2018 Annual Peace Lecture
“Can we Think Our Way to Peace?”
Dr Rachael Kohn
August 20th 2018 6.15pm in St David Lecture Theatre, Otago University

I was recently walking through the colossal remains of a once glorious civilization that was ancient Greece. It was the home of democracy, of analytical philosophy, and the Archimedean mix of mathematics, engineering and astronomy, which together made possible some of the most magnificent structures ever built. Temples of awesome size, built of the finest white marble, chiselled out of high mountains, transported long distances and erected with impressive speed, precision and artistic beauty. (The most authoritative book on the building of the Acropolis in Athens, concludes that with today’s methods we could not build it in the record 8 years it took the ancients.)

But as I took in the sheer miracle of these huge structures that defied the passage of 2,500 years, I also found myself clambering over many more that were destroyed, a mere jumble of broken columns, lintels, capitals, and building blocks. I was face to face with both the apex of construction and the nadir of destruction; of noble ideals as well as the carnage that trampled them.

We often ignore the rubble and the stories buried under it, because we only have eyes for the lovely things that remain. The baubles, the buildings, the frescoes, the golden mosaics, and the sculptures (even when they are headless or armless), invite us to admire their beauty, and we want to possess them. Think of all the booty that visitors to these ancient lands snaffled in their luggage and spirited away to museums or on to their own mantle pieces. We are attracted to pretty glittering things in the way Bower Birds collect anything that is bright blue …. And then, perhaps over a glass of wine, we sigh about the faded remnants of the grandeur that was Ancient Greece or Rome.

“their heads all in a row, /

were strung up with the noose around their necks /

to make their death an agony. They gasped, /

feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”

Those lines are from the most beloved ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer. They recount how Odysseus returned to Ithaca, after being away for years, and launched himself into a war of vengeance on his wife’s suitors. The triumphant hero, Odysseus, commanded that the suitors’ female slaves also be killed. They were the ones hanging by their necks, ‘feet twitching, but not for long’.

The tragedy that I saw in Greece, and especially Sicily where the most beautiful Greek temples are to be found, was not just the tumbledown condition of these once proud structures, similar to the destruction of Syrian antiquities by ISIS which we witnessed in our own day. The tragedy is what we don’t see, the thousands of people who were tortured and massacred, strung up, beheaded, crucified, expelled and enslaved in what was a constant onslaught of warring peoples: the Dorians, the Carthaginians (that is, Phoenicians from Carthage in North Africa), the Persians, the Pirates, then the Romans, the Goths and the Visigoths, the Venetians, then 400 years of the Ottomans. And that is to say nothing of the internal warfare and internecine power struggles that often tore at the fibre of every one of these proud groups from within.

You could easily consign all this carnage to the barbarism of the past. But having just mentioned ISIS and Syria, where over four hundred thousand people have been killed in its recent civil war, plus many more exiled, I won’t avoid the still relevant question, which is, how was it that emperors, kings and their local governors cared so little about the fate of the people, so long as they could enrich themselves and extend their own territory and power?

Why, instead of building great structures and expanding their empires, did leaders not build a culture and a value-system that cherished all human life, and establish a world of co-operative communities? Why, did they not create a lasting peacerather than fight over the temporary riches of empire?

Two Contemporary Voices From Arenas of War

Recently, taking a cab to the city, my Afghan taxi driver extolled the beauty of the morning, and then swiftly launched into a monologue that lasted the whole trip about the responsibility he has to make each and every day a beautiful experience, regardless of the adversity he finds, or the people he encounters, who are sometimes angry or just inconsiderate. “Love and gratitude for being alive is a practice to be engaged in from the time you wake up,” he said, “every day and every moment.” And he believed that it will be repaid in full. Life will be more pleasant.

He confessed, “I am Muslim, but all those divisions mean nothing to me now. We are all human, we are all part of nature, the animals, the plants, we need to care for it all.”

I was greatly moved by this man’s spontaneous sermon, which clearly emerged from a troubled past in war-torn Afghanistan, a benighted country fought over by so many peoples from both within and outside of it, where Shia Muslim shrines and schools are regularly blown up by the Sunni Taliban. But I hoped that the deep truth which he arrived at was not at the expense of religion, as if Islam were incapable of that reverence for all life. Yet I was also aware of how his gratitude at being alive, could only have arisen in a country like Australia where freedom and peaceful coexistence was not just possible but stems from the deep religious roots of our culture.

