February 19, 2006

Religiosity rises on both sides in Palestine

Here's an article on the Gush Shalom site about the rise of religion in the struggle over Palestine. It details the transformation of the religious Jewish communities from the margins of the young Israeli state and society to the central role that they now play since the occupation and the settlement drive.
The Zionist movement was non-religious from the start, if not anti-religious. Almost all the Founding Fathers were self-declared atheists. In his book "Der Judenstaat", the original charter of Zionism, Theodor Herzl said that "we shall know how to keep (our clergymen) in their temples." Chaim Weitzman was an agnostic scientist. Vladimir Jabotinsky wanted his body to be cremated - a sin in Judaism. David Ben-Gurion refused to cover his head even at funerals.

All the great rabbis of the day, both Hassidim and their opponents, the Missnagdim, condemned Herzl and cursed him ferociously. They rejected the basic thesis of Zionism, that the Jews are a "nation" in the European sense, instead regarding the Jews as a holy people held together by observance of the divine commandments....
All this changed in the wake of the Six-day War. The Jewish religion staged an astounding comeback.
And on the Palestinian side:
The Arab national movement, too, was born under the influence of the European national idea. Its spiritual fathers called for the liberation of the Arab nation from the shackles of Ottoman rule, and later from the yoke of European colonialism. Many of its founders were Arab Christians.

When a distinct Palestinian national movement came into being, following the Balfour Declaration and the setting up of the British Government of Palestine, it had no religious character. In order to fight it, the British appointed a religious personality to the leadership of the Palestinian community in Palestine: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who quickly assumed the leadership of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist immigration. He endeavored to give a religious face to the Palestinian-Arab rebellion. Accusing the Zionist of designs on the Temple Mount with its holy Islamic shrines, he tried to mobilize the Muslim peoples in support of the Palestinians.

The Mufti failed miserably, and his failure played a part in the catastrophe of his people. The Palestinians have all but obliterated him from their history. In the 1950s, they idolized Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the standard-bearer of secular, pan-Arab nationalism. Later, when Yasser Arafat founded the modern Palestinian national movement, he did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Right up to his death, he insisted on calling for the liberation of the "mosques and churches" of Jerusalem.

At one stage of its development, the PLO called for the creation of a "Democratic secular state, where Muslims, Jews and Christians will live together". (Arafat did not like the term "secular", preferring "la-maliah", meaning "non-sectarian".)

George Habash, the leader of the "Arab Nationalists" and later of the "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine", is a Christian.

This situation changed with the outbreak of the first intifada, at the end of 1987. Only then did the Islamist movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, start to take over the national struggle.
Through all of this, Avnery is leading to his conclusion that:
On the day Arafat died, many Israelis were angry with me for saying (in a Haaretz interview) that we shall yet long for this secular leader, who was both willing and able to make peace with us. I said that his elimination removes the last obstacle to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Palestine and the entire Arab world.

One did not need to be a prophet to see that.
I find this disappointing because at no point does Avnery address the problem of redefining the Jews as a nation entitled to armed sovereignty over a territory. We are back in "who-is-a-Jew?" territory. How do we define a nation in such a way as to include identity groups based in territory, like the French or Irish, and non-territorial peoples such as Jews, Roma and Jehovah's Witnesses? The common feature of the Jewish people today seems to be that we either practice Judaism or that we are the descendants of people who practiced Judaism. The most quoted definition of who is a Jew is someone with a Jewish mother. But that is both a religious definition and a circular one. I mean how do we define a Jewish mother? It seems to me that in spite of the "secularism" of early zionism we can't avoid the religious definition of Jews if we are to accord Jews a certain legal status as Jews, particularly if the legal status is one of supremacy. Ethno-religious supremacy is extremely hard (that is, impossible) to justify in humanistic terms and so this, I believe, is where the rise of religion in Israeli Jewish society comes in. It's not a full explanation but then Avnery offers no explanation at all except as an inferrence from the quasi-religious further that set in in the wake of the '67 war. So whilst lamenting the Israeli role in the rise of islamism among the Palestinians he is not really acknowledging the role of zionism in the rise of Israel's own Jewish fundamentalism.

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