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The Role of Religious Nationalism in the Palestinian Israeli Conflict

Submitted by Robin Messing on Fri, 12/06/2013 - 6:00am

There is a perception by many in the West that Muslims and Jews have been at each other's throats for over a thousand years.  They believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been going on forever, and there is no hope for a peaceful resolution because Islam is a uniquely virulent religion.  This fundamentally misreads the situation--the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is relatively recent and is primarily a conflict over land, though the introduction of religious elements into the conflict makes the conflict much more dangerous and difficult to solve.  I will discuss how religion complicates finding a solution later.  In a future post I will propose a way to sidestep around religious worldviews that make the conflict apparently  unsolvable. But first, I want to address the idea that there can never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians because Islam is inherently and uniquely evil.


Is the Quran Uniquely Evil?


Those who believe the Quran is uniquely evil can point to the following passage as proof that there can be no peaceful coexistence with Muslims.  According to the Quran, Allah has ordered the Muslims to thoroughly destroy the Jews:

...attack the Jews, and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t spare them, but kill men and women, children and babies, cows and sheep, camels and donkeys.

Wow, those Muslims are bloodthirsty!  It's not enough to kill the Jewish soldiers.  They are to kill Jewish women, children, and one-day old babies!  Even their livestock must be destroyed!


Oh, wait.  I made a mistake.  Actually, this passage isn't from the Quran.  It is, instead, from 1 Samuel 15:3 of the Old Testament.   It wasn't Allah commanding Muslims to destroy Jews.  It was actually Adonai commanding Saul, King of the Jews to destroy Amaleks.  Here is the passage before I doctored it:

Here is what Adonai-Tzva’ot says: ‘I remember what ‘Amalek did to Isra’el, how they fought against Isra’el when they were coming up from Egypt. Now go and attack ‘Amalek, and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t spare them, but kill men and women, children and babies, cows and sheep, camels and donkeys.’


All right, that was sneaky.  Let's try again.  Here is the message that Mohammad received instructing him on how he should treat idol worshippers:


when Allah your God hands them over ahead of you, and you defeat them, you are to destroy them completely! Do not make any covenant with them. Show them no mercy.  Don’t intermarry with them — don’t give your daughter to his son, and don’t take his daughter for your son.  For he will turn your children away from following me in order to serve other gods. If this happens, the anger of Allah will flare up against you, and he will quickly destroy you.  No, treat them this way: break down their altars, smash their standing-stones to pieces, cut down their sacred poles and burn up their carved images completely.


Oops! I did it again!  That really was the Jewish God's instructions to the Jews, as revealed in Deuteronomy 7:2-5.  Here is the passage before I changed it.

When he does this, when Adonai your God hands them over ahead of you, and you defeat them, you are to destroy them completely! Do not make any covenant with them. Show them no mercy. Don’t intermarry with them — don’t give your daughter to his son, and don’t take his daughter for your son. For he will turn your children away from following me in order to serve other gods. If this happens, the anger of Adonai will flare up against you, and he will quickly destroy you. No, treat them this way: break down their altars, smash their standing-stones to pieces, cut down their sacred poles and burn up their carved images completely.


Perhaps we should not be looking at scripture as much as behavior.  And it is here, some will point out, that Muslims are uniquely bloodthirsty. Witness this account of Islamic cannibalism in one particularly gory battle:

Mustafa of Iram wrote: "In Ma'arra our troops boiled infidel adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled."  Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Jews and Christians; they also ate dogs!


Oops!  My bad.  I lied yet again.  I slightly distorted a passage from pages 99 - 100 of A World Without Islam by former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, Graham E. Fuller. He pointed out that Christians documented several cases of their own cannibalism during the Crusades.  Here is the passage that I doctored by switching a few key words.

Radulph of Caen, an eyewitness to events at Ma'arra in 1098, wrote, "In Ma'arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled."

The chronicler Albert of Aix seemed to rank Muslims lower than dogs when he wrote, "Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!"


There is no denying that the Quran and the Hadith have very violent passages that have been used to justify the 9/11 attack and suicide bombings.  But it is a stretch to say that Islam is uniquely evil because of violence justified by the Quran.  While extremist Muslims do use the Quran to justify their behavior, mainstream Muslims accuse them of hijacking their religion by quoting the Quran  out of context.  And believe it or not, scholars can and do disagree as to whether the Bible or the Quran is more violent. This is explored in more detail in a fascinating story by NPR which I highly recommend you listen to.  Fun, but useless fact: Steve Wells, who compiled the Skeptic's Annotated Bible, tallied the number of cruel or violent incidents in the Bible and the Quran.  According to his count, the Bible has more than twice as many violent passages, but adjusting for the fact that the Bible is much longer than the Quran shows that a greater percentage of the Quran's passages are violent or cruel.



Has There Been Widespread Hatred Between Muslims and Jews for Over a Thousand Years?


