The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute


The 2018 Telos Israel Conference
November 18–20, 2018
University of Haifa
Haifa, Israel

Asymmetricality, the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, and Abrahamic Peace

A conference jointly hosted by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa. Co-organized by Aryeh Botwinick, Annabel Herzog, and Wayne Hudson.

Conference Description

The aim of this conference is to develop common approaches among Jews, Christians, and Muslims to delegitimize fundamentalist readings of the scriptures and other religious texts. We believe that fundamentalist readings and the dissemination of fundamentalist thought and its consequent translation into action is extremely deleterious in terms of working toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and of other domestic and international political conflicts that are equally infused by fanatic religious rhetoric and practice.

There is a special urgency attached to having a conference with this theme because American foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority has recently substantially magnified the asymmetry between the parties to the conflict, providing Palestinians with disincentives from entering the peace process. Wide sections of American evangelicalism support the Israeli policy of infringement upon territory that is claimed to be necessary for the formation of a Palestinian state, which renders the prospect of a one-state solution (or a grossly unequal two-state solution grounded in unilateral Israeli withdrawal) more likely. The de facto annexation pursued by the Israeli governments is rendered possible by the fundamentalist beliefs shared by Israeli settlers and their sympathizers in Israel and in the Jewish and Christian world, which work to rationalize and justify hostile and violent actions toward the Palestinians. The violence practiced by the Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and other Palestinian groups against Israel is also fueled by a comparable religious fundamentalism, which similarly works against a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict.

Why is it important to bring religion into the political discourse surrounding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict? We believe that religious fundamentalism has been integral to achieving the Israeli government's expansionary policies. For example, various governments in Israel—no matter whether of the right or of the left—have made use of religious concepts and references to justify and promote their diverse policies toward the Palestinian population. One possible reason why relying on this strategy proved successful for decades may have been the fact that the Israeli population seems, for the most part, rigidly divided into a committed religious populace (mainly Haredim and religious Zionists) on the one hand, and secularists on the other hand. Over the years, a major conflict between these two groups built up over the fact that the children of Haredim who studied in Yeshivot were exempt from military service. To placate secular Israelis over this perceived injustice, the Israeli government has tried to introduce curtailed military duty for Yeshiva students. A hidden intent of this governmental strategy seems to have been to smooth over the increasing gap in the income distribution in the country by "scapegoating" the Haredim, and to deflect criticism from the territorial branching out of the settlements into Palestinian lands by investing into infrastructure projects to shore up the settlements. Unflinchingly, the expansion of the settlements was promoted with religious ideological zeal by the settlers as well as by the government. Internal opposition to the settlements has been voiced primarily by secular Israelis citing human rights violations and offenses against international law. The religious right and the Haredi community, with the exception of a small group of religious Zionists, approved of the governmental policies in support of the expanding settlements, or kept silent.

Since the political conflicts are connected to the theological structures, one of the keys to developing political solutions is to intervene in the theological debates. On the one hand, the messianic religious right relies on a fundamentalist belief system in claiming and justifying the expansion of settlements, and so a call to consult the wealth of Jewish religious sources in order to ponder the enormous ethical issues resulting from the expansion of Israeli settlements seems to be in order. On the other hand, as the most violent and uncompromising forms of Palestinian opposition to Israel are grounded in Islamic fundamentalist theology, an engagement with this theology offers an asymmetrical solution to political conflict that derives much of its potential from the important commonalities that link Islam with Judaism. Last, since Christian forces are involved in the conflict both in the form of the American evangelical support to Israel and in the global Christian interests in the city of Jerusalem, and not least in the difficult situation of Christian Palestinians, caught between a rock and a hard place, Christian theologies too will be included in the multivocal exploration.

It is also worth noting that the God that the Muslims worship replicates in most key respects the God that the Jews affirm—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The very last Sura of the Qu'ran could be recited with fervor by Jews: "Sincere Religion In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate Say: 'He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge, who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, and equal to Him is not any one.'" The austerely, radically one monotheistic God is beyond human comprehension and therefore also beyond the range of intelligible human statement. God constitutes the ultimately defiant human metaphor that on theological grounds can never be fully decoded.

