Naming the Darkness
Religious Roots of the Middle East Conflict
Note: A version of this article appears on peacewithrealism.org, but I consider it important enough to include a revised and updated version here as well – Carlos
There is hardly any issue so intractable and so laden with emotion as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It seems to stubbornly resist any attempt at resolution – the Oslo process, Camp David, the Roadmap, all went nowhere. Mass demonstrations on either side have not thrown any additional light on the difficulties, and the more loaded with emotion, the more they have only increased the polarization. Extremists on both sides seem unable to recognize the humanity of the other. Each side’s partisans feel compelled to delegitimize the other in order to defend themselves.
The intense mutual hatred associated with this conflict signals a tremendous irony. The central events are happening in the birthplace of the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these, or so we are told, preaches love of God and love of one’s fellow human being. Yet applying basic spiritual principles to this conflict seems impossible. In fact, for the past four years I stopped writing about it for precisely this reason. Finding something to say that respects the complexity of this conflict’s history and politics yet does not contribute further to the polarization is no small challenge.
In the Middle East, love and kindness towards one’s enemies are considered signs of weakness, making love a difficult practice indeed. The Christian principle of forgiveness seems especially out of place. If you forgive an enemy who is firing rockets at your cities because it thinks that you are the devil and that killing you pleases God, you can surely expect more rockets. The very place where hospitality as a religious practice, love of the stranger, and even love of the enemy were born is the place where these ideas seem to have the least relevance and are most impossible to take seriously and without ridicule.
This essay is about religion and its contribution to the violence and to the stalemate. If you are seeking here some reassurance in criticisms of the religion that you hate, you stand a good chance of being offended by criticisms of the religion that you love. Only a great spiritual darkness can prevent the application of spiritual principles to human conflicts, even making those principles seem irrelevant and insane. Such a deep haze of darkness covers the Middle East. And that darkness is religion itself.
Each of the three Abrahamic faiths has contributed mightily to exacerbating and perpetuating this conflict. And blaming this on “Jewish fundamentalism,” “Islamism,” or “primitive Christianity” is not helpful. We are talking about Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Calling them anything but what they are only gives people excuses to avoid confronting the roots of the problem. There is too much of that, too much of saying “Oh that’s not the real religion, that’s just what some other guy did to it.” If enough “other guys” are practicing it and insisting that it is the real religion, then it is the real religion. Religion is not some Platonic abstraction; it lives in the people who practice, teach, and proclaim it, and is inspired by the writings and sources that it holds sacred. The connection between each religion and its extreme expressions is not accidental. The most radical expressions may not be the only ones but they are part of the religion, especially to the extent that they are common and officially approved. Every religion bears some responsibility for the forms in which it is practiced, and each of the three Abrahamic religions has a dark side that contains the seeds of exclusivist hatred. Thus each one contributes to the aura of darkness enveloping the region and perpetuating the conflict.
Before we proceed, a strong word of caution is necessary. Criticizing a religion is not the same as condemning the people who practice it. If we fail to understand this, then criticizing Islam can easily become an excuse to hate Muslims. Criticizing Judaism can easily be taken as justifying anti-Semitism. This would be very wrong. Muslims are people. They are human beings. They are not Islam. Jews are people. They are not Judaism. (And even though I mention both in the same paragraph, they are not equivalent, as we will see.)
A good heart can overcome any ideology. There are many fine Muslims, Jews, and Christians with sound minds and good hearts. And so I write this critique not to encourage ill will towards any people but precisely to discourage it. If someone has been poisoned, even if that poison leads to a loss of the person’s senses and to flights of rage, do you blame the person or the poison? The answer should be clear. And so it is with religion. If a religion has consequences contrary to its professed ideals and instead divides people and encourages them to hate each other, it becomes a spiritual poison. Many are injected with this toxic influence at infancy and they too are victims, not of the other side but of their own destructive upbringing. But not all people behave accordingly. Simply being a Muslim or a Jew does not make one worthy of hatred, discrimination, or punishment. People must be judged by their actions.
And once we understand the difference between religion and people, it should be possible to criticize the former without either being labeled a bigot or actually becoming one. This is an extremely important point to which we will return.
