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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Secular View

G. Ethan Jordan, Ph.D.

Many nontheists are prepared to pass off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just another religious war. For some, the solution seems simple: both sides should abandon religion and then there would be peace and understanding. This solution dispenses with any close examination of the actual causes of the conflict and betrays a crude misunderstanding of the people involved. A large number of Israelis are secular, even atheists, and Arafat's Palestinian Authority supports the establishment of a secular state. This opposition between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is the result of the clash of two closely related peoples who nevertheless have thoroughly unique histories and national aspirations. The confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians are at times religious, but just as often they are economic, social, cultural, historical, political, legal, and personal. If those of a secular bent can analyze the problem and offer a solution, it should not be simplistic or one-sided.

To analyze the situation, one must know some background of the two key players, the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. The Jews, for their part, are undecided among themselves whether they ought to be thought of as members of a religion, or a nation, or an ethnicity. The one abiding commonality they have had throughout history is in being identified, and hated, as Jews by other peoples. Even scholarly revisionists agree that there was once an ancient kingdom of Israel, later overrun by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. After oppression and a series of intense, failed revolts, Jews spread into a worldwide Diaspora. Most everywhere they went, including Arab states, but especially in Europe, Jews encountered discrimination or persecution. Judaism as a religion uniquely kept alive one of the world's oldest living cultures, through retention of the ancient Hebrew language, chronicles of the ancient kingdom, ancient laws, and worship of the national god. Everywhere in the Jewish holy writings a central place was given to the land of Israel.

The Palestinian Arabs have only recently forged a national or ethnic identity, but they are heirs to the long historical tradition of Arab culture and Arab nationalism. According to recent genetic studies, Palestinians, like Jews, seem to be descended from peoples who have long been in the area of Israel. Their ancestors may have included the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Philistines, and even Jews who converted to Christianity or Islam. The monotheistic religion of Islam, based on the teachings of Muhammad, spread from Arabia with military conquests starting in the seventh century of this era. Islam emphasized the sacredness of the Arabic text of the holy book the Quran, which contains laws and instructions for the ordering of society. With the adoption of Islam and the Arabic language, Palestinians joined the Arab culture. Arabs under Islam dreamed of a single, inclusive state with religious dimensions over all the territories they conquered in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, but this dream never became reality. Arab rule was divided up among various large, competing empires. Arabs in Palestine successfully fought off European Christian invasions of the 'Holy Land', but were later overrun by Mongols and Turks.

In the nineteenth century, both Jews and Arabs prepared for statehood. Jews in Europe and elsewhere had adopted the aspiration for a Jewish homeland, to which Jews worldwide could flee from persecution and enjoy the free practice of their religion. Many Jews suggested the logical homeland location should be in their historic place of origin, Israel. At the turn of the century, the area of present Israel and the occupied territories was part of a province of the Ottoman Empire, with few towns and a tiny population of mostly nomadic Arabs and a smaller number of Jews. Arabs everywhere in the Ottoman Empire were poised to rebel against the Turks and declare their independence as a single nation.

It is easy to see why both Jews and Arabs had valid claims to live and rule in Israel/Palestine. Jews needed a refuge, and their exile from their homeland had largely been due to persecution under Roman, Arab, and Turkish rule. Arabs in Palestine expected independence and rule as other European colonies had experienced after the world wars. What is interesting is how long Jews and Arabs maintained their national aspirations without noticing that they contradicted each other. To a certain extent, Jewish Zionists probably did not expect to be offered statehood. Arab nationalists for their part did not necessarily see Jewish presence and activity as a threat to their incipient nationhood. However, under British Mandate rule, this changed rapidly.

Jews immigrated in large numbers due to the intensified persecutions in Europe in the early twentieth century. British policy variously allowed or restricted Jewish immigration, but Jewish numbers increased dramatically. Arab numbers increased too, due to birthrate. Jews began to buy property and organize for self-defense. Arabs began to protest and boycott. The final confrontation was foreshadowed before the British withdrew: mutual Arab and Jewish massacres, shop lootings, and terrorist attacks. The United Nations partitioned the area into disconnected Jewish or Arab zones based on demographics, the borders drawn with no thought to economic viability, military defensibility, or most importantly of all, the firm cultural attachment both Jews and Arabs had to the entire region, not just the areas where they had a heavier presence. The essence of the conflict is that two very separate ethnicities have a long historical presence in the same area and exactly overlapping claims to the same territory.

