"People today are divided more by their values than by their national or religious identity."
Special Address by Tzipi Livni
Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs
World Economic Forum
25 January 2007
Ladies and Gentleman,
Thank you for this unique opportunity to join this distinguished panel. It is an honor for me to be part of this special gathering.
The topic of this event is West-Islam dialogue.
For me, both the notion of the "West" and the notion of "Islam" mean too many different things to be grouped together in this way. There are many Moslems in the West. Many followers of Islam have adapted themselves to the western values, and find no contradiction between the two.
The real test is not the type of religion or location of the believer. The basis for the division today is the value system.
People today are divided more by their values than by their national or religious identity. The principles of justice, co-existence and tolerance do not belong to any religion or national identity. They were proclaimed by Moses, by Jesus and by Mohammed. Similarly, radical approaches are not foreign to any of the three principal monotheistic faiths.
In the context of possible clashes between different cultures, I come from a country which has a unique stake in the blending of such differences.
First, we are a society in which the interaction between religious traditions and Western values takes place on a daily basis. Israel is a mosaic of cultures and customs. Our citizens can trace their origins from the salons of the European enlightenment, from the deserts of Ethiopia and from the heart of the Muslim world. Some received their education in the best of the orthodox tradition, some from the finest secular universities, and some from both.
The cultural diversity of the people in Israel is matched by the richness of its historical landscape. The hilltops, valleys and streets of the Holy Land are overflowing with history and meaning for peoples of different origins and beliefs in a way that has no parallel anywhere else on earth.
The State of Israel was created as a homeland for the Jewish people, and carries the values of Judaism and democracy. By decision, Israel is a democracy which implements the values of democracy in full, along with upholding the Jewish values. Although they could have been seen as clashing values, and there are those who seek this clash, we have managed to find the synthesis, in such a way that the values of Judaism and the Western values of democracy and freedom, complete each other. We did find the common denominator between two value systems.
For example, honoring personal identity and respect to minorities are not just our obligation as a democracy, it is also an expression of essential Jewish values. According to the Bible, we, as the Jewish people, have to remember our status through history as minorities in society. As people, we must love the stranger as ourselves, and we must guarantee, in the words of the Book of Numbers, that there is but one law "for you and for the stranger that lives amongst you".
Each day, we must try, in the face of enormous difficulties, to honor the identity of each of our citizens and create the space for that identity to find its peaceful expression.
That is the task of the leadership. To find that harmony. To interpret and lead in a way that brings out the best of different cultures, and allows co-existence, over division and intolerance.
Israel is still a young state, and we do not claim to be a perfect one. Our mission, to be the national homeland for an ancient people and a democratic society for all our citizens, is not an easy one. In a real sense, we are a living laboratory for the interface between different cultures and faiths and we have much to offer others from our experience – both from our successes and from our failures.
But Israel’s role in this debate is also unique in a second way. Since our establishment we have been on the front-lines of a conflict that many perceive to be a major flashpoint between Islam and the West.
Some believe – mistakenly in my view – that resolving this conflict is the key to restoring harmony between Islam and the West. Others flip the order around and argue that the conflict will only be resolved when Islamic-Western harmony is achieved.
Both these approaches are, in my opinion, simplistic and misleading.
Increasingly, what we see is a world fragmented between forces of moderation, on the one hand, and forces of extremism, on the other. The one believes that differences should be tolerated and respected. The other rejects the legitimacy of any ideology but its own.
This contest between extremists and moderates has taken place at different times and in different ways. But today this contest is most prominent among radical leaders who exploit religion for their purposes. This is mostly evident in the relations between Islam and the West, and within the Islamic world itself. This is especially evident in the attempt by extremists to exploit and transform political, social or economic grievances that are subject to equitable resolution, into religious wars that allow for no compromise or reconciliation.
We see it in Iraq, in the clash between forces that wish to unite the country and those that seek to divide and destroy it. We see it in the Palestinian territories, in the struggle between those committed to creating a peaceful Palestinian State, and those committed to destroying the Jewish one. And we see it also in the neighborhoods of Europe where Muslim communities are sometimes divided over whether their religious identity and expression can be integrated into their lives in a modern, secular and democratic state.
As to the Western world, it cannot dictate the outcome of this contest. But, it can decide how to relate to its different actors, and it can be clear about what each of these actors can expect from the West, now and in the future. If we are true to the principles of co-existence and tolerance upon which Western society is based, we cannot be indifferent to this situation.
The internal debate influences the Islamic world itself, as well as its relations with the West. This is expressed clearly in the genocidal agenda of Ahmadinejad, and in the hate-filled propaganda of Al-Qaeda – which seek domination of one identity over another, while casting the outsider in the role of infidel. This type of extremism threatens the relations between Islam and the west, as well as the society in which it abides.
The basis for coexistence between the West and Islam is to allow proper expression for one identity next to another, while casting the outsider in the role of neighbor. Our obligation to show tolerance and respect for all faiths does not include an obligation to endure attempts – in the name of a distorted interpretation of faith – to de-legitimize others, to incite violence or to endanger core democratic values.
We have a responsibility to broadcast to the communities in which this debate is raging, through our actions and our words, that the path of extremism and rejection is a dead end. That it is a formula not for glory but for hopelessness and despair. It promises more hatred and more violence.
For the West, it is a threat. For the Muslim world it is a tragedy.
Every time we appease the radical forces, we will not only undermine the prospects for co-existence, we will also betray those moderate forces that are committed to it.
But standing firm against the extremists is only one part of the equation. A message must also be conveyed to the moderates, and to the average person on the street, that if they have the courage to stand up to the radicals, they have partners.
Moderate religious leaders within the communities have a significant role to play, in the way they interpret the religion and this message of moderation. Their voice must be heard loud and clear. Some have demonstrated the courage to fight for the rights too many of us take for granted. We must pay tribute to them.
All in all, we must empower the moderates. We must demonstrate that we respect their faith and unique traditions and that we are ready to help them realize their legitimate aspirations, if they are ready to respect ours.
Ladies and gentleman,
This dynamic between extremists and moderates is played out forcefully in the Israeli-Arab context. And here I would like to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example.
For the ruling elite in Tehran, for Hizbullah and for Hamas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not political and resolvable, but religious and irreconcilable. They are opposed to co-existence and to the two-State solution not just as a matter of policy but as a matter of ideology. The conflict is the consequence and not the cause of this ideology.
But, the responsibility to do so does not rest on the shoulders of political leaders alone. Educators and business leaders, religious mentors and thinkers of the kind gathered in this room today have a special responsibility not only to advance dialogue and understanding but also to speak out against its opponents, and to make clear that incitement and violence are not an expression of faith but a perversion of it.
Educational institutions need to create a generation of peace-makers not of martyrs. And the voice of the mosque, of the church and of the synagogue must be the voice of acceptance not incitement, of coexistence not hatred.
The Bible teaches us that all human beings were created in the image of God. It may be true that every person is different from the other, but it is up to us, whether to highlight the differences, or stress the uniting factors. We can create a true harmony.
Let us hope that we will all have the wisdom to find the perfect harmony, so that our different values complete each other, and not compete with each other. When we find that harmony, we will be living in a better world. After all, the most important of all, is what type of world we leave for our children.