The Arab-Israeli Conflict's Secular Past and Religious Future

Secular Zionists and Arab nationalists are being overtaken by their more religious rivals.

Imagine a 20-year-old American kid who follows world affairs by browsing the Internet. Ask him to point out to the driving force behind the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And don’t be surprised if his answer is religion.

Even those who are familiar with Middle East politics tend to refer to “Jews” and “Muslims” when they discuss the latest crisis the Holy Land. And watch a recent documentary about the Israeli Palestinian conflict and expect to see images of Muslim and Jewish holy sites, and of ultra-Orthodox Jews and bearded Muslim clergymen, being featured prominently in the film.

Indeed, long-term demographic changes have shifted the balance of political power among Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs and in other parts to the Middle East. Ultra-Orthodox and observant Jews, along with the many shades of Islamism, are changing the narrative of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and Middle Eastern politics in a dramatic way. Perhaps the observation of that 20-year-old kid is beginning to make more sense than the traditional notion of treating the dispute between Jews and Arabs as one pitting one national movement, Zionism or Jewish nationalism, against the other, pan-Arabism or Arab nationalism.

Having taught classes on the Arab-Israeli conflict or responded to questions about the topic to listeners on radio shows, I’ve discovered that many Americans assume that Jews and Arabs have been at engaged in a tribal-religious war from time immemorial. Yet the political and political founders of both the Arab and Jewish national movements that have started taking shape in the early twentieth century were probably more secular than your average American. 

In fact, some of the early leaders of the movement to establish a Jewish state and gather Jews in the Land of Israel were atheists, while many of the leading pan-Arabists who had called for creating a unified Arab State from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea were Christians.

Hence, two Syrian Christian intellectuals who were educated in the West, Constantine Zurreiq and Michel Aflaq, were key figures in the establishment of the pan-Arabist Baath movement that still rules Syria, as was George Antonius, a Lebanese Christian who settled in Palestine. Antonius, the author of The Arab Awakening, was a key intellectual figure in an evolution in Arab nationalism, which reached its peak when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser vowed to unite the Arabs in the 1950s by promoting a secular nationalist and socialist agenda.

And Palestinian Christians, ranging from statesmen (Sari Nusseibah, Hannan Ashrawai) to terrorist leaders (George Habash, Naif Hawtmah), not to mention a famous world figure, Edward Said, have played a prominent role in the campaign for Palestinian independence.

Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism and the author of The Jewish State, was an assimilated Viennese journalist who exhibited a dismissive attitude toward religion, as did some of his colleagues in the Zionist movement, including Max Nordau, with the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews being opposed to the project.

Many of the efforts to settle the Land of Israel during the British Mandate period were spearheaded by Socialist, Marxist and liberal Zionists who occupied top leadership positions in the movement for Jewish independence. Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion, not unlike his opponent, the liberal nationalist Zeev Jabotinsky, was a secular Jew with no sympathy toward the rabbinical authorities.

Not unlike Ataturk, who transformed the Ottoman Caliphate into the western and secular state of Turkey (which was what the Shah was trying to do in Iran), the Arab nationalists and Zionists were hoping to build modern, European-style secular-nationalist foundations beneath communities and civilizations that had been religious in their core, the Muslim “Umma” and the Jewish people.

Both the Zionists and the pan-Arabists had won wars of national liberation and succeeded in wining political independence while failing to achieve the more ambitious goals, Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea and the gathering of world Jews in Israel, although the continuing conflict between Arabs and Israelis helped consolidate the power of the political elites on both sides and win support from outside powers.

But eventually the secular Nasser and Ben Gurion were both forced to engage with and make political deals with the clerical forces in the two communities, while the ruling secular elites found themselves being challenged by revitalized political-religious movements, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Israel's Orthodox Jewish settlers. The elites also had to cope with major demographic changes: Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arab (and Turkish and Iranian) Islamists, were multiplying.

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