A microcosm of the conflict is the city of Jerusalem. The 'Old City' of Jerusalem contains most of the sites considered holy by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The old hill called Mount Moriah in the Bible is where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. It is now al-Haram al-Sharif, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest place of worship. Under Israeli rule, the mount has been policed by Israelis and administered by a Muslim foundation. Muslims allow Jews and Christians to visit but not to worship. The Wailing Wall is a place of prayer for Jews along a remaining foundation wall of the old Temple, just below the al-Aqsa mosque.

Even those who don't worship gods or believe myths of supernatural events supposed to have happened in the city can be awed by the historical time-depth of the cultures that have devoted themselves to this place, wrapped it in story and adopted it as their own. The Jewish Temple was an amazing architectural feat of its time, and the al-Aqsa's Dome of the Rock is breathtaking in its grandeur. The entire city is dotted with the holy places of many religions and historic ethnic graveyards. It is easy to see why the United Nations suggested putting the city under international rule. But multinational forces would be little more than a reimposition of colonialism, an expensive and patronizing brigade that would not, simply by being international, be able to settle the real differences between Jews and Arabs in practical compromises over residence, property ownership, worship practices, and holy sites. Besides, both Arabs and Jews want Jerusalem as their capital, for its historical value to them as peoples, and also for the prestige and international visitors it would bring.

Arabs in Israel enjoy basically equal civil rights, although there are continuous claims of discrimination in public funding and social treatment. Arabs, although a minority in Israel, serve in Israeli government. Still, there are uniquely ethnic Jewish aspects of the Israeli state and society that would make any Arab or Muslim feel estranged. For example: the national language Hebrew, the Zionist flag of Israel, the Right of Return for Jews only, and the Jewish rabbinic rules and definitions enforced by the government. More pressingly, the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has generated so many Arab refugees and set the rest of the stateless Arab population under a kind of never-ending martial law, would have been terrible had it lasted for only a few months, let alone the more than thirty years it has endured.

Just as U.N. partition did not prevent a near-constant state of war between Jews and Arabs, Israeli occupation of Arab areas has not provided security to Israel against Arab unrest, terrorism, and revolt. The Palestinians presumably now want independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, yet at the same time they want an open border with Israel so they can work in Israel, and continue water, energy, and transportation ties with Israel. This is a rather unreal sort of independence, but just the sort one would expect on such disconnected, unproductive, and overpopulated territories. Israel at its creation wanted to expand its impractical borders, and surely the Palestinian Authority would like to do the same thing. Even if Israel and Palestine could be practically separated, and even if violence did not return and lead to Israeli reoccupation, what sort of tension might exist between two countries which have never resolved their ethnic hatred, like India and Pakistan?

Israel wants peace and security above all else, yet it also continues to want settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even if Israel had no settlements, it would be drawn into the troubles and difficulties of an independent Palestine, but with the settlements, Israel is ambiguous and indecisive in its attempt to colonize 'Greater Israel'. Israel must go to great trouble to provide military protection for those settlers who are not providing any bulwark of protection for Israel and whose ethnocentric fanaticism often incites conflicts with Palestinian Arabs. Perhaps it is true that Israel needs a military presence in the occupied territories to provide warning of attack and a first defense, and perhaps it is true that Israel needs the water resources of the West Bank aquifer. But Israelis also want a presence in 'Greater Israel' for other, more cultural reasons. Jews wish to live in their entire homeland, just as Palestinians do. Jews want to live in Hebron; Palestinians want to live in Tel Aviv.