Jews and Muslims pray to a commonly situated asymmetrical God. His totally exalted, unequal status to human beings authenticates His identity as God. The theorizing of God in classic Jewish and Islamic religious texts eventuates in a very sharp paradox. God who is the epitome of irrecoverable, unbridgeable distance is also the greatest source of succor and comfort in the religious person's life. How is the transition between God's overwhelming absence and His overwhelming nearness to be negotiated? How can the God who is utterly beyond us be the same God with whom we develop an intimate emotional bond? How can God who is the ultimate embodiment of Otherness be the source and foundation of the Same?

It is at this juncture that the theological begins dramatically to cede space to the political. The central symbol of the religious life presupposes God's absence, and the actual practice of the religious life assumes His presence. If God were palpably in the world, we wouldn't need religion. We would just relate to Him as we found Him. Religion in many significant respects constitutes a gigantic placeholder for the absent God. How do we theorize and internalize the placeholder status of God in monotheistic religion?

If we are fundamentalists, we assign hegemonic status to one or several traditions of Scriptural interpretation and act in the present as if God were already among us. Filtered through the prism of our favored interpretive canons, we know exactly how to respond to every crisis and disappointment that confronts us. On the other hand, if we are more skeptical, we do not lose track of the rational limitations that govern our lives in the present, and we notice that religion is in the same arena as its secular metaphysical competitors. None of them constitutes a pathway to certainty. Religion involves as much risk—and presupposes to the same degree the assumption of personal responsibility—as the worldviews that question its very organizing principles. In Rav Nachman of Bratslav's famous words, "The whole world [needs to be seen as] a very narrow bridge."

Among the numerous themes and topics that fall within the purview of this conference are the following:

  • To what extent has Israeli unilateralism been a defining component of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as it has emerged since the Six-Day War?
  • On what levels of policymaking can the fundamental inequalities persisting between the Israeli and Palestinian populations be addressed?
  • What are the prospects of Israel developing into a democratic binational state? Is "parity of esteem" an attainable goal in Israeli-Palestinian relations?
  • Why and how have negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians led to an entrenchment and expansion of settlements?
  • How can a Middle East peace be imagined, let alone realized?: Power and strategic factors militating against a Middle East peace.
  • What are the diverse security factors that Israel realistically would want to take into account in considering a one-state, binational, or two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and how could it address them? Which of these approaches can be anticipated as being realistically acceptable to the Palestinian Authority?
  • Crisis management in the territories from the perspective of international law.
  • Legal efforts on the part of the Netanyahu government to cement the existence of the settlements.
  • To what extent is Israel's Palestinian policy a function of expanding and rigidifying class inequalities prevalent within Israel itself?
  • How does Prime Minister Netanyahu use the religious right to support his expansionist territorial policies?
  • Israel's obligations toward Gaza in terms of international law vs. the Israeli governments' self-perception of what its commitments are and how these commitments get translated into strategies and policies in the present crisis
  • Political theological readings of the three sets of monotheistic Scriptures, individually or comparatively considered
  • Is "theological disarmament" (in Alick Isaacs's phrase) a viable strategy for Judaism and for Islam?
  • Is religion merely a variety of the political? Can religion be theorized as constituting an autonomous field of its own?
  • Was monotheism at its inception simply a novel approach for achieving human liberation and secularization?
  • Islamic fundamentalism and revisionist readings of the texts and history of Islam
  • Jewish fundamentalism and its impact on the settlers' movement
  • Monotheism and liberalism: Continuities and contrasts
  • New strategies for re-conceptualizing peace education in Israel—and elsewhere
  • Is the furtherance and maintenance of life the key value of monotheistic religion?
  • What role does sacrifice—and self-sacrifice—play in monotheistic religion?
  • What are the metaphysical routes that link God to territoriality—infinite time to finite space?
  • Did modernization ever have a limited chance in the Islamic world?
  • Are Judaism and Islam theologically virtually interchangeable?
  • Contemporary confrontations between Islamic fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists
  • What role do media and the arts play in revolutionizing our understanding of religion?
  • What drives the Christian fundamentalist embrace of Israel?

This list of themes and topics is open-ended. It is intended to be suggestive—rather than exhaustive.

Confirmed Speakers

Ayman Agbaria
Aryeh Botwinick
Yinon Cohen
Julie Cooper
Dan Diner
Zeev Harvey
Annabel Herzog
Wayne Hudson
Moshe Lavee
Oliver Leaman
David Pan
Christoph Schmidt
Jon Simons

Abstract Submissions

We invite scholars of all disciplines to submit 250-word abstracts, along with a short CV, to by June 30, 2018.

The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute · 431 East 12th Street · New York, NY · 10009