De-Secularizing the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”

We often hear of the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” spoken of in what is deemed as ‘political’ terms. Land, refugees, problematic laws, UN resolutions—the stuff of politics. Many who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause—and this includes some Muslims—remove religion from the discussion, almost entirely, and almost without realizing it.

But this genocidal “conflict” not only has religious roots, it has religious relevance now, not only to certain groups and certain people, but within Israeli law.

This fact—that Israeli law is informed by Jewish doctrine—challenges the argument from those, religious or secular, who say that this is not a religious conflict or that religion is only relevant to some of those involved.

Anyone who has taken part in a pro-Palestine event on a college campus in the West has likely noticed the way this conflict is secularized. Many of those present speak of the injustices of Israel and speak to the rights of Palestinians, but the religious significance of the conflict is often not mentioned. Those attending may speak of how to better unite to fight for Palestine, they may voice their frustrations with the dilapidated PLO and its leadership who grasp onto the pieces of the foundation that are still standing, but they are wont to discuss the presence of religion in the conflict. This is no surprise given the secular position that universities take, and indeed that the West increasingly takes, understanding the lack of religion to be the default position by which ‘proper’ evaluation of situations can be taken.

RELATED: The Islamic Importance of Palestine’s Struggle Against Genocide

We’ve discussed before some of the reasons why this conflict is important for Muslims. It’s also important to understand some of the reasons why this conflict is religiously significant for Jews. Not only will it show how this is indeed a religious conflict, but it will demonstrate why not accepting this fact is dangerous.

Israel as Jewish Theocracy

Even for secular Jews, the tie to Israel is strong and the concept of Israel being the place for one faith, the Jewish faith, is very much present. We can see this, for example, in the strong support that Israel has amongst Jews in the US (45 percent of American Jews think that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish).

We can also see this in Israeli laws. We can look at foundational Israeli laws that demonstrate this, like the Israeli Basic Law which relegates over 90 percent of the land to the ownership of the Israeli state, a significant portion of which is then leased out by three agencies (the Jewish National Fund, the Development Authority, and the Israel Land Association), but nearly exclusively to Jewish citizens or Jews of the Diaspora.

According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report:

“While by law Arab citizens can lease land owned directly by the state and not transferred to the JNF [the Jewish National Fund], in practice numerous obstacles limit Arab citizens’ access to land, as described below. According to Adalah, a human rights organization representing the Arab minority in Israel, Arab citizens are blocked from leasing about 80 percent of the land controlled by the state.”

So much for “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

These types of laws continue to be enacted. Since July 2018, Israeli Basic Law now includes what is referred to as “the Nation-State Law,” or its more formal name “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”

Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi recently explained the meaning and significance of this law to NPR:

“… in 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed a law, the Jewish nation-state law, which argued that settlement – it should be a task of the state. The state should actively pursue Jewish settlement. It also states that there is only people [sic] – one people has the unique right of self-determination in Israel, which is the Jewish people. In other words, there is no Arab people, and it doesn’t have a right of self-determination. And given that Israel controls the entirety of the country, and as far as Israel is concerned, all of it is the Greater Land of Israel, what this essentially means is that there is a claim that, first of all, there’s no such thing as occupied territories. They’re disputed, and Israel’s claim is superior to them. And that’s the basis of the claim. This land is our land. God gave this land to us, and there’s one people with the right of self-determination in Israel, period.

The news piece ends there. But that is actually more of an introduction into the ways that religious doctrine informs how Israel operates and handles non-Jews.

Certainly the Israeli Basic Law that Israel is unique among all nations in the world because it is the home of the Jewish people demonstrates the closeness between Jewish doctrine and the Israeli state.

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Why are these elements of Israeli Basic Law interesting? Aside from the more obvious points of exceptionalism bestowed upon the Jewish people, to the detriment of non-Jews, this privilege based on religion is clear but not recognized as a problem by the Israeli state and the US and its satellites (in this case, Canada, Australia, and the EU).

For Muslims, politics and religion are intertwined. That’s why the fact that 45 percent of Jews in the US think that supporting Israel is part of their faith should not be shocking for a Muslim to hear. As it does for us, their religion informs their political stances, not the other way round. The more shocking part for Muslims, however, is that Judaism seems to allow for such poor treatment of non-Jews.

Consider this description from the late Israeli academic Israel Shahak—a Holocaust survivor—on his experience one Sabbath day in Israel:

I had personally witnessed an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to have collapsed in his Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Instead of simply publishing the incident in the press, I asked for a meeting which is composed of rabbis nominated by the State of Israel. I asked them whether such behavior was consistent with their interpretation of the Jewish religion. They answered that the Jew in question had behaved correctly, indeed piously, and backed their statement by referring me to a passage in an authoritative compendium of Talmudic laws, written in this century.