Relations between Jews and Muslims got off to a rocky start when Muhammad exiled two tribes of Jews from Medina and had a third tribe executed after they failed to accept him as a prophet.  The circumstances and interpretations of these events are disputed.  Muslims will tell you that these particular Jews plotted against Muhammad during a time of war and they got what they had coming to them.  Jews obviously would interpret events differently.  Suffice it to say that most Jews do not get a warm fuzzy feeling when they think about Muhammad. Throughout history, Jews (and Christians) have been made to live as second class citizens in Islamic lands and they were forced to pay a special protection tax called a Jizyah.  And there were sporadic incidents of violence and repression against Jews in Muslim countries when they did not show what Muslims considered appropriate levels of deference.  But many historians claim that Jews were treated better in the Middle Ages under Muslim rule than they were in Christian Europe.  The rampant, white-hot anti-Semitism that one often sees in today's Islamic world is a relatively recent phenomena that arose in response to Zionism and the foundation of Israel.  As Graham Fuller states in A World Without Islam (p.33):


And while in the bloody history of humanity Jews, too, have suffered at various points while living in Muslim societies, Jewish scholars would be near unanimous in agreeing that Jewish communities and culture have fared far better over the centuries under Islam than under Christianity.  The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, establishing a homeland for the Jews after the horrific experience of the Holocaust in Europe--but coming at terrible expense to the Palestinians--represents a dramatic and sad turning point in what is now a tense and angry relationship between Jews and Muslims.  Indeed, that strained relationship is now entirely geopolitical,  fought over questions of territory and relationships with the new Israeli state.

Of course, one could quibble with Fuller's summary.  One could argue that the "sad turning point" between Jews and Muslims occurred in Palestine before 1948.  Perhaps one could point to the Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939.  Or perhaps the point was reached in 1929 riots with the slaughter of Jews in Safed and Hebron.  These quibbles, however, don't negate Fuller's main point that hostile relations between Muslims and Jews arose relatively recently as a response to the Zionist immigration of Jews into Palestine.

Princeton Professor Mark Cohen has extensively studied the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages.  His analysis of Jewish-Muslim relations in Cordoba Spain indicates that while the relationship between the two groups wouldn't meet today's standards of equality, the two communities did live together in a mutually tolerant society.  He argues in the following video that virulent anti-Semitism was introduced into the Muslim community by Christian proselytizers starting in the 16th Century but that it didn't really take off until the rise of Jewish nationalism in the 19th Century.




Is The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Mainly About Religion?


No, the conflict is mainly about two peoples fighting over the same piece of land.  True, there is a religious component to the conflict that cannot be ignored.  The introduction of religion into the conflict and its growing importance, especially since 1967, makes the conflict much more dangerous and more difficult to solve.  But religion is the lens through which many on both sides view the conflict.  It is not the conflict's primary underlying cause.  The British set up the conflict by first promising Arab independence over a large area of the Middle East in 1915 that apparently included Palestine.  (See the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence).  Then in 1917, the British promised Zionists that the British government  would look with favor upon the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.  (See the Balfour Declaration.)  So it could be said that the problem originally began with British double-crossing.  Oh, did I say the British were double-crossing?  My mistake.  ANYONE can be a double-crosser--it takes no talent to do so. But double-crossing is for amateurs.  The British showed their true genius for mucking things up by being TRIPLE-crossers and also agreeing to divide the Middle East up with France into areas of control and influence.  (See the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916)

These three conflicting promises were "resolved" when the League of Nations granted the British the right to rule over the Palestinian Mandate in 1922.  The following is a HUGE oversimplification of a long and complex history, but the roots of the conflict can essentially be summed up as follows:  Large numbers of Zionists immigrated into Palestine, especially in the 1930s.  The Arabs in Palestine felt their lifestyles were being threatened.  They fought the Zionists.  The Zionists fought back. They both fought the British at one point or another.  The situation in Palestine was becoming untenable for the British and the U.N. passed a plan to petition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.  The Zionists accepted this plan but the Palestinian Arabs rejected the notion that the U.N. had the authority to give any of the land they considered theirs to the Jews.  Palestinian Arabs responded to the passage of the U.N. partition plan by launching a civil war against the Zionists.  The Zionists beat back the Palestinian Arabs and the British ended their Mandate in May 1948.  Just as soon as the British ended their Mandate, the neighboring Arab states launched a war against Israel and the Israelis successfully fought them off.  Roughly 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during this time under various circumstances.  They left their homes expecting they could return within a few weeks after the war was ended.  However, the government of Israel refused to let them return and their land and houses were confiscated and given to Israeli Jews. The Palestinians have a special word for the loss of their homes in 1947/48--the "Nakba" or the "Catastrophe".  The importance of the Nakba in defining today's conflict cannot be overstated.  It is as central to the Palestinian worldview as the Holocaust is to the Jews.  The decision by the Israeli government to prevent the Arab refugees from returning after the war is the key to understanding the conflict.  The conflict is ultimately about the fate of those refugees and their descendants.  Their burning desire to return to their homeland is symbolized by the keys they still keep to the houses they or their parents or grandparents lost in the Nakba.

