Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Middle East Conflict is Still a Religion-Fueled One

Forty four percent of America is a large voting bloc.

That is the percentage of Americans - 44% - who, according to a 2003 Pew Research poll, said they believed that the land of Israel was given to the Jews by God.

According to the same poll, 36% believed that the creation of the state of Israel is a step toward the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

One in three that supported Israel cited their religious beliefs as their primary reason for doing so.

These numbers can be difficult to dismiss - specially if you're trying to get elected, whether as a Democrat or a Republican.

Despite the current contention that the Arab-Israeli conflict is rooted in politics and economics - it is naive and dangerous to overlook its religious roots.

A video of Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss is making the rounds on YouTube where he accuses Zionists of hijacking Judaism and politicizing it, while he stands in front of a sign that says "Torah Forbids a Jewish State."

Unfortunately, apart from losing credibility even among non-Zionist Jews by attending and speaking at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's Holocaust denial conference in Tehran in 2006 (Weiss' parents were Holocaust survivors), and being skewered by Bill Maher in his comedy Religulous last year, Weiss' statements and the sign he stands in front of are very, very wrong.

Zionism, often thought to be a politicization of Judaism, takes root in the Torah which Jews believe is the word of God revealed to Moses, and is also accepted by Christians as part of the Bible, where it forms the first five books of the Old Testament.

There are numerous passages in the book that are explicitly consistent with the Zionist goal of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Genesis 15:18 states:

"In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates."
Exodus 23:31 gives us an idea of geography of the Promised Land:
"I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you."
Deuteronomy 1:8 reiterates the promise:
"See, I have placed the land before you; go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to them and their descendants after them."
Several other passages descibe the borders of this land in great detail.

Christians - who make up most of those that the Pew poll surveyed - rely on the presence of the Jews in the Promised Land for the Second Coming of Christ and subsequent salvation to happen.

In 2006, Pat Robertson - the American evangelist whose considerable influence among American Christians is evidenced partially by his defeating George H. W. Bush in the 1988 Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa - declared that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land."

He was widely denounced for his statement, but again - Scripture backs him up.

Although they'll play the role of mere pawns when it happens, the return of the Jews to Israel is promised by God in the Bible as a prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. Again, of many passages, here are two:

Ezekiel 20:34:
"I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered - with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath."
Isaiah 11:11-12:
"In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth."
Even Scripture-adhering Christians, who believe as per Biblical teaching that Jews who do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior will end up in hell, tend to be pro-Israel largely because they still need for the Jews to be in the Promised Land for Christ to return.

Remember - forty four percent.

Islam is the third and latest of the Abrahamic religions. Although the Muslims in the conflict are probably the most unabashed and vocal in associating their struggle with their religion, the Quran - which they believe to be the indisputable, undeniable word of God as revealed to Muhammad - isn't as unequivocal about granting any specific chunk of real estate to them.

However, the Palestinians elected Hamas in what is considered to be a free, fair democratic election, a party whose Covenant clearly defines the group's program as an "Islamic movement" in Article One, and quotes profusely from the Quran and the hadith (the traditions of the prophet Muhammad) throughout its text, which begins with verses 3:110-111:
"Ye are the best nation that hath been raised up unto mankind: ye command that which is just, and ye forbid that which is unjust, and ye believe in Allah. And if they who have received the scriptures had believed, it had surely been the better for them: there are believers among them, but the greater part of them are transgressors. They shall not hurt you, unless with a slight hurt; and if they fight against you, they shall turn their backs to you, and they shall not be helped..."
Article 13 of the Covenant references another unflattering verse, 2:120:
"But the Jews will not be pleased with thee, neither the Christians, until thou follow their religion; say, The direction of Allah is the true direction. And verily if thou follow their desires, after the knowledge which hath been given thee, thou shalt find no patron or protector against Allah."
It is true that the Middle East conflict has devolved into a conglomeration of political, geographic, economic, and human rights issues in the thousands of years since these texts were written.

The dynamics, however, remain tribalistic.

The Arab-Israeli schism isn't one between the rich and the poor - Israel's economic might is balanced well by oil-rich Arab states. In the same way, there are both men and women, people of varying ethnicities, different levels of education, and of different political leanings - conservative, liberal, or otherwise - on both sides.

The dividing factor, by and large, is that of religious heritage and religious belief. Worldwide, those born in Muslim families overwhelmingly and almost unconditionally side with the Palestinian struggle; and Jews and Christians, whose scriptural teachings are more in line with the Israeli cause, support Israel.