He is one of the lucky ones, because hatred and conflict, when entrenched in culture and society, are hard to unlearn. Witness the hundred or so Sudanese youth exhibiting reckless violence in Melbourne that was the normal modus operandi back home, injuring innocent civilians and trashing property. Yet for every ten disgruntled and alienated people, there is perhaps one or two like the Afghan taxi driver who sees an opportunity in our relatively peaceful society to live abundantly, without resentments, and even with something approximating joy.

Sometimes, they are natural born teachers like the Somalian Muslim woman I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing. She came to Melbourne by way of Kenya and Saudi Arabia, escaping the never-ending war in her homeland and the enforced seclusion of women in Saudi Arabia, which left her, a Black African, particularly lonely.

Mariam Issa, who calls herself the Black Muslim of Brighton, admitted it was not easy to fit in to her new Australian home. She is tall, dark and wears a turban in a white middle-class suburb. But she was curious about her society and wanted to know more about these mothers in tights who pushed prams while talking into their mobiles and drinking cafe latte. Rather than withdraw and remain suspicious of them, she decided to work for them cleaning house, talk to them, and learn about the culture of her new surrounds.

Mariam Issa has a positive outlook, which she said she learned partly from a Buddhist teacher, when she was feeling sorry for herself, as well as from her brave story-telling African mother. It was her desperation together with a keen intellect that prompted her to question her own frame of mind which was holding her back.

She realized that if you are truly accepting, open and interested in the people around you, rather than threatened by them, they will be open and interested in you. You get back what you give out, it’s as simple -- and as hard -- as that. She founded RAW, Resilient Active Women, and has been a wonderful role model of integration for other immigrant women, who feel isolated and alien in Melbourne.

These two examples show that the stark divisions and gaps between people, which can easily erupt into violent conflict, or at the least simmer in suspicious mistrust, can be overcome by an attitude of mind.

Very likely, the warring peoples in antiquity had the opposite attitude of mind. And what is that? Alan Jacobs, a Christian and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Baylor University, has described it in his recent book How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed (2017).

The title echoes the seminal work by the medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, who wrote the 12th Century classic, Guide for the Perplexed, a book that was influential in Christian circles as well. But I’ll return to that later.

In fact, Alan Jacobs is a bit of a collector of good ideas from many people – so a typical academic! The term he borrowed from Susan Friend Harding is one I’ll use here. Susan was a graduate-student in anthropology, and wanted to write her PhD on Evangelical Christians, but found herself blocked by her professors, who countered, ‘Why study them?’ They feared she might be a ‘sympathizer’. Years later, she realized her professors regarded Evangelical Christians as RCOs, Repugnant Cultural Others.

Having RCOs is a habit of mind that is unfortunately quite pervasive today. It consists of regarding whole groups, countries or individuals as utterly repugnant, objectionable and totally opposite to yourself, and, crucially, to those you look to for approval. In fact, you are likely to have adopted a list of RCOs from your social group almost as a requirement of acceptance.

Now here’s a question: How often do you ritually re-enforce your bond to your favored group by mentioning your RCOs with smug disapproval?

And here’s a more embarrassing question: Who are the people or groups you regard as RCOs?

Jews, Zionists, Christians, Homosexuals, Muslims, Greens, Capitalists, Brexit supporters, Americans, Right to Life supporters, Pro-Choice supporters, Catholics, Priests, Atheists, Politicians, Climate Sceptics -- Australians!!!

Who are the groups that make up your list of RCOs?

I would venture to guess that most likely none of you regard people of other race as an RCO, because today it is widely frowned upon to be openly racist in our middle class Western settings. When did you last see a television debate between people of different race accusing each other of objectionable inherited characteristics and behaviors?

I haven’t, fortunately. But what I have seen are TV debates that openly encourage people to shout accusations at each other on matters of religion, climate, sexuality, politics, ideology, and morality. Shouting insults, hurling accusatory questions, preventing someone from speaking, is not just acceptable, it’s a great spur to television ratings. People are made to cheer from the sidelines, audiences are planted with rabble rousers.