This discussion does not do justice to the importance of the Nakba.  Those wanting to learn more are encouraged to do their own research.  The following video is a good place to start.



The following is the first video in a four-part debate between Benny Morris, Saree Makdisi and Norman Finkelstein on the history leading up to the Nakba, the Nakba, and its ramifications today.  Note how little is mentioned about the role of religion in the conflict.




When Did Religion Get Introduced Into the Conflict?


Religion played a relatively minor role in the conflict before the 1967 war.   It would be wrong to say religion was totally absent from the conflict before then.  A relatively small number of Jews did move to Palestine/Israel for religious reasons.  Haj Amin al-Hussayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, tried to prevent Jews from purchasing Arab land by convincing Arabs to donate their land to an Islamic holy trust known as a waqf where the land would forever be sequestered from purchase by Jews.  And rumors spread by Al-Hussayni that Jews were about to take over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif stirred up Arab animosity and was one of the causes leading up to the riots of 1929 in which Jews were attacked in Hebron, Safed, and Tel Aviv.  But despite that, the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel had been an overwhelmingly secular conflict over land.  Though Israel is a Jewish state, it is  predominantly a secular-Jewish state.  The Palestinian Authority is a secular government.  And the PLO is a secular organization.

However, religious overtones strengthened greatly after the 1967 war.  Many religious Jews believed their victory against what looked like overwhelming odds was due to Divine intervention.  Some took it as a sign from God that the Messiah was on His way. They believed their victory was a sign from above to redouble their efforts in settling ALL the land that was part of ancient Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.   This nationalist religious-Zionism found its expression when Gush Emunim was formed in 1974.

The defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 sent shock waves through the Arab world.  It caused the Palestinians to realize that they could not rely on the Arab League to help them return to their homes: The PLO, originally established in 1964 under the auspices of the Arab League, revised its charter in 1968 to emphasize the centrality of armed struggle to gain back all of historic Palestine for the Palestinian people.  The Charter also emphasized the non-denominational nature of the PLO.


Article 6: The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians.


Article 16: The liberation of Palestine, from a spiritual point of view, will provide the Holy Land with an atmosphere of safety and tranquility, which in turn will safeguard the country's religious sanctuaries and guarantee freedom of worship and of visit to all, without discrimination of race, color, language, or religion. Accordingly, the people of Palestine look to all spiritual forces in the world for support.


The Palestinian people originally put their faith in the secular PLO to regain their homeland.  But Yasser Arafat and the PLO were weak and they couldn't get the job done.  The PLO was kicked out of Jordan and forced into exile in Lebanon in 1971 after the civil war between the PLO and the government of King Hussein.  The PLO and Yasser Arafat were humbled again when they were forced to flee Lebanon in late August 1982 as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Arafat returned to Lebanon but was forced to flee again to Tunisia in 1983 by a mutinous faction within Fatah that was backed by Syria.

In the meantime, Palestinians began to lose hope as Israeli settlers built more and more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.  There were fewer than 1200 settlers in the West Bank in 1972.  That number grew to nearly 23,000 in 1983 and over 44,000 by 1985.  The PLO was proving itself ineffective in stopping Israeli encroachment on what Palestinians considered to be their land.  Some Palestinian were undoubtedly looking for another movement that could help restore their homeland and their dignity.  But where could they turn to? Enter political Islam.

Political Islam exploded into the Middle East with the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.  Though the Iranian government is Shiite and the overwhelmingly number of Palestinians are Sunni, the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran galvanized religious Muslims throughout the region.  Hezbollah (a Shiite group) was formed in Lebanon between 1982 and the mid 1980's, inspired both by the rise of the Iranian Islamic Republic and by the prolonged Israeli invasion in 1982.  Augustus Richard Norton writes the following in his book Hezbollah (p.33):

Even if Israel had not launched its invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, the young would-be revolutionaries among the Shi'a would have pursued their path of emulating Iran's Islamic revolution.  Undoubtedly, however, the invasion pushed the Shi'a further in this direction, creating conditions for the establishment and flourishing of Hezbollah.  The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barack put the matter succinctly in July 2006: "When we entered Lebanon. . . there was no Hezbollah.  We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shi'a in the south.  It was our presence there that created Hezbollah" (Newsweek, July 18, 2006).  As Barak's comment suggests, by occupying Lebanon rather than promptly withdrawing, Israel wore out is (sic) warm welcome and provided a context for Hezbollah to grow.


Islamic Jihad was formed in 1985 or 1986 and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1988.  These groups were founded and grew partly as a result of the Iranian revolution, but largely in response to the oppressive Israeli occupation and settler violence in the West Bank.  As Mark Tessler writes in A History Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (p.674)

Provocative and confrontational activities organized by the increasingly emboldened Israeli settler movement put yet additional pressure on Palestinians in the occupied territories.  For example, as noted, Jewish settlers in the West Bank carried out raids and demonstrations in the spring of 1987, smashing bottles, overturning garbage bins, and sometimes breaking windows and uprooting trees as they marched through several Arab towns.  Many of these vigilante efforts were led by Gush Emunim's secretary-general, Daniella Weiss, and in the editorial judgment of the Jerusalem Post their purpose was "to coerce the military authorities. . . . into putting the screws on the local Arab population so painfully that they would either meekly subject themselves to Israel's rule forever--or get out."


