RELN2310 Case Study – Arab-Israeli Conflict
Michael Curd (s4171505)
The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the longest, most complicated disputes involving religious differences, spanning over one century. The Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to British Zionist Jew Lord Rothschild in 1917, was a short yet remarkable piece of writing that would favour the fledgling Jewish Zionists goal – to re-establish Palestine as Jewish homeland. What the British government failed to take into account was the inevitability of another outburst between the Jewish and Arab people as a result of the letter. The conflict continues to the present day, as the current United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton attempts to negotiate with leaders on both sides for another approach to peace. The following case study attempts to look at the socio-political and historical context in which this conflict has occurred, starting with the Balfour Declaration – a document which opened an already sore wound between the Arab and Israeli people, each attempting to claim land which they deem ‘holy’. The justification of the ownership of land according to Jewish and Islamic sacred texts will be explored, referencing to Marcus Borg’s notion of a literal-factual understanding of such scriptures. René Girard’s theory of mimesis will be compared against the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to determine the plausibility of the theory in relation to the circumstances of the religious violence. Lastly, different peace strategies for the Arab-Israeli war will be reflected upon, in order to ascertain the importance of peace-building as a bridge to the abolition of conflict.
In order to fully comprehend the state of conflict in the present day, a historical and socio-political context of the religious violence must be understood. As a result of increasing anti-Semitism due to the rise of nationalism amongst states in Europe during the 19th century, the Jewish population, who’d been in Diaspora since the 2nd century, felt an increasing desire for their own Jewish state, expressing their Messianic ideal with the Jewish prayer ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. (Mansfield, 2004: 160) Desire turned to action, and by 1914, there were approximately 80,000 Jews settling in Palestine, becoming the pioneers of ‘Zionism’. (Mansfield, 2004: 160) The Zionist movement gained impetus due to Theodor Herzl, who published the pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896. Herzl called for the first Zionist Congress in 1897, where it would formulate the movement’s goals and strategies, (NPR, 2002) calling for “the organisations and binding together of the whole Jewry.” (Mansfield, 2004: 161)
In 1917 during World War I, in order to “gain wartime support, from Jews in Central Europe and the United States and in order to further its strategic interests in the Middle East”, (Shlaim, 1995: 12) British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour (in Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2008) wrote a letter pledging Britain’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and to “use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” This allegiance allowed for the Zionists to establish “a framework in which Zionism could extend itself far beyond its own natural limits.” (Taylor, 1972: 45) What Britain failed to consider, as stated by Avi Shlaim (1995: 12), was the “inevitability of a clash between Jewish and Arab nationalism.” Britain achieved victory over the Ottoman Empire, thus gaining control over Palestine, having to bridge the political interests of both the Zionists and the Palestinian Arabs, but as suspected, violence erupted. By 1947, the Middle East problem had been handed over to the United Nations, who partitioned Palestine into two separate states – one Arab, and one Jewish. The Jews accepted the new resolution, announcing their own state of Israel on May 14, 1948. However, the Arabs rejected the new rule, declaring war, which “quickly developed into a land grab.” (Shlaim, 1995: 22) Israel won the war, extending their borders beyond the UN lines, while the Palestinians suffered a loss, and have been without a homeland ever since. (Shlaim, 1995: 22) Following the 1948 Palestine war, five Arab-Israeli wars punctuate Middle East history; the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six-Day War (in which Israel occupied the rest of Jerusalem), the 1969-70 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War – all won by Israel (with the exception of the War of Attrition, ending in a ceasefire).
