Yom Kippur, swinging chicken, and the larger questions about peace in the Middle East

Picture from Haaretz, October 7th, 2011

In connection with the Jewish Day of Atonement, some groups of religious Jews in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea-Shearim in Jerusalem observe a ritual of “Kaparot” that requires one to purchase a chicken, swing it over the head while uttering a prayer, slaughter it, and then donate the meat to the poor. The practice dates back at least 800 years and calls for believers to wave a live chicken three times over their head while reading a special blessing. Recently, the tradition has come under increasing religious criticism by more moderate Rabbis who believe that the ritual as well as the inhumane conditions under which the animals are kept, break Jewish laws concerning the care and slaughter of animals. While such a debate may be encouraging, the nature of the debate, as well as the practice itself, highlight some fundamental questions regarding religion and politics in the Middle East. In a society where “chicken waving” is considered (by some) a serious method for preventing the eternal damnation of the soul, one would think there should be enough imagination for someone to come up with a formula by which getting along with your neighbors takes precedence over a plethora of other religious decrees and commandments. Indeed, if we were to ask the moderate leaders of the three Middle Eastern religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—peace is often the very word that defines their theology. What is it then about religion in general – and various forms of Judaism and Islam in particular – that feeds into the Middle East conflict and makes it especially intractable?

While there are numerous answers and explanations as well as opinions on this matter, there are several dimensions that are rarely considered but that may need to be explored in order to shed light on the obstacles that are in the way of peace. Two dimensions that deal with the interplay between religion and politics are especially important, that of the impact of suffering and loss (sunk costs), and that of ethnicity and chosenness. The two dimensions are intertwined and work together to intensify the conflict cycle, complicating the prospects for negotiation and management.

First, the issue of suffering and loss. One of the defining characteristics about historic conflicts over territory is that ethnicity and religion have become intertwined and are also closely connected to the ancestral home. A strong relationship with a homeland often develops over centuries, typically as a response to the rivalry with competing groups. One of the most important aspects for strengthening the bonds to a specific territory is the resolve that is created from the suffering and conflict that takes place when defending the territory against intruders. As soon as the first “martyr” is buried in the soil, a territory is transformed into a sacred space and retribution becomes permissible. In some of the most intractable territorial conflicts of our time, patterns of territorial conquest and redemption have been frequent during history, indicating a continuous conflictual relationship between enemy groups over the course of many centuries.

In many cases, even if the identities of the players have mostly changed, contemporary adversaries are still branded with their old enemy names. For instance, Serbians still refer to the Kosovo Albanians as Turks or Ottomans, and some religious Jews insist that the Palestinians are the contemporary “Amalek” of the Bible. While it would seem desirable for current religious leaders to work to break down such stereotypes and create a more hopeful theology, it is important to remember that while religion can indeed teach tolerance and peace, religion infused with politics and ethnicity is often a very different animal and may lie beyond the reach of spiritual men.

The second dimension, which partly follows from the first, has to do with the issue of chosenness or what in the academic literature on ethnicity is sometimes referred to as “ethnic election” or “covenant doctrine.” This dimension can be demonstrated most effectively by the Jewish covenant theology, but similarities are also be found in other peoples and ethnic groups around the globe, such as the Serbs, the Ulster Scots, and the Boer of South Africa.  A covenant doctrine is almost always a three-way commitment between God, the chosen people, and the sacred territory with which God has entrusted them. It also often includes divine commandments or a “mission” that can only be performed properly if the chosen people is living in the promised land. In his book The Chosen People, Anthony Smith explains that a covenant doctrine preserves the nation for eternity by infusing its identity with both spiritual and ethnic doctrine that designate the members of the nation as bound by a duty to fulfill  the divine commandments deemed necessary for the survival of the nation and the redemption of the world.

Photo © istockphoto/Steven Allan; Poster © Austin Cline

It is impossible to understand the fervor of Israeli religious settlers in the West Bank, or of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, if this sacred dimension is overlooked and ignored. For the most dedicated, giving up territory to the enemy requires much more than agreeing to share land; it demands the abandonment of the faith that lies at the foundation of their very existence. Such an act would prevent the faithful from performing their part of the sacred covenant, the fulfillment of which is required for the survival of the ethnic group, and sometimes also for the redemption of the entire world. In that situation, many will chose to die rather than allow negotiations to be successful.

Rina Castelnuovo, Nablus, West Bank 2009

It is under these conditions, when land is considered “absolute” by a portion of the populace, which Israelis and Palestinians have to negotiate. While moderates on both sides are more than willing to compromise, the longer the conflict goes on and the more suffering that is added to the struggle, the more difficult it will be for each side to unify their own people.  While religious extremism needs to be suppressed, it is difficult to ignore a national religious doctrine that has existed for generations and ensured a nation’s survival. Hence, for the peace process, these dimensions raise questions on a level much more fundamental than that which is concerned with the justification and viability of a Palestinian state. Although there are no perfect formulas to bring into the next step of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the political-religious dimension requires another look at the suitability of the two-state solution that is assumed to be at the end of the process. One of the requirements for such a solution is that the end result is assumed to be final and permanent, requiring both sides to officially relinquish claims to parts of territory that has been held sacred by each group for generations. While this would certainly be possible for the more moderate non-religious majorities, it would further enrage and energize those groups for whom the territory is perceived as “absolute.”

If this is indeed the course that the negotiations will take, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to turn inwards, to face their own extremists, rather than focus on the missteps of the other side. However, by highlighting the religious-political-territorial dilemma, it may also be possible to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions of the peace process in order to work “around” the territorial absolutes. If the dual claims to the land were allowed to coexist together with a “temporary” solution that gives “permanent residency rights” to the Palestinian or Israeli state over certain territory, the relinquishing of land may be easier to accept. In order for such rethinking to be possible, both sides have to begin by accepting each other’s history and the fact that the other group shares strong—albeit opposing—bonds to the same, very small, parcel of land.


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