Having set forth these preliminaries we may now consider each of the three religions in turn, according to the effect each has had on the Middle East conflict. The three sibling faiths will be considered in birth order.
I was in Israel shortly after the Six-Day War. It was a very emotional time. After centuries of exile, Jews could once again visit their most holy sites. The popular song at the time was “Jerusalem of Gold” by Naomi Shemer. We all sang it. It spoke of seeing the Old City once again, the Dead Sea, the Road to Jericho, the Temple Mount.
The Jewish people had every right to regain access to these holy places, left in gross neglect by the Jordanian authorities. The problem is, it didn’t stop there. The entire West Bank of the Jordan River, formerly annexed by Jordan, had been captured by Israel. True, Israel seized the territory in a defensive war, and there was nothing illegal about that. The real question became: Was it wise to keep it? Israel’s greatest visionary, David Ben Gurion, said no. He said Israel should give back all the territory it gained in the war except for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. He was dismissed as a foolish old man.
Israel’s reluctance to leave the area was understandable. Right after the war the Arabs at their Khartoum Summit issued their three infamous “No’s” (no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel) refusing any peace terms at all. Understandably, Israel feared that immediate withdrawal would only restore the same conditions in which the Arab states first planned their attack. At the time Israel felt its most secure option would be to stay where it was, given the Arab refusal to make peace.
History has shown this was a serious mistake.
Had Israel kept to the strict criterion of security, perhaps building a more solid perimeter of settlements very close to the Green Line (including for example the Etzion Bloc, which was Jewish before 1948 until the Arabs destroyed it and massacred its entire population), things might have turned out differently. But the settlement project mushroomed, with a religious ideology to inspire and support it. The term “West Bank” was discarded in favor of the old biblical name “Judea and Samaria,” now used with a political purpose, to establish Jewish title to the land. To some Zionists that area is much dearer than the coastal plain on which the State of Israel actually now stands. It has more historic significance and is the true biblical heartland (whereas the coastal part was associated with the Philistines during those times when ancient Israel did not exercise full sovereignty in that area).
There is more than one kind of Zionism. I am a Zionist – call me a “progressive Zionist” – who believes the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in the land in which they now live, the State of Israel, and that there can hardly be any explanation for Arab opposition to this right except for racism and religious hatred. There is another kind of Zionism, which for lack of a better term I will call “Maximalist Zionism,” which believes that the Jewish people have the right to all the lands they once occupied, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Some believe this because the Bible says God promised this land to the Jews. Other, more secularized Zionists, believe that Jewish history establishes the claim. Whichever definition one chooses, Maximalist Zionism is a strong force in Israeli politics today and has been for years.
Maximalist Zionism, in both its religious (Bible-based) and secular (history-based) forms, is rooted in Judaism, because it is through the Bible that we know of ancient Israel and its territorial extent. The traditional Jewish liturgy is full of yearning to return to the land of the promise, all of it, and the Orthodox even still pray for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult. They also bless God every morning for not having made them gentiles. And in various places in the liturgy one finds that God “has chosen us from all the nations” and “has elevated us above every tongue.” Jewish chosenness and the sacred status of the land still lie at the center of the Jewish religion.
This results in a powerful incentive to take and keep that land once the opportunity arises; indeed, even a belief that God demands it. What Maximalist Zionism does not seem to appreciate, however, is that times have changed a bit in two thousand years. Today that parcel of land is inhabited mostly by Palestinian Arabs. What to do with them?
Given the historic/religious foundation of Maximalist Zionism, there is a temptation to see these Palestinian Arabs as modern-day Canaanites, sitting on land rightfully promised to the Jews. (Ironically, some Palestinians even identify themselves with the ancient Canaanites, which is quite inconsistent with their identity as Arabs!) Some Jewish extremists have actually suggested forcible transfer of the Arab population, but fortunately this was not taken seriously by the great majority of Israelis and one hardly hears of it anymore as a serious option. Most Maximalist Zionists emphasize Israel’s “legal right” to build settlements in any part of the territory, without proposing any specific plan about what to do with the Palestinians who already live there. Many seem to feel that the legal argument will prove convincing, if only they repeat it enough. They propose tendentious and distorted readings of the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Conference, and the Palestine Mandate, falsely claiming that these sources give the Jewish people rights to the entire territory as the “Jewish homeland.” Never mind the existence of documents from the British Government (such as the White Paper) and the United Nations specifically contradicting these misinterpretations. Those don’t count; only a selective reading of historical sources with an idiosyncratic parsing of their language will do. Trying to correct these readings by citing the actual text is absolutely futile (I have attempted it many times). The response is always a repetition of conclusions that nobody else shares and that the sources themselves cannot sustain. And this is supposed to convince the world of the Jews’ “legal right” to the entire territory.