There are numerous justifications for violence described by both the Israelis and the Arabs, yet one religious reason for the conflict is seemingly highlighted above the rest. It is suggested that the Arab-Israeli conflict is primarily a fight over land (If Americans Knew, 2009), or (according to Israelis) the issue of the Arab’s apparent ‘anti-Semitism’ stance, as suggested by several quotes from Arab leaders, including; “I declare a holy war, my Muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!" (Haj Amin al-Husseini in Global Oneness, 2009) Arabs, however, claim International Law is on their side, claiming that Israelites have disobeyed UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (allowing for Palestinians’ return to their home in Israel), UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (calling for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the areas of recent conflict) and 446 (declaring Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories illegal) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (forbidding an occupied power from transferring their population to the subjugated land). (Global Oneness, 2009)
Despite these arguments, the fundamentalist approach both groups’ have towards their sacred scriptures is also used in order to justify their violent acts. The Israelis following Judaism utilize their sacred scripture of the Torah in order to prove the sacred nature of the land of Jerusalem, quoting the number of times ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ are used in comparison to the Islamic sacred text, the Qur’an. The Israel Science and Technology website (2009) mention that “Jerusalem is mentioned over 669 times and Zion…154 times…Jerusalem is not mentioned once in the Koran.” Author Aharon Kellerman (1993: 122) states that in the Bible, “Jerusalem probably appears in a sacred context in the early biblical story of the war between the four and the five kings, in which Abraham was involved.” Furthermore, according to the website, “King David established the city of Jerusalem as the capital of the whole land of Israel. Mohammed never came to Jerusalem.” The Land of Israel, according to the Torah, was promised by God to the Jews, as proven in “Gen. 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8” where it repeatedly states that the land will be given to the descendants of Abraham. (Rich, 2006) Jewish author Tracey R Rich (2006) also goes on to state that “When we live outside of Israel, we are living in exile from our land”, once again emphasizing the strong sacred nature of the land for the Jewish people. In the present day, the leading Israeli political party Likud also states in their party platform the Biblical claim the Jews have over the land, stating, “The government firmly rejects attempts of various sources in the world, some anti-Semitic in origin, to question Jerusalem's status as Israel's capital, and the 3,000-year-old special connection between the Jewish people and its capital.” (The State of Israel, 1999) While the Jewish site separates themselves from the Islamic fundamentalist ideas of “suicide bombers and the heavenly life with virgins” (Israel Science and Technology (2), 2009), the Jews justify their violent acts through quoting the Talmud; “If one comes to slay you, slay him first (Brachot, 58.)” (Israel Science and Technology (2), 2009) The Jews utilize this as justification for committing violent acts towards what they call “modern day terrorists.” (Israel Science and Technology (2), 2009)
While the Jews may believe that their sacred scriptures gives them rights to full ownership of the land, and justifies the violence as a result, the Islamic Qur’an also holds text that speaks of the spiritual significance of the land for Muslims. According to Elizabeth Harris, the Secretary for Inter Faith Relations of the Methodist Church (2009), Chapter 17 of the Qur’an mentions “a night journey that the Prophet made from Mecca to a mosque in Jerusalem, on the site of the Temple of Solomon (Temple Mount).” In the Hadith (tradition of Muhammad), it is said that the Prophet was taken to Jerusalem by Gabriel, and is then greeted by other prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Then from the Temple Mount, he is taken up into the seven heavens, and encounters a divine light. (Harris, 2009) It is thus agreed upon by all Muslims, Harris (2009) states, as “seeing Jerusalem as holy and sacred because of this.” It is important to note that the following reading of the sacred scriptures in this way is a literal-factual interpretation of the sacred scripture, as formed in a Christian context by theologian Marcus Borg. Borg (2003: 53) states that “emphasizing the historical factuality of the stories can distract from their meaning.” Thus, when related to a Jewish or Islamic context, the actuality of whether these places were deemed by God/Allah may become less relevant when a historical-metaphorical understanding of sacred scripture is taken on.
It is possible to suggest that French philosopher René Girard’s theory of mimesis is a semi-plausible ideology accounting for the religious violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the book ‘Sacred Violence’, author Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly (1992: 15) states that “the notions of “we against them,” of the right of vengeance” is all part of the structure of sacred violence, with Girard’s theory enabling the exposition of such violence. The basis of René Girard’s theory on mimesis stemmed from Greek philosopher Aristotle, who saw imitation as a key characteristic of human behaviour. (Fleming, 2001: 58) This understanding was followed through by French socialist Gabriel Tarde, who saw imitation not as a “biological nor an “intramental” phenomenon but rather “intermental,” a way in which a human being is influence by other human beings. (Hamerton-Kelly, 1992: 17) Chris Fleming (2001: 58) summarises the first step to Girard’s theory, stating that when one desires something, they are imitating the desires of another. Jeremy Townsley (2003) gives an example of Girard’s mimetic cycle, explaining that when one (the subject) observes another’s (mediator) desire for a specific object, they acquire the same desire as the mediator, due to the subject’s favourable view of the mediator. It is thus that the subject’s true desire is not to attain the object, but to beat the mediator at attaining the object of desire. René Girard (1995: 169) links this notion to violence, stating that by “making one man’s desire into a replica of another man’s desire, it invariably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence.” On this level, Girard’s theory is plausible in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As described earlier, the Jews (the mediator) see the land of Israel (or Jerusalem) as their own sacred place according to their scriptures, and thus desire it. It is then possible to place the Muslims as the subject, seeing that the Jews desire the land, and thus attempt not to attain the land through their own desires relating to their sacred texts, but to beat the Jews at attaining it. The validity of the plausibility of Girard’s theory is corroborated by Harris (2009), who states that “the vast majority of Muslims, whilst considering Jerusalem holy to Muslims, would not justify violence against Israeli Jews on this basis.” Thus, it is possible to suggest that while the Muslims wouldn’t see the Jerusalem’s sacred nature as justification for violence, the desire to beat the Jews at attaining it is motivation for the conflict.
