A War of Religions? God Forbid! Uri Avnery on the dangers of the Israel-Palestine dispute becoming religious
Uri Avnery is the founder of Israel's left wing peace movement, Gush Shalom,
which he leads up to this day. Avnery, who is over 80, continues to be a
vocal opponent of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In this article for ZNet magazine, Uri Avnery writes about the growing role
of religion in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the dangers that poses
for any possible resolution. He writes:
"FOR YEARS I have been haunted by a nightmare: that the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict would change from a national to a religious confrontation. A
national conflict, terrible as it may be, is soluble. The last two centuries
have seen many national wars, and almost all of them ended in a territorial
compromise. Such conflicts are basically logical, and can be terminated in a
rational way. Not so religious conflicts. When all sides are bound by divine
commandments, the attainment of a compromise becomes far more difficult."
This is being compounded by the rise of the Christian Right in the US. He
"the evangelical fundamentalists who dominate Washington at this time also
see the Holy Land as a religious property, to which the Jews must return in
order to make possible the second coming of Jesus Christ."
Read and reflect.
May 30, 2006
A War of Religions? God Forbid!
by Uri Avnery
ONE OF our former Chiefs-of-Staff, the late Rafael ("Raful") Eytan, who was
not the brightest, once asked a foreign guest: "Are you Jewish or
"I am an atheist!" the man replied.
"Okay, Okay," Raful demanded impatiently, "but a Jewish atheist or a
Well, I myself am a 100% atheist. And I am increasingly worried that the
Israeli-Palestinian struggle, which dominates our entire life, is assuming a
more and more religious character.
THE HISTORICAL CONFLICT began as a clash between two national movements,
which used religious motifs only as a decoration.
The Zionist movement was non-religious from the start, if not
anti-religious. Almost all the Founding Fathers were self-declared atheists.
In his book "Der Judenstaat", the original charter of Zionism, Theodor Herzl
said that "we shall know how to keep (our clergymen) in their temples."
Chaim Weitzman was an agnostic scientist. Vladimir Jabotinsky wanted his
body to be cremated - a sin in Judaism. David Ben-Gurion refused to cover
his head even at funerals.
All the great rabbis of the day, both Hassidim and their opponents, the
Missnagdim, condemned Herzl and cursed him ferociously. They rejected the
basic thesis of Zionism, that the Jews are a "nation" in the European sense,
instead regarding the Jews as a holy people held together by observance of
the divine commandments.
Moreover, in the eyes of the rabbis, the Zionist idea itself was a cardinal
sin. The Almighty decreed the exile of the Jews as punishment for their
sins. Therefore, only the Almighty Himself may revoke the punishment and
send the Messiah, who will lead the Jews back to the holy land. Until then,
it is strictly prohibited to "return en masse". By organizing mass
immigration to the country, the Zionists rebel against God and, worst of
all, hold up the coming of the Messiah. Some Hassidim, like the Satmar sect
in America, and a small but principled group in Israel, the Neturei Karta
(Guardians of the City) in Jerusalem, still adhere to this belief.
True, the Zionists expropriated the symbols of Judaism (the Star of David,
the candlestick of the Temple, the prayer shawl that was turned into a flag,
even the name "Zion") but that was only utilitarian manipulation. The small
religious faction that joined Zionism (the "Religious Zionists") was a
Before the Holocaust, we learned in the Zionist schools in Palestine to
treat with pitiless scorn everything that was "exile Jewish" - the Jewish
religion, the Jewish Stetl, the Jewish social structure (the "inverted
pyramid"). Only the Holocaust changed the attitude towards the Jewish past
in the diaspora, referred to in Hebrew as "Exile".)
Ben-Gurion made some concessions to the religious factions, including the
anti-Zionist Orthodox. He released some hundreds of Yeshiva-students from
military service and set up a separate "state-religious" school system. His
aim was to acquire convenient coalition partners. But these steps were based
on the assumption (common to all of us at the time) that the Jewish religion
would evaporate anyhow under the burning Israeli sun and disappear
altogether in one or two generations.
All this changed in the wake of the Six-day War. The Jewish religion staged
an astounding comeback.
ON THE Palestinian side, something similar happened, but against a quite
The Arab national movement, too, was born under the influence of the
European national idea. Its spiritual fathers called for the liberation of
the Arab nation from the shackles of Ottoman rule, and later from the yoke
of European colonialism. Many of its founders were Arab Christians.
When a distinct Palestinian national movement came into being, following the
Balfour Declaration and the setting up of the British Government of
Palestine, it had no religious character. In order to fight it, the British
appointed a religious personality to the leadership of the Palestinian
community in Palestine: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem,
who quickly assumed the leadership of the Palestinian struggle against the
Zionist immigration. He endeavored to give a religious face to the
Palestinian-Arab rebellion. Accusing the Zionist of designs on the Temple
Mount with its holy Islamic shrines, he tried to mobilize the Muslim peoples
in support of the Palestinians.
