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.