Clearly, there’s a doubled standard about who is an ‘acceptable’ RCO. A recent case in point was the Hollywood personality Roseanne Barr who’s had a track record of saying and doing extremely objectionable things. After a long absence from TV, she returned and boosted her profile by Tweeting about Barak Obama’s adviser, Valerie Jarrett, a black woman who was born to American parents in Iran. Roseanne called her ‘a cross between the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.’

Roseanne was deservedly reprimanded and her show was swiftly cancelled.

But two days later, a US comedian, Samantha Bee, called the US President’s daughter, Ivanka, ‘a feckless C-u-n-t’ on her TV program, and went on to say,

that Ivanka should wear a low cut dress and shimmy up to her Daddy and talk to him about refugees. Samantha Bee’s TV show was not cancelled, she wasn’t punished. Some RCOs are more acceptable than others.

When I was a graduate student in Canada, some of my cohort voiced anti-American slogans, and cultivated an us-and-them rhetoric. In a bid to elevate their Canadian identity, they needed to put down America and Americans. To be Canadian meant not being American. This was so pervasive that today people who mistake a Canadian for an American make abject apologies as if they’d just called them a troglodyte.

At the time, I thought it was more than a bit rich, since we Canadians lapped up American TV and goods in every variety, and we enjoyed culturally, morally, politically, linguistically, religiously and materially almost everything that Americans did. Not to mention we shared the world’s longest peaceful border. Canadians had also fought alongside Americans against the Fascist takeover of Europe, and those of us from European backgrounds were ever grateful they did. We were alive because of it.

Who we leave off our RCO list is also telling. For example, at the same time they were denouncing America, the students showed no incentive to call China to account, which, under the Communist Maoist regime was responsible for the enforced death of 45 million of its own people in four years, in the so-called Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. On the contrary, students clutched Mao’s Little Red Book, reverently. Why were China’s vast crimes against humanity ignored by a student populace who claimed to be lovers of freedom, liberty, and life?


The answer was not hard to fathom. Students were protesting the Vietnam war, and in doing so, turned a blind eye to China and the China backed Communist regime of Pol Pot, whose killing fields were overlooked or downplayed, most famously by the American academic, Noam Chomsky.


Why did students hold such deeply contradictory attitudes? It’s basic sociology. To quote the Cambridge novelist and theologian, CS Lewis: they wanted to be members of an ‘inner ring’ and boost their stature, by adopting a raft of prejudices that were ready made for them. RCOs act as a kind of password, a term of acceptance.

You know passwords -- they can be hard to remember. So one of the features of having Repugnant Cultural Others, or RCO’s, is that you have to keep reinforcing your view of them in order to maintain your sense of belonging to your group. It means you have to shun others who question it, the way cults punish their dissenters.

Essentially, in order to accuse others of being a Repugnant Cultural Other, you must know as little about them as possible, keep your distance, and repeat thought-terminating clichés, which prevent you from ever entering into their way of thinking about anything. And if you’re an activist on the ground, then you have to keep throwing Molotov cocktails, lobbing missiles, marching with hostile placards, burning flags and effigies, keeping up the fight, teaching your children to hate, and never coming to the table to imagine a future together based on respect and cooperation.

Now think of the impersonal internet, where every Tweet or Blog or Facebook Post is eager to win supporters, measured in the number of LIKES. It is a very quick way to gain social approval even when it’s shallow and instant and is rarely thought through. Nonetheless, social media delivers instant gratification and reinforces your status as part of an in-crowd (at least for the moment), while at the same time it ramps up divisions and stokes hatreds.

Of course many people here would never admit to harboring hatreds, just well worded arguments. But the very thing that prevents you from engaging with others, whom you have identified as repugnant, because you disagree with them, is probably very close to contempt. And the ironic thing about maintaining a distance from people who hold different views from yours, is that it is often a strategy you or your group employs, to prevent finding out that you actually share quite a lot in common.

So, you see, you can think your way to hate, to war and to violence, even while you believe that you are on the side of the good. But how do we think our way to peace, because without the thoughts, the practice of peace is not possible.

Part II

“How good and pleasant it is for the brothers to dwell together” says the Psalmist in Psalm 133. Yet, even in the Bible, the Book of Genesis contains stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and the brothers of Joseph, which also show that it is rare for brothers to dwell together in harmony.