Hamas's popularity grew until it won the Palestinian election in January 2006.  Hamas's win can be attributed to several factors.

  1. The PLO was seen as weak and ineffective in significantly relieving the burdens of the Israeli occupation.  They did nothing to stop the growth of settlements.  By 2006 the number of settlers in the West Bank had grown to over 260,000.  By contrast, Hamas was seen as a force that resisted the settlers and influenced the Israeli decision to pull out of Gaza in 2005.
  2. The Palestinian Authority had a reputation for corruption and cronyism. Arafat ran the country like a dictator.  By contrast, Hamas had a reputation of honesty and integrity.
  3. Hamas had built up a reservoir of goodwill amongst the Palestinian people by running social programs such as schools, mosques, soup kitchens and clinics.



How Has Religious Extremism Made The Conflict More Dangerous?


The introduction of extreme religious nationalism has made a difficult conflict nearly impossible to resolve.  It has also made it far more dangerous.  Extreme religious nationalism has the potential to turn a local conflict into World War III.

Extreme religious nationalism has made a difficult problem more dangerous in five different ways.

  1. Justifying violence against the enemy
  2. Justifying denying Palestinians the right to vote
  3. Promotion and expansion of Israeli settlements
  4. Creating conflicts over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
  5. Creating apparently irreconcilable conflict over land


Justifiying Violence Against the Enemy


Both Islamic and Jewish religious extremists believe that God has given them ALL of the land of Palestine and if exercising your rights to the land requires you to take the homes or the lives of the enemy, well, too bad.  It is a lot easier to dehumanize the enemy and justify killing him if you have God on your side.  To be sure, there was plenty of violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis before the rise of religious extremism.  But having God's blessing can help a Palestinian kill a Jew or a Jew kill a Palestinian while maintaining a clear conscience.  Or, for that matter, it can be used by a religious right-wing extremist Jew to justify hostility and set the stage for violence against a moderate Jew who is willing to trade land for peace with the Palestinians. 

Remember I mentioned earlier that God had commanded King Saul to kill all the Amalekites?  That wasn't a one-time deal.  God commanded the Jews to wipe out all the Amalekites and their descendants for generations to come.  To label someone an "Amalekite" is to brand him as evil incarnate, worthy only of destruction.  Elliot Horowitz, author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, examines how certain religious right-wing Israelis have branded their enemies--both Jewish and Palestinians, as Amalekites.   The introduction of his book is long, but it is well worth reading.  In it, you will see how then right-wing Likud activist (now a member of the Knesset) Moshe Feiglin told influential columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that "The Arabs engage in typical Amalek behavior. I can't prove this genetically, but this is the behavior of Amalek."  Horowitz continues:

. . . the association of Arabs with Amalekites has become widespread enough for at least one Israeli-Arab journalist to have developed the habit of referring to himself, with some measure of irony, as an Amalekite.   Not surprisingly, after the death of Yasser Arafat, in November of 2004, "Pikuach Nefesh," an association of some two hundred rabbis who oppose territorial concessions on the part of Israel, announced that "the day of Arafat's death should be a day of rejoicing," since the Palestinian leader was "the Amalek and the Hitler of our generation."


But it isn't only the Palestinians who are violently condemned by the Israeli extremist religious right.  Yitzhak Rabin was hated by the Israeli right-wing for recognizing the PLO and signing an agreement in Oslo that started a process with the goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for a permanent resolution of the conflict.  The religious right consider giving up even an inch of territory in the West Bank and Gaza to be sacrilegious. They, along with the secular right, viciously demonized Rabin and protested against him, carrying posters that depicted him in a Nazi uniform.  The Nazis, as you may have guessed, are widely considered amongst religious Jews to be the Amalekites of the 20th Century.  The peace process was dealt a blow when Rabin was assassinated by right-wing student Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995.  After the assassination Amir proudly proclaimed,  "I acted alone on God's orders and I have no regrets."  Two teen-age Israelis were arrested shortly after Rabin was assassinated for having printed up some of the posters depicting him as a Nazi.  When the police searched their home they "discovered a prayer book with a prayer for Mr. Rabin's death written on its last page."

