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 (, 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 “Arab”, “Palestinian” and “nationalism”, it does not once refer to . 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 Fatah was, for decades, the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), founded by , 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 Theodor Herzl was a secular agnostic, and perhaps even an . Israel's founding generation were anti-religion and believed – wishfully, it seems, in hindsight – that Judaism 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 Islam, 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, was carved out of . Its main founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah 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 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 , 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, Iraq 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 Holy Land.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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34 thoughts on “Unholy war in the Holy Land

  • Nope, because there they talk about Arabs, not about Muslims.

    Reply
  • No it isn’t grin emoticon

    Reply
  • Antonia

    Colonialism can’t be separated from nationalism, and nationalism can’t be separated from religion. First, the conflict is built on an atypical form of colonialism rooted in nationalism (collective self-determination being associated with land ownership), and the struggle against that is a nationalist struggle too. So the conflict is colonial, but it’s between two groups who reacted to dispossession by forming themselves into modern nations. Second, to separate nationalism from religion is completely artificial. These modern abstract categories are arbitrary and have little to do with how life is actually lived. It’s a modern conceit to imagine religion as pure faith without lived history. You don’t have to believe in God to consider a religious festival, ritual or value important. That’s because religion is tradition. It’s a matter of family and community and being part of something bigger than yourself. Religion is an integral part of group of identity. Fundamentalism or the way religion is used is ultimately political and subject to change, but religion itself is completely bound up with nationalism, ie. the modern notion that ‘a’ people own ‘a’ land because of history and ancestral myth. The problem with nationalism is the idea of being indigenous or native leaves no place for migration or for minorities to truly belong. They will always be less ‘native’ and vulnerable to exclusion. It, therefore, breeds more collective and nationalist struggles. Nevertheless, nationalism is the main, normalised way that groups struggle for self-determination today. According to this very artificial modern idea of nationalism, these peoples are separate nations with legitimate claims to the land, albeit through different kinds of mythologies and histories. Both nations want self-determination as a distinct identity and a space for that identity to be normal and flourish. In a nationalist stuggle, there is a zero-sum game in which the normalization of one challenges the normalization of the other and both groups include voices denying that the other side is legitimate or even real. Both groups’ narratives recount their own formation as a nation as a normal process and the other’s parallel process as a fabrication. Those historical narratives are also mythic, and religion and nationalism entwine to spin those national myths.

    Reply
  • A series of resolutely secular Israeli governments began to see hitherto mocked and sidelined religious Jewish elements as an easily manipulable tool for gaining world approval more territory, and, particularly after the 1967 victory, used their icreasingly Messianic arguments to drive policy. This appealed to the multitudes who had fallen by the wayside as far as religion was concerned, hence its popularity among the guilt-ridden. This happened almost in parallel to a similar phenomenon amongst our neighbours, I suspect.

    Reply
  • Its also…. and its started as a local one, turned into a national one, a religious one and an international one. This is why its so popular…

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  • No generalization possible. Different people on both sides engage for different reasons. For some, the conflict is religious; for others, not.

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  • It wasn’t at first, but it definitely is now, since settler messianism became mainstream and accepted in Israeli society (this is changing though, it’s only a matter of time until it’s rejected and discredited by the mainstream) and fundamentalist movements began to speak for the Palestinian people and equate them and their cause with Islam (IMO in the early years of the Palestinian struggle many of its leaders were Christian or socialist).

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  • It’s a fight over real estate, where the various warring parties often use religion as a prop for identity… Like white shirts and red shirts.

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  • No it isn’t a religious one. It’s about territory and we can solve it with a fair compromise. Turning it to a religious one can make it unsolved for generation. I believe that those who are against a solution do their best to make it a religious one. We must fight them back and leave it to be a territorial conflict. These days, Both sides refuse to know, understand or trust each other. We have lots of work.

