Can God Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Surveys of Israelis and Palestinians are definitive: Religious devotion starkly correlates with political extremism. Religious Jews and Muslims stoke incitement and violence. But could they also resolve the conflict?

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In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s easy to conclude that religious fervor towers over claims to land, power, resources, nation and narrative, in its raw capacity to escalate conflict and block peace. But how true is this?
Does religious fervor have more raw capacity to escalate conflict and block peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than claims to land, power, resources, nation and narrative?Credit: Ariel Schalit, Khalil Hamra, Nasser Ishtayeh, Mahmoud Illean/AP; Ammar Awad/REUTERS; Artwork/Anastasia Shub
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

As Ramadan, Passover and Easter coincided and violent clashes broke out in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound, the only surprise was that they didn’t spark a full-scale war.

The growing presence of Jews visiting the compound drew Palestinian protests, the police crackdown fed Palestinian fears of an Israeli "plot" to take over al Aqsa; and the Islamist Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, issued a call for attacks on Israelis and a potential religious war. Late on Independence Day, two Palestinian attackers took him at his word, killing three ultra-Orthodox Israelis in the city of Elad.

After decades of scrutinizing how the people of this region think, it’s easy to conclude that religious fervor towers over claims to land, power, resources, nation and narrative, in its raw capacity to escalate conflict and block peace.

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In the Israeli-Palestinian context, religious movements are prime actors stoking and sparking escalation: From Hamas or Islamic Jihad rockets fired into Israel, to radical Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians and relentless settlement expansion over decades.

But precisely because of their centrality to society and politics on both sides, there can be no peace without at least the partial acquiescence of religious communities. Why is religion such a force for incitement and violence? Even when religious communities are not actively violent, does their religious identity inevitably dictate hardline, militant political attitudes? Is there any way out of the religion-hardliner deadlock?

Settlers throw stones at Palestinians near the settlement of Yitzhar in the northern West Bank.Credit: AP

A key reason for religion’s toxic impact is that many believer’s narratives are tribal and exclusive – we alone are the chosen group, and our claims alone are correct. Most importantly, the divine religious mission is often framed as a matter of life or death.

On the Israeli Jewish religious right, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, among the most influential figures of the religious settlement movement from 1967 to today, sanctified the notion of "giving one’s life for the land," explains Ofer Zalzberg of the Herbert Kelman Institute, something Israel’s current prime minister Naftali Bennett has advocated himself in the past.

Some take the concept literally: After a Palestinian attacker killed yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman near a West Bank settlement, one of his angry peers at the former settlement of Homesh told me: "The most moral response in the world [to the murder] is for Jews to settle the land of Israel. Anyone who doesn’t realize that has a disease."

Palestinian religious extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad support killing and attacking civilians, and themselves too, if needed. The original 1988 Hamas charter explains the group’s aspirations: "Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes." Palestinian Islamic Jihad likewise sanctifies both the land of Palestine and the use of violence against Israelis; it "pioneered" the use of suicide attacks against Israelis.

Notably, for both sides, the cause is so holy, it even justifies violating each religion’s own principles: Jewish women settlers violate taboos on touching men in tussles with soldiers; the Qur’an forbids suicide.

Beyond activists and extremists, surveys find definitively that the unwavering connection between religious devotion and everyday hardline attitudes holds for the general public as well.

Among Jewish Israelis, the direct correlation between levels of religious observance and political self-definition is stark and unyielding in all polling, over decades. In a poll for Btselem in 2021, 88 percent of Orthodox (or "national religious") Jews reported that they were right-wing, compared to only 38 percent of secular Jews.

Masked Palestinians carry Palestinian and Hamas flags during Eid al-Fitr celebrations by the next to the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem this monthCredit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

The right-left axis in Israel represents first and foremost the conflict. In a joint Israeli-Palestinian survey from 2020, 70 percent of Orthodox Jews opposed the general notion of a two state solution; two-thirds of secular Jews supported it.  