And “Yet,” observes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book, Not in God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence (2015),

“… it is possible, and until it has been shown to be possible, the human story cannot continue…Each child of Jacob, like each of the seventy nations and languages of Genesis 10, has his own character and contribution. Each will become a tribe, and only as a confederation of tribes can Israel exist. [Similarly] Only as a confederation of nations can the world exist.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is today’s most consistent and widely respected interfaith theologian. (I recall interviewing an Imam active interfaith work in Bristol, England, who told me that Sacks’ To Heal a Fractured World was his ‘Bible’.) In numerous books, Sacks expounds the theological foundation that we must excavate or rebuild among the rubble of history, in order to stand together as a community of nations, each with our differences, but each having a right to exist.

The Biblical Book of Genesis, it should be remembered, is not a prescription for all people to be the same, nor for all people to have the same customs, skin colour, priests or language.

“Genesis affirms the incommensurability [that is the uniqueness] of the human person and of different civilizations” says Sacks. “We are all different but we each carry in our being the trace of the one God. God cares for all he creates….”

“…more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us.” To Heal a Fractured World (2005: 12)

Sacks undeniable religious view is that, although we are all different, because identity is plural, it is the trace of God in all of us, that is our common bond. It is more than saying we are all human, because it transcends the human differences, and carries with it the maxim that “every life is sacred…”

which carries with it a responsibility. What is it?

“The unity of God asks us to respect the stranger, the outsider, the alien, because even though he or she is not in our image – their ethnicity, faith or culture are not ours – nonetheless they are in God’s image.” [Sacks: 194-5]. It is the only ground on which we can live a truly peaceful life among the nations.

But he admits that it takes work to realize this because: “There’s a tendency to think in terms of sibling rivalry as deeply rooted, genetically encoded, in the human mind.” He’s so right, but we learned this view, which was made popular by the 16thCentury English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who viewed violence as the natural order of things. It was further given credence by the social Darwinians, who turned Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in plants and animals, into a blueprint of society.

Our scientific materialism favors such insights, and we readily attribute our bad behaviour to this diagnosis of the human condition, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, without God there is a propensity to view humankind as simply a manifestation of nature “red in tooth and claw”. But as Greg Sheridan, the author of God is Good for You, recently said, if the human species is regarded as simply a transient part of nature, it means you are no more, no less important than a cockroach.[1]

Religions, even those with a heightened reverence for all sentient beings, bestow humans with higher expectations than their natural instincts would allow. Religions also imbue human beings with moral aspirations that compel us to uphold our most treasured values, including peace. Yet even religions can be infiltrated by flawed interpretations. They can be tainted by our worst human tendencies. In other words, religions can be deployed to love some and to hate others:

A program called Muslim Woman Magazine, with host Doaa ‘Amer showed her interviewing a young child:

What’s your name?


Basmallah, how old are you?

Three and a half

Are you a Muslim?


Basmallah, are you familiar with the Jews?


Do you like them?


Why don’t you like them?

Because they’re apes and pigs

Because they are apes and pigs. Who said they are so?

Our God

Where did he say this?

In the Qur’an

The interviewer concludes, “Basmallah, Allah be praised. May our God bless her. No one could wish Allah … a more believing girl than she. May Allah bless her and her father and mother. The next generation of children must be true Muslims. We must educate them now while they are still children so that they will be true Muslims.” http://www.foxnews.com/story/2002/06/15/raw-data-interview-with-muslim-girl.html

Now do you believe educating Muslims to hate Jews is a sign of being a true Muslim? I would hope no one here thinks so, but unfortunately that instruction is often heard in sermons across the Muslim world, including in the diaspora. The Qur’an refers to Jews as ‘apes and swine’ in three places, 2:63-65, 5:59-60, and 7:16.

In fact, Muslim author, Ed Husain, who ten years ago founded the Quilliam Institute in London to empower moderate Muslim voices, says “The word Yahud, or Jew, has become almost a profanity, bearing connotations of perennial enmity and plotting against Islam and Muslims. None of this is helped,” he says, “by the existence of illogical Hadiths that contradict the Quran and intensify the anti-Jewish animus….[Such as] ‘O slave of God, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him.’” (House of Islam, 2018: 185)

But the Qur’an (49:13) also says: ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (presumably, not that you may despise each other).’ And some modern Muslims refer to this passage as a foundation for respecting people of other faiths.

