Making A Difference

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 Christian?" "I am an atheist!" the man replied...

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 foreignguest: "Are you Jewish or Christian?"

"I am an atheist!" the man replied.

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

Well, I myself am a 100% atheist. And I am increasingly worried that theIsraeli-Palestinian struggle, which dominates our entire life, is assuming amore and more religious character.

The historical conflict began as a clash between twonational 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 "DerJudenstaat", the original charter of Zionism, Theodor Herzl said that"we shall know how to keep (our clergymen) in their temples." ChaimWeitzman was an agnostic scientist. Vladimir Jabotinsky wanted his body to becremated - a sin in Judaism. David Ben-Gurion refused to cover his head even atfunerals.

All the great rabbis of the day, both Hassidim and their opponents, theMissnagdim, condemned Herzl and cursed him ferociously. They rejected the basicthesis 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 thedivine commandments.

Moreover, in the eyes of the rabbis, the Zionist idea itself was a cardinalsin. The Almighty decreed the exile of the Jews as punishment for their sins.Therefore, only the Almighty Himself may revoke the punishment and send theMessiah, who will lead the Jews back to the holy land. Until then, it isstrictly prohibited to "return en masse". By organizing massimmigration 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 inAmerica, 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. Thesmall religious faction that joined Zionism (the "Religious Zionists")was a marginal group.

Before the Holocaust, we learned in the Zionist schools in Palestine to treatwith pitiless scorn everything that was "exile Jewish" - the Jewishreligion, the Jewish Stetl, the Jewish social structure (the "invertedpyramid"). Only the Holocaust changed the attitude towards the Jewish pastin the diaspora, referred to in Hebrew as "Exile".)

Ben-Gurion made some concessions to the religious factions, including theanti-Zionist Orthodox. He released some hundreds of Yeshiva-students frommilitary service and set up a separate "state-religious" schoolsystem. His aim was to acquire convenient coalition partners. But these stepswere based on the assumption (common to all of us at the time) that the Jewishreligion would evaporate anyhow under the burning Israeli sun and disappearaltogether in one or two generations.

All this changed in the wake of the Six-day War. The Jewish religion stagedan 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 Europeannational idea. Its spiritual fathers called for the liberation of the Arabnation from the shackles of Ottoman rule, and later from the yoke of Europeancolonialism. Many of its founders were Arab Christians.

When a distinct Palestinian national movement came into being, following theBalfour Declaration and the setting up of the British Government of Palestine,it had no religious character. In order to fight it, the British appointed areligious personality to the leadership of the Palestinian community inPalestine: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who quicklyassumed the leadership of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionistimmigration. He endeavored to give a religious face to the Palestinian-Arabrebellion. Accusing the Zionist of designs on the Temple Mount with its holyIslamic shrines, he tried to mobilize the Muslim peoples in support of thePalestinians.

The Mufti failed miserably, and his failure played a part in the catastropheof 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 Palestiniannational movement, he did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Rightup to his death, he insisted on calling for the liberation of the "mosquesand churches" of Jerusalem.

At one stage of its development, the PLO called for the creation of a"Democratic secular state, where Muslims, Jews and Christians will livetogether". (Arafat did not like the term "secular", preferring"la-maliah", meaning "non-sectarian".)

George Habash, the leader of the "Arab Nationalists" and later ofthe "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine", is a Christian.

This situation changed with the outbreak of the first intifada, at the end of1987. Only then did the Islamist movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, start totake over the national struggle.

The astounding victory of the Israeli army in theSix-day war, which looked like a miracle, effected a profound political andcultural change in Israel. When the shofar sounded at the Western Wall, thereligious youth, which had until then been vegetating on the fringe, occupiedthe center of the stage.

Suddenly it was discovered that the religious education system, which hadbeen set up by Ben-Gurion as a political bribe and contrary to his ownconvictions, had been quietly turning out a fanatical religious product. Thereligious youth movement, which had suffered all these years from feelings ofhumiliation and inferiority, was filled with zeal and started the settlementdrive, leading the main national effort: the annexation of the occupiedterritories.

The Jewish religion itself underwent a mutation. This mutant shed alluniversal values and became a narrow, militant, xenophobic tribal creed, aimingat conquest and ethnic cleansing. The religious-Zionists of the new sort areconvinced that they are fulfilling the will of God and preparing the ground forthe coming of the Messiah. The "national-religious" cabinet ministers,that had always belonged to the moderate wing of the government, gave way to anew, extremist leadership with tendencies towards religious fascism.

Israel has not become a religious state. It still has a large secularmajority. According to the authoritative Israeli Government Bureau ofStatistics, only 8% of Israeli Jews define themselves as "Orthodox" (Haredim),9% as "religious" (meaning Religious Zionists), 45% as "secular,non-religious" and 27% as "secular, traditional".


However, because of their role in the settlement enterprise, the"religious" have acquired a huge influence over the political process.They have practically prevented any move towards peace with the Palestinians.They have also provoked a religious reaction on the other side.

The Palestinian resistance to the occupation, whichreached a peak with the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, has given a bigpush to the religious forces. Until then, these had been growing quietly (notwithout the encouragement of the occupation authorities, which saw in them acounterweight to the secular PLO.)

The first intifada led to the Oslo agreement and brought Yasser Arafat backto Palestine. But the new Palestinian authority failed in its aim of putting anend to the occupation and establishing a secular Palestinian state. Withsettlements continually expanding all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, thePalestinian public increasingly tended to support armed resistance. In thisstruggle, and with the limited means available, the religious factions excelled.A religious person is more ready to sacrifice his life in a suicide attack thanhis secular cousin.


The anger of the Palestinian public over the corruption that has infectedsections of the secular Fatah leadership (but not the ascetic Yasser Arafat,whose reputation remained clean) has increased even more the popularity of thereligious, whose honesty is unquestioned.

For years I have been haunted by a nightmare: that theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict would change from a national to a religiousconfrontation.

A national conflict, terrible as it may be, is soluble. The last twocenturies have seen many national wars, and almost all of them ended in aterritorial compromise. Such conflicts are basically logical, and can beterminated 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 theeyes of Muslim believers, the whole country is a Waqf (religious trust), and itis therefore absolutely forbidden to surrender any part of it to unbelievers.(When the Caliph Omar conquered Palestine some 1400 years ago, he declared it aWaqf. His motive was quite practical: to prevent his generals from dividing theland between themselves, as was their wont.)

By the way, the evangelical fundamentalists who dominate Washington at thistime also see the Holy Land as a religious property, to which the Jews mustreturn in order to make possible the second coming of Jesus Christ.


Is a compromise between these forces possible? Certainly yes, but it is muchmore difficult. A devout Muslim is allowed to declare a Hudna (armistice) for ahundred years and more, without condemning his soul to hell. Ariel Sharon, whobegan the evacuation of settlers, spoke about "long-range temporaryarrangements". In politics, "temporary" measures have a tendencyto become permanent.

But wisdom, sophistication and a lot of patience are needed to reach aresolution of the conflict in these circumstances.

On the day Arafat died, many Israelis were angry with me for saying (in a Haaretzinterview) that we shall yet long for this secular leader, who was both willingand able to make peace with us. I said that his elimination removes the lastobstacle to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Palestine and the entire Arabworld.


One did not need to be a prophet to see that.