Feb 15th 2013

Religious Conviction And Reality

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every dispute is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict, making it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the hostility, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and discover the means to alleviate it, as doing so is the prerequisite to finding a solution. This is the third of six articles; find the previous ones here and here.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is generally viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet the underlying religious component has created a certain mindset that further complicates the struggle and adds to its intransigence. Both Jews and Muslims alike have mystified the struggle, projecting cosmic significance and introducing national and religious pride into the equation.

The Israeli’s own religious narrative is one that is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded the US Congress in his May 24th 2011 address, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.”

Most Israelis believe that no distortion of history can deny the religious component that has created a bond, spanning thousands of years, between the Jewish people and the biblical Jewish land. Since the ancient Hebrews are not historically the same thing as Jews – not culturally and not even religiously – the Hebraic tradition of 3000 years ago, having little similarity to modern Jewry, hardly means an inheritance in land for Jews. That said, and with religious faith requiring no evidence, for many Israelis it is simply unacceptable to completely relinquish control of the West Bank, known in ancient times as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

From that perspective, it is inconceivable in particular for them to surrender their holiest shrine, especially the Wailing Wall (the outer wall of the Second Temple), allowing Jerusalem to be governed or fall under the jurisdiction of any other peoples or an international governing body. As a result, despite all Israelis happily accepting the 1947 UN partition plan, they have always held onto the dream of eventually repossessing all of Jerusalem, particularly the Old City.

This unique attachment and affinity to the holy city, which has for millennia symbolized the Jewish sense of redemption, created a powerful motivation to capture the city when it came within their grasp during the Six Day War in 1967. The fall of Jerusalem in the wake of the war remains an unmatched event and came to symbolize Jewish absolution. This historic development created a renewed awakening that vindicated the religious premise which was embedded in the Jewish psyche for centuries. The realization of what was believed to be a far-fetched dream under the most difficult of circumstances was now seen as the work of the Almighty that no force can alter. Considered in this light, we can understand or at least provide a framework for the zeal of those who are committed to keeping all of Jerusalem and much, if not all, of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction – they see that as the fulfillment not only of God’s promise but God’s very will.

What further explains the mindset of these believers is that no man can reason to the contrary of God’s plan. Regardless of the facts on the ground (the existence of the Palestinians and their claim to East Jerusalem), the Jews in and outside Israel consider it their obligation to do everything in their power to fulfill God’s will, which transcends humanity’s narrow perception of reality. This explains the position of many Israeli Jews who see no wrongdoing in building new and expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem.

From the settlers’ perspective, they are merely fulfilling what God has ordained; for the Jews to earn the right to hold onto Jerusalem they must prove that they are worthy to repossess it, even if this includes the suppression of the Palestinians and defiance of the international community. For these reasons, regardless of how powerful the resistance of Palestinians, other Arab and Muslim states, and much of the international community to the Israeli position, the religious mandate trumps any and all opposition: the settlers view themselves as pursuing God’s mission and must demonstrate unshakable resolve, tenacity and willingness to make any sacrifice necessary before He once again grants them the Promised Land.

With the recapture of Jerusalem and control asserted over the West Bank, what seemed to be destined to remain only a pipe-dream was suddenly transformed into a reality. This development was then strengthened by concerted efforts towards creating permanent anchors on the ground through building settlements and infrastructure needed to augment continuity. These efforts led to the gradual galvanization of intergroup factions, especially the settlement movement, which has gained tremendous political sway and uses it effectively to block any policy or action on the ground that could compromise the settlement enterprise. Indeed, successive Israeli governments, regardless of their ideological leaning, have bent to the settlers’ whims.

The expansion of the settlements, along with the prospect of building the young Jewish state on the entire mythological ancient homeland, has created this particular and most powerful psychological disposition. As this religious mindset has become even further embedded in the Israeli psyche, the nearly decisive power of the settlement movement has made it increasingly difficult to contemplate a return to the 1967 borders, with or without some land swaps.

Due to religious convictions tied to Islam’s third holiest shrines in Jerusalem – the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, or “Haram al-Sharif” – Muslim leaders, like their Jewish counterparts, will not compromise on Jerusalem or on recovering much of the West Bank’s land. Many Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Masjid (literally, “furthest mosque”) in Jerusalem before he ascended to heaven. Although the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 states that Mohammad visited the site where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was subsequently erected. This belief is certainly not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, further complicating any solution to the future of Jerusalem. Like the Israelis, the Palestinians too have shown absolutely no flexibility in this regard.