Ariel Sharon is one of the most right-wing politicians in Israeli history.  He engineered Israel's 1982 invasion in Lebanon and is considered by many to be the "Father of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories".   No one can question his right-wing Zionist credentials.  Yet, the threats he received from the religious right when he announced plans in 2004 to unilaterally withdraw troops and evacuate settlers from Gaza was so severe that it prompted Jeffrey Goldberg to write an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled "Protect Sharon From the Right."    One settler that Goldberg had talked to accused Sharon of working for the Amalekites and she said that he would be "forfeiting his right to live" if he evacuated settlers.  The head of Israeli security testified that he thought there were 150 to 200 settlers who wanted to kill Sharon.  And, Goldberg writes:

The rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, Avigdor Neventzal, announced in June that anyone who gives up a part of the land of Israel -- even a single settlement -- to a non-Jew could be the target of a religiously sanctioned murder. The official spokesman of the Jewish community in Hebron, David Wilder, wrote in June: ''Nobody wants violence. Especially against our own brethren. But it's time to wake up. The reality is, if Sharon insists on trying to implement his 'Jewish transfer' from our homes and land, it's going to happen.''

Fortunately, the evacuation from Gaza went smoothly and Sharon was not assassinated.  But the threats directed towards Sharon when he was contemplating evacuating a relatively small number of settlers from an area with relatively little Biblical importance hints at how difficult it would be to "persuade" the more religious settlers in the West Bank to leave any areas that may be handed over to the Palestinians should an agreement be reached for a two-state solution.

While settler violence occasionally focuses on Israeli politicians or IDF soldiers, its main target is Palestinian Arabs, especially those living in areas B and C of the West Bank.  Most of the attacks take the form of vandalism or destruction of property.  Olive trees, the foundation of Palestinian family farms, are frequent targets of attack.  One Palestinian official reported 600 olive trees were destroyed near Nablus in one day at the end of this past October.  Sometimes the settlers do more than just attack trees.  Sometimes they attack Palestinian olive pickers as is apparently shown in this video.  Sometimes the attacks take the form of slashed tires and spray painted graffiti saying "Arabs Out"  This is the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on an African-American's lawn.  And sometimes the attackers target mosques

If the government of Israel does something the settlers don't like then Palestinians often pay a price.  If the government freezes settlements or dismantles illegal settlements then the Palestinians pay a price.  If a Palestinian attacks or kills a settler, then other innocent Palestinians pay a price.  These terrorist attacks have a special name.  They are called "Price Tag" attacks.  Peace Now has complied a list of many Price Tag attacks that have occurred since the beginning of 2011.  Here are some links to more stories for those who want to learn more about the Price Tag phenomena.

Where Settler Terrorism Comes From

Ruling: 'Price tag' acts akin to terror

Settlers riot in Palestinian village

Police arrest 17-year-old for attack on Arab Woman

Police note rise in 'price tag' acts in 2012

Call Jewish Price Tag Attacks What They Are

Why Are Settlers Not Held Accountable For Violence?

Settler Violence: Think of it Like Burning Down a Jewish Business

I highly recommend the following two articles about settler violence.  They should be read as complementary pieces. 

Settler violence: It comes with the territory by Larry Derfner.

Peace Without an Olive Branch by Miriam Awadallah


Can I prove all of these attacks are motivated by religious nationalism?  No.  Could some of these attacks have been motivated by those seeking revenge for loved ones hurt or killed by Palestinians?  Certainly, though the sheer volume and timing of the settler attacks indicate that this provides only a partial explanation of the vandalism and violence.


So while I can't prove that religious nationalism is a key motivating factor, consider this.  Much of the violence and arson occurs in or near communities with a large number of religious right-wing settlers.  And consider this.  An unusual book was published in 2009 by the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of  Yitzhar.  This is a book of interpretations of Jewish law, but it wasn't just any book of interpretations.  No, it was a very special book of interpretations of Jewish law.  This is how Daniel Estrin's report in the Jewish Daily Forward described the book known as Torat Hamelech, or "The King's Torah":


[The King's Torah] reads like a rabbinic instruction manual outlining acceptable scenarios for killing non-Jewish babies, children and adults.  “The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’” applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew,” write Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar. Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

Now consider this: On January 10, 2010, Estrin reports,

more than 100 Israeli security officials who forcibly entered Od Yosef Chai and arrested 10 Jewish settlers. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, suspects five of those arrested were involved in the torching and vandalizing of a Palestinian mosque last month in the neighboring Palestinian village of Yasuf.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, one of the authors of the King's Torah, was amongst the settlers arrested.  He was questioned by the police and by Shin Bet, but was then released for lack of evidence.  Are we really to believe that it is just coincidence and that there is no religious motivation when members of the same yeshiva that published the King's Torah are arrested on suspicion of vandalizing a mosque?  Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, doesn't seem to think it's just a coincidence.  He condemned the King's Torah and said it "may have contributed to the atmosphere in which settler Jews attacked the Palestinian mosque in Yitzhar last December."




The Israeli Attroney General decided in 2012 not to prosecute the authors of the King's Bible.  In November 2013 Israel's High Court showed its displeasure at this decision by ordering the Attorney General to explain his actions.  Why didn't he indict its authors on charges of incitement?  Why didn't the police confiscate the books until the issue was settled in court? Why was Dov Lior, one of the book's authors, not dismissed from his job as the rabbi of Kiryat Arba?


