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A War of Religions? God Forbid! Uri Avnery on the dangers of the Israel-Palestine dispute becoming religious

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, 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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31 3:52 AM
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      Friends,

      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
      writes:
      "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.

      Tarek
      ------------
      May 30, 2006

      A War of Religions? God Forbid!

      by Uri Avnery
      ZNet Magazine
      http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=107&ItemID=10349

      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
      Christian?"

      "I am an atheist!" the man replied.

      "Okay, Okay," Raful demanded impatiently, "but a Jewish atheist or a
      Christian atheist?"

      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
      marginal group.

      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
      different background.

      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",
      meaning "non-sectarian".)

      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
      occupied territories.

      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
      fascism.

      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.
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