Writing from Tel Aviv, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman today surveyed the current Israeli-Gaza war and sighed, “More and more, this is becoming a religious conflict.” Becoming, Mr. Friedman? Really? The seemingly-perpetual crisis in the Middle East has been a religious conflict — not totally, but significantly (and often principally) since its beginnings. And all three Abrahamic faiths bear guilt, in my view.
(Let me emphasize that in writing this I am speaking only for myself.)
When Zionism emerged in the nineteenth century, it was espoused by a small and radical minority within a Jewish diaspora whose lack of political power was precisely part of the problem Zionism was meant to address. In Theodor Herzl’s time, most Jewish thinkers and religious leaders thought the idea of returning to the Holy Land was absurd. Even if most Jews had supported the Zionist dream in those early days, which they didn’t, the Jewish community alone could have done little to bring it about. (Again, recall the diaspora’s lack of political might.) Zionism achieved what traction it did early on because the idea attracted powerful Christian patrons, first in Britain, then in the United States.
Christianity, after all, had taken on the Torah as its Old Testament. In so doing it accepted the Torah’s great wealth of unlikely historical claims as fact. Statesmen like Disraeli and Balfour can’t be blamed for not knowing this, but contemporary secular scholarship has shown that there almost certainly was no Exodus. It’s even unlikely that Hebrews ever lived in Egypt in vast numbers, as slaves or otherwise. And the lightning Hebrew conquest of Canaan recounted in Joshua and Judges simply never happened. (That whopper about Joshua having God make the sun stand still should have been a clue.) Nonetheless, statesmen who had learned these myths as history in church and Sunday school were tragically predisposed to think that restoring the Jewish people to the lands their Hebrew ancestors had supposedly won by conquest somehow made sense.
Then came the Holocaust, in which the Nazis scaled up centuries of Christian anti-semitism into a hideous spasm of genocide. The Nazis held inconsistent positions on Christianity. In the infamous Concordats with the Catholic and Lutheran churches they exchanged state support that saved those churches from penury in exchange for clerical near-silence as the Nazis gathered power. [FREE INQUIRY subscribers can review Part I of Gregory Paul’s masterful 2003 survey of this phenomenon at https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/2752.] Yet the Nazis also (sometimes) embraced a ludicrous neopaganism whose stated aim was to supplant the Lutheran and Catholic faiths. Nonetheless it’s hard to imagine that Hitler’s regime could have imposed its genocidal program in a society not already prepared for it by centuries of rhetoric about the Jews as Christ-killers. After the war, the victorious (and culturally Christian) allies felt desperate to make up for the crimes that the faith they shared with Germany had at least helped to make possible. But none of them was eager to cede territory for a Jewish refugee state. To the rescue came that old, ahistorical Sunday-school picture of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That enabled Zionists and Christian facilitators alike to overlook the inconvenient fact that Palestine was, um, already inhabited.
It was an enormous lie that the Jews had killed Christ. Surely it was a no less enormous lie that the homeland-building project in Palestine had anything to do in reality with that Golda Meir-era slogan, “A people without a land for a land without a people.”
Fast forward to today. Western (mostly American) evangelical groups continue to support Israeli hardliners with rhetoric and money. Some cynically view the restoration of Israel as a necessary step on the way to the Second Coming and the damnation of the Jews. (Funny how evangelicals don’t dwell on that part, especially when they’re doing photo ops at Masada.) Others take seriously the “right” to the land supposedly won through the conquest of Canaan. (Which, at the risk of repeating myself, never happened.)
The roles of Judaism and Islam in the conflict are probably better known. With deadly opponents on all sides, Israel has, probably inevitably, become a harsher place. For example, this third Gaza war has marked a hitherto-unprecedented level of censorship of leftist social criticism within Israel. Of course, over the last couple decades the influence of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders has grown at the expense of more liberal Jewish groups from the diaspora; and it the hardest of these religious hardliners who disproportionately build and inhabit the settlements,
For their part, no less predictably, many Palestinians have embraced a cruel and intolerant Muslim jihadi viewpoint that has helped fuel the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, more recently Al Qaeda, and just now ISIS. Yet even if one believes the Palestinians suffered a grievous wrong, few can see justice in indiscriminate rocket fire out of Gaza.
There’s plenty of guilt to go around, and I’m not going to attempt here to weigh out whether Islam, Judaism, or Christianity has bloodier hands. But really, Mr. Friedman, the conflict over Zionism and the state of Israel has always been in large part religious. It’s always grown out of the falsehoods, myths, and twisted pseudohistory that predispose all three Abrahamic faiths to view the world through distorting glasses.