Diplomats from all over the world have worked hard to try to stop the violence on both sides, so that a solution can be framed, but so far no completely satisfactory solution has really been imagined, and violence has won the day in the form of injury, death, and social injustice. Both Jews and Arabs are understandably angry and understandably afraid, and there is no point in preferring, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." What seems to be missing is a vision that is favorable to both sides, and just. The schemes that are preferred by both sides are not, just because they are preferred, for that reason necessarily practical or likely of success.

What seems to be missing in the military or subversive strategies of both sides is a vision large enough to accommodate both sides--victory, and justice, for all. There is a continuing belief that victory can only come to one side, and justice only for one side. There is a belief that hatred and violence are all 'the Other' understands, so that this becomes the only language that is spoken, a language that generates more darkness as it is spoken. Solutions are sought only to further partial, sectarian, or selfish ambitions rather than to harmonize and fulfill the hopes and dreams of all the people in the area.

Both Israelis and Palestinians seem convinced now that idealism is hopeless, yet what has been obvious so far is that the lack of idealism has been hopeless. While both Palestinians and Israelis may have viewed their past involvement in negotiations toward final status as pure idealism, actually neither side was genuinely considering the needs or wishes of the other. Neither side was really ready to reconsider their own views or assumptions about what they wanted and how to achieve it. The breakdown in negotiations was thus inevitable and will always be inevitable as long as both sides hold on to incompatible and self-contradictory visions. I think what is needed to break through the impasse is a drastic soul-searching by both parties on their ultimate, ideal goals and the practical paths to attain them. By going back to the drawing board, so to speak, I believe they will discover the uselessness of their past strategies.

I do admit to sometimes imagining a Middle East, however distantly in the future, without faith in personal gods. I would like to think that such would be the foundational terms for best happiness of all, Jews and Muslims and Christians. But I do not for the same reason imagine a Middle East whose peoples have forgotten or devalued their history, because I would not see that as progress. It is precisely those who do not believe they have divine prerogatives or imperatives who would be able to work out human compromises to share and maintain their very human heritage and mutually admire the heritage of others. I cannot imagine two rational, fair, and peaceful peoples consciously choosing to administer separate national governments on lands so small and intertwined as Israel and the West Bank-Gaza Strip. Division in that case would simply be impractical, completely aside from the long and close historical relations between Jews and Arabs, their closely related languages, their similar religious traditions, and even the genetic closeness of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. There is shared history on all the land, therefore a wise people without hatred would choose to share it fairly.

A united country would allow both Jews and Arabs to claim total victory. Such a united country could be a homeland for both Jews and Palestinians anywhere in the world. Both Arabs and Jews would be equal citizens, live everywhere in the country, share in the same economy and infrastructure, share the same natural resources, share in mutual defense, share a united Jerusalem as a capital, and share the holy places which are sacred to more than one religion. They would also share the responsibility for ensuring civil equality, human rights, and fair treatment of all people, as well as the responsibility for preventing domestic terrorism. They would be obliged, possibly by a firm national constitution, to protect all citizens from both minority rule as well as the tyranny of the majority, and they would be obliged to fight against the use of politics for racial and sectarian chauvinism rather than the common good. Democracy should not be allowed to be the excuse for divisions such as the ones that led to Lebanon's civil war. Political pluralism is possible, but it requires a vision and a true, deep commitment to peace with one's neighbors.

Mere Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will never accomplish unification. Only a thoroughly negotiated, fair, and equitable new form of government completely different from that of present Israel or the Palestinian National Authority would make it possible. As far as Israelis and Palestinians may be from a successful and working 'Palestinian State of Israel', I cannot even imagine any other result being successful in the long term, or resulting in the repair of ethnic hatred and nationalist conflict. As an eventual solution to be worked toward, I offer this vision: Jews and Arabs together on the mount called Moriah or al-Haram al-Sharif, together admiring the place and its history, not praying to God but speaking encouragement to one another.

[Note From the Editor: For more on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the roots of Arab hatred against the West for creating Israel and supporting Israeli warfare against Arab peoples since 1948, see the "History Guy: Arab-Israeli Wars & Conflicts" and materials linked there--though not the most up-to-date or well-maintained website, it has the merit of impartiality, presenting texts and perspectives from both sides.]


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