The phenomenon is that of tribalistic loyalty, which is indoctrinated according to identity at birth: if you know deep down that you may have supported the other side if you were born into a different family, you've been indoctrinated, and it's most likely this partially blind loyalty, not rationality or conscience, that dictates what rally you attend, what your sign says, which consulate you're protesting in front of, and yes - whether you're praying to Yahweh for Israel or Allah for Palestine.

European Christians learned their lessons the hard way, over centuries, before they embraced secularism and the separation of religion and state as the only workable way to a peaceful coexistence with others. Secularism is not about taking religion out of society, but about dissociating it from government, politics, and legislation.

Israel claims to have done this, but this is a difficult claim to substantiate. If a non-Jewish majority in Israel as the consequence of a one-state solution is unacceptable because it would interfere with Israel's character as a "Jewish" state, Israel is not truly a secular state. If all Jews are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship (including converts to Judaism who may be of any ethnicity or race) over those of other religions or no religion, Israel is blatantly engaging in religious discrimination, against secular principles, in the way that Jordan and Saudi Arabia do.

Arabs and Muslims on the other hand could take a lesson from studying the Jewish and Japanese communities after both underwent horrible atrocities during World War II. If, after sixty years of struggle and occupation, you're still throwing shoes instead of having the patience and long-term vision to educate your next generation, build your economy, and embrace modernity - you're missing the big picture.

A distinct separation of religion and state is the starting point for any kind of resolution, as has been seen often throughout recent history. In the Middle East, this would mean an unequivocal abandonment - at the state level - of archaic scriptural concepts like a Promised Land from Yahweh, or armed jihad in the way of Allah. These texts and their spokespersons should have no more influence over state policy and legislation than a Harry Potter book or an astrologer.

Pointing fingers, protesting, and praying can be very satisfying, but the new generation that's going to inherit these issues will need to do a much more courageous thing: consciously make an effort to break out of the shackles of a rigidly conditioned, tribalistic, indoctrination-borne loyalty in order to embrace rationality, reason, and an all-encompassing humanistic approach to this conflict, which for now seems to have almost limitless staying power.

Decades have passed. Thousands are dead.

The other approach - obviously - has not worked.


Jack said...

The world is getting more religious. Islam has an annual growth rate of 2.1, christianity 1.3, Buddhaism, 1.5 while the world growth rate is 1.2%. This is the first indication that taking religion out of the discussion for a solution to the Israel palestinian problem is not an achievable or realistic approach. Furthermore tribal identity is a human fact we must come to accept. The UN recognizes the right of ethnic groups to survival and self determination as a people group. Characteristics like history, culture, religion etc all contribute to national identity and a humanistic and rational approach to mutual existence must take all this into consideration. History tells us that peoples will always resist assimilation which is why Israel's desire to preserve the jewish character of their state is justifiable. What is not justifiable is the use of disproportionate violence that has left thousands of civilian casualties and millions with untold suffering. What is really needed is courageous leadership with the capacity for amicable dialogue to understand the fears of the adversaries, to bargain with dignity and respect and to pull, maybe drag the masses along with them to a just peace. This is what has been lacking in this conflict on both sides. History teaches that every country that found solutions to similar problems have found leaders of giant status - great souls that have forged a bridge in the fires of the worst kind of conflict and human degradation - we need Jewish and Arab Ghandis, Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings: Leaders who will teach us again to love our enemies.

benw said...

Sorry to be posting 2 months after the fact.

Ali, you make a lot of good points but you're oversimplifying the issue of religion when it comes to Judaism. Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity, and ethnic issues are driving Israeli concerns as much as -- probably indeed more than -- religious concerns. The vast majority of early Zionists were not religious at all, and explicitly saw themselves as nationalists similar to so many other nationalist movements based on ethnicity. Even today, a large proportion, perhaps a majority, of Israelis are secular. Concerns about a non-Jewish majority in Israel are ethnic concerns more than religious ones -- if they were primarily religious ones, you wouldn't see the secular majority expressing the same concerns.

Israelis will never agree to any settlement that takes away their ability to determine the ethnic nature of their state -- and it's hard to say why they shouldn't have this right, since every other state has the same right. The single biggest obstacle to a peace settlement is the refusal of Palestinians to drop their insistence on an unlimited "right of return" to Israel. As much as they may believe in the just nature of this demand, I simply don't see any possibility whatsoever that Israelis will agree to it, as it means ceding control over the nature of their own state. It is imperative for Arab and Palestinian leaders to explain to the Palestinian people that they must give up this demand if they want to see a Palestinian state come to fruition. This will require some truly courageous leaders -- it's much harder to speak the truth than to simply keep telling people what they want to hear.