The similarities between Girard’s theory and the Arab-Israeli conflict end at Girard’s introduction of the ‘scapegoat’ into the mimetic cycle. Townsley (2003) reflects on the next step in Girard’s theory, pointing out that the two parties involved turn to a scapegoat to vent the anger of the rivalry out on. Girard (in Townsley, 2003) states that the quarrelling parties unite over the common enemy, often being a minority group that bears next to no connection to the original desire of the subject and the mediator. This next step in Girard’s theory is not applicable to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab-Muslims and the Israeli-Jews are yet to actively unite over a common enemy. It appears that the issue of the land as home, regardless of religious motivations or justifications, is too important on either side to find a middle ground through which both groups can unite.
Several historic peace plans throughout modern history have been made in an attempt to bring peace to this long-lasting dispute. MidEastWeb (2007) lists a number of peace plans, including the resolution for One Jewish State and for One Arab State, however both groups unsatisfied with either option. The proposal for a Binational State by Dr. Yehuda Magnes and Martin Buber was also rejected by Arab states and Palestinian leadership. The UN called for two states in the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in 1947, becoming the basis of the establishment of Israel. However, Arab countries opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. The 1976 Alon Plan formulated by Israeli political leader Yigal Alon and the proposal of autonomy to Palestinians by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1989 were further attempts on the behalf of Israel for peace. In 2000 – 2001, MidEastWeb (2007) states that “Israelis and Palestinians negotiated unsuccessfully regarding a final status solution. Though the overall result was a failure, there were many points of agreement”, showing some signs of progress to a peaceful solution. Current peace negotiations are underway, with US Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton on tour aiming to relaunch Middle East peace talks, has “praised efforts by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to improve security and said Israel must reciprocate.” (Schmidt, 2009) This dialogue with the involvement of a third party can be seen as helpful in recognising agreements and monitoring differences in opinion.
To fully comprehend the dispute, one must realise “how difficult and complex the Arab-Israeli dispute actually [is] and how deeply rooted Arab-Israeli distrust and antipathy [has] become.” (Khouri, 1985: 293) Both the Arab and Israeli groups have had strained relations, due to the leadership of primarily ´Fundamentalist movements…frequently led by strong, often militantly aggressive, charismatic leaders whose followers…perceive themselves to be variously threatened as individuals, communally, or as a nation.” (Ellens, 2004: 138) René Girard’s theory of mimetic violence was plausible in the sense that the Jews, acting as the mediator, stimulated the Muslims’ desire for the holy land. However, the situation between the two groups becomes dissimilar when Girard moves onto the notion of the ‘scapegoat’. A resolution to the mimesis problem to which the Muslims and Jews do relate is stated by Townsley (2003), who points out that when the two parties can move past the desires of other people and to the act of imitating God, then people’s desires will be shifted to “supernatural spheres, rather than on material things…[a] mimesis to positive ends.” In regards to the argument of the justification of sacred scriptures by the two groups, Kille (in Ellens (2), 2004: 72) makes the point that “it is vital that we be sensitized to the complex interactions of text, reader, community, and context. We must be attentive to where and how it is that religious communities are likely to head down a destructive road.” Thus, when the Muslim and Jewish communities involved in the conflict acknowledge the sacred nature of each other’s text, then progress to peace may be more likely. However, Henry Munson (2005: 243) states than “while the power of sacred texts to induce hatred and violence should not be ignored, it is a mistake to view all conflicts that may have a religious dimension as mere consequences of scripture.” Therefore, in order to solve a long-standing and difficult conflict such as the Arab-Israeli situation, all aspects of the dispute must be addressed, and when dialogue is being made, understanding and possibly peace will follow.
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