One other difficulty that adds to the psychological impediment in relation to Jerusalem is the Palestinians’ sense of ownership, which has been uninterrupted for centuries. Although Arabs have lived with Jews in relative peace, Jews were treated as second-class citizens, who in turn largely accepted subordination in order to maintain peaceful relations. Centuries of Arab perception of Jews as a subordinated minority make it nearly impossible for them to accept Jews as equals, not to mention as a superior power forcefully usurping land they consider their own. The Palestinians’ position in connection with Jerusalem and the entire West Bank must therefore be seen in this context as well.

Further consideration of the Arab view of Islam as the final revelation of the three monotheistic religions (including Judaism and Christianity) and of Muhammad as the last prophet accentuate Palestinian and Muslim unwillingness to compromise in what they believe to be their inherent religious duty to obey God’s final revelation. Here again, the psychological barrier embedded in religious precepts creates a mindset willing to defy reality. Yet, no one is permitted to challenge God’s decree and Muhammad’s edict.

In The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud made the claim that religious beliefs should be viewed as wish-fulfillments – or beliefs chiefly motivated by deep-seated human wishes, i.e. illusions. When we look without bias at the beliefs held by so many on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, who could not help but agree with his assessment? Of course, an illusion could turn out to be true: the belief that the Jewish people would someday establish a mighty state on the very same land where their ancient ancestors once lived was certainly illusory only a hundred years ago. Even if we agree with Freud that religious beliefs are illusions, we cannot agree with his prediction that such illusions are likely to wither away any time soon.

In the final analysis, religion has been and will most likely continue to be the repository of our most deeply held wishes and beliefs, as it is for many Israelis and Palestinians alike. For believers on both sides, religion constitutes nothing less than the very substance of their lives, the core of their existence and world-view. The question is: can both parties be brought to reconcile their beliefs to the changed reality on the ground? Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can be expected to undermine their most cherished religious convictions, but if disappointments are unavoidable, the convictions recognized and honored by the other side and by the global community must be adapted and reinterpreted in light of new and undeniable conditions. To take a crucial example, while neither side can forsake Jerusalem without compromising their religion, they can begin to accommodate their aspirations to the prospect of Jerusalem as the dual-capital of two sovereign and independent states.

