15 Million Jews and a Hundred Times More Muslims
It is more often the Palestinians who are reduced to religious zealots than the Israelis. In such cases, the “extremists and moderates” narrative favors Israel by presenting it as contending with theocratic fundamentalists who cannot be reasoned with let alone be expected to abide by a resolution under which Arabs and Jews might live together peacefully and as equals.
The religious extremists narrative, I will show, errs by abstracting religious devotion from the social factors with which it interplays. Such perspectives point audiences toward overly simplistic perspectives while obscuring a wealth of important aspects of Palestine-Israel that need to be comprehended in order to understand the issue.
In November 2014, two Palestinians killed five Israelis, including four rabbis, in a Jerusalem synagogue. Following the attack, Anshel Pfeffer, a correspondent for Ha’aretz, wrote in The Guardian that “This is what a religious war looks like, and we should stop kidding ourselves that this is not what has been happening in the Middle East.” Pfeffer describes the notion that Palestine-Israel is a fight over territory as a “charade” and “the sheikhs and rabbis” as “the real movers in the wars of hate.” He then writes that “Accepting that the Palestine-Israel conflict is also a bitter religious war runs counter to the international community’s preferred solutions . . . which is a central reason that none of these solutions have worked.” He also claims that whereas “most Israelis abhor” acts such as the burning of Palestinian mosques “even a cursory glance at the Palestinian media reveals a glorification of attacks against Jews.”
Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and bestselling atheist pundit, was on a podcast during Protective Edge that was then turned into a widely circulated blog post entitled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?” Harris frames his discussion of Palestine-Israel around religion from the outset when he says that he has criticized “both Israel and Judaism” but has “kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims.” He then explains why he thinks Judaism is less bad than Islam or Christianity. In his view, the question of Palestine is not only a religious conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but a conflict between Muslims and Jewish people in general. The facts that there are approximately half a million Palestinian Christians and that most Jewish people do not live in Israel go unmentioned. Harris further claims that “incompatible religious attachments to this land have made it impossible for Muslims and Jews to negotiate like rational human beings, and they have made it impossible for them to live in peace.”
In Ali A. Rizvi’s Huffington Post article, which was also written during Protective Edge, the author asserts that “Palestinian supporters would be just as ardently pro-Israel if they were born in Israeli or Jewish families, and vice versa.” He claims that “most people’s view of this conflict are largely accidents of birth” and he writes twice that it is “at its core, a tribal conflict.” His article has a subheading entitled “Why does everyone keep saying this is not a religious conflict?” This section begins with quotes from the Old Testament about God promising Israel to the Jewish people followed by excerpts from the Quran. He quotes one excerpt telling Muslims not to ally with Jews or Christians and another that is explicitly anti-Semitic, which tells Muslims to kill Jews and was quoted in the charter Hamas had when Rizvi wrote the article.
Rizvi then asks: “Please tell me—in light of these passages written centuries and millennia before the creation of Israel or the occupation—how can anyone conclude that religion isn’t at the root of this, or at least a key driving factor?”
A Washington Post editorial written during Protective Edge questions a proposal put forth by US Secretary of State John Kerry, which Turkey and Qatar supported, under which government employees in Gaza would be paid and Gaza’s border would be opened. The Post’s criticism is that this proposal “had the effect of sidelining the secular governments of Egypt and Mr. Abbas, which stand on the other side of the Middle East’s divide between pro and anti-Islamist forces.” Thus the paper argues that the diverse array of political forces across the entire region, including Palestine, can be neatly categorized as either Islamist or secular and that religiosity is the operative issue in all of the nations in the Middle East.
The fall of 2015 saw intensified Palestinian unrest wherein Israeli police and soldiers killed many Palestinians and Israelis were killed by Palestinians, typically with knives in “lone wolf” attacks apparently not orchestrated by any Palestinian political organization. In an Atlantic article published at the time, Jeffrey Goldberg blames Mahmood Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, for inciting the bloodshed by spreading false rumors that Israel wanted to interfere with Muslim worship and contends that the Israeli settlement movement obscures what might be the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own, and that the third-holiest site in Islam is also the holiest site of another religion, one whose adherents reject the notion of Muslim supersessionism.
He ends his article by essentially repeating the same claim: “The violence of the past two weeks . . . is rooted not in Israeli settlement policy, but in a worldview that dismisses the national and religious rights of Jews.” In Goldberg’s view, the 2015 violence cannot be traced to Israeli colonialism but to anti-Semitism and religious beliefs.
