The Guiding Forces of Islam and Judaism In context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
O ye who believe!
Do your duty to God,
Seek the means
Of approach unto Him,
And strive in His cause:
That ye may prosper
- Qur’an 5:35
And the Lord told Moses to say to the Israelites:
“…if you will obey me and keep my covenant,
you will be my own people.
The whole earth is mine, but you will be
My Chosen people,
A people dedicated to me alone,
And you will serve me as priests.”
- Exodus 19:3-6
When religion is mentioned in connection with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict it is often in a negative, dismissive sense. ‘Religious extremists’ on both sides are lambasted as ‘blocking the road to peace’; the conventional view (in the West at least) is that if only religion could be removed from the picture, all would be resolved. This view is unrealistic and therefore unhelpful as it fails to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of Israelis identify themselves as Jews, and that most Palestinians see themselves as Muslims. To what degree these people are practising or even believing does, of course, greatly affect their views, but the fact remains that both religions have very clear agendas and ideologies: if an individual is even a ‘secular’ Jew or a ‘non-practising’ Muslim it is inevitable that he/she will be affected by them, be it consciously or unconsciously.
The religions of Islam and Judaism, while both being essentially monotheistic, are actually very different from one another in a number of fundamental aspects. Perhaps the most important of these is shown in the quotes at the beginning of the article: while the Qur’an is addressed to “ye who believe”, the biblical message is clearly for “the Israelites.” The Qur’anic verse goes on to command believers to “seek the means of approach to Him”; the Israelites are told they will be God’s “chosen people” who will “serve [Him] as priests”. The key differences these verses highlight are, firstly, that the Qur’anic message of Islam is addressed to anyone who believes it, while the biblical message is only for the chosen people; and secondly, that the Qur’an implores believers to search for the ways to serve God while the biblical emphasis is not on searching but on serving, on doing one’s duty. The legacy of these differences can be clearly seen in the nature of the major disputes that surround the respective messages.
Muslims are constantly debating whether their belief is pure, whether they are “seek[ing] the means of approach to Him” in the correct manner. The Sunni/Shia divide, for example, focuses around who should have been leader of the Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad died; the varying views about the implications of what happened at that time lead to slightly different approaches towards Islamic law and philosophy<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The dispute, however, has absolutely nothing to do with whether either group has more ‘right’ to call themselves Muslims on account of their lineage. Believers in the Bible, on the other hand, have always disagreed on which of them can claim to be the “chosen people”: Who is really descended from the Israelites? Can one convert to be one of the chosen? If so how?… Many peoples over the years have claimed to be the “chosen” ones: the Afrikaners in South Africa, Rastafarians, Christians… The Jews, however, have developed a complex religion based on the Bible<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> which interprets biblical verses “…in a sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament…”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> These interpretations are fixed in the Talmud, a large body of work that was written around 2000 years ago. The Talmud contains laws governing every aspect of Jewish life; according to Classical and Orthodox Judaism these laws must be dogmatically accepted as they are the real meaning of the bible and may only be discussed in order to understand them better; they are given equal status with the word of God, obeying them is therefore seen as serving Him as He wishes to be served.
The other main source of Jewish learning is the cabbala, Jewish mysticism, which originated in medieval times. It is important to understand that, while the reformed Jewish movement questions the divine authority of the Talmud, it by no means disputes its central place in the Jewish faith; indeed, as Levinas stated, “If there had been no Talmud, there would have been no Jews today.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Many commentators on the current conflict, especially Israelis, seem outraged at the riots that have been taking place: one long-time Peace Now member stated that “…people who have participated in the grassroots peace work have doubts about the trustworthiness of their Palestinian friends.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Although they know that since the “Oslo breakthrough” life has got steadily worse, not better, for Palestinians, the Israeli left are saying “Barak offered them a fair deal and they have thrown it back in his face. Now the Palestinians will get a rightwing, Likud regime who will give them nothing”. This arrogant assumption that Israelis can decide what the Palestinians must accept is, ironically, in agreement with the religious settlers’ view that “the Palestinians must learn that they have to live here under certain conditions – or leave.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> But the message that the Palestinians are sending out to the Israelis, and indeed the world, is that they will not simply give up and aquiesce in their own oppression and humiliation. They know better than anyone else that they cannot defeat the Israeli military and that the Arab nations, for all their posturing, will never come to their aid; but still they fight on in whatever ways they can.
The dignified refusal of the Palestinian people to let their spirits be broken despite 52 years of oppression is a quality that is strengthened by Islam. It is written:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair)
Of a male and a female, and made you into
Nations and tribes, that ye may know each other
(Not that ye may despise each other).
Verily the most honoured of you
In the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you.
And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted
With all things.
- Qur’an 49:13
This verse can be seen to demonstrate that just because the Israelis with their US backers have superior power, that does not make them superior people, as real superiority is measured in terms of righteousness. The search for the righteous way can be clearly seen in the Palestinians’ actions over the past weeks; for is it not more ‘righteous’ to fight for true equality, regardless of whether it is achieved or not, than to give in to injustice merely because it has the upper hand?