Oddly enough, one historical document upon which Maximalist Zionists do not rely – indeed, which they actually scorn – is United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. This is the famous resolution that provided for the creation of two states in the Palestine Mandate: one Jewish and one Arab. Maximalist Zionists do not like this because they claim Jewish title to the whole thing, not just one half of a partition. So they say this resolution was passed only by the General Assembly, not the Security Council, and was therefore never legally binding. Yet they fail to show a similar respect for other Security Council resolutions, such as Security Council Resolution 446, which declared the settlements illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Once again, don’t confuse them with the facts.
This dismissal of the UN Partition Resolution is of course ironic, since when the plan was passed it was the Jews who accepted it and the Arabs who rejected it. But today Maximalist Zionists are fond of saying that Israel’s current border (or rather, its border between 1949 and 1967) has no legal status and is only an “armistice line” defined by where the respective armies happened to be standing at the end of the 1948 war. It seems not to occur to them that such thinking plays into the Palestinian claim that Israel has no international standing and simply took it all by force. Once we say that the 1947 Partition Resolution has no legal justification or validity, it is a very short step, indeed hardly a step at all, to this: “The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time.” The source of this statement is (and anyone can look it up) Article 19 of the PLO Charter. If we’re looking for common ground in this conflict, we can find it right here: extremists on both sides reject the 1947 Partition Resolution.
Another theme heard repeatedly in Maximalist Zionism is that there is no identifiable Palestinian people; that the notion of “Palestinians” as distinct from other Arabs is an Arab invention intended to subvert Israel’s legitimate rights. They can even point to certain statements by Arab leaders that seem to back this up. However, they fail to grasp that people have a right to define their own identity, that even if there were no distinct “Palestinians” in 1948 there are now, and that Israel itself had a major hand in creating them.
This last point is a bombshell that is rarely discussed. Israel’s misguided and suicidal settlement project contributed to a protracted conflict between Israel and the nonexistent “Palestinians.” This proved to be a headache for Jordan, whose King Hussein relinquished all claims to the West Bank in 1988. Such a move would have been unthinkable without Israel’s conquest and extensive settlement of that land. Hussein to Israel: “You want this tsuris (i.e. this headache)? It’s yours!” The West Bank became a land of Israeli settlements and stateless Arabs. What does one call Arabs living on land from the Palestine Mandate with no other citizenship? I think one calls them “Palestinians.” If the Palestinian people do not actually owe their existence to the Israeli settlement project, it certainly helped to form and consolidate them. Had it not been for that project, Israel would not now be confronting the specter of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which very possibly could become a base for terrorism as Gaza is now. The West Bank would have remained part of Jordan, the so-called “Jordanian option,” long dead but still viewed by some with nostalgia. The idea of Jewish chosenness, expressed in Maximalist Zionism, has brought disaster upon the Jewish state.
And yet it persists in the present Israeli government, which continues to expand settlements that supposedly would be given up as “painful concessions” in any final agreement with the Palestinians. If Israel is serious about the peace process, why continue to pour valuable and scarce resources into projects that must eventually be torn up and discarded? Is Israel’s economy really doing that well that it can afford such an extravagance? Or, as the rest of the world actually perceives it, is this a sign that Israel (or at least its present government) is not really serious about reaching a peace agreement?
