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A religious war? Misconceptions about the role of religion in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

A religious war? Misconceptions about the role of religion in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

George Lapshynov unpicks 4 misconceptions surrounding the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 14/11/2023

In the words of David Patrikarakos, the ongoing “nasty and brutal” Israel–Hamas war is “fought over land where ideology and the interminable cycle of reprisals has made its resolution impossible.”  

Part of the ideology that makes the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict impossible, for both sides, is religious. Indeed, for historian Marc Simard, both Muslim and Jewish religious fundamentalism might be the primary reason why compromise cannot be reached. Yet that is not to say that the conflict is a religious conflict. Rather, the role of religion is a complex one, and is often different to what it appears to be. 

This piece will therefore attempt to tackle some of the biggest misconceptions about the role of religion in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. 

Additionally, in the UK as in many other places, anti–Semitism and islamophobia are on the rise. Since the best ways to fight both kinds of prejudice are better information and more dialogue across divides, this short explainer, highlighting the misconceptions, hopes to contribute also to combatting prejudice and the defusing of tensions. 

Misconception one. “The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a religious conflict.” 

Israel’s claim to the land it currently holds and occupies is primarily legal and cultural. Israelis recognise and celebrate the partition of Mandatory Palestine in 1947 by UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (II), and its recommendation for the creation of an independent Jewish state on the land of the historical Kingdom of Israel. Both the partition of the land and the creation of Israel are recognised and protected by international law.  

Similarly, Palestine’s claim to land currently occupied, rightfully or unrightfully, by Israel is legal and cultural. Palestinians uphold property deeds dating back to the Ottoman period and question the legality of the European and US–led UN process that gave European Jews the right to a portion of their ancestral land. Today, Palestinians also criticise Israel for occupying territories that were to be Palestinian according to the UN Partition Plan. 

Religion played no role in the decision of the UN General Assembly. It was not the cause of the Palestinian opposition to the Partition Plan in 1947, of the 1947–1948 civil war, or of the subsequent expulsion of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes by Zionist militias for their refusal to accept the UN’s decision – an event known by Palestinian Arabs as the “Nakba”, the catastrophe. 

Powerful actors on the Israeli and Palestinian sides – and especially Hamas, for whom the conquest of Israel is a jihad – have instrumentalised religion towards the attainment of political goals, or deeply misinterpreted its core messages. Religion might well be a primary reason why the conflict did not end after considerable de–escalation and many rounds of peace talks in the 1990s. 

Yet, religion is not the primary cause of the conflict – the casus belli. Rather, it has become increasingly over the last decades a tool for justifying the means employed towards its interminable continuation. Religion has been woven into the conflict on many levels. 

Misconception two. “Zionism is inherently religious.” 

The Jewish nationalism that since the late 19th century aspired to, and resulted in the foundation of an independent Jewish state in the aftermath of the Second World War was led mostly by secular Jews. Because of the rise of anti–Semitism in Europe at the time, Zionism sought to offer a solution to anti–Semitism by proposing the setting up of a Jewish national state outside of Europe. 

Of course, that is not to dismiss Religious Zionism, which states that the establishment of the State of Israel is a religious duty derived from the Torah, and which is a significant branch of Zionism. Religious Zionists are typically Orthodox Jews. They are critical of other branches of Zionism that dismiss or downplay the religious component of Zionism and are mostly right–wing. Many settlers in the West Bank are settlers because of their religious–political convictions and justify this through interpretations of Judaism. 

The aspiration for Jewish statehood was indeed intimately tied with a “historic and traditional attachment” to the Land of Israel, the roots of which were at least in part spiritual. In Genesis 12.7, God promises Abraham’s descendants land which becomes central to the identity of the ancient Jewish people, especially up to the end of the Second Temple period. 

Yet the desire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was and still is just as much political and cultural as it is religious. This is evident from the diverse forms that Zionism takes, many of which have nothing to do with orthodox Jewish religious practice or belief. Examples include: 

  • Liberal Zionism, which rejects excessive religious influence in public life. It promotes the idea of a Jewish nation–state yet advocates the need for Palestinian statehood and calls for equal rights for the Arab citizens of Israel. It is a prominent ideology among the Israeli educated middle–class. 

  • Labour (or socialist) Zionism, historically a dominant branch of Zionism, which promoted the foundation of a Jewish state through the creation of a socialist society with rural kibbutzim – intentional agricultural communities – and an urban Jewish Proletariat. Socialist Zionism was the leading force in Israeli politics until the late 1970s. 

  • Cultural Zionism, a mostly defunct form of Zionism which focused on the development of secular Jewish culture. It sought to found an intellectual and cultural centre for the Jewish nation in Mandatory Palestine which did not necessarily require the establishment of a Jewish state. 

