WASHINGTON — At a crowded Brookings Panel on Tuesday discussing the role of religion in Israel and the Middle East, Shibley Telhami — a non-resident fellow at the think tank—blasted President Obama for his heavy reliance on Islamic language in the famous 2009 Cairo address. “Obama, a secular Christian President of a country that is not trusted is trying to tell people what they should do because of his own interpretation of what the Koran says,” explained Telhami, who also serves as the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace at the University of Maryland. “A secularist is not going to win a religious argument with the most religious authorities.” Obama’s speech in Egypt at the beginning of his term was considered an important avenue to restart ties with the Arab and Muslim world; the President sprinkled in Koranic verses to justify his claims regarding morality and violence.
Telhami offered his rebuke of Obama in the context of criticizing Israeli and Palestinian moderates for utilizing religious language to win supporters, offering extremists a legitimizing tool. But, the role of religion was not merely controversial in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the panel, but also regarding Diaspora-Israeli ties. Knesset Member Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) acknowledged the gap between how American Jews and Israelis view the intersection of religion and politics in Israel. She cautioned that religious pluralism is “not on the priority list of Israelis. Some are satisfied with the status quo, others think that it is outrageous, but they think that security and economic issues are way more important. We don’t have the spare time and luxury to deal with state-religious issues.” Many Jews abroad are frustrated by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize Reform conversions or allow women to lead services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Leon Wieseltier, a Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at Brookings, called the Chief Rabbinate “the most illegitimate and poisonous institution in Jewish life.”
The discussion also focused on President Reuven Rivlin’s 2015 speech that Israeli society has been divided into four distinct tribes: ultra-orthodox, national-religious, secularists, and Arab. But, Knesset Member Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) appear to disagree with Rivlin’s premise. Citing her family background of both Polish and Iraqi heritage (Ashkenazi and Mizrachi), Shaffir noted that the younger Israelis often reject the categories of previous generations. Instead, she claimed, politicians are the ones who are trying to preserve these “sectarian” and “tribal divisions” in order to serve their personal agendas of maintaining power.
Mohammad Darawshe, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and co-executive director of the Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva, expressed mounting frustration with the divide between the Jewish majority and Arab minority within the county. He cited the 2016 Pew Research Poll that 48% of Israeli Jews said they supported the expulsion of Arabs or “ethnic cleansing” from the country. “Israel is behaving more and more as Jewish to the Arabs and more democratic towards the Jews,” Darawshe argued when discussing Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish and Democratic state. At the same time, he pointed to some areas for hope. Arabs represent 23% of the doctors within Israeli hospitals. Despite the spike in terrorist stabbings during the past year, Israeli Jews in medical facilities are “willing to accept an Arab with a knife that cuts their stomach to treat them,” Darawshe asserted.
As with almost every debate that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions rose between Darawshe and Yehudah Mirsky, a Professor of Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, over which side is responsible for the divide between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish majority. During his presentation, Darawshe admonished the Netanyahu government for anti-democratic legislation, while Mirsky also blasted Hamas and PA leaders for hardening attitudes among Palestinian citizens of Israel. The moderator was forced to interrupt the two panelists to end the prolonged disagreement.
After observing moments of intense discontent with Israel’s progress, former Knesset Member Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) attempted to reassure the crowd of the country’s relative progress. “My grandmother, when she was suffering and languishing in Auschwitz,” would not have been able to “imagine 73 years later that we would be having a discussion about all the challenges of the four tribes within Israel.”