Landau fights use of religion as weapon through truth, justice, peace


Jessica White | Staff Writer

When Yehezkel Landau was 28 years old, his faith called him to pack his bags, leave his comfortable life in the U.S. and immigrate to Israel.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, Landau set out to pursue a life of inter-religious peace-building.

“As a person who was trying to live out my religious beliefs, I was appalled at how religion becomes an instrument for a weapon,” Landau said. “My heart, spirit and conscience were all called to contribute some positive healing.”

Landau, who became a dual American-Israeli citizen, was executive director of the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement in Israel, from 1982 to 1991.

In 1991, he left a secure lifestyle once again, resigning from his job to found the Open House Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence in Ramle, Israel. The center, a space shared by Israelis and Palestinians, serves as a laboratory for reconciliation through summer peace camps, coexistence training for educators, leadership training for teenagers and more.

After 24 years in Israel, Landau returned to the U.S. in 2002 to join the faculty at Hartford Seminary. As a teacher of interfaith relations, Landau instills his life-long dedication to peacemaking in a new generation of students.

In his first lecture at Chautauqua, Landau will speak about societal wounds in the U.S. and Israel and how to heal them. The lecture is titled “Truth, Justice and Peace: Foundations for a Healthy Society,” and will take place at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

These three virtues — truth, justice and peace — come from Zechariah 8:16, Landau said.

“Because the prophet expresses (the virtues) in that order — truth, then justice, then peace — I believe that is a fundamental chain of healing,” he said. “You have to tell the truth in order to create conditions of justice where people’s truths are mutually accommodated, and then that is the requirement for peace.”

Landau said he thinks both the U.S. and Israel are afflicted with political pathologies that can be remedied through spirituality, but instead, religion is often used as a wedge issue to divide people.

“Calling the president a secret Muslim, for example, is just manipulation of people’s fears,” he said. “So the leaders of our religious communities have to counter that with accurate information about our traditions and serve as role models for cooperation. We have to create alliances across religious differences for the good of everyone.”

Though he recognizes the importance of church-state separation, Landau said it is essential for people in the U.S. to find ways to compromise over issues of belief — religious or nonreligious.

“Our political culture is so polarized now, and no one seems to want to give ground,” he said. “Compromise is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom so that the greater good is served. That’s what democracy is about: finding common ground.”

When Landau began his peace-building work half a lifetime ago, he said he was doing it for the sake of his grandchildren — so they could grow up in a healthier, more peaceful society, whether in the U.S. or in Israel. Now, he said his greatest success goes beyond teaching and lecturing, as he builds communities based on the principles he teaches. Landau doesn’t expect his work to ever be finished, but he said Chautauqua is a perfect place to continue.

“I know how special of a place (Chautauqua) is, and so it’s an honor to be invited to give a talk, especially on the Fourth of July,” he said. “It’s really a wonderful opportunity to share my concerns with a wider public, and these are the things that motivate my work.”

Wherever he travels, Landau said he remembers to think globally.

“The whole world is interconnected — not just economically, but spiritually, culturally, humanly,” he said. “Somebody coined the phrase ‘think globally, act locally,’ so that’s what I’ve been doing my whole adult life wherever I’ve lived. I think there are global implications of the local peace building that I’m doing.”