What it may really signify is fragmentation in Israeli politics. The religion-inspired settler movement has so much clout that it can get its way in spite of how bad it makes Israel look to the world, and in spite of what so many mainstream Israelis might want. But you cannot argue with this movement. Its supporters see things in such absolutist terms that they smear any suggestion of compromise as “giving up everything” to “world opinion,” for which they have nothing but contempt. They cook the books on demographics and see no problems for a Greater Israel including all Palestinian Arabs as resident non-citizens, as long as Jews maintain a slim (and likely fictitious) majority. They also have no difficulty denying the franchise to Palestinians in the occupied areas while Jews living in the settlements enjoy full voting rights as Israeli citizens. But what does any of this matter, when God Himself has promised this land to the Jews?
The second Abrahamic faith, while only peripherally involved in the conflict, still has contributed greatly to it. The influence of Christianity as a whole on this conflict has not been positive, both from the right and from the left. Much can be said about Christianity’s preparing the soil of Europe for the Holocaust, and even about Christianity’s influence on Adolph Hitler. I will leave that topic aside; still, it would be good for Christian critics of Israel to research it and keep it in mind.
But let us first consider Christian Zionism. There are genuine Christian supporters of Israel who have no distinct theological agenda. However, they are not very influential and I am not speaking of them here. Christian Zionism as we generally know it is motivated by religious belief. Christian Zionists look at Hebrew prophecy as recorded in the “Old Testament,” as well as the New Testament book of Revelation, and conclude that a restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land must occur before the Apocalypse culminating in the second coming of Christ. There are different specific versions of how things will unfold, but typically, after the ingathering of the Jews to their land, there will be a “great tribulation,” a series of catastrophic events, during which the majority will not survive. Those who do will embrace Christianity and the world will finally be prepared for Christ’s return.
There is nothing wrong with Christians supporting Israel. But Christian Zionists go further and strongly support Israel’s possession of its full ancient kingdom, which includes the Palestinian territories. Thus they provide moral support for Israel’s self-destructive settlements project, and consider any Israeli withdrawal from their historic land as disobeying God and betraying biblical prophecy. If Israel ever would decide to make a peace pact with the Palestinians providing for a separate Palestinian state, it could not count on the support of Christian Zionists.
At the other extreme, most liberal Christian churches seem to have lined up solidly behind the Palestinians. The first thing we often hear when they address this conflict is that “Criticizing Israel does not make one anti-Semitic.” This mantra is repeated so often that its intent clearly seems to be: “No criticism of Israel is ever anti-Semitic, so even when it is, you are not allowed to say so.”
Of course criticizing Israel does not mean one is anti-Semitic. I have strongly criticized Israeli policy in this article and I am hardly an anti-Semite. Nevertheless, the mantra is used to give carte blanche to any and all vilification of Israel, no matter how over the top. Judging Israel by an extreme double standard, likening it to the South African apartheid regime or even to the Nazis, calling for divestments and boycotts while totally ignoring the history of Arab rejectionism, Arab wars against Israel, repeated Palestinian targeting of Israeli civilians, and Palestinian refusal to compromise on anything including recognizing the existence of the Jewish state with whom they are supposed to be making peace, can hardly be considered objective. One might thus rightly wonder whether something else is going on. If “the lady doth protest too much,” perhaps she is trying to hide something.
It is fair game to criticize Israeli policies that seem questionable. I too shake my head in wonder at some of the things Israel does, especially building up settlements in areas that are supposed to be subject to negotiation and possible relinquishment if an agreement is ever reached. Nevertheless, the liberal Christian church seems to feel that moral obligation in this conflict goes only one way, from Israel to the Palestinians. Israel must fulfill its “covenant obligation” and treat the Palestinians with “justice.” The Palestinians, cast in the role of victims, have no corresponding obligation towards Jews. Palestinian violence is even sometimes rationalized as a response to this absence of “justice.”
