The Jewish national movement convened under the Zionist Congress, and the Palestinian national movement did so under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The two movements were largely secular and inspired by the national discourse that swept across Europe in the 19th century and into the Middle East following World War I. In their international advocacy, the leaderships of the two rival movements have consistently and repeatedly cited articles from international law, which recognizes the legitimacy of the right to self-determination of both peoples west of the Jordan (from the recommendations of the Peel Commission through United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 to United Nations Security Council Resolution 242), often cherry-picking those articles that would support their unilateral actions. To mobilize their grassroots base, historical circumstances of persecution and plight were emphasized, and though they were objectively entirely different, they granted both movements a similar sense of urgency.

Religion was a third pillar upon which these movements were founded, playing a role that was more rhetorical than practical. In other words, the three Abrahamic religions of the two peoples were used descriptively in the discourse of the two national movements to legitimize their claims rather than prescriptively in shaping the forthcoming states: The Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 mentions that it is the place where the “spiritual, religious and political identity [of the Jewish people] was shaped;” the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988 refers to “Palestine’s age-old spiritual and civilizational heritage of tolerance and religious coexistence;” and Article 20 of the PLO Charter implicitly accepts the basic logic that if Judaism has some ties to the land, then that might mean something about its appropriate contemporary sovereign.[u1]

Both Ben-Gurion and Arafat Envisioned a Secular State

In practice, the approach of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben- Gurion, was that religion — especially the social function of the bible’s prophets — ought to serve as an inspiration for statesmanship but that religious institutions must be placed under the control of the state. In the decades that followed, this position was opposed by advocates of separation of religion and state — from left-wing liberals to deeply religious figures such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz1 and by national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that supported using the state as a mechanism for religious indoctrination and, ultimately, salvation. Although in his lifetime PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat failed to establish the Palestinian state for which he fought, his vision of it was a secular state in terms of its institutions and main source of authority. That is partly why factions like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad consistently contested the course of his leadership and are not members of the PLO.

The Rise of Gush Emunim and Hamas

In the past two decades we have been witnessing a sharp rise in the powers of religious factions and are seeing the standards for nationalism being redefined along the lines of Judaism and Islam in Israel and Palestine, respectively. In Israel it was Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful, founded in 1974) and its forerunners, at first an esoteric movement, that began settling in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. By the early 1990s, however, its power had become institutionalized, and its messages were echoed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and in the wild, impassioned demonstrations against the Oslo Accords that targeted Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, setting the stage for his assassination. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties increasingly dominated subsequent governments, viewing the state as either a vehicle through which the lands and the people will be redeemed by God or as a mere service provider for their closed communities.

In Palestine, it was the fundamentalist Hamas, rather than the leftist and secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), that became the main rival of the Fateh party, and won the 2006 parliamentary elections to oust the Palestinian Authority (PA) from the Gaza Strip. Since then it has not only turned Gaza into a quasi-caliphate, strictly governed by an Islamic Council, but it has also become a powerful force in the West Bank. The measures it has taken include censoring secular artistic events such as belly dancing or concerts, imposing norms of modesty that require women to dress in hijabs and niqabs, and more. Culture reflects prevalent values and beliefs and, without a doubt, Palestinian culture has undergone a significant change.

The causes of this rise in the power of religious factions are numerous. In Israel it is clear that demography has played a role: As Haifa University professor Arnon Sofer explained in an interview in July 2015 to the nationalreligious Arutz Sheva channel, “while left-wing Israelis demonstrate in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, national-religious settlers in Eli and ultra-Orthodox ones in Beitar Ilit are having dozens of babies.” Other factors include the government’s determination of national priorities: Most development towns on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, populated largely by Sephardi Jews, received a fraction of the culture budgets allocated to cities in the center of the country and to the kibbutzim. In places that do not receive adequate funds for secular, state-supported culture, religion naturally becomes the dominant culture — embracing, rather than alienating, local residents and encouraging unity over division.

In Palestine, geostrategic transformations also played a key role, with left-wing secular parties and the PLO itself relying on an alliance with the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed, the remaining power in the region was that of fundamentalist Islam in the post-colonial Iran that replaced the West-friendly rule of Reza Pahlavi with the Ayatollahs’ regime. Demography was significant in Palestine as well, as seen by the rapidly sinking number of Christians from 20% in 1948 to about 1% of Palestinian society in 2015. Christian Palestinians added an essential pluralism to Palestinian society and often the more liberal and elitist sectors, from Edward Saïd through George Habash and countless actors, musicians, and more. Finally, poverty was also a factor in the rise of political Islam: When the PA failed to provide its people with crucial welfare, Hamas’s Dawa system of civilian infrastructure filled the vacuum.

Professor Walzer’s Theory for the Rise of Religion in Young Democracies

Michael Walzer’s new book2 offers a theory to account for the rise of religion in young democracies. His cases cover Algeria, India and Israel. Walzer points out that the leaders of national uprising movements in those cases were brought up in very Western and democratic contexts. Herzl, Weizmann and other founding members of the Zionist movement did not believe religion should have a role in the social democracy they envisioned. The waves of Jewish immigrants from the Polish “shtetls” during the 1930s and, a couple of decades later, of Sephardi Jews (predominantly from Iraq, Egypt and Yemen) caused them concerns about preserving the “purity of the Zionist revolution.” While the leaders of the Zionist movement demanded a transformation of the old Jew into a new one from a liberal perspective, the people did not share that liberalism. Several decades later, the people voted for nationalist and fundamental religious parties, using the democratic system to empower undemocratic trends and using the infrastructure that is meant to support human rights in order to reintroduce ethnic, exclusive rights. Furthermore, this new trend frames the bearers of the liberal spirit — which steered the ship of state in its early days — as traitors, heathens, Westernizers, etc.