I reported the incident to the main Hebrew daily, Ha’aretz, whose publication of the story caused a media scandal. The results of the scandal were, for me, rather negative. Neither the Israeli, nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that a Jew should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile.

They added much sanctimonious twaddle to the effect that if the consequence of such an act puts Jews in danger, the violation of the Sabbath is permitted, for their sake. It became apparent to me, as drawing on Talmudic laws governing the relations between Jews and non-Jews, that neither Zionism, including its seemingly secular part, nor Israeli politics since the inception of the State of Israel, nor particularly the policies of the Jewish supporters of Israel in the diaspora, could be understood unless the deeper influence of those laws, and the worldview which they both create and express is taken into account.”[1]

Shahak’s testimony and his subsequent efforts to confirm that what he witnessed indeed was in accordance with Jewish law also seems to be in accordance with Israeli Basic Law. Taking land from non-Jews—land that they believe belongs to them—seems to not shake too many moral nerves.

Are there Jews who disagree with such treatment of Gentiles? Of course, Shahak being an example of one. But his point, one that he made many times even to Jews (not Jewish scholars, who would already understand this because of their understanding of Talmudic law), is that in disagreeing, he is opposing what is understood as traditional Jewish doctrine, the same doctrine that helps to govern the state of Israel.

Chosen

What is at the heart of what Shahak witnessed and what rabbis conveyed to him was the notion of “chosen-ness” that exists in Jewish doctrine. God chose them to convey the message of monotheism, and while even Muslims would not deny this—that at the time, yes Allah chose Bani Israeli—but in Judaism, this fact allows them special status until this day. Not only does it allow them special status, but it is the reason that they, for example, can take land from non-Jews, charge interest to non-Jews (but not to Jews), and not violate the laws of the Sabbath for non-Jews.

You can find articles of those who claim that chosen-ness just means they are special and being special is not wrong. But when considering oneself as special gives you legal entitlement to oppress all others, then there is much more to the claim. The same articles may assert that questioning chosen-ness is anti-Semitic, but if this is uncontested Jewish doctrine, then is it truly hateful to simply point out what that doctrine is? If we are not able to discuss an idea that is inextricably linked to Jewish claims to Palestine and to Israeli law, how can we truly discuss the issue at hand in the first place?

Consider this observation from Shahak:

“Many of the motives behind Israeli politics, which so bewilder the poor confused western ‘friends of Israel’, are perfectly explicable once they are seen simply as reaction, reaction in the political sense which this word has had for the last two hundred years: a forced and in many respects innovative, and therefore illusory, return to the closed society of the Jewish past.”[2]

Shahak wrote this over two decades ago. The 2018 Nation-State law and the notion of chosen-ness found within demonstrate that this remains the case.

Looking at the Conflict as It Is

The point of underscoring the problematic doctrine that informs Israeli law is not to promote hatred of Jews. It’s to emphasize the point that this is a religious conflict—not just because Palestinian Muslims are being oppressed (although that should be reason enough for Muslims), not just because Palestinian Christians are being oppressed (Islam does not allow for the unjust treatment of non-Muslims), but also because Jewish law is affecting Palestinians’ lives.

Another example—the desire to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, something which the Jews maintain was on “the Temple Mount” (al-Harim al-Sharif), where Qubat al-Sakhra (the Dome of the Rock) now stands, is not something expressed only by very religious Jews.

Netanyahu himself subtly referenced it in his speech at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018.[2] Interestingly, there is archeological and historical evidence suggesting that this was not the case and that even the Western Wall—considered one of the holiest sites in Judaism—was not a part of it.[3] This is a disputed matter, but if true, this would add insult to injury, as Palestinians and Muslims suffer over this heated debate for the land on al-Harim al-Sharif.

A tweet from the Temple Institute during the recent clashes at al-Aqsa during Ramadan. The Temple Institute is dedicated to rebuilding the temple. They have even prepared things like priestly clothes, etc., all in anticipation of its building.

The Religious Conflict in Light of Recent News

As the battle over land rages on, it is likely—though not certain—that the new prime minister of Israel will be Naftali Bennett, the son of American Jews who immigrated to Israel after the Six-Day War.

Bennet was chief executive of Yesha Council (Yesha is an acronym for Judea, Sumeria, and Gaza in Hebrew; the council predates the dismantling of settlements in Gaza in 2005), which represents Jewish West Bank settlements. According to their website, “as an organization formed to promote Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley as the heart of the Bible Land and the birthplace of the Jewish people and its heritage.”