There are two more points that must be made before leaving this topic.  Not all religious settlers are extremists.  The ones who engage in arson and violence are probably a relatively small percentage.  There were peacemakers even within the right-wing religious movement Gush Emunim.  The late Rabbi Menachem Froman, one of the founders of Gush Emunim was known for his efforts to find a peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians.  He thought settlements could actually bring peace between the two peoples.


I always say that the settlements are the fingers of the hand that is extended to peace. . . . Because here is where the true contact is forged between the Muslim and Jewish cultures. Hadassah always says, There is a fence and there are ties; when there is a fence things like the Twin Towers happen. You know, every Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha I sent greetings to Abu Amar [Yasser Arafat] and afterward to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], in which I wrote about loving your fellow man as yourself and not doing to others what you would not wish them to do to you. What I want for myself I must also want others to have. I want a Jewish state, I must want there to be an Arab state. I love Jerusalem, I have to want them to have Jerusalem, too. When Abu Mazen saw that he was so moved that he went to another room and brought me his misbaha, his prayer beads, as a gift. I have it here.



Rabbi Froman was truly exceptional in every sense of the word.  Very few of the religious settlers were as oriented towards peace as he was.  There would be less antagonism between the two peoples if there were more like them.

The second point that must be made is that extremist religious nationalism has resulted in violence on both sides. Some may accuse me for overemphasizing the role of Jewish religious extremism and downplaying the role of Islamic extremism.  And they would have a valid point.  Israeli Jews have died at the hands of Palestinian Islamic extremists.  But my discussion has emphasized Zionist extremists for two reasons.  First, if you ask Americans to say the first thing that pops into their head when they hear the words "Muslim" or "Arab" or "Palestinian" many are likely to say "terrorist".  Most Americans are completely unaware that Zionist terrorism exists.  And second, Zionist terrorism has taken a greater toll on Palestinian society than Palestinian terrorism has taken on Israeli Jewish society because the Jews are much more powerful and are more effective at stopping terrorism.  The Israelis have the Shin Bet, Mossad, and the IDF at their disposal, They have the Separation Wall and checkpoints to keep most terrorist infiltrators at bay.  And they have the cooperation from the Palestinian Authority who have arrested terrorists before they strike.  Hamas and other Islamic groups have launched over 8000 rockets into Israel from Gaza since 2005, but the fortunately the rockets have been inaccurate.  Still, according to the IDF more than 1500 Israelis have been injured and 44 people were killed between 2005 and 2011 due to Hamas rocket fire.


Justifying denying Palestinians the right to Vote


Those who seek to establish a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River face a dilemma.  There are nearly as many Palestinians as their are Jews in this Greater Israel, and Palestinian birth rates are higher than Israeli Jewish birth rates.  If the Palestinians are given the right to vote then Israel could soon stop being a Jewish State.  If they are not given the right to vote then Israel will be an apartheid state.  This dilemma doesn't seem to bother the most extremist religious right-wingers.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a very long column for the New Yorker soon after Ariel Sharon announced his decision to withdraw from Gaza.  It is really must reading for those who want to understand the religiously inspired right-wing settlers.  Here he discusses how at least some on the far right would handle this problem.  It is important to note that Moshe Feiglin is no longer just a "Likud activist".  He is now a member of the Knesset.

Indeed, some of the leading ideologues of the settlements, far from supporting the idea of a Jewish democracy, hope to establish a Jewish theocracy in Israel, ruled by a Sanhedrin and governed by Jewish law. Moshe Feiglin, a Likud activist who lives in a West Bank settlement and heads the Jewish Leadership bloc within the Party—he controls nearly a hundred and fifty of the Likud central committee’s three thousand members—believes that the Bible, interpreted literally, should form the basis of Israel’s legal system. “Why should non-Jews have a say in the policy of a Jewish state?” Feiglin said to me. “For two thousand years, Jews dreamed of a Jewish state, not a democratic state. Democracy should serve the values of the state, not destroy them.” In any case, Feiglin said, “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.”


Promotion and expansion of Israeli settlements


There were no Israeli settlements in the West Bank prior to the 1967 war.  Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wanted to establish limited  settlements in the West Bank, so Theodor Meron, legal counsel to Israel's Foreign Ministry, was asked whether Israel could legally do so.  Meron wrote that it would be permissible to establish military outposts in the West Bank but that  "civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."  Furthermore, Meron wrote:

It is also important, in my view, that such settlement is in the framework of camps and is, on the face of it, of a temporary rather than permanent nature.  Even if we settle an army and not civilians, we must, from the point of view of international law, have regard to the question of ownership of the land that we are settling.  Article 46 of the Hague Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Annexes to the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907), regulations that are regarded as a true expression of customary international law that is binding on all countries, states in relation to occupied territory that:

          “private property ... must be respected. Private property cannot be confiscated”.


