Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict About Religion? Not Really, But it is Implicated
People often refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “war over God.” It’s easy for the casual observer to assume that the conflict is defined by Judaism or Islam. My response is always that it is not a war over God, but a conflict over land and national rights. But I always add that religion is “implicated” in the conflict. The Israelis and Palestinians are not arguing directly about God but religion hovers in the background and very often informs attitudes and beliefs. Moreover, religion has contributed to cultural differences that have evolved over the generations and play a role in the conflict. Let’s examine the role of religion a little more closely because religion is important to the conflict.
Religion is central to the identities of both sides and must be respected as a part of any solution, and there are unique qualities of Islam and Judaism that motivate conflict actors. Both religions have apocalyptic elements – although more so for Islam – that are responsible for extreme behaviors and make any sort of permanent peace elusive. Some orthodox and Zionist extremists have begun to see themselves as defenders of the state along with sanctifying the land such that the presence of any foreign groups is considered a transgression. Clearly aspects of Islam have triumphalist visions that define Israel as an illegitimate state built on Islamic holy land. Both sides talk about liberating the land for religious reasons and this further exacerbates the intensity and significance of the conflict.
Manipulative and unsubstantiated religious claims – for example, the Jews want to destroy the al Aqsa mosque and build the third temple on the site – circulate in the population and increase the amount of distorted information and inflamed opinions. And, of course, Jews draw on their own history of vulnerability and fear that Islam wants to annihilate them.
Given this attitude that the presence of another religion on what is considered land given to a people by God is a religious transgression, then peace is by definition impossible if it includes any sense of sharing the land or living together.
Religion is also used as an answer to social ills. In the Arab world in particular Islam, and especially radical Islam, becomes an answer for political and economic failures. The failing economic conditions encourage more religious-based politics reinforcing blame on the other side.
Imagine trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not understanding the religious foundations of the settlers in the West Bank or the status of Jerusalem. The settlers believe they are restoring biblical Israel in preparation for the Messiah, and Jerusalem is the site of many holy places for both Islam and Judaism. These two issues are good examples of how religion is implicated in the conflict. In fact, in the case of settlers and the status of Jerusalem the issue of religion is pretty clear.
Culture, religion, and politics share overlapping identities for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any one individual might privilege one identity over the other, but all three are present at both the individual and group conflict level.