    Reply
  • Abraham

    Non, Zionism is not a religious movement and the judaic fraction of the Jewish PEople is generally hostile to Zionism. There are some Chasidim who are fanatical Zionists and wish to set up a State of Judae in the West Bank and they have captured the attention of the pro-Zionist media, both Christian and Jewish. Zionism originates as a Protestant Christian movement seeking to send the Jewish people to ‘Israel’ voluntarily or otherwise.

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  • Settler colonial structure with religion being used to prop up various myths.

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  • I think Zionism is driven by tribal chauvinism. A dapper Jewish doctor or lawyer in America who gives money to AIPAC every year might have a hard time accepting that he is driven by regressive, primitive tribal tendencies . . . but he is.

    Reply
  • No, but religion is important to many of the key players and groups in the conflict, which means that ideologues use religion in their language to convince people of their political ends. Denying the connection between Islamic revival movements and the end of colonialism is foolish and bigoted. As is denying the connection between Jewish religious nationalism and the antisemitism of 19th and 20th century Europe.

    Reply
  • Zionism is not a religious movement, and Zionism is the main problem for most Palestinians, therefore it’s not a religion based conflict.

    Also, the conflict BEGAN when Arabs started to notice/suspect that Jews were striving for an autonomy/state.

    For these reasons the conflict seems to be based on the existence of Israel.

    Palestinians can’t live with it, Jews can’t live without it, hence the conflict.

    Reduce the size of Israel – the conflict will continue.

    Make Israel more secular – the conflict will continue.

    Erase the Jewish character of Israel – the conflict will terminate.

    Reply
  • It’s a largely secular conflict between two…no, among several largely secular cultural groups. The minor sectarian aspect is being provoked in no small part by the US.

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  • Of course not. It is a settler colonial regime and the struggle against it. Religious justifications are used by both sides to do what they do, but at heart, this is of the same category of event as has and had been happening for the last couple of centuries.

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  • It certainly wasn’t fifty years ago when I got involved in the politics. Dig up any books from that era. So for oldies it’s not a question.

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  • A young nation always seeks to compose an identity for its people to rally around. So, having a seperate Abrahamic religion comes in handy, I suppose. But, in essence, it’s not a religious conflict per se.

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  • It’s a combination. By defining the entire land as a wakf that can never come under non-Muslim sovereignty, the Arab Muslim side has made the conflict more religious. The Jewish side traditionally saw it more as a matter of control of land, even if there is now more of a religious element to that.

    Reply
    • I would guess that at least half of the Arab muslim side does not know and what a waqf is and the half who knows never thought about it that way smile emoticon – although I tend to agree it’s a combination. It’s like the chicken and the egg, hard to tell what came first smile emoticon

      Reply
  • Mohamed

    If one party is convinced that they “have God on their side” (aaaah, Dylan) because he gave them the land, then yes, it is.
    Basically it doesn’t take both sides to think of it as a religious conflict, for it to be one.

    Reply
  • It is a ‘nationalist’ conflict which has taken on ‘biblical proportions’ due to the historical and geopolitical forces at work in the region.

    Reply
  • some similarities to the Northern Irish “troubles”.. Religion becomes an easy identifier.

    Reply
  • الفلسطينين بيتعاملوا مع الأمر تعامل مواطنين مع دولة إحتلال، كما تعامل المصريين مع الإنجليز سابقاً مثلاُ
    والإسرائيلين يتعاملون مع الامر من مبدأ البحث عن أرض ودولة وكيان ليس إلا

    كلا الطرفين وجد ” مصادفة” بعض المظاهر الدينية لصبغ حراكه بها، وجعله أكثر فاعلية وجذباُ للتأييد الشعبى والإقليمى والدولى.

    الفلسطينين وجدوا فى الصفة الدينية للمسجد الأقصى والقدس أداة دعم وإستجلاب تأييد عربى وإسلامى لقضيتهم والتخلص من الإحتلال

    الإسرائيليين وجدوا فى الخلفية التاريخية التوراتية لفلسطين أداة دعم وإستجلاب تأييد دولى لإثبات حق فى هذه الأرض.

