Religion and Politics in the Palestinian-Israeli Conundrum

The author spent three months at the beginning of 2018 in West Bank, Palestine. Here, he writes about how different religions co-existed peacefully in Palestine for centuries and why the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political one.

This is the fifth in a series of articles. You can read the first article here, the second here, the third here and the fourth here.

It is believed that Jesus ascended to heaven from the site where The Chapel of the Ascension now stands in Jerusalem. We had underestimated how much of an uphill hike the Chapel is from East Jerusalem’s Old City area and were dismayed to find the Chapel shut when we reached. Interestingly, there were a couple of phone numbers on the door. To our surprise, the man answering the call readily agreed to come over and show us into the Chapel – for a small tip. That was when we discovered that the keys to the Chapel were with a Palestinian Muslim.

Chapel of the Ascension, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem Credit: David Castor/Wikimedia Commons

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in East Jerusalem that many believe to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, is one of holiest sites in Christianity. Adeeb Joudeh, a Palestinian Muslim, is the present guardian of the key to the Church, as his family has been for centuries, passing the weighty responsibility from one generation to the next. It is a means of maintaining a neutral guardianship of the Church since it is split between different Christian denominations.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, East Jerusalem Credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The famed Church of the Nativity, believed to contain the birthplace of Christ, lies in the old city of Bethlehem in the West Bank. What is perhaps lesser known is the Mosque of Omar across the square from the Church. It is the only Muslim place of worship in the old city and was built in 1860 on land provided by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Church of the Nativity. Credit: Konrad Summers/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mosque of Omar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Religious co-existence in Palestine

In 2017, Palestinian Muslims peacefully protested the installation of metal detectors by Israel at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by refusing to enter the mosque compound, praying outside instead. Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem stood in solidarity with them.

A small minority of Arabic speaking Jewish population (1-3% of the population) had lived in the ancient city of Hebron (West Bank) for centuries well integrated and largely at peace with their Muslim neighbours prior to the First World War. Living side by side, they shared their shops, hospitals and holy sites. However, massive immigration of European Jews into Palestine, particularly after the First World War, started raising tensions among the communities. Matters came to a head in August 1929 with a push by some Jewish groups to assert their sovereignty over the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Escalating violence culminated in a massacre of 67 Jews by Muslim mobs in Hebron on August 24. With this came an end to the centuries of peaceful coexistence among the Jews and Muslims in Hebron. What is perhaps less known is that, in the middle of this grotesque violence, a dozen Muslim families, at grave risk to their lives, sheltered their Jewish neighbours from the marauding mobs, saving over 400 Jews that day.

There is a small community of a few hundred Samaritans – an ancient sect closely related to Judaism – that has lived in and around the city of Nablus in the West Bank for centuries. They continue to live there today. They hold a unique position of speaking both Arabic and Hebrew fluently while also holding both Palestinian and Israeli IDs. They live as one community on Mount Gerizim but are fully integrated with the Palestinians around them, attending the same schools and universities.

Religious co-existence between the Muslims, Christians and Jews in Palestine has been central to their lives for centuries and remains the case today. It is perhaps important to note that this is despite the fact that the Palestinian Christian and Jewish population have been no more than a small minority for the last several centuries before the First World War.

The distinction between Judaism and Zionism

Judaism is, of course, an ancient monotheistic religion, the Torah being its most important religious document.

Zionism is a political movement that arose in the late 19th-century Europe aiming to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine. It arose mainly in response to European anti-Semitism.

The important point is that Zionism is distinct from Judaism. It follows that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are equally distinct. The former means the condemnation of the Israeli state policies of repression and dispossession of Palestinians. The latter is a racist stance that has no place in civilised discourse. Being anti-Zionist is a perfectly legitimate political stance in the same manner as being anti-fascist, anti-colonialist or anti-apartheid.

By the same token, there is no contradiction in being Jewish and anti-Zionist. On a visit to San Francisco in December 2015, I ran into a vibrant crowd of mainly young Jewish protestors outside a hotel that was hosting the annual meeting of the AIPAC, the powerful Zionist lobby in the US. They held posters calling Netanyahu a war criminal and Israel a terrorist state among other powerful messages of solidarity with Palestine. The Charter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network states categorically: “We pledge to: Oppose Zionism and the State of Israel” and that “Zionism implicates us in the oppression of the Palestinian people and in the debasement of our own heritage, struggles for justice and alliances with our fellow human beings.”

Israel and its Zionist supporters worldwide deliberately conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is a means by which all criticism of Israeli policies with regards to Palestine can be delegitimised as being a racist stance against the Jewish people. Since the argument is harder to sustain towards Jewish anti-Zionists, they are delegitimised with yet another term: “self-hating Jews”.

While anti-Zionist sentiment among Israeli Jews is rare today, it is still present. While in Jerusalem, I happened across a small group of protesting teenagers. They were conscientious objectors refusing the compulsory military draft. I spoke to three of them. They said they were participating because they objected to the occupation and the abuse and brutality of the Israeli military towards Palestinians. These 18-year-old teenagers faced multiple prison sentences for their refusal. They were all willing to serve time in prison rather than serving time in the Israeli army.

A small group of Pro-Palestinian Israeli teenagers protesting army draft in Jerusalem.

These are not isolated events. Liberal Jewish youth elsewhere in the world are increasingly estranged from Israel in the light of its continuing assault on Palestine and the numbers of Jewish anti-Zionists have been increasing worldwide. One of the reasons for this phenomenon has been how the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been capturing the popular imagination. Israeli officials and Zionists, of course, routinely decry it as being anti-Semitic.

Synthesis and summary

Israel strives hard to project the Palestinians as inherently and incorrigibly anti-Semitic. In fact, there has been a largely peaceful co-existence between the Palestinian Jews, Christians and Muslim for centuries despite the fact that the latter have constituted a large majority across historic Palestine (meaning Israel, West Bank and Gaza together). Palestinians consider all those that historically lived in Palestine to be one of them, irrespective of religion. What Palestinians oppose is modern Zionism that was initiated in the mid to late 19th century by white European Jews bringing with them the colonial mindsets that pervaded Europe in those times. Therefore, a conflation of Zionism with Judaism allows Israel and its supporters to demonise the Palestinians as being anti-Semitic while seeking legitimacy for the occupation of Palestine.

None of these arguments rejects the existence of anti-Semitism in the world today. It surely does, just as does modern slavery, racism and casteism. However, it is also not a tenable argument that the mere existence of anti-Semitism discredits non-racist anti-Zionism. In other words, the existence of racism against Jews in certain quarters does not detract from one’s right to oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine.

There undoubtedly are unresolved issues of religious significance in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict such as the future status of Jerusalem. However, it remains fundamentally a political conflict. It results from the bizarre claims of self-determination for immigrant Jews in Palestine at the expense of the original Palestinian inhabitants and the human rights abuses they are subject to.

Chirag Dhara is a climate physicist with PhDs in theoretical physics and earth science. He is keenly interested in the Palestinian situation and visited the occupied West Bank for three months in early 2018 in solidarity with the Palestinians.