Palestinians show similar trends, though the gaps are not as large and occasionally inconsistent. In that 2020 joint survey, 39 percent of religious Palestinians supported the two-state solution compared to 53 percent of the non-religious. Over 40 percent of religious Palestinians supported armed struggle against Israel, ten points more than others. Over 40 percent of religious respondents intended to vote for Hamas, but just 18 percent of "somewhat" religious respondents.  

Among Palestinians, about half the population considers itself "religious" (compared to "somewhat" or "not" religious); among Jews the Orthodox and national religious are fewer, close to one-quarter. But self-defined "traditionalists" are also heavily right-wing, adding up to more than half of Jews in total whose political attitudes are highly correlated with religion.

These trends are real; and often the liberal response is to write religious people off as fundamentalist peace spoilers; the more of them, the darker the future.

The moderate voices

Yet the varieties of religious interpretation and the diverse roles religion can play in society in practice, erode the simple picture that devotion inevitably or exclusively exacerbates conflict.

Even the interaction of politics and religion does not always drive extremism. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the towering charismatic founder of Israel’s Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, held that Jewish law permitted Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in his early years. Yosef sought to distinguish his community from the more hawkish Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox political positions. Shas avoided opposing the Oslo Accords, prioritizing a Jewish majority within Israel rather than extended territorial sovereignty; and in the late 1990s, the party’s fortunes soared. Shas later drifted far to the right; interestingly, its vote share also sank compared to its peak.

Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Religious Zionism party celebrate exit polls projections after Israel's last national electionsCredit: Rami Shlush

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, another leading religious Jewish figure, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, helped establish the "Jewish state and democratic state" movement, later a political party (Meimad) committed to moderate views on the conflict and partnership with the peace camp.

Amital served in Peres’ government after Rabin’s assassination and Meimad partnered with Labor in the 1999 elections. Meimad disappeared as a political party, but, says Zalzberg, Amital’s moderate spirit has grassroots influence, as one of the leaders of the Har Etzion yeshiva for over 30 years, with its thousands of graduates.

Similarly, Israelis are learning that the term "Muslim Brotherhood" can no longer be reflexively associated with violent Islamist extremism. Hamas is one offshoot, but historically, the Islamic Movement in Israel is another. The movement’s party offshoot Ra’am sits in Israel’s governing coalition; party leader Mansour Abbas broke a colossal psychological and political barrier to help form the current government, and became the new face of moderate Islamism for Israeli Jews.

Abbas is steely despite daily abuse from Netanyahu’s henchmen in the opposition. Against intense pressure from his base due to the recent violence at al-Aqsa, he carefully "suspended" his participation in the coalition, rather than smashing it (yet). He fiercely criticizes Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, instead calling for "reconciliation and partnership based on the values of religion and belief in God ["Elokim"]."

Finally, before blaming religion or hoping rare moderate religious voices win the day, religion must also be understood as one factor within larger political forces.

Palestinians attend a rally marking the 34th anniversary of Hamas' founding in Gaza City last year, against a mural backdrop depicting Hamas leaders and activitiesCredit: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra

"It’s not the [religious] text, it’s the context," Mustafa Abu Sway said in a phone interview, downplaying the impact of sacred texts in favor of political circumstances driving escalation. Abu Sway is scholar of Islam at al Quds University and at the al Aqsa Mosque. For the last decade, he has given sermons at al-Aqsa almost daily and more during Ramadan, adding sermons in English for foreign Muslim visitors.  

"What defines the [Muslim Palestinian] reaction is not what we [religious leaders] say," he told me, after visiting those injured in the Al-Aqsa clashes, but what "people see for themselves…a level of brutality that was unprecedented." Religion may exacerbate hardline attitudes, but a robust and effective peace process has been shown clearly to reduce those attitudes in survey research, he noted correctly.