    القضية الفلسطينية الإسرائيلية صُبغت مصادفة بصبغة دينية، وهى فى الأصل قضية سياسية مثل العديد من القضايا المشابهة حول العالم فى الماضى، كالجزائر مع فرنسا، ومصر مع إنجلترا، وليبيا مع إيطاليا، إلخ

    Reply
  • Yes and no. Is the conflict based on religion? No. Is religion part of it today ? Yes it is but because humans made it so. The problem with this conflict is that peuple try to find one big antagonism or dichotomy that would be the fundemental core of it (jewish nationalism vs arab nationalism, judaism vs islam).
    The reason why this conflict is so tragically fascinating and complex is because it deals with every possibly existing issue and that it’s all concentrated in one single undefinable conflict.

    Reply
  • Ibrahim

    Khaled I like the piece but I still think the conflict took a strong, if not dominant, religious dimension. We see this in how Israel as a state functions today, and in the past, when it comes to issues ranging from right of return to jews only to land and water resources. The examples are many. The advocates and founders of Zionism may have been secular but the call to establish a ‘Jewish state’ in Palestine immediately created a conflict that took a religious dimension with the Palestinians. Had Jewish leaders taken a different approach to Palestine and highlighted the Jewish communities troubles in Europe while emphasizing a real desire by the immigrants to live in peace and harmony with the local population we may have had a different outcome than that of today. What inflamed the situation was the Jewish refugees or immigrants call for a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians. Sure there were schemes by the British to divide the land and transfer population but it was inconceivable to the local population to surrender and change their lives for the sake and benefit of immigrants.

    Reply
    • You are quite correct that the religious component of the conflict has evolved greatly over the years (in both this conflict, and in the entire Middle East). I tend to agree with Khaled’s conclusion that “Despite the growing zealotry of religious fundamentalists, the secular foundations of this conflict remain: land, resources, rights and dignity.” Then again, zealots will never compromise their ideals….

      Reply
    • Thanks, Ibrahim. I’m not saying there’s no religion. But, at first, the religious aspect was in terms of nationalistic symbolism. Both sides clearly agreed that their battle was over land, rights, self-determination, oppression, dignity, etc. And it is these issues that remain the dynamo of the conflict, despite the rise in religious fundamentalism.

      Reply
  • Wonderful piece. Very well written.

    Reply
  • Jordana

    Don’t always agree with you, but like hearing your thoughts.

    Reply
  • Claiming that the conflict has nothing to do with religion is like saying that Apartheid had nothing to do with colour. In South Africa and in addition to colour, the conflict also ran across lines of social class and political affiliations. However, class and politics in South Africa were byproducts of the main conflict of colour.

    In the Palestinian Israeli conflict, it is a conflict between what is Jewish and what is not. For example, Palestinian Christians may be siding with Palestinian Muslims given that they are both at the receiving end of the occupation. They are siding against one common enemy which is Israel. Also, many Israelis may pride themselves on being secular but the fact remains that Israel was founded as a state for Jews and to qualify you had to be Jewish. The facts also include that all the peoples at the receiving end of the occupation, displacement, and inability to return to their homelands are all non-Jews. Thus, the impact the conflict has on people is based on their religion which by association means it is a religious conflict. I understand that religion is different from race, ethnicity, national identity, or political preferences and that the Palestinian Israeli conflict has morphed into a conflict of many layers and affiliations, but it remains rooted in its original form of Israel (the state for Jews) against those who were not Israeli (not Jewish – and who were impacted by the founding of the state and the subsequent wars and conflicts).

    Reply
    • I didn’t say it has nothing to do with religion. Religion has always been an element – but traditionally only a marginal one. Though many Jews disagreed, political Zionism viewed Jews as a nation, not a religion. That’s why religious Jews were so opposed to it at first – they saw those “godless” Zionists as usurping God’s role because they believed the diaspora would not end until the messiah came. In addition, Zionisms goals were secular: it sought to solve the “Jewish question” and counter anti-Semitism by establishing a homeland for the Jews. Likewise, Palestinian nationalism was largely secular, aiming to resist Ottoman, then British imperialism, as well as the colonisation of Palestine by the Zionists.

      Reply

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