The Mufti failed miserably, and his failure played a part in the catastrophe
of his people. The Palestinians have all but obliterated him from their
history. In the 1950s, they idolized Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the
standard-bearer of secular, pan-Arab nationalism. Later, when Yasser Arafat
founded the modern Palestinian national movement, he did not distinguish
between Muslims and Christians. Right up to his death, he insisted on
calling for the liberation of the "mosques and churches" of Jerusalem.
At one stage of its development, the PLO called for the creation of a
"Democratic secular state, where Muslims, Jews and Christians will live
together". (Arafat did not like the term "secular", preferring "la-maliah",
George Habash, the leader of the "Arab Nationalists" and later of the
"Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine", is a Christian.
This situation changed with the outbreak of the first intifada, at the end
of 1987. Only then did the Islamist movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad,
start to take over the national struggle.
THE ASTOUNDING victory of the Israeli army in the Six-day war, which looked
like a miracle, effected a profound political and cultural change in Israel.
When the shofar sounded at the Western Wall, the religious youth, which had
until then been vegetating on the fringe, occupied the center of the stage.
Suddenly it was discovered that the religious education system, which had
been set up by Ben-Gurion as a political bribe and contrary to his own
convictions, had been quietly turning out a fanatical religious product. The
religious youth movement, which had suffered all these years from feelings
of humiliation and inferiority, was filled with zeal and started the
settlement drive, leading the main national effort: the annexation of the
The Jewish religion itself underwent a mutation. This mutant shed all
universal values and became a narrow, militant, xenophobic tribal creed,
aiming at conquest and ethnic cleansing. The religious-Zionists of the new
sort are convinced that they are fulfilling the will of God and preparing
the ground for the coming of the Messiah. The "national-religious" cabinet
ministers, that had always belonged to the moderate wing of the government,
gave way to a new, extremist leadership with tendencies towards religious
Israel has not become a religious state. It still has a large secular
majority. According to the authoritative Israeli Government Bureau of
Statistics, only 8% of Israeli Jews define themselves as "Orthodox"
(Haredim), 9% as "religious" (meaning Religious Zionists), 45% as "secular,
non-religious" and 27% as "secular, traditional".
However, because of their role in the settlement enterprise, the "religious"
have acquired a huge influence over the political process. They have
practically prevented any move towards peace with the Palestinians. They
have also provoked a religious reaction on the other side.
THE PALESTINIAN resistance to the occupation, which reached a peak with the
outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, has given a big push to the
religious forces. Until then, these had been growing quietly (not without
the encouragement of the occupation authorities, which saw in them a
counterweight to the secular PLO.)
The first intifada led to the Oslo agreement and brought Yasser Arafat back
to Palestine. But the new Palestinian authority failed in its aim of putting
an end to the occupation and establishing a secular Palestinian state. With
settlements continually expanding all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,
the Palestinian public increasingly tended to support armed resistance. In
this struggle, and with the limited means available, the religious factions
excelled. A religious person is more ready to sacrifice his life in a
suicide attack than his secular cousin.
The anger of the Palestinian public over the corruption that has infected
sections of the secular Fatah leadership (but not the ascetic Yasser Arafat,
whose reputation remained clean) has increased even more the popularity of
the religious, whose honesty is unquestioned.
FOR YEARS I have been haunted by a nightmare: that the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict would change from a national to a religious confrontation.
A national conflict, terrible as it may be, is soluble. The last two
centuries have seen many national wars, and almost all of them ended in a
territorial compromise. Such conflicts are basically logical, and can be
terminated in a rational way.
Not so religious conflicts. When all sides are bound by divine commandments,
the attainment of a compromise becomes far more difficult.
Religious Jews believe that God promised them all of the holy land. Thus,
giving away any of it to "foreigners" is an unforgivable sin. In the eyes of
Muslim believers, the whole country is a Waqf (religious trust), and it is
therefore absolutely forbidden to surrender any part of it to unbelievers.
(When the Caliph Omar conquered Palestine some 1400 years ago, he declared
it a Waqf. His motive was quite practical: to prevent his generals from
dividing the land between themselves, as was their wont.)
By the way, the evangelical fundamentalists who dominate Washington at this
time also see the Holy Land as a religious property, to which the Jews must
return in order to make possible the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Is a compromise between these forces possible? Certainly yes, but it is much
more difficult. A devout Muslim is allowed to declare a Hudna (armistice)
for a hundred years and more, without condemning his soul to hell. Ariel
Sharon, who began the evacuation of settlers, spoke about "long-range
temporary arrangements". In politics, "temporary" measures have a tendency
to become permanent.
But wisdom, sophistication and a lot of patience are needed to reach a
resolution of the conflict in these circumstances.
On the day Arafat died, many Israelis were angry with me for saying (in a
Haaretz interview) that we shall yet long for this secular leader, who was
both willing and able to make peace with us. I said that his elimination
removes the last obstacle to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Palestine
and the entire Arab world.
One did not need to be a prophet to see that.