Thus, the Eshkol government planned to establish military outposts along the West Bank of the Jordan River for defensive purposes while avoiding the establishment of civilian settlements, especially in the heart of the West Bank where most of the Palestinian Arab population lived.  Some within the government also wanted to avoid settling in the heart of the West Bank in order to keep it available to trade for peace as required by U.N. Resolution 242.  This did not sit well amongst Israeli religious nationalists who believed God had given them the right and the obligation to settle throughout all of their Biblical Homeland.  They wanted to settle throughout the land and they wanted to establish facts on the ground to prevent Israel from being able to trade land for peace.  So they started to build the civilian religious settlement of Kiryat Arba in 1968 near Hebron in defiance of government policy.  The government skirmished with them at first but decided to recognize Kiryat Arba in 1970.

Today there are over 500,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and in dozens of settlements scattered throughout the West Bank.  The Times of Israel states that "More than half of settlements are defined as 'national religious' and 'ultra-Orthodox.' "  Americans for Peace Now has put together some maps that will help you visualize how the settlements are slicing up the West Bank.  The first map provides a simplified picture demonstrating that not all the settlements are the same.  The second is an interactive map that provides a more granular view of settlements in the West Bank.  Study these maps and you will understand how settlement growth makes achieving a two-state solution with a contiguous Palestinian state increasingly difficult.  Keep in mind that the West Bank and Gaza constitute roughly 23% of the historical British Mandate.  Most Palestinains believe that ALL of Palestine is rightfully theirs, but for the sake of peace they will settle for having a state within that 23%.  They feel they have given up enough land and they do not want to give up any more.  Therefore, a final peace deal based on a two-state solution is likely to require Israel to compensate the Palestinians by giving up an amount of land within the Green Line roughly equal to the amount of land it annexes from the West Bank.

It would be a mistake to blame religious nationalists for being responsible for all the settlements in the West Bank.  In fact, most of the settlers are secular Jews who were enticed to settle in the West Bank by government subsidies that made housing  much more cheaply available in the West Bank than within the Green Line.  But these economic settlers tended to settle near the Green Line whereas the religious nationalists tended to settle deep within the West Bank where they would be surrounded by a hostile Palestinian population.  Most of the economic settlers either live in territory which would likely become part of Israel after a peace deal involving a land swap or they could be induced to move back to Israel with the right economic incentives.  Those religious settlers that live in areas likely to end up as part of a Palestinian state are unlikely to either  be enticed to move through economic incentives or to live peacefully as subjects or citizens of a Palestinian state.

It would be bad enough if religious nationalists just wanted to establish new settlements in the West Bank.  But they don't.  They believe they have the moral justification to forcibly evict Palestinians from the homes that they have owned since before they came under Israeli control.  The video My Neighborhood tells the story of Palestinians who have been evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem.  You will get a better feeling of how extreme religious nationalism has poisoned Palestinian-Israeli relations by watching this video than by reading anything I have written.  Pay close attention to between 6:37 and 7:10 of the video to see how religious settlers justify throwing Palestinian families out of their homes.





Creating conflicts over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif


The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site where the First and the Second Temple once stood, is the most sacred place in the world for Jews.  Some right-wing religious Jews want to rebuild a Third Temple on the Mount to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah.  Unfortunately for them, Muslims have built the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount because they believe that Mohammad ascended into heaven from this spot during his Night Journey.  They refer to this area not as the Temple Mount, but as the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) and it is their third most holy site.  The importance of this site to Muslims around the world cannot be overstated.

Shin Bet broke up a plot by the religious nationalist Jewish Underground in 1984 that came very close to blowing up the Dome of the Rock.  The following clip from The Gatekeepers features Yaacov Peri, head of Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994 and Carmi Gillon head of Shin Bet from 1994 - 1996 discussing the plot.  I believe that a successful attack against the Dome of the Rock would set the Islamic World against Israel and the West and could cause World War III.  But don't take my word for it.  Listen to what Carmi Gillon has to say.




Unfortunately, the desire to tear down the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild the Third Temple did not die when the Jewish Underground's plot was broken up.  Here is what your favorite racist and mine, Moshe Feiglin, once said before he became a member of the Knesset.

if I become prime minister I will take away control over the Temple Mount from the Wakf [the Islamic trust] and reinstate Jewish sovereignty over the entire mount and, hopefully, rebuild the Temple.


Of course, trouble can arise from events falling far short of destruction of the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The following articles describe how religious Jews are challenging Muslim custodianship over the Temple Mount and how this can lead to further unrest.


Think Twice About Jews On The Temple Mount

Feiglin Removed From Temple Mount Again

Feiglin to question legal authority, legitimacy of Temple Mount Waqf

Jews Challenge Rules to Claim Heart of Jerusalem


Ironically, Rabbi Abraham Kook, the Father of Religious Zionism, issued a religious decree before Israel became a state prohibiting Jews from entering the Temple Mount.  This decree has been ignored by religious nationalists eager to assert Israel's claim over the site.