The spirit of the above Qur’anic verse is in direct contrast to the spirit of Judaism. Far from asserting that human beings are on this earth “that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other)”, Judaism teaches that humans are divided into two classes: Jew and Gentile (non-Jew). Jews, due to their being the ‘chosen people’ are superior to Gentiles and their lives are, accordingly, more valuable. While the Halacha (talmudic law) decrees that the murder of a Jew is a capital offence, the murder of a Gentile by a Jew is only a sin against heavenly laws and is not punishable by a court. Although such laws are not those of the Israeli state, Orthodox rabbis guide their congregations according to the Halakhah and base their advice to soldiers in the occupied territories on talmudic law. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the religious settler movement Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) wrote a book in 1990 called Intifada Responses. In it, he posed the question: “Does the Halacha permit inflicting the death penalty on Arabs who throw stones?” He answered that such a punishment is not only permitted but mandatory.
Such decrees as the ones above would be impossible to derive from Islamic law as the maxim “blood is thicker than water” is categorically denied in Qur’anic verses such as the one quoted above; the theme of equality regardless of faith, race or wealth is a constant one in the Shari’a (Islamic law). In the time of the Prophet Muhammad there once came to him some men requesting that the punishment for theft in the case of a rich man’s daughter be commuted on account of her status. The Prophet refused, stating that even if his own daughter were found guilty of theft, she would be punished accordingly.
In Judaism, however, blood is most definitely thicker than water. While Muslims are commanded to serve God by “enforcing the right and forbidding the wrong”, Jewish law interprets ‘serving God’ as ‘serving the Jewish cause and people.’ The main issue, as can be seen from the talmudic laws above, is not who is wrong and who is right, but who is Jewish and who is not. This double standard has been built into the Jewish psyche over hundreds of years of indoctrination in the closed communities of pre-Enlightenment Europe; it still holds such power over Jews that even the majority ‘secular Jews’ in Israel and the Diaspora unconsciously apply it to any situation wherein Jews are involved. The current conflict is a case in point: liberal, rational Jews around the world, who would express horror were the slaughter of Palestinian youths being conducted by anyone else, remain generally mute in the face of their own people’s brutality. Even those who do express disgust with Israel do so mostly in private, either unwilling or too afraid to make their feelings known outside the community. This hypocritical practice has its roots in Jewish law: throughout Jewish history Jews who have, according to rabbis, endangered Jewish life or informed on Jewish affairs (especially to non-Jews) have had the 'law of the pursuer' (din rodef) or 'law of the informer' (din moser) applied to them; the punishment these laws entail is that the guilty party must be killed or wounded severely. Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, cited both laws as justification for his deed: numerous religious rabbis and writers had applied them to Rabin and other Israeli leaders in the period preceding his murder.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The reactions of Muslims and Jews around the world differs directly in accordance with the teachings of their respective religions. Muslims as far away as Indonesia have been holding mass demonstrations in protest against the sickening pictures of Israeli soldiers gunning down Palestinian children. The Qur'an commands believers to fight oppression wherever it is, regardless of whether the oppressed are Muslim or not:
And why should ye not fight in the cause of God?
And of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?-
Men, women and children, whose cry is:
“Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors…”
- Qur’an 4:75
The facts that the Palestinians are mostly Muslims, and that Jerusalem is a holy place in Islam do, of course, influence the way Muslims feel; but it is the pictures that have shocked the world that have created such emotion in the Muslim masses. They know their duty as Muslims is to fight injustice and it is this they are trying to do, however ineffectively.
Jews, however, are duty-bound by their religion to support each other, regardless of whether they are oppressor or oppressed. This is made clear in the talmudic interpretations of the well-known biblical verses which state: "thou shalt love thy fellow (neighbour)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> as thyself" (Leviticus, 19:18) and "neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow" (ibid., 16). In both cases "thy fellow" is taken to mean thy fellow Jew; as Maimonedes, a revered talmudic scholar wrote: “...if, for example, one of them [gentiles] is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued... for he is not thy fellow." Jews are not obliged, then, to stand up for non-Jews who are in danger or battle, but they must not "stand against" a fellow Jew's blood: they must stand up for a fellow Jew in danger. That Jews are abiding by this religiously sanctified double standard, whether they know it or not, can be seen in the fact that the London-based Jewish Chronicle, in spite of the fact that it is clearly the Palestinians who are in need, lead its October 27th edition with the front-page headline "British Jews are urged to visit Israel in 'time of need.'” The 'paper goes on to report how Jewish groups are rallying round in support of Israel, with the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) organising a "fact-finding and solidarity mission." No mention is made of the Palestinians' suffering whatsoever. Interestingly, the Jewish Society publicity officer has advised students to tone down their pro-Israel views when talking to non-Jewish students in order not to antagonise them; this hypocrisy is completely in line with numerous talmudic dispensations that exempt Jews from obeying laws that discriminate against non-Jews in case they 'arouse hostility' amongst the Gentiles.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Islam recognises and respects other religions, especially Judaism and Christianity whose adherents are given the title "the people of the book." Islam commands Muslims to live with those who give them peace in peace, in the hope that the message of Islam might reach their hearts; the people of the book are invited to Islam in a beautiful manner:
Say ye: We believe in God, and the revelation
Given to us and to Abraham, Ismael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes.
