Imagining Peace: A Review of Atalia Omer's WHEN PEACE IS NOT ENOUGH

Can Hermeneutics Bring Peace to Palestine?  An Appreciative Challenge to Atalia Omer’s When Peace is Not Enough:  How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

             When Peace is Not Enough is a complex, ambitious, and courageous book.  The terms in the subtitle:  “Religion, Nationalism, and Justice” are not topics easily tackled singly, much less in tandem, even in a context as focused as “the Israeli peace camp.”  But this wonderfully rich work by Atalia Omer—Assistant Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, could benefit from even further complication.  For, far from merely a description of how the “Israeli peace camp” thinks about things, Omer’s work seeks to reframe both the way scholars of religion (and activists) engage with peace building and the way the political debate over “peace” in Israel proceeds.  No simple task.

Building on the work of Talal Asad and many other theorists, Omer continues the demolition of any simple secular-religious dichotomy:  modern nationalisms in Israel and elsewhere have religious origins and operations that have produced “systemic and cultural violence.”  As a remedy, Omer encourages “critical caretakers” across religious-secular traditions who can “co-inhabit” common ground through a “hermeneutics of citizenship” on the way to a “justpeace.” Such a hermeneutics involves “engagement” with “hybrid (although sometimes “subaltern” or “silenced”) identities,” among whom Omer refers to Palestinian Israelis and Mizrahi (non-Ashkenazi, especially Arab, Jews) as examples. This is an admirable project, and fascinating argument, and Omer’s familiarity with and critical reading in the sources of “the Israeli peace camp” is impeccable.  But without some more complex calculus and theoretical and practical “engagements”—which Omer might well be situated to develop in future works, the instauration of a “hermeneutics of citizenship” is likely to be a “long-term” project indeed, as Omer acknowledges (283).

            Omer is a strong critic.  She shows how the debate over “peace” in Israel has been hampered by the hegemony of an unexamined “political theology” behind Zionism, which even in its “secular” guise is “orientalist, colonialist, and Eurocentric,”(235) and rooted in a “monolithic” view of Israel’s history.  This mythic view of history runs across secular and religious activists, from political liberals to Haredi (strictly Orthodox) participants, and presumes an Israeli identity tied to biblical tropes of “redemption” from exile through “return to the land”—in the shadow of the Shoah. Such tropes cause “myopia” among even the most benevolent Israeli peace activists, and hinder their work.  Most directly, and simply, in her own words:  “This book explores the conceptual blinders of the Israeli peace camp.”(2)

The book ranges widely across cases.  Chapter One explores “Peace Now” as an example of the “consensus” among “the secular Zionist peace camp.”  A fixation on the post-1967 occupation occludes attention among Peace Now activists, Omer argues, to the deeper “structural and cultural violence” and injustices that date to 1948.  Omer is aware that “the genuine fear of extinction embodied in the experience and memory of the Holocaust” is an irrevocable aspect of this history, but this fact must be held in tension with the “catastrophes of the Palestinians and the ‘domestic’ Jewish victims of a Euro-Zionist agenda,” she argues (64).  This is, to say the least, a delicate balancing act that Omer manages deftly to my mind, although scholars and activists of many stripes might find reasons to disagree.  After this initial case study, Chapter Two is a methodological foray into what Omer dubs, somewhat awkwardly, “justpeace,” a neologism designed to indicate the inextricable link between any peace worth having and social justice.  Integrating insights from political theory, peace and conflict studies, and religious studies, the distinctive contribution of this chapter is its recommendation of “systemic discursive analysis.”  In practice, this anticipates “the renarration of history as fundamentally relational,”(91-2) by attending to articulations of the ways Israeli and Palestinian interests intersect, as they in fact have for well over half a century now.  Chapter Three is the most important constructive chapter, where Omer develops the notions of “critical caretakers” and a “hermeneutics of citizenship.”  In a fateful turn, Omer links these proposals to the construction of “identity.”  This turn is fateful because it short-circuits the explanatory range of both critical caretaking and a hermeneutics of citizenship.  Omer seeks to attend “to how religion could be related to restructuring and dismantling dominant discourses . . . through an embedded exploration of internal and external resources that could either provide alternatives or reform illiberal or exceedingly exclusivist national historiographies.”(106-7)  “Identity,” about which I shall say more shortly, is simply not a robust enough “field” in which to accomplish these goals.