The New Testament also has its infamous passages, referring to Jews as ‘of your father the Devil’ (John 8:44) and as ‘you snakes, you brood of vipers’ (Matthew 23: 31-33), and refers to their synagogue as the ‘synagogue of Satan’ (The Book of Rev. 2, 3). Today these are recognized as having been the source of lethal antisemitism throughout the ages, which laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.


After the annihilation of six million of Europe’s Jews, the churches in the second half of the 20th Century, including the Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Anglican Churches, and some other denominations, officially rejected these descriptions of Jews and Judaism in our day, and have taught their congregants and students that antisemitism is evil.

It was the Jewish philosopher I mentioned earlier, Moses Maimonides, of 12th Century Spain and North Africa, who wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, precisely to make the point that the plain reading of scripture could lead to error. Words themselves could not yield their full meaning but they required skillful interpretation to ensure that people do not fall into idolatry of either the text or of God.


In reference to God, for example, descriptions in the Torah would have you believe God has arms and legs, hands, and other human traits. But God is never contained by physical limitations. These are but metaphorical or symbolic descriptions, which allow only glimpses of an utterly transcendent God, a ‘shape shifter’ if you will, who could communicate with his creatures in myriad ways.

It was a view also expressed by some of the earliest Muslim commentators. Imam Ali and Ja’far al Sadiq, six centuries before Maimonides emphasized the Quran’s multiple meanings, warning that it was not to be read, nor its injunctions implemented, literally. This was in keeping with the notion that God is ‘Zahir’ and ‘Batin’, outward and inward, and therefore his holy book, the Quran, also had inner and outer meanings.

This understanding of the sacred texts, opened the way for rabbis and also Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by Maimonides, to rescue Scripture from blunt interpretations and allowed them to speak about the mystery of God to humanity in any age and in any place.

Literalist readings of sacred texts however are not the only fuel of antisemitism today, just as it was not when Hitler gained power in Germany and Austria and infected all of Europe with Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, which led to the mass murder of 6 million European Jews. It is an unfortunate fact that barely 70 years after the Holocaust, a mere 16 million Jewish people worldwide are fending off an international tide of antisemitism that has now taken root in the universities and in media organizations.

And it has come here to New Zealand. When I was last in Auckland, I was delighted to discover that my hotel was near to an historic Jewish cemetery – until I found that more than a dozen graves were defaced with large swastikas. Today, in beautiful Dunedin, similar desecrations have occurred and just three weeks ago, materials fomenting hatred of Jews were dropped into post-boxes.


It is deeply disturbing to see this trend growing. The latest study of violent attacks in France showed that 40% of them were against Jews, who make up less than 1% of the population. These attacks were against old women, fathers, children, ordinary people walking down the street, a survivor of Auschwitz living in her apartment, people shopping in a kosher store, picking up children at school and entering a synagogue.

Indeed, in France recently, Muslim leaders refused to sign a joint interfaith declaration condemning antisemitism, as had been done in the UK, where it is on the march.

That is why last week’s front page of the Australian Jewish News (August 10 2018) made my heart leap with joy. It was about a Bosnian Muslim family honored by Yad Vashem, the Memorial Museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. Avdo, Esma, Sabrija and Safita Prohic were all recognised as the Righteous Among the Nations, for their efforts to save Aviva Fox, who had been orphaned in the Holocaust. She and her cousin petitioned for their recognition. It was a hugely moving occasion for everyone involved.


But it is also no secret that the Muslim world, that is, 59 Muslim majority nations, and their diasporas, regard Jews and Israel with enmity. Ed Hussain’s new book, The House of Islam (2018), contains a special chapter on Jews, in which he cites the Pew Research Centre’s 2011 study of antisemitism in Muslim nations, showing that it runs as high as 95% and averages between 80% and 90%. Even the moderate Muslim nation of Indonesia, which is comparatively low at 47%, mounted violent protests when a Muslim leader interested in interfaith solutions to social friction in his country, visited Israel earlier this year.

