Islam and Judaism: a Religious or National Confrontation?
Based on the author's contribution to a symposium held in the summer of 1993 at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on Islam and Judaism where the complex of reciprocal relations between Jews and Moslems throughout history was analyzed by prominent scholars from Israel and abroad.

What is the nature of the relationship between Judaism and Islam, Jews and Moslems, as it can be expected to evolve in the foreseeable future? Is the relationship doomed to be one of confrontation or can such a collision course be avoided, clearing the way for cooperation and mutual enrichment between the believers in those two great religions, or rather civilizations?
Starting at the end, my final conclusion is that confrontation is inevitable on the conceptual and ideological level. It can, however, be avoided on the pragmatic level.


This distinction between the ideological and the pragmatic is based on the phenomenon, with which social scientists are well acquainted, of inconsistency between those two levels. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski elaborated on this phenomenon in his outstanding essay, "In Praise of Inconsistency." He argued - and I thoroughly endorse his argument - ¬that inconsistency is an essential feature of human behavior. Were human beings to behave according to their ideological convictions without the slightest deviation, the world would have been exterminated long ago, and the very existence of the human race would have been rendered impossible. What allows the survival of our world and the human beings living on the face of the earth is the quality of pragmatism, which enables them to reconcile their convictions with constraints of reality.
Several learned presentations at this seminar have dealt with the past and present status of Jews in Islamic countries. Certain participants have mentioned the fruitful cooperation between Jews and Moslems throughout many centuries, quite unlike the record of discrimination and persecution that befell the Jews in Christian Europe. Others have argued that this rosy description is grossly exaggerated, and that Jews under the rule of Islam also in fact suffered from an inferior legal and civic status.
It appears to me that we can reach a consensus, according to which, dhimmis ("the protected ones" - Jews and Christians in Islamic societies), by virtue of being monotheistic believers, did enjoy individual and collective security and autonomy in running their own community life, along with a certain legal discrimination. Those circumstances which characterized that fabric of relationship were conceivable from the Islamic point of view only as long as non-Islamic communities within the Islamic societies committed themselves to the rules of the game, namely acceptance of Islamic domination. Indeed, non-Islamic communities constituted enclaves of relative security and autonomy and were held in high regard within a system run by the Islamic State.

New Realities

That state of affairs underwent a radical change in the aftermath of the First World War. The major change that took place in our region was the emergence of national-territorial states on the ruins of the old system - the Islamic State. As for the Jews, the meaning of the Zionist challenge for the surrounding Arab-Islamic society was the transformation of the rules of the game. Jews became, by virtue of the Zionist idea, a distinctive political entity claiming an independent, unique, separate political status, instead of a protected religious-cultural minority. The Arab-Islamic society undoubtedly found it extremely difficult to accommodate itself to the new situation which was part and parcel of the overall Western challenge.
The Arab-Islamic society endeavored to cope with the changing realities. The turn of the century witnessed the beginnings of an Arab national movement, at first some almost negligible national associations, with quite hesitant and confused tidings, developing into a mass movement with a sweeping and unequivocal message. This national movement appears to have been supra-religious, shared by Moslems and Christians alike. The battle slogan of the Egyptian national revolt of 1919 was "Inna al-din li-llah wa-al-watan lil-jamee," meaning that faith in God was every individual's business, whereas homeland was the joint asset of all the people. But, in practical terms, the Arab national movement has been, and still is, fraught with cultural and religious Islamic substance.

The Israel-Arab Conflict

Turning to the conflict over Palestine it is, therefore, a national-political conflict, carried out through political instruments (including warfare), yet is certainly not devoid of religious (Islamic, as well as Jewish) ingredients. Thus, for instance, the basic Arab claim to Palestine has been religious, pertaining to the sanctity of the land for Islam. It is in that light that one should view the leading role of the Mufti of Jerusalem in the Palestinian national movement in the 1930's and 1940's, as well as religious components in the PLO-inspired Palestinian national experience.
We should ask ourselves, then, whether the present Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict is basically a religious one, also containing some national-political elements which are instrumental to its religious centrality, or is it the other way round: a national-political conflict, sustained by religious elements which are crucial for mobilizing the support of the masses.
Some spiritual leaders, both Moslems and Jews, would favor the former interpretation. I am particularly referring to Rabbi Menachem Forman of the settlement of Teqo'a, who has voiced this attitude in many an article and interview. In his perception, not only is the conflict, by essence, a religious-spiritual rather than political-material one, but this is probably the more desirable situation, since it holds more available options for solution. Rabbi Forman strongly believes that dialogue between religious leaders, based on the shared religious values of all monotheistic believers, may be more fruitful than dialogue between politicians, affected by earthly interests.
The National as the Core Element
My own view is quite different. I do not overlook the intertwining of political and religious elements in the regional conflict. Any attempt at separating one from the other is certainly doomed to failure. It is worth noting that religious elements do exist in the concept of the conflict not only on the Arab part, but - to a no lesser degree - on the Jewish part. Substantial portions of the Jewish-Israeli public see a messianic experience in the conflictual situation.
It is not by accident that the Arab-Israeli conflict evolved at a particular point in time, namely, in the age of nationalism, which is the major phenomenon of the East/West encounter opening the modern era in our region. It should be recalled that religious trends in contemporary Arab societies, including fundamentalistic ones, are not dissociated from local-national (Watani) context. The full name of the Lebanese Shi'i Amal movement, for instance, is "Lebanese Resistance Battalions." The more orthodox Shi'i organization Hizbullah ("God's Party") can also be understood only against the very unique local Lebanese background. Other examples are readily available.
All this leads to the conclusion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is basically and essentially a confrontation between two national-political entities. However powerful, the religious experience is, at the present stage, an attached element to the core of the subject, but is far from being the subject itself.
To sum up this discussion, Judea-Islamic confrontation is unavoidable, as a point of principle, since the Zionist project has disrupted a certain basic order exercised by the Islamic society. Hence it constituted, and still does, an ultimate challenge for the Islamic society in our region. But what may moderate the severity of the conflict is, by paradox, precisely what has accorded it its severity, namely, its political component, which is its very core and which permits pragmatic arrangements. Ideological reconciliation does not seem conceivable, but practical arrangements on the ground may evolve into a degree of inter-state cooperation. Contacts on the level of spiritual-¬religious leadership may promote a political compromise, but cannot replace it. The chances of bridging the inter-religious gap seem meager unless it has at its basis a political understanding between states and peoples.
Inter-religious understanding will have to wait until a mutually acceptable political settlement is reached. This goal can be attained if both parties recognize and respect the necessary minimum that each is capable of undertaking without being defeated or humiliated.