There is in fact no agreement among Orthodox Jews on Zionism, and there are countless communities of practicing and Haredi (strict observing, i.e., Ultra–Orthodox) Jews around the world who oppose the establishment of a Jewish national state in the Middle East precisely on religious grounds. First and foremost, these communities tend to emphasise the prohibition for Jews to return to the biblical Land of Israel (Yeretz Israel) until the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Many are also concerned that Zionism radically alters the nature of the Jewish community, from a religious socio–cultural grouping centred around the Torah into a territorially bounded political and politicised nation–race. 

A corollary of this is that anti–Zionism can therefore not be the same as anti–Semitism. One could hardly call thousands of practicing Jews around the globe “anti–Semitic” for espousing anti–Zionist views on Jewish religious grounds. 

Misconception three. “Islam is inherently anti–Semitic.” 

There are Muslim groups that are openly anti–Semitic, such as Hamas or Hezbollah; they are anti–Semitic not because they oppose the State of Israel, but because they harbour hatred towards, and call for violence against Jews. Such organisations are often also Islamist – i.e., they might advocate for the establishment of an Islamic state, the implementation of Sharia law, or the revival of Islamic culture and identity – and do not represent mainstream branches of Islam.  

In fact, throughout history, Islam has been much more accommodating to Judaism than Christianity. Indeed, in the late first and early second millennia in the Iberian Peninsula, the Jewish population was able to make great advances in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and chemistry under Islamic rule. They rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and were mostly free in their choice of residence and profession. When expulsed from Spain in 1492 following the Reconquista, it is in Ottoman lands that Sephardic Jews settled and lived relatively peacefully until the early 20th century. 

This is not to say that Jews have always been welcome in Muslim lands nor lived peacefully there – they were only slightly safer than in most Christian countries of the mediaeval period. 

The Prophet Muhammad’s own relationship with Jewish leaders became tense in the later years of his prophethood, especially when they rejected the revelations that he said he received from the God of Israel. [i][ii] Certain passages in the Qur’an and related religious texts (such as the collection of hadith Sahih Al–Bukhari) subsequently portray Jews negatively; this change in Islam’s attitude towards Judaism can be seen symbolically in the change in the direction of prayer for Muslims, the qibla, from facing Jerusalem to facing Mecca in the second year of the Hegira. 

Nonetheless, while there has historically been some hostility towards Jews in parts of the Muslim world, the anti–Semitism of certain Islamist organisations is not rooted in the teachings of Islam itself. Additionally, this anti–Semitism is often found within the bounds of a larger lack of religious tolerance. Christians in Gaza and parts of the West Bank have also been persecuted and affected by the Islamisation, or “Talibanisation” led by Hamas and other Islamist groups. 

Misconception four. “Different religions, like Islam and Judaism, cannot coexist.” 

There is little chance of peaceful coexistence between those who espouse politicised forms of their respective religions. Yet away from the polarised extremes, the genuine spiritual content of both Islam and Judaism has been a means of bringing Muslim and Jewish populations closer together. 

As discussed in the 2020 Theos report The Church and Social Cohesion, the potential of faith to bring communities together remains widely untapped and underestimated – with faith being framed instead as a risk factor and a problem, including among policymakers. Of course, religion can sometimes be divisive and even dangerous. However, a disproportionate focus on these legitimate concerns has narrowed our conception of the role of faith and belief groups in society. 

As Scottish–Palestinian Nadia El–Nakla writes, “in faith, the Jewish community were my cousins. We are that close.” And she is not alone in saying this. Since the horrific events of 7 October, interfaith events have played a particularly vital role in creating depolarised and depoliticised spaces where Jewish and Muslim people could meet, reflect, and pray for peace. 

Take for instance the interfaith breakfast organised by the Jewish Labour Movement together with the Jewish Muslim Women’s network Nisa–Nashim just days after Hamas’ attack on Israel. As Theos’ senior researcher Hannah Rich wrote for the Church Times, “it was an opportunity to stand with our brothers and sisters in their grief and disbelief… and share with each other bagels, tears, solidarity, and promises of prayer from our different religious traditions.”  

The UK is particularly rich in interfaith initiatives such as Nisa–Nashim. Yet we hear only too rarely about the value of interfaith instruments as places for dialogue across faith groups in times of crisis. And less still about the re–humanising and bridge–building work these organisations do over the years, working quietly and concertedly below the radar, giving them the tools to enable dialogue when times of crisis do occur.


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Photo by cottonbro studio:
Photo by Khairul Onggon:

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of sacred music.

Watch, listen to or read more from George Lapshynov

Posted 14 November 2023

Antisemitism, Faith, Islam, Israel, Judaism, Just war, Palestine, War


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