Chapters Four through Seven pick up again with case studies. Chapter Four critiques conventional notions of “returning to Sinai” among religious peace activists in Israel, and especially the Gavison-Medan Covenant.  Succinctly, Omer shows how “the cultivation of an ethnically and religious Jewish state implies non-democratic practices,” and even the “idolatry of nationalism.”(130, 142)  Chapter Five studies “Rabbis for Human Rights,” with whom Omer has many sympathies, but which she sees (again) inhibited by “a particular nationalist framework.”(144)  Chapters Six and Seven turn to “Subaltern Visions of Peace,” namely as articulated by Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, in Chapter Six, and Mizrahi (notably Arab Jewish) activists, in Chapter Seven.  Often, Omer notes, these cohorts are represented in Israel under rubrics of “minority rights,” but such a discourse can perpetuate the tyranny of a majority—and untold hidden injustices.  “Substantive challenges to Jewish hegemony,” Omer suggests, “will have to move beyond reframing religion or cultural identity as a ‘right’ for individual practice and collective representation.”(208) Instead, recognition of Palestinians and Jews as “indigenous” to the Middle East, rather than being “redeemed” from “exile” by “return,” is both more accurate historically and pregnant politically.  What Zionism as an Ashkenazi construct obscures is the long and continuous, albeit contentious, history of Jews and Palestinians living together in the land.  “Reclaiming nativity,”(240) in short, is a way to imagine “cohabitation” in a way that recognizes both Jewish and Palestinian suffering and that invites collective action on behalf of a “justpeace” that is in all parties’ interest.  “Nativity” is seldom easy.        

                 As is common for a first book, Omer leans heavily on the jargon of academic experts.  This can make for a difficult slog for readers—and probably limits the use of the book in the classroom.  But the effort to wade through the thicket of jargon is worthwhile, and Omer generally structures her chapters with reasonably crisp introductions and conclusions that at least touch down with everyday language.  This is vital, because the normative goal of the work is both important and achievable.  As succinctly as possible, what Omer wants to see develop is a robust “civil society”(274) in Israel that is more inclusive than previous peace activists have been able to offer.  On the way toward that goal, several threads for continued research by Omer, and others, suggest themselves to complicate her work in ways that might actually bring it to realization.

The first such complication is in her treatment of Islam.  Muslims appear throughout this work, of course, and especially in Chapter Six about Palestinian Israelis, but they seldom appear as Muslims, unless they are Islamists.  This omission is unfortunate, given the recent document A Common Word, which might have reinforced some of Omer’s arguments about the potential of critically-embraced religion to provide activists across traditions with some common ground, and the global Hizmet movement associated with Turkish public intellectual Fethullah Gülen, which explicitly seeks to bridge sacred-secular concerns in a civil society movement.  In short, a more robust analysis of the Islamic sources regarding “nativity” of Jews and Muslims, for one example, might strengthen the possibility that the two groups could cohabit peacefully and productively in the Middle East.  Again—I can imagine Omer addressing some of these themes in a future work.

                A second complication, as alluded earlier, is in Omer’s use of the category of “identity.”  Ironically, her recourse to this discourse replicates one of the signal errors of modernist constructions of religion—namely to privatize or individualize its practice.  What could be more private than one’s “identity?”  In my own work, I discuss religions as “linguistic-cultural systems” that provide people with “cultural power,” and this means attending not only to discourses, but also to institutions and behavior—the social structures and enduring traditions that provide people with spiritual capital and with practices that replicate and embody projections of transcendent authority across time.  Omer is right that attention to the “political theologies” and other religious discourses of nationalism have been inadequate, but the same could also be said about the way practices (e.g., sacrifice, prayer, fasting, recitation, pilgrimage, and so forth) have connected to structural violence, and even more (perhaps) to forms of “justpeace.”  

Along those lines, thirdly, I wondered throughout my reading of this book about the role of the military in Israel as an agent of the kinds of discursive violence that Omer critiques.  Are peace activists really at the root of the impediments to a “justpeace” in Israel?  Omer tosses aside a comment about the Yeshivat Har Etzion that “facilitates military service combined with religious learning.”(132)  Kelly Denton-Borhaug, among others, has recently done some critical analysis of U.S. military theologies; a similar task, I suspect, awaits scholars who want to promote a “justpeace” in Israel.

A final complication I can suggest is in the area of economics.  Omer is rightly hard on “neo-liberal” policies that have exacerbated inequalities in Israeli society.  “The kibbutznik of yore,” she writes, “has become the high-tech cosmopolitan capitalist of today.”(25) But she leaves unexplored the religious and theological roots and operations of neo-liberal economics (e.g., the attractions of consumerism) that might also be turned through the development of what Muhammad Yunus and others have called “social business” toward ends that could at least be compatible with “justpeace.” 

            These four complications should not, however, detract from what is in its present form a courageous and important book.  Omer brilliantly surfaces what I call from American history “innocent domination,” or the ways well-meaning activists ironically perpetuate structural injustices.  It can be hoped that Omer’s work as a “critical caretaker” will deepen and develop new trajectories that realize the full scope of a “hermeneutics of citizenship” for Israel, and by extension for the rest of the world.  Peace may not be enough, but what Omer’s work reveals is that it is possible to imagine how it might be.  And that is an impressive and indispensable place to start.