A War of Religions? God Forbid!
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 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
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
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
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
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 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,
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
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
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
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.