I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.
-Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State, Introduction

A significant part of the activity of our seminar center here at Shorashim, over the past two decades, as been in the area of fostering cooperation and mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs. The Galilee Circus, our bilingual website, our encounter program that brings together Jewish and Arab teens – all of these seek to ameliorate the fears and antagonism that stand in the way of Israel being a strong and cohesive democracy. Every once in a while, we host a visiting interfaith mission from abroad, who are interested to learn about the situation in Israel, and to understand how their vision of interfaith study and dialogue can perhaps help us here. As I prepared to address such a group recently, I had a sort of realization, and finally understood why I have always felt uncomfortable trying to put my work here into the framework of “interfaith understanding.”

Galilee Diary: Interfaith It seems to me that the interfaith dialogue model – in which the participants are all, let’s say, Americans, of different faith traditions – Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Moslem etc. – assumes a common denominator of identity: You can be a good American (or Canadian), equal to all others – regardless of the faith tradition you have inherited or adopted. The participants in such dialogue groups have important shared beliefs, assumptions, and loyalties, and they generally speak the same language. They differ in religion, and can use their shared culture and national identity as a scaffolding on which to stand together while they struggle to understand and find some truth in each others’ religious doctrines and worldviews.

Here, while there are important and impressive interfaith dialogue projects, primarily for clergy, in general the encounters between people of different faith traditions are very different in their assumptions and goals. While it is true, for example, that our youth circus comprises Jewish and Muslim participants, they don’t see themselves as participating in an interfaith activity; I think the reason for this is that the model of a common national identity standing beneath religious pluralism is not operative here. These kids speak different languages, attend different schools, live in separate communities, nurture different historic narratives; they have in common their Israeli citizenship, but for many of the Arabs, at least, this doesn’t have a lot of emotional or ideological content. For most of the Jews in Israel, and for many of the Arabs, religion is not how they define themselves. Arab-Jewish encounter is not much different if the Arabs happen to be Muslim, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Druze. The encounter is not consciously an interfaith one.

When Theodore Herzl had his epiphany at the Dreyfus trial, he began to champion the view that religious reconciliation no longer offered hope, because the operating assumptions of European identity were national, not religious. Hence, Zionism can be seen as a rebellion against Judaism, a redefinition of Jewish identity from religious to national – in which case, interfaith dialogue becomes beside the point, and the solution to the Jewish problem lies in obtaining for the Jews a national state like that of the French or Hungarians or Latvians. Not everyone, of course, accepted this analysis, and we’ve spent the past century and more debating the relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish nationality, with no consensus on the horizon. What seems clear, meanwhile, is that the “One God” idea of American religious pluralism stands on a foundation of One Nation that, for better or for worse, we have not attained in Israel.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!