Walzer describes secular-liberalism as too weak to create an inspiring and resilient identity and attributes that deficiency to the revival of religion. Palestine could — with certain modifications — also fit into the model he describes. The pioneers of Palestinian nationalism did not hold the same explicitly alienated approach toward religion as did the pioneers of Zionism, but they and their international and regional Communist and Baathist sponsors were nevertheless supportive of a secular state. Walzer concludes that extreme liberalism, when it seeks to marginalize religion completely, is bound to achieve the opposite in the form of religious fundamentalism. This may apply to the case of Palestine as well, when one considers Fatah’s loss of significant parts of Palestinian society and of the Gaza Strip itself, partially because of its internal hedonist and corrupt rule, in comparison with Hamas’s promise of religiously inspired austere governance (a promise which retrospectively proved false).

The religious challenge to secular democracy is not met without a struggle. These days Israel is marking a decade to the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which came — in the words of Yedidia Stern — as a shock to the national-religious camp.3 Residents of the Gush Katif settlement bloc, as well as those in the West Bank settlements slated for evacuation, assumed that clinging to the land fulfilled a religious duty and would thus immunize them against any threat of evacuation. The settlers believed that the divine promise in the covenant with Abraham — “to your seed I gave this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates”4 — was applicable to the given reality in 2005. Stern claims in retrospect that it is wrong to conduct policy on a meta-historical basis, adding that it not only deludes Jewish believers but also undermines the modern notion of sovereignty. Nevertheless, the harsh experiences of the past do not appear to be moderating fundamentalist trends. On the contrary, religious-political movements are worsening divisions throughout the entire Middle East and North Africa, well beyond Israel and Palestine.

Expanding the outlook beyond Israel and Palestine, one might ask: How clear, in principle, is the dichotomy between human rights-based and religion-based governance? On one hand, the division is obvious: Religion assumes that God is the source of ethical behavior, whereas the source of authority in the discourse on universal human rights is often human beings themselves. On the other hand, the discourse on human rights has always been entangled in a religious discourse. This is evident in the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (for example, “I Have a Dream” cites the books of Amos and Isaiah) and the writings of John Locke,5 as well as in the original works of the biblical prophets themselves.6

Predicting a Decline in the Role of Both Theism and the “Human Rights Religion”

Furthering the mashing of religion and human rights, Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling book,7 addresses the question of whether religionbased and human rights-based governance are categorically distinct. Harari does so by reframing the issue: Human beings rule the world as the only animal that believes in things that exist purely in our imagination, including God, human rights and states themselves. In that sense, there is no a priori superiority to either theism, universalism or nationalism, and all of them are systems that serve similar functions of organizing society under common imagined principles and giving meaning to the individual’s life. He adds that capitalism, socialism, and human rights are not the first godless religions. Some of the world’s most ancient religions — from Buddhism through Confucianism to Daoism — are admittedly not bluntly atheist, but none of them ascribe a prominent role to the gods.

Harari foresees the decline and eventual disappearance of both theism and the “human rights religion,” to be replaced with a new “data religion” through a long-term process of technological determinism.8 Such predictions are not new, and one can reminisce about how Marx and Engels also predicted the dissolution of the state and religion. Such theories, however, provide no remedy for contemporary inter- and intra-religions tensions: Islamic factions vs. Jewish nationalists; Shiite Iranian proxies vs. Sunnis; Alawite nationalists vs. various multi-sectoral opposition groups; Islamic State vs. Shiites, “impure” Sunnis, Alawis, Houthis, Christians and other minorities; and of course liberals vs. theists. Grand theories often depict a course of clashes between symbols — from “East and West” and “authenticity” through “post-colonialism” and “race” to “hegemony” and economic class. Tragically, current conflicts are not just replacing old categories with new ones but are manifesting in horrendous bloodshed throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Some Recommendations for the Future

Some practical takeaways from the different accounts of various religions — particularly in order to help salvage a wrecked and disabled Israel, Palestine and the wider Middle East region — include:

a) Calls for peace should not be conditioned upon accepting one religion over another.
b) As Walzer recommends, such calls should not attempt to deploy a language that is alienated from the terminology and filters of any religion. On the contrary, the language we use should dare to engage in the languages of the other. Culture, religion and linguistic communities develop simultaneously into comprehensive worldviews,9 but what the region is experiencing now is the hyper-growth of a multiplicity of such worldviews which fail to communicate.
c) As demonstrated in Harari’s account of the evolution and devolution of religions, not a single one has withstood all the turbulence and violent struggles throughout history. That does not mean that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, humanism or any other religion is necessarily prone to extinction, but it does mean that people of all faiths can afford to and should take themselves and their faiths less seriously.

Amen, Insha’Allah, or in the name of a common humanity, it is possible to change the common discourse of Israelis and Palestinians (and of the other peoples and religions in the region). Such changes should aspire to restructure the prevalent discursive practices with more humility and mutual respect, in order to advance toward a more dialogical and less violent reality.


1Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1995). Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 22015, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, New Haven: Yale University Press 3Haaretz, July 9, 2015 4Genesis, 15: 18 5Human beings are created by God for God’s purposes but governments are created by and for human beings – John Dunn (1969). The Political Thought of John Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 6Universal concepts of natural rights extend beyond the narrow definition of a covenant community –Jonathan Sacks (2002). The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilization. London: Continuum International 7Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind. London: Harvill Secker 8Yuval Noah Harari (2015). The History of Tomorrow. Or Yehuda: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan. 9Or Weltansicht: James Underhill (2009). Humboldt, Worldview and Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.