Term Paper: Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

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Religion/Israel

L. Jones

Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

After the end of the Second World War, one of the most important and pivotal events that would go on to affect the nature of the political world occurred with the creation of the Modern State of Israel. Beginning with the withdrawal of the British from what was officially "Palestine" in 1948, and paved upon the legacy of the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people (Avalon, 2003)," the territory was thrown into a massive conflict between religious, ethnic, and national groups that has yet to end.

Although there are significant political, cultural, historical and geographical aspects of the dispute over the "Holy Land," there is little question that on the deepest level, the Israeli-Arab conflict as it is particularly represented by current events (the leadership of Prime Minister Sharon, the building of the infamous "wall," and the second "Intifada") is based on deeply rooted religious beliefs and attitudes held on all sides.

Because so much of the conflict is based on the religious traditions of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is essential to have a good understanding of the basic beliefs of each. This kind of understanding must include knowledge of the three religion's similarities and differences, as well as some concept of each group's view of the religious role of conflict, conditions for the permissibility of war and killing, as well as the significance of the Holy Land, itself, for each faith.

Judaism

Of the three religions discussed here, Judaism represents the first chronologically.

According to the Jewish faith, beginning circa 2000 BCE, God established a covenant with Abraham. This means that as a people, the Jews were granted "special status" with god as a chosen people, first under the guidance and representation of Abraham and Moses. In the most basic terms, Jews believe that there is only one God, who bestowed upon them the Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh. Of special importance are the first five books called the Torah (often referred to by Christians as the Old Testament). In addition to the sacred Torah, many details of the Jewish faith are based on the Talmud, or "stories, laws, medical knowledge, and debates about moral choices..." which come from the Mishnah (composed of hundreds of chapters -- many covering laws from the Torah), and the Gemara, an "encyclopedic" work including the commentary of countless Rabbis dating from 200-500 CE (Rich, 2005).

The basic beliefs and practices of Judaism are based on strict reliance on the one God, as well as the adherents to Gods requirements as represented in the "Commandments" issued to Moses, as well as to a strict code of conduct that encompasses virtually every aspect of a religious Jew's life. However, among differing groups of Jews -- which span from secular groups (or non-religious Jews who base their "Jewishness" on ideas of nationalism or ethnicity) to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, levels of religious observance/adherence to ritual and religious law and interpretation vary widely.

With regard to Israel, Jewish history begins with the story of Abraham in Genesis 12, where he is ordered to leave his home for the land of Canaan (now, Israel). According to Jewish belief, God actually promised Canaan (Israel) to the Jewish people as the descendents of Abraham (Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8). Because of this, many Jews feel that it is incumbent upon them to possess Israel. They assert that the land is holy, and that by living outside of Israel they are "dispersed" or in a state of exile. However, it is worth noting that there is a small minority of ultra-orthodox (mainly Hasidic) Jews who consider the State of Israel to be blasphemous because they believe that the Diaspora (after being exiled by the Romans in 135 C.E. (Heilman, 1992)) can only end with the coming of the messiah.

Although the concept of Israel as a Jewish homeland is embraced by most Jews, it is important to note that among a large percentage of Israelis the desire to maintain ownership or control over the Holy Land stems from a political movement known as Zionism. Although religious people can also be Zionists (for example, the Israeli Settlers), Zionism also refers to the political desire to have a homeland for the Jews, especially after the anti-Semitic treatment, suffering and massacres the Jewish people underwent in Europe and other places while in post-Roman exile (including Russian persecution and the Holocaust).

Again, when considering the motivations of Israelis and Jewish people worldwide with regard to the maintenance of the State of Israel, it is important to note that there are several non-religious motivations (political, idealistic, nationalistic, financial, etc.) involved. However, on the part of one of the most significant groups in the conflict, the ultra-nationalistic settler movement, or the extreme right, religion plays a dominant role.

The Israeli Settler movement was spawned in its largest scale after the 1967 War, in which the Israeli military captured the "occupied territories" (the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Sinai (now returned to Egypt), and the Gaza Strip). Although its origins are officially disputed, many in the International Community (as represented by UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice) believe that these settler communities were formed as a kind of "land grab" in which Israel could permanently claim territory that belonged to the Palestinians (according to international law). These mostly religious settlers believed that this was justified due to the promise given them by God that Israel belongs to the Jews. Thus, according to them, it is legitimate to take whatever land they can from non-Jews living there (mainly Arab Palestinians), and that they may also use violent or deadly force should they refuse to leave.

Yet, despite arguments by the ultra-nationalist orthodox settlers, and even despite their close adherence to many Jewish laws and practices (concerning marriage, kosher food, ritual, behavior, etc.), most people cite Jewish law as being very clear concerning the conditions of war. For example, although in the Torah the Jews are protected in conflict and victorious in many instances, they are not given "free license" to do as they please in war. Instead, they are restricted by ideas of "justice" for Jews and non-Jews (for instance, either a Jew or a non-Jew may kill a "pursuer" in self-defense) (Genesis 9:6). However, most scholars stipulate (according to Deuteronomy 20:10) that before embarking on any war a sincere attempt must be made to achieve peace. Further, the killing of non-combatants (civilians) is strictly prohibited.

Christianity

When one discusses the Christian faith, one is typically referring to the belief in a Trinity (composed of the three incarnations of the one God of the Hebrew Bible), consisting of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Unlike Jews, Christians believe that there are additional books of the Bible in addition to the Torah. Further, they believe that these books give accounts of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is also the Son of God. Also central to Christian belief is the concept of God's forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus (who died on the cross in exchange for this forgiveness).

Interestingly, with regard to belief and practice apart from this general description, there is great variance among different sects or offshoots including the Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evalengelicals and countless others. However, most Christians accept Jesus as a divine being, as well as revere the Old and New Testaments as sacred (Wagner, 2004). Although in general most Christians consider themselves exempt from many of the laws imposed on the Jewish people before them in the Old Testament, including dietary and other restrictions, there are some small sects that follow Jewish law in these matters.

With regard to the Israeli-Arab conflict there are two main categories of "Christians" that one must address. That is the sizable Arab-Christian population within Israel and the Occupied Territories who consider themselves to be unjustly oppressed by the Israeli occupation (who actively resist Israeli authority with the rest of the Palestinian population), and the foreign, non-Arab evalengelical/messianic Christians who support Israel as a necessary prerequisite to the Second Coming of Christ, as well as an embodiment of the Biblical promise from God to the Jewish people.

Although some of the most horrific instances of crimes against the Jewish people in history were perpetrated in the name of Christianity, it is interesting that conservative Christians have taken up the Israeli cause in the Middle East conflict. According to these groups, Israel not only has a right to exist, but that it also has a right to the whole of Israel. Further, these groups (mainly originating in the United States) tend to turn a blind eye to any humanitarian issues concerning the non-Jewish Palestinians under Israeli rule. However, as many Palestinian Christians point out, this viewpoint is perhaps at odds with the religious principles and teachings of the Christian faith.

Currently, it is estimated that Arab Christians inside Israel and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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