to God. We should not condemn religion itself but ask what is good or bad about religion.

Why do we never hear about the successes, the initiatives towards peace? Because bad news has a media monopoly.

Is sovereignty a religious issue? For some Jews, yes – expressed in the notion of the Promised Land, Eretz Israel. The settler movement Gush Emunim is a meeting of nationalism and religion. Palestinian nationalism is more religious than it used to be, possibly because religion is a the only force to fill the vacuum left by the end of Arab nationalism. Or: Judaism confers a claim on the land – not simply a right to occupy and consume it, but a responsibility to carry out mitzvot related to it. Peace in the Middle East has consistently, since the 1920s rested on yielding land. But doesn’t that mean that out of a religious tradition has been extracted the idea that land is more important than life? The question of religion in politics came up after the 1967 war which yielded some of the heartland of the J national home into Jewish home. When democracy fails – the secular, diplomatic approach fails – religion can come to the fore.

Christianity may be exceptional in separating church and state. Or, is this secular period in fact a shortlived interlude nearing its end? Christianity is growing in the USA.

It’s impossible to separate religion and politics. They are linked by Community. Cheap secularism as a threat to traditional values is a far bigger fear for Muslims than Zionism. Religion, again, emerges as the only antidote to secularisms most feared influences – as such it matters more and more.

Is there a clash of civilisations? Yes, in that the ‘West’ objects to Shariah law and the use of violence to gain ends. But no, in that empires clash, not civilisations. And what is the difference between car bombs and cluster bombs, state terror or religious terror? (I’m fairly sure that there is a difference).

Is there enough common ground between the religions of the book to share a perspective? Yes, in many concrete ways. But what has that got to do with solving the very material problems of roads, water, curfews?

There seems to be a belief that secular people are able to engage with politics while religious people are extra-political or incapable of engaging with political processes. This is not necessarily true – but where religion is invoked as “The Almighty behind my position”, all conversation stops. On the other hand, God doesn’t win many arguments because the absolutists cannot find common ground, while the moderates argue over other matters. So force or reason wins arguments, not God. Invoking God rather points to a failure or arguments.

So what about practicalities of dialogue with Hezballah or Hamas? Dialogue may be necessary to avoid fetishising their terrorist methods. We have to look beyond the most extreme expressions of Islam. There are pro-Zionist Muslims (an Italian imam was mentioned) but there is also dispair among Palestinians. Talking with terrorists is a dilemma. On the one hand it may bring them into the fold and moderate them. On the other side it may dignify their methods while undermining more peaceful means – we must not be liberal with other people’s lives.

What kind of dialogue? Michael mentioned going over text books and identifying insults with each other. Also debunking myths. Comparing self-image with the others’ impressions until an agreement is reached about how each should be represented. Conversations should not be exclusive either. But what about the flock, the congregations? How is the religious leaders’ enlightenment conveyed?

I didn’t find much of this very iconoclastic (mainly because I’ve observed religion to be compatible with modern life). But I don’t think that religion is central enough to this struggle to represent a way out of it. And I don’t know what else I can say. Though, Ok, maybe in Jerusalem where the dome of the Rock meets the Wailing Wall, people may listen… And if there, then possibly elsewhere.


2 thoughts on “Rabbi Michael Melchior in conversation. Iconoclasts, BBC Radio 4

  1. Well, in response to an audience question, I pointed out that Rav Melchior wouldn’t even go up to the Temple Mount because of his religious restrictions. What I forgot to mention is that the Waqf wouldn’t allow it so the whole idea of a “religious leaders’ summit” is a non-starter. I wouldn’t mind hearing how I fared – negative or positive.

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