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Reflections on Ethics & Values in Policy 29 July 2000

Compromising Values in the Middle East

The problem with politicians is that they come to believe over time, if not by predilection, that since their essential function is politics, all problems can be addressed through compromise. Politicians so seldom get into office by being statespersons that the politically negotiated solution is the only one they tend to recognize.

Where one recognizes no deeply held values beyond the value of compromise that may well be the case. But where communities hold other values deeply, pleas for compromise are essentially pleas for surrender.

The recently concluded Middle East peace talks at Camp David demonstrate the power of community values over politics. It is a potential continuation of a tragedy to be true, but because deeply held values are at issue, Middle East peace is not to be found through pleas for compromise. Peace in the Middle East will be found peacefully, if at all, through a solution accommodating deeply held values. Where the values are seen to be fundamentally incompatible, compromise is not likely.

While it is true that the three monotheistic religions hold Jerusalem to be holy, they hold it to be sacred in significantly different ways. For Christianity, Jerusalem is a place where sacred events occurred. Christianity, which has had an ambivalent relationship with the Temple Mount itself over the millennia, may be able to compromise without sacrificing important values. More is at stake, however, for Judaism and Islam. Compromise, correspondingly, will not be easy for either, and they are the principal antagonists in this drama.

For Judaism, Jerusalem is more than just a site of sacred events. It is sacred as the seat of the land promised the Hebrews by God. Jerusalem, then, is the seat of not only the Holy Land, but the Promised Land.

Islam, in turn, has two claims to Jerusalem. First, in the Muslim view, Islam is God's designated successor to both Judaism and Christianity: anointed to continue what Judaism and Christianity had failed to accomplish. The prophet Mohammed, in the Muslim view, was the last of a line of prophets, including Christ, which began with Abraham. All the holy sites of the Jews and Christians, then, are holy sites of the Muslims to the extent the Jews and Christians got the message right. Second, the Temple Mount is the site of Mohammed's night time ride to Paradise, while he apparently slept in Mecca.

So the question that must be asked and answered—before compromise is possible—may be, which of these deeply held values must be sacrificed? Or are there other, more important values that the affected communities share to which we can appeal?

Survival and peace are values. Survival and peace are choices. But from time immemorial, human beings have shown that values such as these religious values are more important than survival and peace themselves. Peace bought at the price of deeply held values is seldom sustaining.

Our politicians' pleas must be less for compromise than for understanding of the role these values play and how they can be accommodated, if at all. Threats of withholding aid or moving one's embassy are more apt to flame values-based passions than lead to compromise.

As ever, community values count, and peace without understanding and accommodating such values, where possible, is not likely.

Kenneth W. Johnson

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