Yahya Staquf, Secretary General of the 60 million member Nahd la tul Ulama (representing traditionalist Sunni Islam) said he “has identified portions of Islam that he considers problematic, including how Muslims interact with non-Muslims,”… “because [he said] they are not compatible anymore with the current reality of our civilization.” He said, there needs to be “a new discourse” to recognize that Muslims and non-Muslims are equal and should be able to coexist peacefully.” Judaism, for example, is not recognized as an official religion in Indonesia, although there is a Jewish community and historic synagogues there, while Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism take their place alongside Islam. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-israel-indonesian-muslim-leader-risks-backlash-at-home/

Even the rejection of the only Jewish nation in the world as illegitimate and destined for obliteration, goes against the Qur’an which says: Allah assigned Israel to the Jews until the Day of Judgement (Sura 5 Verse 21), and that Jews are the inheritors of Israel (Sura 26 Verse 59). And in Sura 17:104: ‘We [Allah] said to the Children of Israel: Dwell securely in the Promised Land. And when the last warning will come to pass, we will gather you together in a mingled crowd.’

Why are Israel and Jews viewed as a collective RCO, not only by Muslims, but now by a large number of students who have adopted their view?

Does this make any sense?

Israel is about 1/13th the size of New Zealand, with twice the population. This is how large the South Island of New Zealand is compared to Israel.


When European Jews started returning to their ancestral and religious land in the 19th Century, joining existing, centuries old communities, and making new ones, Mark Twain the famous American writer, described the land as virtually empty scrub and desert, uncultivated, and sustaining very small and impoverished settlements, which a traveler would have to go 30 miles in any direction to encounter.

Israel was not a colonial acquisition of the Jews, since they were returning to their ancestral land, which they purchased in parcels from Turkish absentee landlords and resident Arabs. They had no other land, having been first expelled and then exterminated from their European homes, 16 nations. The immigrants and new refugees were soon joined by 850,000 Jews who were turned-out of their Middle Eastern homes, their property confiscated, after the creation of Israel. In 1917, The Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish National Home was adopted by the Principal Allied Powers. Egyptian, Samuel Tadros reports, that it was hailed positively in Egyptian newspapers at the time as a great event, reflecting Quranic verses, with copy such as, “The Jews are returning to their ancestral home.” http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/arab-antisemitism/6870610

In 1922 the League of Nations codified it into international Law and it was sanctioned by all 51 member states of the League.

In 1917, 1936 and 1947 the proposal to make the area into two states -- one Jewish, one Arab -- was accepted by the Jewish population and rejected by the Muslim population. A position still held by the Palestinian National Charter which declares the U.N. “partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel [as] entirely illegal”. (Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, 2003: p.96).

The key influence on the latter was the uncle of Yasar Arafat, the PLA leader who rarely appeared not wearing battle dress. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (from 1921-1937), Mohamad Amin Al Husseini, supported Hitler, recruited Bosnian troops for him in 1943, visited him in Berlin, and wrote to him for advice on how to implement the final solution on the Jews in Israel. Predictably, he rejected the 1947 UN vote. Directly after which 5 Arab countries and 3 additional supporters, totaling 8, launched into a war against the Jewish state in 1948. (Most of the land however was granted to the Heshamite King, despite being on the losing side of WWII, and it was renamed Trans-Jordan, from which all the Jews were expelled.)



Nabil Amro, a former Palestinian information minister who was involved in the peace talks at Camp David, told The Media Line: “There is regret on the Palestinian side for not having accepted the original partition plan, which resulted in us losing everything. Now we cannot go back in time and demand the same things.” “On the other hand,” he elaborated, “the Israelis were smarter and Ben Gurion [Israel’s first Prime Minister] had the foresight to take what was offered and to build on it.”

[the JP; Nov 29 2017: https://www.jpost.com/Magazine/70-years-of-conflict-later-515561And

Near the end of his ten year term, the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, the late Kofi Anan, in his opening speech to the 61st General Assembly in September 2006, admitted that Israel is often unfairly judged by the international body and its various organizations. “On one side, supporters of Israel feel that it is harshly judged by standards that are not applied to its enemies,” Annan said. “And too often this is true, particularly in some UN bodies.”1 He also said, “What was done to Jews and others by the Nazis remains an undeniable tragedy, unique in human history. Today, Israelis are often confronted with words and actions that seem to confirm their fear that the goal of their adversaries is to extinguish their existence as a state, and as a people.” (Nathan Jeffay, Australian Jewish News August 24: 3) Despite Annan’s and many other observations of that nature, it has not changed significantly in the last 12 years.

Compare Pakistan, 38 times larger than Israel, a country declared in 1947 and constituted by removing 10 million Muslims from India and expelling Hindus from the newly Muslim nation: In the first year of Pakistan’s existence, between one and two million people were killed. In 70 years the number killed in the wars and intifadas mounted against Israel have resulted in a just over 100,000. That figure however does not include the deaths caused by Palestinian terrorism in the diaspora which killed many more.