Similarly, in an article about Omar Mateen’s mass murder of 49 people in the Florida LGBT nightclub Pulse, Nick Cohen argues that “In, Israel, Islamists murder Jews, because they are Jews” as though killings of Israelis by Palestinians can be solely attributed to the religious beliefs of Israelis.
I am not suggesting that none of these articles acknowledge that non-religious factors shape Palestine-Israel. My point is that they all suggest that religion is a central cause, if not the central cause, and say very little about issues such as colonization and geopolitics.
In several instances, casting Palestine-Israel as a religious conflict this leads commentators to conclude that Israel is more worthy of support than the Palestinians.
In an article published in the midst of Protective Edge, James Bloodworth writes that “Building settlements on stolen land is an affront to Palestinian self-determination, but then the virulent anti-Semitism of Hamas is also a threat to Israel.” He invokes the slogan “fascism means war” and asks, “What ever happened to that? This is as true today as it ever was. Get over the idea that fascism is restricted to white men flinging their arms in the air and shouting ‘sieg heil.’ Fascists can have brown faces too.” This passage suggests that Hamas is an anti-Semitic fascist group and that Israel’s attack on Gaza therefore deserves support.
Rizvi also implies that anti-Semitism is the key factor behind criticisms of Israel that come from Muslims. He writes that Muslims’ outrage at Israeli conduct during Protective Edge was more intense than was Muslims’ condemnation of the killings that the Syrian government and the Islamic State group were carrying out at the same time. He writes that this apparent discrepancy “clearly points to the likelihood that the Muslim world’s opposition to Israel isn’t just about the number of dead” and that “If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I’d be thanking God I’m not Jewish.” Furthermore, Rizvi asks people from countries with Muslim majorities: “if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories tomorrow. . .and went back to the 1967 borders—and gave the Palestinians East Jerusalem—do you honestly think Hamas wouldn’t find something else to pick a fight about? Do you honestly think that this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they are Jews?”
These rhetorical questions clearly imply that, in his view, Hamas opposes Israel not only because of the occupation but also because of a hatred of Jewish people. He goes on to write that “Yes, there’s an unfair and illegal occupation there, and yes, it’s a human rights disaster. But it is also true that much of the other side is deeply driven by anti-Semitism.” These comments are in a section of his article called “Why is everything so much worse when there are Jews involved?” Like Harris, Rizvi presents the struggle for historic Palestine as one between Jews and Muslims writ large rather than one between Israelis and Palestinians.
Harris’ thesis in “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel” is that Israel deserves support because, in his estimation, religious fanaticism is more common among Palestinians than Israelis and because he believes that the religious fanaticism of Palestinians and Muslims in other countries is the main reason there is no peace in Palestine-Israel. He claims that “you have to side with Israel here” because “You have one side [Israel] which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side [Palestinians] which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land.” Moreover, he asserts that “Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible” and that, while illegal Israeli settlements should be opposed, “Absent Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism, we could be talking about a ‘one-state solution,’ and the settlements would be moot.” Harris’ blog, furthermore, casts Palestine-Israel as a sub-set of a clash of civilizations between the rational, secular West and fundamentalist Muslims. He says that Israel is morally superior to its antagonists since Hamas and “Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere” use people from their own communities as human shields even though, two days before Harris’ blog was published, Amnesty International said it “does not have evidence at this point that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to ‘shield’ specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks." “The Muslims,” he writes, “are acting on the assumption—the knowledge, in fact—that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields. They consider the Jews the spawn of apes and pigs—and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants” although the UN would later find that Israeli forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields. He goes on to explain that “The term ‘Muslims’ in this paragraph means ‘Muslim combatants’ of the sort that Western forces have encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.” He claims, furthermore, that “Even on their worst day, the Israelis act with greater care and compassion and self-criticism than Muslim combatants have anywhere, ever.” In the penultimate paragraph, he asks, “What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about.” For Harris:
“This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel.”
Hamas in Context
Such simplistic, de-contextualized commentary on Hamas does not help readers comprehend the group. As Joel Beinin argues, “The discourse of terrorism precludes analysis linking Palestinian violence to Israeli actions.” (1) The limits of framing Hamas as merely a terrorist organization are readily apparent in that it has not carried out any attack outside of historic Palestine and Syria. After 9/11, notably, a Hamas leaflet denounced the attacks as “violence against innocent civilians.” (2) Hamas are central actors in contemporary Palestine-Israel and the public who are consuming news media about the issue need a more thorough understanding of the group and the contexts in which it exists. It is true that Hamas’ charter contained anti-Semitic language, which has now been removed. Many Israeli groups and politicians have also made racist utterances. In neither case are these statements by themselves a sufficient basis for analysis of the relevant actors.