Perhaps then the historical and religious commitments of both sides can be respected. It is only through mutual realization of spiritual hopes and ideals that Israelis and Palestinians will reconcile and see the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace – and that is surely no mere pipe-dream.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Aug 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is time for the world’s governments and companies to wake up. Beijing’s reach is wide and deep. It is taking advantage of the West’s openness – and gaps and inconsistencies in our data protection protocols - to acquire information on all of us. The hacks on Anthem, Equifax, Marriott, and the US government are good examples of how they have already done so. American and Western companies need to take a hard look at the costs and benefits associated with operating in China and continuing to have Chinese partners. Those partners must comply with these Laws. American and Western companies that continue to operate with them may unwittingly well be aiding and abetting the Chinese government."
Aug 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful."
Aug 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Say what you will about the slippery slope the US government has been on since Trump came to power, America has a rich history of promoting creative thought, running head-first into particularly uncomfortable subjects, and encouraging robust debate internally and among its allies and partners. Once Trump leaves the scene, America is sure to be perceived as having briefly lost its senses and will come charging back into the mainstream of global thought, debate, and engagement. China has entered the global arena crippled by its own ideology. Ultimately, the US is better equipped to lead the world. It knows that, and so does most of the rest of the world. Someone had better tell Beijing."
Jul 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Chinese government has for years argued that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. "
Jul 23rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "Like many, I have long been critical of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union as a dysfunctional currency area. Notwithstanding a strong political commitment to European unification as the antidote to a century of war and devastating bloodshed, there was always a critical leg missing from the EMU stool: fiscal union. Not anymore. The historic agreement reached on July 21 on a €750 billion ($868 billion) European Union recovery fund, dubbed Next Generation EU, changes that.................Unlike the United States, which appears to be squandering the opportunities presented by the epic COVID-19 crisis, Europe has risen to the occasion – and not for the first time."
Jul 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "I cannot recommend strongly enough Anne Applebaum’s recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. Advancing her arguments with eloquence and personal testimony, Applebaum passionately decries the corrosion of liberal, open-society values in the last three decades. Her book is a practical reminder of what all democrats should have learned from reading Karl Popper’s magisterial The Open Society and Its Enemies, itself written in liberal democracy’s darkest hours during WWII."
Jul 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Political motivations aside, Macron has said aloud what few others have acknowledged: NATO is experiencing “brain death,” owing to Trump’s dubious commitment to defend America’s allies. Given that the US drift away from NATO began well before Trump, there is little reason to believe that this trend will be reversed, though it may be slowed if he loses the November election. Unless Europe begins thinking of itself as a geopolitical power and takes responsibility for its own security, Macron argues, it will “no longer be in control of [its] destiny.”
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Uighur women in China’s Xinjiang province who have more than the approved number of children are being forcibly sterilised, forced to have abortions or having intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) inserted without their consent, according to reports that have emerged in recent weeks. The birth rate for Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, has decreased significantly, according to a recent research report. These alleged practices are egregious violations of the human rights of Uighur women, and in my opinion, constitute genocide of the Uighur people."
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The genetic makeup or “genome” of SARS-CoV-2 has been sequenced and publicly shared thousands of times by scientists all over the world. If the virus had been genetically engineered in a lab there would be signs of manipulation in the genome data. This would include evidence of an existing viral sequence as the backbone for the new virus, and obvious, targeted inserted (or deleted) genetic elements. But no such evidence exists. It is very unlikely that any techniques used to genetically engineer the virus would not leave a genetic signature, like specific identifiable pieces of DNA code."
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The greater lack of transparency that we can now expect will only serve to make Americans pay a greater price for the president’s worst characteristics. Trump has failed our country, utterly and contemptibly. He has spread lies and misinformation. He has displayed a stunning lack of empathy or concern. He has put his personal interests before those of the nation and has revealed an abject lack of leadership. "
Jul 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "The two-state solution is dead and buried. Whatever “solution” may be found in the future will emerge not from an orderly peace process, but from chaos, the precise nature of which is impossible to predict. It could be unilateral annexation. It could be a sudden violent Israeli disengagement from parts of the West Bank. Or it could be direct conflict. This is the iron law of unintended consequences at work."
Jul 15th 2020
EXTRACT: ".........countries such as China and South Korea have been able to successfully battle the virus, and why Morocco, which just started doing the same, now has a reasonable chance of beating the virus down. America is capable of doing all this but the politicization of the virus and silly interpretations of what freedom of action means under the US Constitution have prevented us from following their example. Yes, you are free to take your own health and life into your own hands by being stupid and selfish, but you are not free to do the same with someone else’s health and life. And that is what the “live free or die” movement and conspiracy theory believers among us fail to acknowledge."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "The ideas behind MMT [=Modern monetary theory] were mainly developed in the 1970s, notably by Warren Mosler, an American investment fund manager, who is also credited with doing much to popularise it. However, there are many threads that can be traced further back, for instance to an early 20th-century group called the chartalists, who were interested in explaining why currencies had value. These days, prominent supporters of MMT include L Randall Wray, who teaches regular courses on the theory at Bard college in Hudson, New York state. Another academic, Stephanie Kelton, has gained the ear of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Democrat US presidential candidate Joe Biden, providing theoretical justification for expanding government spending."
Jul 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So we are left with herd immunity and viable treatments as the world’s only realistic near term solution. Sweden has been roundly criticized and shunned by its neighbors for embracing herd immunity at the outset of the pandemic. It has paid a price for having done so based on accelerated infection and death rates. But while the jury will remain out for some time to come about the wisdom of having done so, Sweden may prove to have been ahead of the curve in its approach. Herd immunity is an option that should be seriously considered by the world’s governments, for a safe and effective vaccine could be many years away, and may not be achieved at all. PICTURE: Daniel Wagner.
Jul 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "The war on Yemen begun in 2015 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been a failure militarily and a vast drain on resources that, in the age of Covid-19, neither country can any longer afford. Not only has the war been Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, it has inflicted untold human damage on Yemenis. UNICEF has a new report out warning that millions of Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation. Yemen, with a population of about 28 million (think Texas), is one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, with a citizen population of some 21 million, is one of the richest. The United Arab Emirates, with a citizen population of a little over 1 million, is likewise very rich. Both have waged a high-tech air war on the indigenous Yemeni Houthis, but in the past year have pitched their Sunni proxies against one another."
Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."