So for those who want to reduce this conflict down to merely struggle for land, they must sincerely ask themselves that, if that is the case, then why is religious doctrine not only part of organizations and ‘rogue’ settlers, why is it also part of Israeli Basic Law and supported by those that govern the country?

To tell us that this is not a religious conflict is to invalidate what Islam so phenomenally encapsulates—all aspects of life. Recall again that it was under Muslim rule that Jews returned to Jerusalem and practiced their faith within it. Recall as well that it is a Muslim family that holds the key to the holiest church in all of Christianity the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, in order to avoid fights amongst all of Christianity’s various sects fighting over ownership.

If anything, we’ve seen time and time again that secular societies (and in the case of Jerusalem and Palestine and even Spain, non-Muslim societies) tend to be far worse at handling religious co-existence, precisely because these societies, to varying degrees, do not value religion. How, then, could a secular paradigm be able to solve this conflict?

What Is This Conflict?

Many conflicts and debates today, despite being of a religious nature, are presented as secular. This is problematic because issues that might have been solvable through meaningful discussion have become less about the actual concerns and more about arbitrary and inane terminologies (e.g. “people who menstruate,” “chest feeding,” “birthing people”).

More profoundly, presenting these issues as secular denies reality, and these terminologies make this possible. The gift of “political Islam” that academia gave the world is a case in point. The term “political Islam” implies that Islam by itself has no political imperatives, but this is false, as most Muslims know. Islam has many moral imperatives that apply to society as a whole and to governance. In other words, Islam is inextricably political, but this violates the secular conception of “religion” as personal belief and rituals done in a house of worship, completely separate from politics.

This secularization is present when talking about what’s going on in Israel and Palestine as well. Neither the term “the Arab-Israeli conflict” nor “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” accurately encapsulate what this conflict is. They only allow for more confusion, the former because unfortunately most Arab states continue to strengthen their ties to Israel while paying lip service (if even that) to the Palestinian cause, the latter because it’s too narrow and does not demonstrate the extent to which religion informs the oppression Palestinians are facing. On the Palestinian side, “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” does not express the extent to which religion informs many Palestinians’ and Muslims’ viewpoints as to why this conflict is significant to them.

So while using these terms is an attempt to move away from religion, what it really is doing is avoiding it. Using a more accurate term runs the risk of accusations of anti-Semitism, but we can’t be beholden to others’ criticism insomuch that that criticism is present as a tool to deny reality and silence substantive debate.

Indeed, some Jews have pointed out that bringing up the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as a means to stifle conversation is unfair and tiring. It should go without saying (but it doesn’t): One of the reasons we are all so fixated on what is happening to Palestinians is because we are against genocide, directed at any group, period.

So what’s a better term for this conflict then? Perhaps a term that brings forth the two religions that are most at war? Jews and Muslims. This leaves out the Palestinian Christians. Also, Christians and Muslims are not fighting each other, so a term like the Muslim-Jewish-Christian conflict is misleading and also too broad. Perhaps the key is in Israeli law and the notion of chosen-ness that governs it, because it’s the same law that allows them rights over all others in the land. Perhaps the conflict “the chosen versus the non-chosen in Israel (we can’t deny the reality that it exists at the moment) and Palestine.” This sounds silly, yes, but it does not seek to deny the religious underpinnings of this conflict.

Standing Your Ground

It can be difficult to be the odd one out in a room full of pro-Palestine-supporting peers. You’re all there to support people you care for, but many in the room do not want religion to be part of the discussion. What they don’t realize is, they’re the minority, by Jewish and Muslim standards. The sooner this fact is accepted, the closer we come to reality and actually dealing with what lays before us.

The argument will be made that there is a way to leave religion out of this and come up with a workable solution. To that, one asks, then why has decades of “the Peace Process” gotten us to the point where Israel and its allies somehow are able to define peace as giving exorbitant amounts of arms to one side, paying a bit of lip service to the other, and then brokering deals that are always in Israel’s favor?

Let’s not leave religion out of this; people have tried to, but look where that’s gotten us.

Notes

  1. Shahak, Israel. Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. London: Pluto Press, 1997, p.1. https://www.google.de/books/edition/Jewish_History_Jewish_Religion/avh6dkSop0EC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover.
  2. Shahak, 1997, p.19.
  3. See speech here, time stamp 6:22: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCkmDQssX-c
  4. For information on evidence suggesting the temple was elsewhere, see here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKTO8YYs29c For a rebuttal to that see here: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/were-there-jewish-temples-on-temple-mount-yes-1.5411705
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