After spending one and a half years immersed in the religious and meditative traditions of Christianity and Islam, Yossi Klein Halevi, a devout Jew, learned that faith has the potential to build bridges across cultures and serve as a basis for compromise and conflict resolution.
Yet, “at the moment,” Halevi, a writer and senior editor at The New Republic, and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, sees “no indication of religion playing a role in ending the Middle East conflict.”
Halevi, born in America, and now an Israeli citizen, spoke Monday at Carnegie Mellon University about his spiritual journey, as well as the changing political landscape of the Middle East.
The program was sponsored by Tartans for Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group at CMU.
“The purpose of the journey was to test the possibility of how faith could be a common ground between Muslims, Christians and Jews,” Halevi told The Chronicle prior to his CMU lecture.
Beginning in late 1998, Halevi spent about 18 months “experiencing God’s presence in the other faiths,” by immersing himself in both an Armenian Christian community, and by shadowing a Sufi sheikh — a nonviolent Islamic mystic.
The Sufi movement is a “very small part of Palestinian society,” said Halevi. “It’s not a normative movement. They’re marginal, but it was the only door opened to me.”
“I was continuing to live as a traditional Jew,” said Halevi, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, “and at the same time, expanding the borders of the sacred. I learned that as a Jew with historically traumatic memories, that I was able to overcome and learn to experience something of the power of these two other faiths.”
Halevi said he was “privileged to be admitted to the Muslim prayer line” at each Mosque he visited, and that he was able to experience “the surrender of Muslim prayer,” which, by virtue of its series of physical movements, Halevi described as a “dance of prayer.”
Although Halevi became absorbed in the rituals of Christianity and Islam, he did “set certain limits,” he said.
“I didn’t take communion. That would have been crossing the line,” Halevi said of his experiences with the Armenian Christians. “And I would not say prayers invoking Jesus as the
But he did recite the Psalms, and take part in the silent mediations, which he found to be a particularly powerful form of devotion.
Halevi said that from living and learning with people of the other monotheistic faiths, he came to the conclusion that “faith has the potential to instill humility and a sense of proportion in religious people that could be the basis for mutual compromise.”
When it comes to the conflict in the Middle East, however, Halevi does not see religion playing a major role.
“The people who are pushing for peace are usually secular. On the whole, religious sensibility is left out of peace making. When it has played a role, it has been negative.”
Speaking in practical terms, Halevi sees no chance of creating a lasting peace in the Middle East until “Iran and its Hamas proxy are contained.”
“The only issue that matters now is stopping Iran, and we don’t have a lot of time,” Halevi said.
“The Palestinian/Israeli conflict has been disastrously transformed,” Halevi said, with the main objective of the Palestinians shifting from the creation of a Palestinian state to the “Jihadist struggle to destroy the Jewish state.”
“Something broke in many of us [the Israelis] in the last nine years, since Arafat responded to peace overtures with suicide bombings,” Halevi said. “Something changed in our understanding of the conflict. We are a lot more pessimistic today.”
Although the fronts Israel must fight keep changing — from Lebanon in 2006, to Gaza in 2009 — Halevi said the pattern remains the same, and that “all battles are an expression of the same Jihadist war against Israel.”
Halevi said that despite mounting world criticism of her actions in defending herself, Israel must protect her
“At a certain point Israel has to live with a certain amount of criticism from the world,” Halevi said. “If my choice is to protect the citizens of Sderot and be criticized by The New York Times, I’ll take the criticism.”
Until Palestinians acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as Jewish state, a lasting peace cannot be attained.
“It comes down in the end to I’m ready to make a deal with any Palestinian or any Arab ready to acknowledge the legitimacy of my existence,” Halevi said. “I’m also ready to go to war with those in the Middle East who want to destroy me. This is the attitude of most Israelis. There is no other way to survive.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)