When Faith Stories Collide

To understand the off and on, and now full-on conflict in Israel and Gaza, we have to understand the stories that lie behind the violence. These stories on all sides are ancient, but they continue to empower the people who love them.

These stories provide something worth living for, worth dying for, and, for many, something worth killing for.  The story honored by religious Jews goes back millennia, with a key moment being the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  While small Jewish groups continued to live in what was once Judea and Galilee in the following centuries, the majority of Jews lived in the Diaspora—outside of Israel. 

But the relationship between religious Jews and the ancient land of Israel was never severed.  Between 70 CE and 1948, that relationship was one of longing—the longing to one day return to their ancient homeland.  A prayer sung twice a year was “Next year in Jerusalem,” and the image indelibly printed on the hearts of religious Jews was the Western or Wailing Wall, the only surviving remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The longing to return to the land of their ancestors intensified for Jews after the Holocaust.  Every Jew who lived and lives after the Holocaust can be considered a Holocaust survivor, for the tragedy proved to Jews that they couldn’t count on others to survive.  A Jewish homeland became the guarantee of that survival.  

To religious Jews, Israel remains the land of promise, a promise made to them by God.  Religious Jews might say that if others have a problem with Israel as a Jewish state, then they should take up their complaint with God.  

If the religious Jewish story is one of return, the story for Palestinian Muslims and Christians is one of loss.  Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, point out that their relationship with the same land is also ancient, going back more than 1500 years.  To Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest site, the mosques on Temple Mount being over the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, where he met the prophets Moses and Jesus before being escorted into the presence of God.  

For Palestinian Christians, Israel is the land where Jesus was born, grew up, taught and healed, was arrested, executed, and then resurrected.  

The experience of Palestinians changed dramatically after WWII and the Holocaust, when large numbers of Jews emigrated to the region.  After November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the region into two nation states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, war broke out. That led to Palestinians being forcibly evicted from their ancestral villages and, until the present day, gradually losing territory to Israeli settlers.  Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, don’t understand why they, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, should pay for Hitler’s sin against Jews. 

I have friends who maintain that the world would be safer if religions faded away.  And I’m convinced that in the coming days and weeks, we will hear voices from those who believe that the sacred stories of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the causes of the violence.  

The problem, however, doesn’t lie in these sacred stories.  Instead, the problem lies in a lack of empathy on the part of those who love their faith stories.  How many Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Christians are willing to enter another’s faith story and see life from that perspective?

This is why interfaith organizations such as the Shapiro-Focolare Group and the Spiritual Oneness Group in Indianapolis, as well as the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha are so important.  Similar interfaith groups exist elsewhere, including in Israel and Palestine.  Members of these groups love their faith’s story without reservation, but they appreciate that others love their faith stories with equal devotion.

What interfaith groups understand is that the only right decisions are those that honor not just one’s own faith story, but the stories of their neighbors.  The bottom line is that solutions to the conflict in Israel and Palestine exist—solutions that honor Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others.  

Without empathy, however, our faith stories will continue to cause conflict rather than resolve it.