Take Burma, now Myanmar, a country formed in 1948. For 70 years it has been in a state of civil war, with a population of 51 million, and a history of junta’s, child armies, child slavery, the use of land mines and population displacements. There is nothing like democracy on the ground, despite the hopes of Aung San Suu Kyi.

By comparison, the Jewish nation, which grants equal citizen’s rights and religious freedom to its religiously and culturally diverse population, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druzes, Bahais and any number of new religions as well as atheists, has also, for the sake of peace, given up its ancient sacred sites, such as, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Temple Mount, and Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem.

And yet today, the country that was established as the Jewish National Home, early in the 20th Century, is now accused of racism and apartheid because it has enshrined into constitutional law its Jewish status, no different from countless countries that take for granted their religious identity. Thirty Muslim nations recognize Islam as their state religion, with laws that directly affect their religious and cultural minorities, 7 Buddhist nations, 7 Roman Catholic countries, Scotland, England, 4 Lutheran countries, 2 Eastern Orthodox countries have their established religions, and their official languages, to name just a few.

None of these nations are accused of racism and apartheid. And yet, the Edinburgh University Student Association, in a lengthy statement, voted to boycott Israel after the law declaring it a Jewish National Home.

The Middle-east specialist and graduate of Edinburgh University and Cambridge University, Dr Denis MacEoin, who is not Jewish, responded to this brazen act of ignorance by pointing out that the accusations made against Israel are not just wrong but deeply anti-Semitic. There is no other way to explain the contemptuous lies that accuse Israel of Nazism and of South African apartheid. A country where some of the most persecuted people in the world, including Ahmadi Muslims, Bahai’s and Ethiopian Jews, find freedom and equality in every walk of life.

It goes without saying that Israel, alone of the middle eastern countries, grants full freedom of expression, including gay pride parades, to people who identify as LGBTIQ. In some middle eastern countries, these same people are imprisoned or executed.

Israel is a country where Arabs are members of Parliament (the Knesset) and are free to express their criticism of the government, and where Arabic is an official language[2], where Arabs attend universities and where an affirmative action policy has been in place since 1999. In fact, the negative effects of a BDS campaign on the Arabs who work in many of its industries was underlined by Dr Mudar Zaharan, Leader of the Jordanian Opposition Coalition, who addressed the EU Parliament on 4thSeptember 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivEjubIYWC4&t=24s

But next door, in Gaza, Hamas Political Bureau member, Fathi Hammad, at a July 12 rally in Gaza proclaimed: “We are looking forward to two important things which are within sight: the first is the cleansing of Palestine of the filth of the Jews…By 2022 we will be rid of them…The second thing is the establishment of the Caliphate, after the nation has been healed of its cancer – the Jews –Allah willing…oh Netanyahu! Or Lieberman! We are coming to chop your head off your necks!”

This sounds extreme, but as Ed Hussain has noted, “I can name dozens of Muslim clerics, important formulators of public opinion in a region dominated by religion, who will readily condemn acts of terrorism against the West but fall silent when it comes to condemning Hamas.’ (House of Islam, 2018: 190)

And if thousands of rockets launched from Gaza into Israel were not enough, this year, over 1,000 incendiary kites were parachuted into Israel to set the country aflame: they burned 10,000 acres of forest and agricultural land, in a country one thirteenth the size of New Zealand, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage and destroying the food crops of hundreds of farmers.

The task then today is how to respond to this demonization and the physical attacks, which have turned Jews once again into RCOs, Repugnant Cultural Others, and has attempted to make Israel into a pariah nation.

I have no illusions about what a change of heart toward Israel would do for the wars engulfing various parts of the world. Peace between the Palestinian leaders and Israel will not change the deadly conflicts in the Sudan, Somalia and Syria, it won’t stop the civil war in Myanmar nor in Venezuela, it won’t reduce the hatred between the Turkish government and the Kurdish independence movement, it won’t halt the march of Boko Haram in Nigeria, nor will it cool the fires between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is based on the historic and seemingly unbridgeable division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. But it will mean something deeply significant for the Abrahamic faiths.