Unrest surrounding the Temple Mount was one of the causes that led up to the 1929 riots.  Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was the proximate cause of the Second Intifada.  If a Third Intifada breaks out it is likely to do so over conflict surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.


Creating apparently irreconcilable conflict over land


Gush Emunim was an influential religious-Zionist organization that was founded in 1974 and thrived into the 1980s.  Though the organization technically no longer exists, its ideology still influences the religious settlement movement.  Here is how Rabbi Ed Snitkoff described their ideology.

Gush Emunim's platform defined the movement's mission in the following way: "To bring about a major spiritual reawakening in the Jewish people for the sake of the full realization of the Zionist vision, in the knowledge that this vision's source and goal in the Jewish heritage and in Judaism's roots are the total redemption of both the Jewish people and the whole world." 

According to Harold Fisch, an ideologue of Gush Emunim and a professor at Bar Ilan University, the Jewish people's divine imperative to settle every inch of the Land was a value above all others. In his 1978 book, The Zionist Revolution, he interpreted Zionism according to the Gush Emunim worldview, stating that the covenant between the Jews and God behooved the Jewish people to act in the interests of the Land of Israel and exercise their right to settle and control it. . . .

Gush Emunim established settlements throughout the territories captured in 1967, especially in Judea and Samaria. The belief that Jews have a God-given right to settle every part of the Land of Israel--and that no government,  foreign or Israeli, has the right to prevent this--became a central pillar in the tactics and planning of the movement.


This is the mirror image of Hamas's ideology.  Hamas believes ALL of the land of Palestine (including Israel within the Green Line) is  part of a waqf designated for the benefit of the Muslim people.  A waqf is a type of sacred Islamic trust and, according to Hamas, no part of this land can be sold or traded to the Zionists.  It is land reserved for Muslims and negotiating it away would break their trust with Allah.  Yitzhak Reiter, a senior researcher at both the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote a scholarly paper detailing how Hamas's interpretation of the waqf is flawed and based on a misreading of history.  His paper will be difficult reading for many, so I've presented the highlights in a somewhat simplified version here.   Of course, Hamas is not going to pay much heed to what an Israeli scholar has to say, so whether their ideology is flawed or not, it is what they believe and the world has to deal with how it guides their behavior.   Hamas spells out its view of Palestine as an Islamic Waqf in its Charter


Article Eleven: The Strategy of Hamas: Palestine is an Islamic Waqf

The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it. No Arab country nor the aggregate of all Arab countries, and no Arab King or President nor all of them in the aggregate, have that right, nor has that right any organization or the aggregate of all organizations, be they Palestinian or Arab, because Palestine is an Islamic Waqf throughout all generations and to the Day of Resurrection. Who can presume to speak for all Islamic Generations to the Day of Resurrection? . . .  this Waqf will endure as long as Heaven and earth last. Any demarche in violation of this law of Islam, with regard to Palestine, is baseless and reflects on its perpetrators.


Yikes! It looks like the ideology of Hamas and the hard right religious Zionists are irreconcilable mirror images of one another.  Hamas believes God gave THEM the land.  The right wing religious Zionists believe God gave THEM the land.  And both sides believe that reaching a compromise over the land would anger God, and no one wants to piss off God.  Cheer up.  It gets worse.  Hamas believes it is pointless to even try to negotiate peace.  Again, quoting from the Hamas Charter.


Article Thirteen: Peaceful Solutions, [Peace] Initiatives and International Conferences

[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad: “Allah is the all-powerful, but most people are not aware.” From time to time a clamoring is voiced, to hold an International Conference in search for a solution to the problem. Some accept the idea, others reject it, for one reason or another, demanding the implementation of this or that condition, as a prerequisite for agreeing to convene the Conference or for participating in it. But the Islamic Resistance Movement, which is aware of the [prospective] parties to this conference, and of their past and present positions towards the problems of the Muslims, does not believe that those conferences are capable of responding to demands, or of restoring rights or doing justice to the oppressed. Those conferences are no more than a means to appoint the nonbelievers as arbitrators in the lands of Islam. Since when did the Unbelievers do justice to the Believers? . . .  There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility. . . .


How will this all end?  The Hamas Charter has the answer.


Article Seven: The Universality of Hamas

Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. 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 will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).


To sum up:

  1. Both Hamas and right-wing religious Zionists believe God entrusted the land to them and any compromise would be an affront to God.  The differences appear to be irreconcilable.
  2. Hamas believes any effort to negotiate peace is pointless.  The right-wing religious Zionists would probably agree based on their refusal to allow any land to be negotiated for peace.
  3. Hamas believes an all-out war against the Jews is not only inevitable, it is something to look forward to.


This looks hopeless.  The two peoples appear doomed to fight each other forever with the unsettling possibility that their fight could provide the match to set off World War III.  Is there any way out of this mess?  I think there is and I will discuss how to reconcile the irreconcilable in my next post.  Quick Hint: We have been given an intelligence test and we flunking badly.


Update 8/8/15: I highly recommend reading The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is Not About Religion by Khaled Diab