And that given to Moses, Jesus and to all Prophets from their Lord.
We make no difference between one and another of them
And we bow to God (in Islam)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.
- Qur’an 2:136
The reality of Muslims' essentially peaceful attitude to those around them can be seen in the way that Palestinian Christians have lived side by side with their Muslim neighbours for centuries, mostly under Islamic rule. The village of Beit Jala, which is 60% Christian bears witness to this fact; and just as they fought together against the European crusaders in the middle ages, so they are united in opposing Israel's brutal occupation.
Judaism, however, is not concerned with calling non-Jews to accept its message, nor does it command Jews to live in peace with others: it's laws and decrees are solely directed towards enabling Jews to fulfil their mission as "God's chosen people". In Israel, where there is no need to beware of the "hostility of Gentiles" as Jews have greater power, the naked aggression of this 'mission' is exposed, especially at times like the present. The Israeli press has no qualms about mentioning the Palestinian deaths, the Jerusalem Post ran a special feature on the child victims under the headline: "Child sacrifice is Palestinian paganism." Barak recently called the Palestinians "serpents" which bears an uncanny resemblance to the verdict of classic talmudic commentators on how to deal with non-Jews in wartime: "The best of Gentiles - kill him; the best of snakes - dash out its brains."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement, are very clear about how Jews should fulfil their 'mission', they believe that:
Historic Zionism has reached its end in bankruptcy... The real Zionism, the holy one with
profound roots, exists only where the really religious Jews are living; in the mountains of
Judea and the valleys of Samaria.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
This "real Zionism" entails "redeeming" the Holy Land by transferring it from the "satanic to the divine sphere." Non-Jews (whose souls, according to the Cabbala, are from the satanic sphere) who stand in the way of this process are damaging their own chances of redemption, as the former Knesset member Eliezer Waldman stated: "'Arab hostility springs, like all anti-Semitism, from the world's recalcitrance to be saved [by the Jews].'"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Far from being merely the raving of religious extremists, the depiction of Jews as unappreciated, misunderstood ‘saviours’ who are simply doing their duty is echoed in the attitudes of mainstream Israelis and 'liberal intellectual' Jews:
The idea of a chosen people must not be taken as a sign of pride. It does not involve being aware of exceptional rights, but of exceptional duties. It is the prerogative of a moral consciousness itself.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> (my italics)
… Israeli exploitation, discrimination and domination in the Occupied Territories… [is] all for the good of the Palestinians, it’s all for the success of peace, it’s all so that the Palestinians will finally understand what their fathers refused to understand – that the Zionist enterprise is here to rescue them from the morass of hardship and backwardness – and they must therefore be eternally grateful.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
If any kind of peace is to be achieved, then, it is clear that the situation must be understood not only in terms of current events, but also in light of the ideological forces exerted by religion; for "only by knowing it can one transcend its blind power."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> And only by knowing it can one be truly able to exercise the freedom of choice that is enshrined in the Qur'an:
Let there be no compulsion in religion:
Truth stands out clear from error.
- Qur’an 2:256
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> However, the fundamental belief in one God who revealed the Qur’an through His Prophet Muhammad is accepted by both Shia and Sunnis. New converts to Islam are often mystified by the animosity between two groups who have so much in common, do we sense the dividing hand of colonialists in the picture…?
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> More specifically, on the Torah, the five books of Moses.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Shahak, I. “Jewish History, Jewish Religion” p36
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Levinas, E. “Difficult Freedom” p175
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> in Jewish Chronicle 20th Oct
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> settler quoted in The Independent 14th Oct
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> see Shahak, I. “Jewish Fundamentalism…” chap. 7
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Although the Hebrew re'akha is usually translated as 'neighbour', 'fellow' or 'friend' is more correct.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> See Shahak, I. "Jewish History..." chap. 5 for an indepth study of such laws.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The literal meaning of Islam is ‘peace through submission to God.’
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> From the Tosafot – compilation of rabbinical commentary on the Talmud
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Rabbi Ariel quoted in Shahak, I, "Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel" p88
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Ibid. p73. See chaps. 4 & 5 for indepth analyses of Gush ideology
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Levinas, E. “Difficult Freedom” p176
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Meron Benvenisti assessing Israel’s attitude to ‘peace-talks’ in Ha’aretz, 19 Sep. 1993
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Shahak, I. “Jewish History…” p35
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