Hamas was initially a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and began to gain strength during the First Intifada, which started in 1987. Hamas’ objectives were in tension with those of the secular nationalist movement that dominated Palestinian politics at the time, the PLO. Whereas the PLO wanted to negotiate a two state solution with Israel that was based on the 1967 borders, Hamas sought to rid all of historic Palestine of Zionism and “incorporated the imperative of liberating Muslim holy land into national goals.” (3) The history of Hamas is inseparable from that of the Oslo process. At first, the 1993 Oslo Accords were reasonably popular among Palestinians and Hamas’ opposition to the agreements marginalized Hamas. In 1996 Mahmud Zahbar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, advocated building social infrastructure linked to the group’s political-religious goals by establishing Islamic charities, orphanages, and community events. By 1999, Hamas’ charities ran 65 percent of Gaza’s primary schools. (4) Though Hamas resolutely opposed the PA and though the PA repeatedly unleashed its security forces against Hamas, which led to violence, the latter opposed a Palestinian civil war on religious and political grounds. (5)
Hamas’ violence can only be understood in the context of Israeli violence. As Khaled Hroub argues, “the radicalism of Hamas should be seen as a completely predictable result of the ongoing Israeli colonial project. Palestinians support whichever movement holds the banner of resistance against that occupation and promises to defend the Palestinian rights of freedom and self-determination.” The group’s first suicide attacks were “launched in retaliation for the Hebron massacre” in which the American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others who had gathered to pray inside the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs compound. (6) In August 1995, Hamas abided by a tacit ceasefire with Israel in advance of the Taba accords, which were to occur under the auspices of Oslo, until Israel killed Hamas military leader Yahya ‘Ayyash on January 6th 1996 and Hamas retaliated by bombing Israeli buses in February and March of that year. (7) In that period, Israel arrested thousands of Hamas activists. (8) Beinin explains that the violence of that time-frame “was largely due to failure to resolve the political issues left open by the Israeli-PLO agreements, the expansion of settlements, and the deteriorating economic conditions of Palestinians.” (9)
When Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque in September 2000 and ignited the Second Intifada, the Israeli military snipers’ rules of engagement stipulated that any Palestinians over the age of 12 were fair targets. (10) Meanwhile Israel increased the rate at which they demolished Palestinians houses and assassinated Palestinian political activists in a period that Charmaine Seitz characterizes as one of “unprecedented bloodshed, almost entirely on the Palestinian side.” (11) Hamas did not join the fighting until January 2001 when its ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for the shooting two Israelis in the West Bank city Tulkarm. (12) On February 14th, Hamas said it was one of its members who drove a bus into a crowd of Israelis in occupied Gaza and killed 8, some of whom were soldiers while others were not. (13) A suicide bombing in Jerusalem in March killed three Israelis and another suicide bombing, this one in a Tel Aviv nightclub, killed 21 and Hamas claimed responsibility. (14) Hamas justified these actions by saying that, as long as Israel was killing Palestinian civilians, Israeli civilians would be treated the same way. (15) Seitz assesses matters in the following terms: “As Israel bombarded and encircled Palestinian institutions and security installations, the only countervailing [Palestinian] force was armed activity.” (16)
In just under a year and a half, Israel ordered 175 assassinations against Palestinians activists of various political stripes, injuring 310 and killing 235 and 79 of the dead were not even the intended targets: the assassinations created a desire for revenge among Palestinians and drew more of them into armed struggle; several of those who carried out attacks on Israelis had just had a friend or relative killed by Israel. (17) After the 9/11 attacks, the US brokered a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres who agreed that the Palestinians would restore security coordination with Israel while Israel would lift its closure that blocked trade between Palestinian towns. Israel failed to lift the closure and killed 20 Palestinians in raids. After that, Hamas’s Qassam Brigades sent two Palestinians to kill two young Israelis in an illegal settlement in occupied Gaza. (18) Media outlets disorient their readers when they remove Israeli actions from the equation and present Hamas violence as though it takes place in a vacuum. Situating Hamas’ conduct in relation to Israel’s would provide media audiences with the multi-dimensional perspective necessary to make sense of what happens in Palestine-Israel.
