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Austin Cline

Religion and Israel: Religious Causes of Political Violence (Book Notes: Fighting Words)

By March 14, 2006

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Why is there so much violence surrounding Israel? There is no simple explanation, but the fundamental role of religion cannot be dismissed. When you get right down to it, if it weren't for religion, it's unlikely that there would be much violence surrounding Israel at all today. Both Judaism and Islam are to blame, but Judaism probably has to shoulder most of it. Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence

In Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence, Hector Avalos writes:

By most counts, tens of thousands of people have died violently since Israel became a nation. Figures published by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate that some 1,895 Israelis have died as a result of hostile action between 1948 and 1999. Numbers for Palestinian deaths are more difficult to gauge, but most place them in the tens of thousands since 1948. Whatever one thinks of who owns what specific piece of land in Israel, it is fair to say that this conflict would not exist if it were not for the belief that God had given the land to Israel. The conflict would not exist if Jews did not see themselves as different from Muslims, and vice versa.

In sum, it is untenable to see the conflict between Palestinians and Jews as simply a secular or political fight for land. The main argument for Palestine as a Jewish homeland is inspired by religious claims from the Bible. Muslims counter with their own scriptural and religious arguments. Theodor Herzl, a secular Jew, did not propose in his Zionist manifesto of 1895 that Palestine was the only acceptable homeland for Jews. As late as 1906, Herzl still did not seem to believe that Palestine was the only acceptable homeland for the Jews.

Early Zionists were not generally religious in their orientation — there might be many reasons to criticize them, but they can’t be attacked for focusing only on the Palestine area because of ancient religious texts. Indeed, very religious Jews objected to the Zionist project in Palestine because they believed that the Jews shouldn’t and couldn’t return until the time of the Messiah.

Once Israel was established, however, and achieved military victories over the Arabs, religious objections to Israel diminished. In their place there developed a new religious messianism for Israel, an aggressive religious Zionism which made the establishment and defense of Israel a religious duty, not simply a political goal. Military successes taught both religious and secular Zionists that they could achieve what they wanted through force rather than negotiation. As a consequence, compromise and negotiation with Arab Muslims stopped being seriously considered.

Arab Muslims changed as well. They, too, brought significant religious baggage into the equation, making the fight against Israel a religious mission with religious rewards for those willing to martyr themselves. As a consequence, they are no longer interested in compromise or negotiation, either. Both sides are making absolute, exclusivist claims on the same pieces of land. Both have demonized their opponents. If it weren’t for religion, we wouldn’t be experiencing these problems.


Quick Poll: Which of the available options should Israel go with?

  1. Dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders, and remain both a Jewish state and a democracy.
  2. Continue to occupy 'Samaria' and 'Judea,' return to Gaza. Arab populations will become a demographic majority and Israel will be either a Jewish state or a democracy (but not both).
  3. Keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood.
  4. None of the above - there are other options.
  5. I don't know.
  6. I don't care.
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Read More Book Notes from the Book Reviews on this site.

May 29, 2007 at 6:48 am
(1) kaye says:

i think your whole argument here is absolute BS.
the problems of this region did not start with what happened in 1967 nor did it start in 1948 with israel re-establishment .there where thousands of murders commited by palestinians long before 1948.
it has always been a vilonet coflict and blaming judaism is a clear indication of how little you know and how terribly misconstrued people like you are.
arabs have and will always have a need for violence ,example look at the bloodshed in iraq sunni v shia!

May 29, 2007 at 8:10 am
(2) Austin Cline says:

Kaye: Can you offer any substantive rebuttals to the arguments in the piece? Yes, there was violence in the region before – there is always violence everywhere. That isn’t a counter-argument.

Do you not find that saying “Arabs have and will always have a need for violence” is as racist as saying “blacks have and will always have a need for violence”?

January 21, 2009 at 8:18 am
(3) dan says:

Your argument is facile and basically wrong. Islam is in a similar situation as Christianity was during the Middle Ages. It demands primacy, the key word, in all its dominions.

The main aspect of this conflict hasn’t changed since 1918. The Arabs don’t want a non Arabic, non islamic entity on what it considers its turf.

Much of this is due to the rise of Wahabbism among Arabs and a lack of historical knowledge coupled with the narrow minded nature of tribal people.

As for the Jews, they have simply done what many dispossed people of history, such as our own native Americans, would love to have done…take back the homeland that was taken from them.

So, if you want to blame someone for this sorry conflict, why not the Italians? Of course you realize it was they who kicked the Jews out of Judea and renamed it Palestine, which means Land of the Philistines, a dead civilisation which the Romans hoped would give the Jews a big hint.

And, by the way, they didn’t take it. By the end of the Western Empire, the Jews has reestablished themselves in Jerusalem. But that was shortlived when those loveable crusaders arrived and ethnically cleansed the city.

January 21, 2009 at 9:17 am
(4) Austin Cline says:

Your argument is facile and basically wrong.

Feel free to point to any statements of mine which are incorrect or any aspects of the argument which are mistaken. The rest of your comment not only doesn’t do this, it seems barely related to anything I wrote.