Still, the moderate manifestations hint at openings for prising religion away from militant attitudes. And some are trying.

Cracks in the wall?

Alick Isaacs is a scholar of Jewish and western religious thought; Rabbi Amital was a major influence on him. Together with Professor Avinoam Rosenak and Sharon Leshem Zinger, they co-founded Sia’h Shalom – Talking Peace. He told me the group’s motivation was straightforward: "If we don’t manage to listen to and engage with constituencies that have opposed the peace proposals in the past, it’s not possible to achieve peace in the future."

The group facilitates dynamic workshops with religious and secular Israelis and Palestinians, including those who deeply opposed the peace efforts in the past, meeting both within each society, and between Israelis and Palestinians. The aim is to avoid selling liberal notions of peace to religious people, but to accept their religious perspectives as a starting point, to develop conceptions of peace that can be more commensurate with their religious worldview.

Covered in prayer shawls, Cohanim offer the priestly blessing during the Passover holiday in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

For religious Muslim participants, for example, Isaacs explained, the aim is "not how to find Islamic justifications for a liberal peace model, but what is an Islamic vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It turns the question on its head."

To outside observers, such an open-ended people-to-people approach can seem painfully incremental at a time when big-scale political progress – and results – are so urgently needed. But mapping the obstacles also sheds light on long-term dilemmas that eventually must be confronted.

The clash between liberal peace and religious conservatism is a profound example of such dilemmas. Sia’h Shalom found that liberal values are integral to both the logic and solutions for a two-state solution and peace – a linkage that deters many religious people committed to conservative lives and societies.

Of Haredi participants, Isaacs observes: “One of the purposes of their leadership is to resist or slow down changes.”

By contrast, when asked how Islam can support peace, Abu Sway answered that the right political agreement is the starting point, rather than religious interpretations: "If [an agreement] supports human rights, historical rights, if it’s very clear, we see the implementation, I think that should be enough."

Abu Sway considered how religious interpretations of the hudna – a long term truce – can support peace for an unlimited period of time; the concept has come to stand for an Islamic theological tradition with the intention of ending violence. Abu Sway also supports inter-group encounters, but is wary of regarding them as a panacea. "I love inter-faith dialogue," he says, adding, "but I am aware of its limitations."

Muslim worshippers offer Eid al-Fitr prayer at a park in Jaffa, southern Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday. Muslims around the world celebrate the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Credit: Oded Balilty /AP

Zalzberg concurs that the language and debates about peace grounded in liberal universalist principles, international law, rights and equality may critically conflict with conservative religious reasoning. Shas’ Rabbi Yosef, says Zalzberg, justified moderate views regarding peace based on the sanctity of Jewish lives, not on universal liberal values. Religious Jews may "worry that one issue [advancing conflict resolution] brings with it a whole package of [liberal] values and they won’t be able to pick just one."

There is no simple answer for the clash between liberal universalist notions of rights, and religious prioritization of theological values. But ignoring these constituents is no answer, nor is it realistic to expect them to adopt a liberal worldview wholesale.

After all, neither Palestinian nor Israeli religious hardliners have a monopoly on rigid or sanctified thinking. Israel has its own ritualized and mythologized secular civil religion: At 14:02 this Independence Day, Israel’s air force flew over Hebron and the hardcore settlement of Kiryat Arba for the first time, in a ritual as nationalist, expansionist and coercive as the religious beliefs secular people regularly blame.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that the direction of causality should be reversed: that the region’s most militant religious forces took the political center stage mainly following the 1967 war. In this framing, the occupation and conflict drives religious extremism, rather than the other way around.

Whatever its genesis, religious thinking exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but secular liberals advancing peace can’t afford to dismiss the openings that exist to include the communities committed to it. Political compromise cannot satisfy the extremists, but the effort to get there must include willing portion of the religious opposition, or at least convince them to refrain from spoiling the effort.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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