It is a mistake to portray Hamas as a group that is singularly driven by religious dogma. It has shown itself to be a pragmatic political organization as well. During the 2006 campaign, it supported Christian candidates and, when the group won the election, it appointed a Christian to its cabinet as the Minister of Tourism. Similarly, Hamas’ social work, which has helped the poor and supported thousands of Palestinians, has won it considerable popularity. It is true that there was a religious dimension to the Second Intifada, the period that preceded Hamas’ 2006 election victory. Re-runs of the al-Aqsa clash took place at other places with religious significance. There was fighting at a site in Nablus that some orthodox Jews regard as the site of Joseph’s tomb while Jewish people burned mosques in Palestinian-Israeli towns and Palestinians burned the Jericho synagogue. Moreover, according to Seitz, the PA leadership deployed religious symbols and rhetoric in what was likely “an admission of weakness against the strengthened narrative of irredentist religious struggle.” (19)
Yet it is a mistake to suggest that religiosity arises outside of any material circumstance. In the 1980s, Israel helped to encourage religious groups in Gaza in order to create a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was then the dominant faction in Palestinian politics.
During the Second Intifada, Seitz points out, an important reason that Hamas gained strength was that Israel’s strategy was to dismantle the quasi-national Palestinian institutions created during Oslo and Hamas was able to fill the void with its networks. (20)
Seitz writes that, during the Second Intifada, Palestinian society increasingly turned to religion as a way to create meaning for its immense losses and to navigate its difficult daily life, which is evident in an almost 50 percent increase in mosque attendance in the first four years of the uprising. (21) Ilan Pappe describes religion as “an effective response to the pressures of endless uprooting, deprivation and discrimination” that Palestinians have experienced. (22)
He argues that religion also “offered a redemptive outlook on life for Jews in Israel, who were living under less harsh conditions [than Palestinians] but were nonetheless experiencing dismay and frustration born out of economic hardship.” (23) In Palestinian rural areas, traditional beliefs that had been strong for centuries were easily channeled into politics, given Israeli encroachment into the lives of this portion of the Palestinian population. (24) A parallel tendency prevailed in poor urban neighborhoods such as Nazareth, Hebron, and Nablus; Palestinian political Islam first appeared in Wadi Ara’ where life was even harder than in the refugee camps, in the inner cities, and in the villages of the West Bank and Gaza. (25) Moreover, the failure of the PLO to protect Palestinians from Israeli violence made political Islam attractive by comparison. (26) Hroub points out that, when Hamas was elected in 2006, their success was not because the Palestinian masses underwent an “overnight popular conversion to Hamas’ religious fervor.... Christians and secular people voted for Hamas side by side with Hamas members.” These earthly reasons for the religious dimensions of Palestine-Israel indicate that it is wrong-headed to blame religion for continued violence without considering the material factors that help precipitate piety.
Hamas has substantial support among Palestinians. As Hroub writes, “there cannot be a sustainable and final peace deal without a real Palestinian consensus, to which Hamas’s contribution is central.” When news media reduce Hamas “to a mere ‘terrorist group’ whose only function is and has been to aimlessly kill Israelis,” they are failing to inform their audience that “On the ground in their own country, Hamas has been seen by many Palestinians as a deeply entrenched socio-political and popular force.”
By echoing US-Israeli demands that the group be sidelined, if not destroyed, such outlets are suggesting that a meaningful portion of the Palestinian population be deprived of its political representation. If journalists believe that killing civilians disqualifies Hamas from participating in political life, then one has to ask why those journalists do not regard the Israeli state’s much longer history of killing far more civilians as de-legitimizing it and barring it from a role in resolving the outstanding issues with the Palestinians.
1. Joel Beinin, "The Oslo Process and the Limits of a Pax Americana," in The Struggle for Sovereignty, eds. Joel Beinin and Rebecca L. Stein (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 32.
2. Charmaine Seitz, "Coming of Age: Hamas's Rise to Prominence in the Post-Oslo Era," in The Struggle for Sovereignty, eds. Joel Beinin and Rebecca L. Stein (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 123.
3. Seitz, 113.
4. Seitz, 114-16.
5. Seitz, 115-16.
6. Beinin, 32.
7. Beinin, 32.
8. Seitz, 115.
9. Beinin, 32.
10. Seitz, 117.
11. Seitz, 117.
12. Seitz, 117.
13. Seitz, 119.
14. Seitz, 119.
15. Seitz, 119.
16. Seitz, 120.
17. Seitz, 120.
18. Seitz, 120.
19. Seitz, 118.
20. Seitz, 127.
21. Seitz, 127-28.
22. Ilan Pappe, The History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 248.
23. Pappe, 248.
24. Pappe, 249.
25. Pappe, 249.
26. Pappe, 249.
Greg Shupak has a PhD in Literary Studies and teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Toronto. His fiction has appeared in a wide range of literary journals and he regularly writes analysis of politics and media for a variety of outlets including Alternet, Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, In These Times, Jacobin, Literary Review of Canada, Middle East Eye, TeleSUR, This Magazine, and Warscapes.