November 3, 2009 at 5:03 am
(5) Hastati says:

Hello everyone. I think Palestine is builded as local autonomy by Roman Empire to suppress constant Judean revolts even before the birth of Islam. I guess this political act happened during 200 BC. There was even no Islam during that time since Islam started to develop itself at 6th century. Another point, Arabs and Jews are sharing same genetical root. Truly brother kills brother, and if there was no religion, I’m sure they should find another reason to kill each other. Sadly its human nature, we’re genetically builded to drink blood of each other. We need causes to die for, since we’re weak and we need to cover this weakness by sacrificing ourselves to army, to flag, to family, to love, to religion, to wife, to war etc..etc.

History is something very ironic, in past Roman Empire was supporting Palestinians against Judeans, and todays Roman Empire supporting Israel against Palestinians. Its not odd, but simply there’s no friendship between states.
Those are my humble opinions. Have a pleasant tomorrow in this short life.

April 10, 2010 at 8:21 am
(6) Tony says:

It is nothing to do with religion. The zionists (ex-Jews solidly) leaned from their nazi counterparts to steal other people’s land, drive them out and terrorise them by murder (particularly child-murder) torture and bullying. The only reason any real Jews are mixed up in this racist schweinerei is that so many of the better-educated rabbis were murdered by the nazis.

October 16, 2010 at 10:50 am
(7) Daniel Chejfec says:

Austin, your perception of Zionism is fundamentally flawed because your understanding of what “Jewish” means is wrong. Judaism is not only a religion. Being Jewish is belonging to the People of Israel as much or more than it is to observe Jewish religious practices. To this day, many observant Jews object to the existence of Israel for it was done without the Messiah…Zionism was born from the fundamental failure of European Modernity in incorporating the Jews as a distinct group. In some ways, Modernity increased anti Semitism in Europe rather than diminish it as Jews expected. Faced with that failure, many Jews started the quest for the establishment of a society where Jews could be in charge of their own affairs. We call that today “self-determination”: Zionism is the exercise of the Jewish right to self determination, and that is why many religious Jews object to it. If you deny the National aspects of Jewish Identity, you deny who Jews are. Most Jews in this country, for example are non observant and even not affiliated with a congregation – yet they see themselves as Jews, not less Jewish than the Lubavitcher Rabbi…

October 16, 2010 at 11:12 am
(8) Austin Cline says:

Judaism is not only a religion. Being Jewish is belonging to the People of Israel as much or more than it is to observe Jewish religious practices.

Yes, I know that.

Feel free to explain how this means that anything I wrote above is mistaken.

Zionism is the exercise of the Jewish right to self determination

It is also a product of the same nationalistic forces of 19th century Europe which gave rise to the idea that Germany was only for Germans, France was only for the French, etc. In effect, Zionism is a product of the same European political ideas which paved the way for Nazi xenophobia.

May 28, 2013 at 11:45 am
(9) redjupiter says:

TONY: You are talking BS and shows how ignorant you are. It only takes a little bit of digging in the library to din out that you are talking from your …. Venus. Did you actually read what you wrote? Did you do any research or archaeological research and facts to find out what you are talking about? let me get it … you are pure racist.

August 9, 2013 at 8:43 am
(10) ty says:

Austin you invert the reality. Jews just want a country and have a distinct identity just like the French or any other nation. It is the fact Jews are religious and not simply a secular nationality which causes offence to you. To compare them to nazis is slander and a lie. Do you think Israel want to live in a permanent state of war?
Also you know nothing about Islam, and you should given your position.
Muslims are commanded by Mohammed in the Hadith to kill the Jews to bring about the end of days. Islam is the nazi ideology which also commands its followers to kill the infidels, this is a timeless command.
Jews just want to live peacefully in a country the size of Wales and keep to themselves, they do not want to forcibly convert the entire world to Judaism. Islam wants the entire world to have Sharia! You need to educate yourself

February 11, 2014 at 11:40 pm
(11) Zuli says:

Your article doesn’t include the palestinian christians who have also engaged in resisting israel. Many of those forced out of palestine by the founding zionists were christians. The munich hijacking for example was masterminded by a christian. 25% of palestinians are christians. But the fast majority now live in the diaspora

Islam entered the equation later when israel decided to foster hamas in the late 70s in order to crush the secular palestinian resistance.

And lastly, the children of israel were not jews. The jews emerged from the tribe of juda, one of jacob (israel) 12 children. In the west bank, you have the samaritans who’s holy book is the torah and follow moses, but they reject judaism and consider it a heresy. The samaritans have been living in mount girizim in Nablus west bank since the time of prophet solomon.

February 11, 2014 at 11:48 pm
(12) Zuli says:

This conflict is about land’s right to the natives and denying the 10 million palestinians living in the diaspora to live in their native land.

The majority of the jews in israel are not natives from the land, only 2 % as documented by the british wmpire when it was colonizing the area. Jewish immigration began after 1900.

The only two nations that were ruled by jews in historic times were yemen and khazaria. The holy land was never ruled by the jews because the children if israel were not jewish. Judaism as a belief emerged much later from the tribe of juda who were taking into captivity in assyria.

Why do you think their religion in not called mosaism or abrahaism or toraism, but Juda ism?

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