Liberal Christian denominations seem to ignore entirely any contribution the Palestinians may have made to their current situation and to the conflict. They call Israel an oppressive, colonialist regime and liken it to apartheid. They want boycotts and sanctions not merely to change Israeli policy but to bring Israel down as they brought down South Africa. They fail to acknowledge that Israel became involved in the Palestinian territories as the result of a defensive war, that it dismantled all of the settlements in Gaza, and that the increase of terrorism and attacks on Israeli cities that resulted are a signal of how extremely dangerous it could be for Israel to make any further withdrawals at the present time. They speak as if Palestinians had no responsibility for any of this, and demand concessions only of Israel. When Palestinian terrorists attack Jewish families with rockets and bombs, there is mostly silence, with at best perhaps some muted token protests. When Israel goes not after civilians but the perpetrators of these acts, there is loud outrage and accusations of “targeted assassination.” (The American “targeted assassination” of Osama bin Laden by a President whom the left greatly esteems should put this hypocrisy to rest once and for all.)
I once wrote to an official of the Presbyterian United Nations Office, asking him to explain this double standard. He replied that Israel is a sovereign state and is obligated to follow rules that do not apply to the Palestinians. Not only is this obviously condescending and paternalistic towards Palestinians, it begs the question: Why should Palestinians be granted a state if they show they are not capable of governing one responsibly? The liberal Christian Church cannot have it both ways: if the Palestinians are to be treated as equals, then they should be judged equally and held to the same moral standard as everybody else – even the Jews.
I cannot understand this egregious and irrational double standard as anything other than a vestige of the anti-Semitism that has plagued the Christian Church ever since the Council of Nicaea. I also don’t care if Christians take offense at mentioning traces of anti-Semitism that are obviously present. If others can make sense of this double standard any other way, let them try. It not only defies logic, it violates basic moral sensibility. Let the lady protest if she wishes. Her actions belie her words.
On the whole, the liberal Christian response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been characterized by a certain moral laziness, an all-too-easy lapse into viewing this conflict as a projection of anti-black racism in the United States or in South Africa. That kind of moral laziness is in itself immoral. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not analogous to those other situations, more familiar and more accessible to Westerners. There has been an inability or unwillingness to study the complexities of the history and politics of this conflict that set it apart from any other. But if the church does not undertake such a study, instead insisting on drawing the picture in black and white, good guys and bad guys, the church will never understand this conflict even as it delivers moral lectures about it to others.
By and large the Christian response to the conflict has been as polarized as the conflict itself. As a whole the Christian religious community has not aided progress towards a resolution. It has thrown oil on the flames, exacerbating tensions on both sides.
There is a lot of confusion, especially now, surrounding the role of Islam in the Middle East conflict and problems within Islam in general. The world has seen a resurgence of Islamic religious fervor, often taking expression in violence. I experienced it first hand, living in one of the target cities on 9/11, pretty close to the target. Even the mere criticism of Islam in public seems sufficient to touch off riots anywhere in the world, resulting in destruction of property and even loss of life. Meanwhile established Islamic authorities say nothing to condemn such behavior. In contrast, organized Judaism and Christianity do not react that way when publicly criticized or even ridiculed (as for example the infamous “Piss Christ” episode in the art world, which did not lead to even one violent incident).
There is therefore great reticence and even fear when it comes to criticizing Islam. So much so that an awkward neologism had to be invented: “Islamism” – to describe the behavior of Islamic extremists. The word “Islamism” is meaningless, an intentional obfuscation. The suffix “-ism” normally denotes a doctrine or a practice. What is “Islamism”? The doctrine of Islam? The practice of Islam? This is not what those who use the word intend. “Islamism” is supposed to denote some sort of behavior practiced by some subset of Muslims that supposedly has nothing to do with Islam. The problem is not Islam, we hear, it’s “Islamism.” People who never picked up a Qur’an in their lives somehow claim the expertise to know that Islam is no different from Judaism and Christianity, and that “Islamism” is some sort of foreign invader that “hijacked” the true religion.
It is simply absurd to suggest that the religious authorities of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, all centers of a virulent and intolerant Islam, have “hijacked” their own religion and do not know what Islam really is. These authorities and the people who practice this religion are more reliable sources for what constitutes Islam than are their Western non-Muslim apologists, who insist on lecturing Muslims about what their religion really is or is not.
