Unholy war in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Despite what religious fanatics believe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a “holy war” – far from it.

Photo: ©K. Maes
Photo: ©K. Maes

Wednesday 2 September 2015

The “hilltop youth” group suspected of being behind the arson attack which killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha and his father in the village of Duma, near Nablus, is out to overthrow the Israeli government and establish a Jewish theocracy based on Halakha law, the Israeli security services suspect.

The terrorists behind the attack seemed to follow a similar terror manual to ISIS – they not only burnt the toddler alive, they even reportedly stood around and listened to his helpless screams. “A modern cult of zealots, messianic and crazy, is leading us…toward a war of Gog and Magog – and the end of the Third Temple,” wrote Nehemia Shtrasler in Haaretz.

And the site the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe proposes for the Third Temple could spark a region-wide “religious war”, if Jewish worshippers continue to enter what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews), Palestinian political and religious leaders have warned.

This raises the intriguing and important question of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one.

Reflective of the growing attention this question is receiving, the Palestine-Israel Journal, an academic publication dedicated to studying the conflict, organised a roundtable discussion on this very issue.

The panel in which I participated – which included Israeli, Palestinian and foreign participants from academia, the media, the clergy and the activist community – was sharply divided on the question. A straw poll I conducted of friends and acquaintances proved equally inconclusive, with the nature of the conflict being largely in the eyes of the beholder.

My own reading of the situation is that what we have in is essentially a secular nationalist conflict over land, injustice and, to a lesser degree, identity.

This is demonstrated in the PLO charter. While the document repeatedly mentions the words “”, “Palestinian” and “nationalism”, it does not once refer to religion. The nearest it comes is to mention a “material, spiritual and historical” connection with Palestine.

The second most important political force in the Palestinian struggle after was, for decades, the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), founded by George Habash, who was born into a Christian family. Many of its members were atheists, the remnants of which tell their “comrades” in Hamas that “paradise is in this life, not the next”, echoing Leila Khaled's view that “Palestine is paradise”.

Similarly, political Zionism's founder was a secular agnostic, and perhaps even an atheist. Israel's founding generation were anti-religion and believed – wishfully, it seems, in hindsight – that as a faith was on the verge of dying, as the veteran peace activist Uri Avnery recalls.

Many Palestinians and Arabs find this notion hard to comprehend or swallow. “Judaism is a religion and Zionism sought to build a Jewish state, so to Israelis, this is a religious conflict,” Ibrahim, a friend, remarked. This position is also expressed in the PLO charter: “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own.”

In light of their dispossession, and the fact that Jews themselves cannot agree whether being Jewish is a question of religion or ethnicity, this confusion on the part of Palestinians is understandable.

However, unlike what many Jews and Arabs believe, this blurring of the lines between ethnicity and faith, though irrational to the rational mind, is not unique to Judaism, and has little to do with the “tribal” nature of Judaism, as an Israeli academic at the roundtable described it.

After all, the fact that most of the world's religions are, to varying degrees, hereditary underlines that belonging to them is related as much to parentage as it is to faith. In addition, the notion of religion as “nation” is not alien to other religions either – in , it is called “umma”. The religion-ethnicity pendulum tends to swing more towards the ethnic when a given religious group is a minority or feels threatened.

This was the case in South Asia. A year before Israel was created, Pakistan was carved out of . Its main founding father was a staunch atheist who saw Islam in ethno-nationalist terms. “The Mussalmans are not a minority. The Mussalmans are a nation by any definition,” he told a  rally of 100,000 followers in 1940.

However, like Jinnah, Zionism's political leaders were not beyond using religious symbolism and religious authorities to push their secular agenda. Herzl gave up his pragmatic willingness to establish a Jewish state anywhere, including in Uganda, in favour of Palestine because of its religious-historical importance to Jews.

In addition, Herzl forged alliances of convenience with William Hechler and other milleniallist Protestant “Restorationists” – the original Zionists – which left a bad taste in his mouth. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical' one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl confided to his diary.

Similarly, Palestinian secular leaders resorted to religious imagery and discourse – Islamic and, to a lesser extent, Christian – to resist Zionist expansionism and appeal for wider support. This is visible, for instance, in the adoption of the Dome of the Rock as a poignant symbol of the cause, the use of the religiously loaded term “Fedayeen” – which literally means “those who sacrifice [for God],” – to describe Palestinian fighters and even Arafat's choice to call his movement Fatah (a reverse acronym of Palestine Liberation Movement), which in Arabic also means the early Islamic conquests.

That said, this is not a unique phenomenon. Whether oppressed or oppressor, conquered or conqueror, people tend to employ at least some religious discourse to justify or resist dominance, and where they don't, nationalism itself is raised to a pseudo-religion.

However, over the decades, a parallel process has been taking place among Israelis and Palestinians. The 1967 war was a pivotal moment in this regard, the “miracle” of which brought religious Zionism out of the margins and into center stage. On the Arab side, the crushing defeat dealt a fatal blow to secular, revolutionary Arab nationalism, from which it has not recovered. Islamists have gradually been filling the void.

This reflects how the religious aspect of the conflict is as much a civil conflict within each society, sometimes more so than between them, a battle for the soul of both nations.

Despite the growing zealotry of religious fundamentalists, the secular foundations of this conflict remain unchanged: land, resources, rights and dignity. Yet, as the situations in Syria, and Yemen show, repeating the mantra of holy war enough can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must avoid this unholy outcome in the .


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 17 August 2015.

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