Faith Wars

Faith Wars

How holiness drives the Israeli-Arab conflict

Jerusalem is an overwhelming city. In the tradition of absurdist thought, nothing is truly meaningful, and any meaning has to be somewhat arbitrarily imposed onto the world. Jerusalem poses a significant empirical challenge to this notion: every stone of every street bursts with historical significance. It is overwhelming for the psyche to become aware of just how much history occurred in such a small place. It feels claustrophobic.

In my recent journey travelling through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I visited this sacred city to discover more about the origins and causes of the Israeli-Arab conflict. My findings? Religion is a cause of it, sustains it, and makes everything worse.

The origin of the problem comes not from Zionism (the motivating ideology for a national Jewish home), but from the need for Zionism in the first place. One of the catchy, pseudo-left commentaries on the subject is that “Zionism is racism”. But this is only a half-truth, for Zionism is a response to racism. Writing in the early 20th century, Theodore Herzl saw a majority Jewish state as the only answer to the existential threat created by anti-Jewish bigotry – and he wrote this pre-holocaust.

So what, we might ask, fuels this existential aggression against the Jews?

Well, it was Catholic theology until the 1960s that the Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ. And of course, if they killed God, then they must be the enemies of goodness, and accordingly, the agents of evil. This simple line of reasoning fed into anti-Jewish sentiments from the Crusades to the Third Reich. Without this divine hatred, the Jews would have been able to live peacefully in the diaspora without needing a nation-state of their own.

But they did need one, and now they do have one. Israel’s existence is now a fact, regardless of how dubious the ethics of its foundation may appear to be. The Palestinian people have legitimate grievances, from the illegal annexation of east Jerusalem to the grotesque separation barrier, but it is doubtful that these injustices are a complete explanation of the politics of Hamas.

A passage from the Hadith has made its way into the charter of Hamas that may illuminate my point:

The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The Day of Judgement will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! (41:6985).

This is not anti-Israel rhetoric, but anti-Jewish rhetoric. Their opposition to Israel is not merely political, but holy. They are not fighting merely for an Islamic Palestinian state, but against a secular Jewish one. The origins of and justifications for anti-Semitism can be found proudly displayed in both Christian and Islamic texts. These two monotheisms made it necessary for the existence of a Jewish state in the first place.

Speaking to Haaretz editor-at-large Aluf Benn, he described the Israeli center-left as being made up of those who now place blame for the continuation of the conflict squarely with Israel and its policies. Those on the Israeli right, he says, are now those standing in the way of peace. Permanent residents of the political right – we naturally discover Orthodox and Messianic Jews – who consider both Israeli and Palestinian territories to be the divinely gifted property of the Jewish people, courtesy of Yahweh.

As such, what need is there for a Palestinian state? Why pursue peace? The creator of the universe is on their side – why listen to the UN? The destruction of Palestinian homes to make way for Israeli settlements would be utterly unjustifiable, were it not for the pious self-righteousness induced by religious orthodoxy. Those who truly believe that the messiah will return when and only when the Jews have “reclaimed” their sacred homeland provide a solid powerbase to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. Any Israeli-Arab resolution will come in spite of, and not because of, the strong religious convictions involved.

But in assessing the situation, we must not view things too provincially – there is more being played for than Palestinian lands. Author and Israeli foreign policy expert Jonathan Spyer perceives the conflict to be driven externally by Iranian Islamism, which has much political credibility to gain from opposing Israel.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are funded, armed and trained by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries whose agenda is to see Israel destroyed and an Islamic empire re-established. Needless to say, if Iran’s nuclear capabilities are realised, Hezbollah will have few qualms in utilising them. As Christopher Hitchens neatly put it:

What, when messianic groups acquire apocalyptic weaponry? What, when those who think the end of the world is coming get weaponry that could bring it about?

The parties of God have made the Israeli-Arab conflict impossible to solve with their input. On the Jewish side are those who believe the land and its capital, Jerusalem, is their Holy Land, granted to them by an omnipotent being who occasionally grants territorial rights. Their callous indifference to the suffering of Palestinian families is all too typical of the faithful.

On the Arab side are jihadi thugs hell-bent on murder, even if it kills them. So long as the land is Dar al-Harab and not Dar al-Islam, the poisonous forces of the Iranian Revolution will continue to threaten human rights, liberty and peace.

What the region needs more than anything else is secularism, rooted deeply in respect for human, and not divine rights. The conflict cannot be solved between those who are arguing over whose side their shared imaginary friend is on. All those pious men of God are now the greatest enemies of peace: Yahweh vs Allah is an absurd match-up, and one in which the Palestinian people can only lose.

• This piece first appeared on the Freethinker site on February 5, 2011. Photo of Peter Brietbart by Joe Rennison.