Another intentional obfuscation that inevitably comes up in these discussions is the term “Islamophobia.” This word is dishonest in its very construction. Literally, it means “fear of Islam.” In practice, it is used to denote anti-Muslim prejudice. The clear inference is that one cannot criticize Islam without being an anti-Muslim bigot, an “Islamophobe.” This is nonsensical. I am Jewish and have just criticized Judaism; criticizing Judaism in itself does not make one an anti-Semite. Neither does criticizing Islam make one a bigot. Religion does not deserve and should not receive an exemption from critical discussion. In a free society it should be possible to inquire about and honestly debate any topic, including religion. The term “Islamophobia” is intended to stifle such discussion and should be dropped from our vocabulary. It creates an intentional confusion between being critical of Islam and hating Muslims and implies falsely that the two are equivalent.
That being said, we should always enter any critical discussion of religion very carefully. Criticism of Islam is no excuse for hating Muslims. That cannot be stated often enough. Just as mentioning flaws in Judaism is no justification for anti-Semitism, so should identifying Islam’s weaknesses never become a pretext for hating Muslims as people. There are many good-hearted Muslims, including Palestinians who hate the continuing conflict and desire to live in peace. Unfortunately their voices are not heard because of the strong influence of intolerant Islam and the intimidation it often wields. This should nevertheless not prevent us from recognizing them and trying to make connections. Rational, critical discussion of religion must never become an occasion for irrational hatred. Otherwise we become the very thing we hate. The darkness that infects intolerant religion wants us to hate. It wants to conform us to its own shadowy image. If we allow that to happen, then the darkness wins. It is exceedingly difficult to identify the darkness without falling into it ourselves. Yet that is exactly what we must do if we are to understand fully the strong resistance to change in a status quo that is benefiting no one and harming everyone.
As to Islam itself, intolerance is woven into its very fabric. Those who bother to read the Qur’an will find page after page of God condemning the nonbeliever. Chosenness is no less a part of Islam than of Judaism (and of Christianity too). The Qur’an’s strong message is that Allah loves Muslims and hates everyone else. If you don’t believe this, just read the Qur’an. (And see here for a dissection of the nonsense that is usually proposed to prove “tolerance” in the Qur’an.)
Islam is the only one of the three Abrahamic faiths in which holy war (jihad) is a cardinal tenet (according to sharia law, jihad is a communal obligation), and which pronounces death sentences against people who publicly criticize it. We need not belabor this here; the intolerance that is built into Islam’s structure has been well documented and you can find a summary on our original web site, citing several primary sources.
The Qur’an celebrates Muhammad’s victories over the nonbelievers. The latter include Jews as distinguished members. The Qur’an alludes to Muhammad’s great victories over the Jews, the slaughter of one Jewish tribe (Qur’an 33:26) and the plunder of another (Qur’an 48:20). These are elaborated in other primary Islamic sources in much greater detail; see for example this summary on our orignal web site.
The Qur’an casts Jews in the role of enemies of the Prophet. Its verses preserve a number of classic anti-Semitic tropes: the Jews are a rebellious people, they disobey God and kill their own prophets; they are treacherous and cannot be trusted. One famous verse (5:60) even calls them “apes and pigs,” an epithet that persists to this day.
When critics of Islam point out these inconvenient truths, we are inevitably scolded and told not to quote out of context, that this tension between Muhammad and Jews belonged to a certain time and place in history and has no relevance for today. Such rebukes are either ignorant or intentionally deceptive. Throughout Islam’s history its authorities, the greatest imams in the most influential mosques, have always cited these verses as if they had no historical context, and used them to perpetuate the hatred of Jews in their own time. The Qur’an is considered a timeless document; it applies to every age as much as to its time of origin. Children are still raised in Muslim lands to believe that Jews are the enemies of the Prophet, of Allah, and of Islam, and that they are even subhuman. From their most tender years young children hear verses from the Qur’an, chanted with exquisite beauty, telling them of Jewish treachery and lies, how the Jews are cursed by Allah, and how Muslims should not take Jews as friends.