The God of Abraham was first recognised by Jews in antiquity well before Christianity and Islam emerged. Yet both these latter faiths looked to the founding stories of the Bible as their initial inspiration. The God of the Bible was above nature, as the story of Genesis makes clear, and yet chose to create the human species in his image.

Many have reflected on what this means, but I look again to Jonathan Sacks, from his book, Faith in the Future (Sacks 1995: 76), to discover what this might mean for us: “Creation testifies not merely to God’s power, but also, as it were, to His belief in mankind. At the heart of religion is not just the faith we have in God. No less significant is the faith God has in us.”

To do what with? I think the Creation Story from Genesis has written into our very being and consciousness that we humans are capable of rising above nature, and are not slavishly determined by it, as the Marxist or neo-Darwinian view would have us believe. We have the ability to consciously choose our thoughts, to wilfully change our responses, and to thereby transform both ourselves and the world around us.

Today there’s been a renewed interest in the Greek philosophers as guides for living. But although they were keen to articulate what it is to be an ideal human being, some Greeks did not regard non-Greeks as fully human. Plato believed only men were created directly by the gods and given souls, while women and slaves were not regarded as fully human.

How different is the Biblical concept that sets God’s image in each of us, thereby making every life sacred. It is Godliness that is universal, while human beings are all different.

The heirs of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can show that singular truth to the world, by interpreting their sacred texts in a way that is always mindful of that fact, and in acting towards each other in ways that demonstrates it.

In To Heal a Fractured World (2005), Jonathan Sacks says, “Having faith in God means having faith in other people, and the measure of our righteousness lies in how many people we value, not how many we condemn.”

It is not a new idea. The chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, Abraham Kook, said “Because that which connects human thought and feeling with the infinite and all surpassing Divine light must be refracted into a multiplicity of colours, so every people and society must have a different spiritual way of life.”

And in the first century when Israel was under the boot of the Romans, Rabbi Akiva (in Mishna Avot 3:14) said, “Beloved is every human person for he or she is in the image of God. Beloved is Israel for each of us is one of the children of God.” Echoing that sentiment, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “We feel ourselves close to God but we equally believe that God has a relationship with all humanity …” (Sacks 2015: 204)

Rabbi Akiva was tortured and martyred by the Romans, his skin was scraped from his body with iron tongs while still alive. But Judaism does not remember him as a martyr – most Jews would not even know that he was. Akiva is remembered as one of the greatest and humblest teachers of Jewish antiquity.

Despite the essential Godliness we share, human beings often fall into conflict. But war is not inevitable because hate is a choice. As it says in the Book of Leviticus, “Do not hate your brother in your heart—scold him, admonish him, but do not hate him.” When religion consecrates hate, it leads to violence, when religion urges dialogue it leads to understanding.


- at the Kotel (Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/the-pope27s-friends/6621592

This is a realistic approach to our human diversity, because it does not banish conflict, nor teach us that it is subhuman. On the contrary, conflict is all too human! But Biblical faith teaches us it is only our nature, but it is not our essence. We are not simply material beings driven by our instincts. We have within us the transcendent quality that is variously called soul, spirit, consciousness, which all religions have identified as the sacred quality of our being, and which unites us. If only we remember it.

Zakar in Hebrew and Zikr in Arabic means to remember, and it refers to remembering our connection to God. (In Latin it is Memores Dei). I was struck by the similarity in the words of the Brahma Kumari teacher, Sister Shivani, India’s most popular motivational speaker, who said, simply, ‘remember that Divine connection in everything you do, surrender to it, and you will radiate that transcendent quality of peace and love in your attitude and relationships.’

Sr Shivani also said that all religions teach this, but we have got attached to the teacher and not the teaching, causing divisions and comparisons.

It is our job, then, in the interfaith movement, for sake of those who have forgotten, to remember the teaching: that the essence of our being is the spirit, and the spirit is shalom, it is peace, which is why when we greet each other we say, shalom or in Arabic salaam aleikem, “meaning peace be with you” as the Christians say.

“Words have wings” – that is a quote from Homer. When we meet each other and remember that, then we will always have an outflow of the most positive feelings of love and kindness, which can, and I believe will, change our world for the better.

[1] Even religions that respect all sentient beings, like Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism, encode a hierarchy of lifeforms into their belief in rebirth.

[2] Israel’s new Nation State Law retains the special status of Arabic:

4 — Language

A. The state’s language is Hebrew.

B. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.

C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.