American News

Can Religious Communities Help Solve World Problems?

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, the Appleman professor of Midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Religion, news on religion, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Burton L. Visotzky, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Jewish news, Jewish, Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary

© Piti Tangchawalit

September 05, 2019 19:25 EDT

People follow different paths to find meaning for their lives. For many, religion is a way of embracing spirituality. In a world plagued by loneliness, anxiety and conflict, religion can help people find peace of mind and inner calm.

Since the beginning of time, humankind has resorted to a metaphysical power in which they can find refuge and look for answers to their questions. Worshipping a deity is seen as a way of expressing their desire for truth and peace when the world appears incapable of responding to their needs.

Yet, at the same time, modern world history has been marred by wars and conflicts, some of which religious violence has played a role in. In 1975, only 2% of conflicts in the world were linked to religion, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. By 2013, that number rose to over 50%. In his book, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things,” historian Matthew White named religion as the cause of 13 of the world’s 100 deadliest conflicts. A case in point is Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State group has used religion to justify its brutality and bloodshed.

This has led to debate over the role of religion in conflicts. For some, religion is seen as the cause of violence, often citing the actions of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. For others, religion has been manipulated by extremists for their own agenda.

Religious intolerance and violence have become more widespread — from anti-Semitism or Islamophobia to the actions of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist extremists as well as white supremacists. At such a time, the importance of interfaith dialogue has never been greater as a way to respond to hatred and bigotry.

Burton L. Visotzky is an American rabbi and scholar of Midrash. He currently serves as the Appleman professor of Midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rabbi Visotzky about the rise of religious intolerance, the importance of preserving religious diversity, and the role of interfaith dialogue in bridging the gap between communities.

Kourosh Ziabari: Religious intolerance is on the rise globally. Do you think there is anything inherent in religions such as Judaism and Islam endorsing bigotry and discrimination? Does the growth of divisions between people of different faiths have religious roots or political motivations?

Burton Visotzky: Religions are made up of human beings, each of us with our own positive and negative virtues. Further, the Abrahamic religions, particularly Judaism and Islam, are originally tribal — and we still have tribal tendencies. Thus, I should love you if you are from my tribe and be wary of you if you are not. Yet the same religions command: love your neighbor, love the stranger.

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I think journalists who are trained to focus on conflict tend to overlook the fact that even as there is a rise in xenophobia and hate crimes, there is a concomitant rise in interreligious dialogue and interfaith opposition to incitements.

Politics certainly exacerbates divisions, but it can be used as a force for unity, not division. Unfortunately, current politicians such as [Donald] Trump and [Benjamin] Netanyahu have chosen hate and division as their path to power. In neither instance are these religious instincts, even though they may marshal certain right-wing religious forces who shortsightedly see political advantage in their alliance with these would-be despots.

Ziabari: Several countries have constitutional provisions forbidding acts of intolerance and discrimination on religious grounds. However, violence inspired by religious intolerance and sectarianism is growing across the world. As reported by the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of countries in the world experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred in 2018. Do you think governments are doing enough to counter religious violence and discrimination against people of faith?

Visotzky: In the US, there should be a high wall of separation between “church” and “state.” Freedoms of speech and religion are enshrined in the US Constitution and, indeed, the very fabric of our nation and its history.

That said, the government can do more to counter religious violence and discrimination. To start, it would help to have leaders who decry violence and incitement instead of using it as a political tool.

Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is a good example of a political leader who embraces diversity and unity while eschewing violence and bigotry.

Ziabari: Divine religions are supposed to promote peace, harmony and love. Why is it that they are so universally connected with aggression and conflict? If religion is the trigger of so many conflicts, what is the point of subscribing to it?

Visotzky: To say that “divine religions” are “universally connected with aggression and conflict” is to wholly misconstrue current and past reality, in favor of a misguided conflict model. It is unfair to religions and aggressively provocative journalism.

Why not focus on the enormous amount of good that religions do to heal the sick, clothe the naked, house the homeless, feed the poor [and] educate the disenfranchised? Further, you could focus on how the various religions are doing this cooperatively with one another and even working hand in hand with the UN and World Bank to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and oppose the kinds of conflict your question wrongly presupposes.

Ziabari: Media reports and academic studies suggest anti-Semitic incidents are increasing in Europe and the United States, highlighting an ancient prejudice surging in the 21st century. What do you think is the root cause of anti-Semitic hate crimes and hostility toward Jews emerging across the world?

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Visotzky: I accept that there is a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, along with a concurrent rise in Islamophobia and more general xenophobia. There is no one answer to your question, as there are political causes, economic causes, the troubling tone of discourse across social media, failures in governmental leadership, etc. In general, the rise in anti-Semitic incidents seems traceable to right-wing activities and incitements.

Ziabari: Do you see any relationship between the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the spike of anti-Semitism? Does Israel’s approach toward Palestine play a role in how the Jewish people are perceived and treated?

Visotzky: I think there is some possibility that the protracted nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the intractability of leadership — using that term loosely — on both sides correlates with the rise in anti-Semitism.

As I said above, it is but one of many, many complex factors. A phenomenon as complicated and pernicious as anti-Semitism cannot, sadly, be traced to only one cause. That said, I think a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians would be a welcome contribution to peace in the region and the world.

Ziabari: Peter Gottschalk, the noted author of “American Heretics,” sees connections between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as Muslims and Jews have similarly been viewed as being antithetical to certain ideas of Americanness. Do you see the same association between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism? Do they have similar roots?

Visotzky: I do not know Mr. Gottschalk’s work and so cannot comment on it. As for “ideas of Americanness,” Islam and Judaism have been part of America since its inception as a nation, indeed, even before American independence in 1776.

Ziabari: What are the most notable obstacles to successful interfaith dialogue on the global level? Are the leaders of religious communities, politicians and international organizations doing a good job in promoting interreligious dialogue? Is the capacity of religion to contribute to peacebuilding and conflict resolution utilized properly?

Visotzky: We could always use more dialogue, more sharing, more coordinated work to alleviate the world’s ills. There is a deep capacity in religious communities to solve problems rather than stoke tensions. I have spent the past four decades building bridges among religious leadership around the world and opposing bigotry and bias. There is notable leadership among Jews, Christians and Muslims who are promoting interreligious cooperation. They should be applauded. God willing, my colleagues and I will continue our work of loving our neighbors, as God demands of us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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