Without taking into account this history and culture one cannot understand the Muslim antipathy towards Israel’s existence. From the perspective of Islam, Jews, who above all should have understood Muhammad’s monotheistic message, refused to accept him as their Prophet and so deserve to be subjugated, not treated as equals, barely tolerated as long as they keep to their place. The so-called “Golden Age” of Muslim-Jewish relations in Muslim Spain was “golden” only because, as long as Jews remained an inferior and humiliated minority, Muslims did not burn them at the stake as Christians did. At best, Jews were second-class citizens under Muslim rule. At times they were actively persecuted, and eventually driven out if they did not convert. So much for the “Golden” Age. Yet many Muslims today have the arrogance to tell the Jewish people they have no need of Israel because Jews had it so good when they lived as Muslim subjects. Jewish refugees from Arab lands tell a different story.
Given this history, one can imagine Muslim outrage at a sovereign Jewish presence right in the heart of the Muslim world. These Jews, the Israelis, are not behaving like the Jews in the Qur’an. They do not know their proper role and do not accept subservience. They reject Muslim mastery. They are self-governing and independent. Even before the State of Israel was formed, Palestinian Arabs attacked Jews in riots and massacres. Imagine the horror they must have felt at the idea of an actual Jewish state, something the Palestinian Authority still refuses to accept even while it pretends to be interested in peace.
Indeed, if Maximalist Zionists refuse to accept the existence of a distinct Palestinian people, the Palestinians return the favor, in their adamant refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and in the PLO covenant, which was never rescinded. That document states (Article 20): “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.” This document, never formally repudiated, goes on to state that the Palestinian people have the fundamental right to “liberate” their “homeland,” by any means necessary.
Hamas, more directly inspired by Islamic sources, quotes them explicitly in its own charter’s expression of racist hatred (Article 7): “The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: ‘The time will not come until Muslims will 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!'” This is a direct quotation from the hadith, or sayings of Muhammad as carefully preserved in Muslim tradition.
The killing of Jews thus becomes a sacred duty – Muhammad said so himself. So Palestinian terrorists think nothing of launching rockets directly at Israeli population centers, killing and wounding civilians including infants. They are simply being true to the letter of Islam, and are pleasing Allah by doing so. There is thus no question of conscience or of moral restraint involved. Jews are the presence of Satan on Muslim land; destroying them is a religious imperative. And so Palestinians cheer, shout in the streets and pass out candy to their children when Jewish civilians are murdered, and no religious authority utters a word of disapproval. This sanctification of war against even the civilians in your enemy’s population sets Islam apart from the other two faiths, and will be difficult to eradicate because Muhammad himself is its precedent and model.
It is not just the extremists of Hamas who are affected by this toxic religious influence. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a government-sanctioned best-seller throughout the Muslim world, notably in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Saudia Arabia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Egypt, which supposedly had a peace treaty with Israel (at least until the “Arab Spring” finally ushered in “democracy”), still has regularly diffused anti-Semitic propaganda on television and in its newspapers. Friday sermons from mosques throughout the region frequently excoriate the Jewish people and incite hatred against them. Even Palestinian television programs for children teach that Jews are evil and must be fought and hated. Is it any wonder that the Palestinian people have not been prepared for peaceful coexistence and still resist it?
As conditions have evolved, the Palestinian people have every right to a unified state, not cut up by incursions of Israeli territory throughout, in which they can determine their own destiny within peaceful limits. Yet even their most “moderate” leaders still insist on much more. They refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and insist on the “right of return” of all Palestinian exiles to their alleged original homes in Israel. This would of course flood Israel with Palestinian refugees and bring an end to the Jewish state, which Palestinians refuse to recognize anyway. It would not trouble them for Jews to become once again a persecuted minority in yet another Muslim country.
Israel has been blamed for the Palestinian refugee problem, but this is a complete miscarriage of justice. The number of Jewish refugees from persecution in Arab lands is roughly equivalent to the number of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war (which, by the way, the Arabs initiated). Yet Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees and made them citizens. The Arab countries refused to do likewise with their own refugees, preferring to keep them suffering in squalid camps to attract the pity of the world and the condemnation of Israel. Now they are insisting on Israel’s duty to care not only for all the Jewish refugees but for the Arab ones as well, and not only for them but also for their over four million descendants. (Palestinian “refugees” are defined differently than any other refugee class, with generations not even alive during the original events still considered “refugees” – and only because the Arab countries kept them that way.)
