Minorities, Majorities, and Religious Freedom: Patterns and Possibilities for Israel, Palestine, and Beyond

In light of the recent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations, this week's Cornerstone contributors focus on Israel. In particular, the blog posts explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, looking at how religious freedom—or a lack thereof—has played a role in the fighting.  

By: Marc Gopin

History is indicating that freedom of religion is becoming one of the most important markers of progress for humanity toward a less violent and more just world. In fact, the march toward freedom of religion in the last few hundred years has seen the liberation of religion for millions of people from its abuse by the worst human instincts of greed and power—except where religion has not been liberated. Freedom of religion liberates human beings from those who abuse religion from within, clerics, and those who abuse religion from without, states.

Religion is still being abused by states, East and West, North and South, for very secular purposes of political, military, and financial gain. We live at a critical juncture in the history of the relationship between religion and state, and there is no place on the planet where a clarification of this relationship is not important and critical to the future.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, we are faced with a pernicious and chronic conflict that has raged between Jews and Arabs and among Muslims, Christians, and Jews over the fate of those lands. That contemporary conflict, however, is not unrelated to a two-thousand-year-old struggle over who belongs to that land, and which religion, culture, or ethnicity predominates. 

If there is a two-state solution to this conflict, it will entail what is referred to as a “Jewish state” and a “Palestinian state,” where it is has been declared in several documents that the official state religion will be Islam, going with the majority.

The history of freedom of religion in its most successful moments of impact has been the history of the empowerment of minority religions, the religions that are especially reviled by some segments of a majority. It is vital that the rights of minority religions be protected in both Israel and Palestine as a critical test of a functioning democracy. It is marker of a state in which the rule of law can be trusted to work for everyone. This means that Christians, Jews, and others must be guaranteed their rights in the new state of Palestine, and that Muslims, Christians, and non-Orthodox Jews be granted full equality of rights in Israel. This must be applied not only to the courts, but also to the functioning of the system of safety and security: the police and military. Freedom of religion must be taught in the schools as a fundamental element of the democratic nature of the society.

In the real world, however, there is only one state in all of historic Palestine and Israel, and that is the Jewish state of Israel. That has been the reality since 1967—for almost 60 years. It is quite possible that there will only be a one-state solution. In the meantime, therefore, it is critical that the standards of freedom of religion be upheld by the one state.

On the one hand, Israel, like Syria, has been run by a community of people with a keen sense of how minority religions suffer. Just like the Alawites of Syria and Turkey and the Kurds in various countries, the Jewish community of Israel has had a tendency to be strongly in favor of religious freedom for minorities, which is why Baha’i, for example, have found a home in Israel, unlike many other places in the Middle East, as have several other minorities.

The problem has been that the ethnic nature of the conflict between Palestinians and Jews has led to a functional reality in which Muslims and Christians have suffered great tragedies, including to their holy places. When 600 villages of Palestinians were emptied in 1948, for example, their mosques, churches, and graveyards were also made to disappear. Many other cases of the violation of holy sites occurred as well, and some continue to occur. These violations are not occurring out of religious intolerance so much as out of the cost of the continuing existential conflict on an ethnic level between Jews and Palestinians. Then there is also the growing radicalization of religion in both the Jewish and Muslim spheres that has led to various attacks and abuses. The majority of the cases have been by radical Jews, but the systematic rise of Hamas as a political and military force has led to many deadly bombings with strong religious overtones as their motivation; the latter cannot be divorced so easily from the larger frightening context of political Islam’s effects in a variety of countries around the world. All of this must be weighed in the balance as one reflects on the state of freedom of religion in this complicated context.

The United States should vigorously pursue the extension of the freedom of religion discussion to Israel and Palestine—as long as it does so with a keen, unbiased eye, something it has a hard time doing. Whether this land becomes one state or two, it is vital that freedom of religion, and the rigorous application of civil rights standards, be applied equally to all citizens. It is vital that freedom of religion and equality of peoples becomes the guide to all behavior by courts, legislators, government offices, and police and military forces.

The fact is that this agenda has the potential to be a common cause across ethnic lines of Israel and Palestine. Within the Jewish community and the Palestinian community, many suffer from the effects of religious intolerance in their own community. This agenda has the potential to be a bond between communities, between women who have suffered, between secular progressives who have suffered, between religious progressives who suffer, and between small minorities in both communities, such as Christians. When the freedom of religion agenda is used as a biased political tool by the United States, it can only have damaging consequences. But when this agenda is carried forth with authentic and unbiased care for all peoples, it becomes a liberating element in the global march toward less violence and more freedom. 

Marc Gopin is the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC), the James H. Laue Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and co-owner of MEJDI, a peace tourism business that embraces the multiple narratives of indigenous peoples. 

This piece was originally authored on October 7, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/5/minorities-majorities-and-religious-freedom-patterns-and-possibilities-for-israel-palestine-and-beyond