19 responses to “Faith Wars”

  1. Newspaniard says:

    I find it strange that the most vociferous against peace are those Israelis who are exempt military service.

  2. Adam Tjaavk says:

    There’s still time to catch Louis Theroux’s recent BBC2 program with iPlayer – if only there were a fund for sticking things right nasty up the arses of westbank settlers without the risk of it falling into the hands of Jihadists or corrupt officials.

  3. Graham Martin-Royle says:

    I have always been of the opinion that a great part of the problem in this area is the unswerving, uncritical, thoughtless support that is given to both sides by their respective supporters. I don’t believe that either side will ever be in the mood to really consider any true peace initiatives until they realise that they no longer have that support. That is why I get so irritated by those who try to turn any and every discussion about this into a diatribe condemning and blaming anyone and everyone that they perceive to be an opponent and never even considering that the side that they support is just as bad. Indeed, I would go further, I consider these thoughtless people to be as bad and as guilty as those who, themselves, commit atrocities. If ever these people want to know what a war criminal or terrorist looks like, they should start by looking in a mirror.

  4. NeoWolfe says:

    Mr. Brietbart,

    A well written threadhead. While I disagree with a few elements, I think that you have portrayed a realistic picture of the situation. That while nations like America, who insist on religious tolerence try to mend a situation of mutual religious hatred, it is no surprise that they meet with inevitable frustration.

    Israel is a democracy, and like other democracies, the politicians are pandering grifters, who look at demographics, not political solutions. I happen to like Netanyahu because he is a “take no bullshit from anyone” kind of guy, and I don’t think he is nearly as right leaning as many presume. I think he’s killing two birds with one stone by pandering to the right by reopening the idea of settlement expansion, while sending a message to both borders that there is a chip on table he’s ready to play if they piss him off.

    But, behind the religion on either side, is reality. If you want to follow the Judeo Christian rationalization, god promised the land to Abraham. But, everything I have read about this promise involved a much bigger piece of land than the Israelites ever hoped to hold. Add to that, god did not evacuate the land for the Israelites to move in and enjoy, it was taken by bloody genocide under the command of Joshua. (note: because of incessant invasions of the traditional twelve territories by the Philistines and Amorites, never in history did the twelve tribes really exist, militarily) So, when the Ottoman empire conquered the “holyland”, and the crusades failed, it was a theif stealing from a theif.

    I stand by the UN charter that establishes Israel as a legitimate nation, but anyone who knows anything about post WWII negotiations is aware that Israel was not established as reparations for the holocaust, it was a foothold in the Middle East for western nations.

    But, Mr. Brietbart, you are my hero of the day for pointing out that the cure for the dilemma that perplexes the world is a tiny little pill called “freethought”. Thank you.


  5. Les says:

    Some truth in what you say, but way off on what is truly behind anti-semitism…

    ‘The origins of and justifications for anti-Semitism can be found proudly displayed in both Christian and Islamic texts.’

    I agree with your comment regarding Islamic text, but please show your proof/reasoning for Christian texts (you won’t because there are NONE, on the contrary they are positive)

    ‘Those who truly believe that the messiah will return when and only when the Jews have “reclaimed”their sacred homeland provide a solid powerbase to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.’

    Incorrect, prophecy points that the Messiah will return AFTER the rebuilding of the Third Temple….http://www.templemountfaithful.org/

    ‘As Hitchens neatly puts it, “What, when messianic groups acquire apocalyptic weaponry? What, when those who think the end of the world is coming get weaponry that could bring it about?”’

    ‘Messianic groups’?? Ehhh NO! Incorrect…Messiah refers to Jesus, Israel have such weapons and so do most Christian countries…so Hitchens is WRONG.

    So next time the author reports please be truthful and stick to facts, not fiction or even hear-say or blatant lies…

  6. AngieRS says:

    To re-phrase your last paragraph, Les, it would be good if the religions stuck to the truth and facts, not fiction, hear-say or blatant lies. Not gonna happen any time soon though, is it?

  7. Les says:

    AngieRS…I actually agree, but please do not tar all ‘religious’ people with the same brush,(I cringe if people think I am religious, it is something I strive to avoid), some are truly humble and live good decent lives and believe in ‘live, and let live’…but also believe in the right of freedom of expression of those beliefs…remember it is a two way street, which direction you go is your choice, leave me to mine, and in mutual respect I will to yours (subject to sensible and respectful debate)… unfortunately too many people on both sides of the fence want to remove the rights of the other…I say remove the fence and those sat on it will have to make a choice and we will ALL have to get on with it!

