RHR goes up North

For the last couple of years, I’ve taught a class about ‘Religions, Justice and Peacemaking’ at Leeds Trinity University in the Theology and Religious Studies program. It has been a wonderful opportunity for my research into Israeli-Palestinian peace activism to lead directly into my teaching, by using religion in the Israel-Palestine conflict as the class topic. Among the activists I research are Rabbis for Human Rights, giving me the perfect case study around which to focus the class.

RHR doesn’t describe itself as a peace group but it certainly pursues “justpeace” as conceived by peace studies scholars. One key idea of “justpeace” is expressed by the familiar slogan “no justice, no peace.” Beyond that, “justpeace” entails an ongoing process of addressing inevitable social conflicts non-violently and with an emphasis on justice. RHR’s advocacy for social justice within the State of Israel as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territories, its practice of nonviolence, and its dedication to building reciprocal social relationships through education and interfaith work all indicate that it strives for “justpeace.”

So, what did the students learn in the class and what did they make of RHR? We read some pieces by RHR members, discussed their ideas, and simulated peacebuilding. One week we contrasted the ideas of Gush Emunim about the Land of Israel with Rabbi Yehiel Greniman’s essay “Bitter Conflict: Can Judaism bring hope?” He argues that the religious value of attachment to the Land of Israel should be tempered by the value of peace in Judaism. We also learned about the centrality of interpretation and debate about scripture in Judaism. We had a go ourselves by interpreting the phrase: “Inherit the land and live in it, since it is to you that I am giving the land to occupy…” (Numbers 33:53) from the perspectives of RHR, the Rabbis Kook the Elder and Younger, and a secular Israeli. Getting into the spirit, we arranged our responses around the phrase in a mock-up version of a page of Talmud. In a role-play some students took on the part of RHR while others played religious settlers, secular Israelis and Palestinian refugees. Each group figured out their position in the case of the settlement of Amona and tried to win other groups over. The first year I played the game the Israelis agreed to welcome back refugees; but, sadly, the second time around they were convinced by the settlers that only exclusive Jewish possession of the whole land would bring them security.

Another week we looked at RHR online to find out what the organization does and how it communicates. For example, a parashat hashavua, the weekly Torah interpretation, written by Rabbi Mira Raz, distinguishes between the Jews as G-d’s “chosen people” and “treasured people.” How does that differ from a “settler” or ethnocentric interpretation? Does RHR’s practice interpretation of the Judaic sources as an act of peacebuilding between Jews?

I asked the students to respond online too. One got sucked into an argument with someone (who seemed to be a troll) who had posted a comment about Jordan being Palestine. Another asked why all the posts are about the abuse of Palestinian rights rather than Israeli Jews. Some just wanted to “like” the organisation.

The topic for another week was religion and non-violence, for which we read Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom’s essay, “Let your love for me vanquish your hatred for him: nonviolence and modern Judaism”. Again, we saw that there is textual evidence for claims that Judaism both justifies and abhors nationalist violence and weighed up the contrasting perspectives.

By the end of the eight-week class, each year I came away impressed by the students’ achievements. They had, very quickly, got their heads around the Israel-Palestine conflict. They appreciated the complexity of blaming the conflict on religion and the power of religions to bring peace as much as make war, questioning the argument that conflict is simply a clash between Islam and Judaism. By contrasting RHR’s ideas and activities with what RHR calls the “nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition”, they became alert to differences
within as well as between the Abrahamic faiths. The students showed remarkable openness to the topic and to the case of RHR. In the class there have been Muslim students who looked at Judaism as a peace-oriented faith, students in whose optimistic hearts all religions are peace-loving, conservative students for whom RHR doesn’t do enough to uphold Jewish rights, and students who didn’t even know where to begin. For all of them, though, the opportunity to engage with RHR as an example of non-violent and just peacebuilding has been rewarding.

Jon Simons is an Associate Head of School of Arts and Communication, Leeds Trinity University, UK. He moved from England to Israel in 1985 and during his 10 years in Israel, was active in the peace movement, especially an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group. His current research project is about images of peace in the Israeli/Palestinian peace movement, including RHR, which he writes about in his blog: http://israelipeaceimages.com/