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.

Much of the recent attention has been focused on the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamist movements in other Arab countries, including that of the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In the aftermath of the "spring" there, some have taken these developments as a clear sign that the old Arab nationalist project is dead. 

But Israel and its secular and liberal political elites, who have led Israel and the Zionist movement since its inception, may also be losing their power. Part of the reason is the victory of the Jewish settlement project in the West Bank, which has made it more difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an Israeli government withdrawing to the 1967 lines.

That the main political parties representing the Zionist left and center are expected to win not more that a third of the seats in the 120 members, while the political right and the ultra-Orthodox parties gaining a majority of more than 60 seats is not the big story of the coming parliamentary election.

More interesting are the indications that Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), a Zionist and Orthodox Jewish movement led by newcomer Naftali Bennett is emerging as the second most powerful right-wing party. The movement, which supports settling and annexing the West Bank to Israel, is challenging the dominant position of the Likud, whose leaders, including Binyamin Netanyahu, may be ultranationalists but also adhere to the more secular and liberal tradition of Israel's founders.

A continuing shift toward a more theocratic and religious direction, coupled with the creeping annexation of the West Bank, would make Israel look very different from the westernized and liberal nation-state its founders envisioned. That in turn would only accelerate the emigration of many of its young and secular professionals, including those who are currently the driving force behind the country’s scientific and technological achievements.

And as more, if not most, of the Christian and secular Arabs flee to the West and the Arab World is ruled by Islamist parties, those religious-nationalists governing Israel and Palestine may find that they have actually more in common with each other than with their secular predecessors. For example, they could work together in Jerusalem to restrict women and gays and weaken the influence of the Christian churches. And if that doesn’t work, continuing to fight each other will help them maintain their power. Religion may be replacing nationalism as a unifying glue.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.