What is a Palestinian state for, if not to provide a haven for Palestinian refugees? Yet the Palestinian agenda still appears to be the end of Israel as a Jewish sovereign state. Even now, prominent Palestinian leaders like Nabil Shaath (of “moderate” Fatah, not “extremist” Hamas) say to their people in Arabic that under no circumstances will they ever accept peaceful coexistence with Israel. The spirit of Arafat still lives.
One must understand the history and structure of Islam in order to grasp this, and the role Jews have played in Muslim history. Without this context, this self-destructive behavior of the Palestinians will remain incomprehensible. This includes the practice of suicide bombing, which is inspired by the teaching attributed directly to Muhammad that anyone who dies while fighting jihad goes immediately to heaven. Religion makes people do remarkable things. Christians can perhaps appreciate this by considering the Crusaders, who also believed that anyone dying in battle against the infidel would go straight to heaven, and that they were doing God’s will by slaughtering Jews on the way to fight the Saracen.
Now more than ever we need a critical discussion of Islam, but the discussion has been degraded by the name-calling (from both sides) surrounding the activities of Pamela Geller. Yet if Ms. Geller is the only one willing to bring this topic to the public arena, it is a strong indication that we have a long way to go in allowing freedom of speech concerning religion. The philosopher Sam Harris also deserves mention as one who has had the courage to speak out, and he too has paid the price of being unfairly labeled a bigot by those who are afraid of any critical discussion of ideas when the topic is religion, especially Islam.
In assessing the role of religion in fueling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should wonder also about the light that religion tries to bring. Judaism teaches love of the stranger. Christianity even teaches love of the enemy. (Unfortunately, I cannot find any significant representation of either within Islam.) But in Maximalist Zionism, love of the stranger is blocked by a biblical theology that stops at the book of Joshua and never gets to the universalism in Isaiah. In Christian Zionism and in the liberal churches love is also blocked, by stereotyped pictures of Jews either as pawns in God’s plan for the end times or as the rebellious people who spurn their covenantal obligations. I have long wondered why spiritual principles, as simple as “love thy neighbor,” do not work in this conflict and even seem ridiculous when one tries to apply them. The answer only becomes clear when the darkness is exposed, because this darkness comes out of the very places from which light is expected and hoped for.
So how can we respond, if we really want to stand for the light? Polemicizing against the other side is not enough. In the absence of any balance, it is an intellectual indulgence we cannot afford. As a Zionist, I must continue to protest the vilification and disinformation that come from the Palestinian side. But I must also oppose the extremists on my own side. I must say “No” to Maximalist Zionism. Likewise, we all have a moral and spiritual obligation to say “No” to the extremists within our own camp, whichever camp that may happen to be.
We cannot go calling for the light as if the darkness didn’t exist. At the other extreme of mutual demonization is the desire to minimize the obstacles, the tendency to overlook the full implications of the power of this darkness. We have to name it before we can overcome it. This is the only effective spiritual response with which we can begin: name the darkness, then refuse to be a part of it. We will refuse to use our religion to encourage hatred. We will instead use it to build bridges. If that means struggling with our tradition, sifting out the true from the false, the loving from the hateful, then we accept the challenge. We will no longer play the game of My religion chooses me over you, My religion justifies trampling on your rights.
Finally, it is important to remember that while the idea of chosenness may be most associated with Judaism, it is not exclusive to Judaism. It is no less a part of Christianity and Islam. In fact, both Christianity and Islam do something Judaism does not: they send nonbelievers to hell.
The monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths should unite all of humanity under a single God. In practice, it became a rationale for exclusivism. It is almost (and maybe not even “almost”) as if the three religions believe in three different Gods, each one favoring its own group above the others. The intersection of these three forms of exclusivism at the place of their birth has become the major impediment to political, social, and spiritual progress.
Perhaps a small but growing community of people willing to reject the exclusivism on their own side can one day provide the bridge over which peace can finally arrive. We will not see this for a while, probably a very long while. But if people on every side began responding in this manner, even as isolated individuals, one day they might reach a critical mass, enough to break through the general consciousness. It all begins with the private response within each individual heart.
August 2011 / June 2015