  8. NeoWolfe says:

    Wow, Les,

    I can’t believe that BJohn hasn’t tarred and feathered you. Maybe it’s upcoming. All you have to do is imply that there is some niche of freethought that atheists haven’t patented, and the dogs are released.

    But, unfortunately, that doesn’t make you infallible. There may be some burned documents missing, but, it is accepted historical fact that the vatican smuggled nazi war criminals to Argentina. By itself, you may conclude that is insufficient evidence to conclude that the holocaust was a catholic conspiracy. So what you need to do now is further educate yourself. It works out great, you get a new vision of reality.


  9. Les says:

    NeoWolfe….please do not insult me by comparing my ‘belief’/’form’ of Christianity with that of the RC church…I saw through the hypocrisy of it, and is precisely why I left it (27 yrs ago), and drifted for many years on the oceans of the world…there are many other crimes the Vatican are guilty of, for example genocide, popes who raped and pillaged etc., I would rather of took my chances with the Vikings!

  10. Har Davids says:

    I watched Louis Theroux’s recent program and it was a depressive one with people claiming divine rights to land their very remote ancestors may once have lived on. As pointed out, if this were true, that land was acquired by killing everyone living there, with ‘god’ on the side of the victors, who wrote a book about it to prove it.

    BTW, some of those ancients Jews stayed put when the rest of them supposedly left, and may have converted to Islam later on; what claim to holy land do they have? Or anyone else with some ‘Jewish’ genes?

  11. barriejohn says:

    The origin of the problem comes not from Zionism (the motivating ideology for a national Jewish home), but from the need for Zionism in the first place. One of the catchy, pseudo-left commentaries on the subject is that “Zionism is racism”. But this is only a half-truth, for Zionism is a response to racism.

    I don’t agree at all. Zionism predates modern anti-semitism.

  12. NeoWolfe says:

    Bjohn said:

    “Fuck off NeoWolfe!” 🙂 Terrific debating skills. I like that it was packed with persuasive evidence.

    He also said:

    “I don’t agree at all. Zionism predates modern anti-semitism.”

    Well, of course it does, just like white supremacy predates black slavery. First you must have the prejudice, before you witness the destruction, and then the backlash. It’s the natural order of things.

    The threadhead mentioned a date:

    “Writing in the early 20th century, Theodore Herzl saw a majority Jewish state as the only answer to the existential threat created by anti-Jewish bigotry”

    Whether or not the situation was a cesspool of their own making is a book to be written by someone with better credentials than me, but, I think an interesting story is the flagellators. During the black plague in Europe, these religious zealots beat themselves with leather straps to appease god. When their ranks continued to dwindle, they decided that the Jews were the source of the curse, and they killed every Jew they could find. Sound familiar?

    Anyway, Mr. Brietbart’s threadhead was an argument that religion is at fault for the Middle East Crisis, and I think he is absolutely correct. All other side bars are just rhedoric.


  13. barriejohn says:

    That comment has been deleted now, NeoWolfe, as I thought that you were having a go at me again on a thread on which I hadn’t posted a comment. My apologies. The present commenting system here is appalling – now YOUR comment makes no sense!

  14. NeoWolfe says:


    My comment still makes sense, but the thread doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s all good, Bjohn, you think we are at war. I think you are a brother freethinker, and I don’t understand your animosity. But, when you call me out, I will defend myself.


  15. barriejohn says:

    There is no animosity, NeoWolfe: I just don’t like it when someone only bangs one drum!

  16. Anonymous says:

    @Les: “Messiah refers to Jesus”

    Really? If that’s the case then why did the Jews reject Jesus as their “Messiah”?

  17. Les says:

    @Anonymous…the Jews did reject Jesus as messiah you are correct! They did this because they had misinterpreted their own ancient Hebrew texts and did not recognise Him for who He really was…but all this was prophesied in the Old Testament (in which there are over 300 prophecies regarding Jesus)…He was to appear as the servant King first, but His second appearance will be as the Conquering King, just as the Jews had first expected Him!

  18. John says:

    @Les That only makes sense to Christians. I imagine most Jews would disagree that they misinterpret their own texts every time they continue to follow their religion and not convert to Christianity. There are other Messianic groups not concerned with Jesus. Look at this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Messiah_claimants

  19. A Confused Atheist says:

    AngieRS, there is only a minor shred or two of truth and facts in anything that the religions preach to the world. The question of the validity of Jesus Christ is the most that I can accept.

    As for this article in general, both sides have spent just over sixty years banging each other’s brains out over the land, with some Israeli victories occurring over territory that was not even theirs (e.g. Sinai Peninsular from Egypt, that was soon returned to them, and the Golan Heights from Jordan); but it will not be long before somebody or people who do not even belong to the main faiths will arrive and put an end to it.

    South Africa was not solved overnight – it took years to solve.