In my last post, I explored the theme of religious fundamentalism in the context of the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq. This post, focusing on the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, takes a somewhat different approach in that it investigates the role of fundamentalism on both sides. This may come as a bit of a surprise in the case of Israel.
Hamas is routinely defined as a fundamentalist organisation, and ultra-orthodox Jews are influential politically in Israel, but to what extent was the recent war in Gaza rooted in religious fundamentalism? On the face of it, the violence in Gaza has its roots in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the dispossession of Palestinians that occurred in the process. This, in turn, was driven by the Zionist movement of the early 20th Century – which had both secular and religious motivations. The latter may be identified in the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
The quote suggests that Israel’s cultural and religious identity is bound to territory – and territory that is exclusively Jewish. That is, even though modern Israel is very secular, its physical identity is inextricably rooted in Judaism. Thus, and curiously, although the ‘fundamentalists’ of ultra-orthodox Judaism eschew Zionism, secular Zionism is rooted in religious fundamentalism to the extent that it relies on a physical identity for Israel derived from historical accounts in ancient sacred texts (accounts which have been largely overturned by modern archaeology).
Hamas, for its part, has the following as part of its charter(Article 7):
“The Prophet of Allah (saas) says: The Last Hour would not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them, and until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say. Muslim or Servant of Allah there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree of Gharqad would not say it, for it is the tree of the Jew.”
Thus, Hamas can be seen to anchor its violence in Islam, even if the expression of that violence appears political (its refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist). Ironically, Israel, a largely secular nation, perpetrated violence on Gazan civilians in response – on the surface defending its territorial integrity as a nation state (a political act), but the integrity of territory whose historical foundation is rooted in a fundamentalist reading of ancient religious texts. The archaeological evidence for a united Iron-age Israel under the kings David and Solomon is scant. For example, see Finkelstein & Silberman Ch. 4, or Miller & Hayes Chs 6-7. A great many Jews are barely observant or even atheist, yet would regard the historical truth of the ‘Land of Israel’ – and their personal genealogical link thereto – as a core facet of their identity. To view it allegorically, for example, would be to question the raison d’etre of the modern state of Israel and is perhaps unthinkable to most Israelis.
These last two posts have considered recent and on-going wars in the Middle East in the context of religious fundamentalism. Politically, Syria and Gaza are two very different situations. If there is any similarity to the violence, it is probably revealed by the attitude of the relevant Islamic fundamentalists towards their local populations. Hamas routinely stores missiles in houses, schools and hospitals, putting civilians in mortal danger. ISIS is known for its brutal punishments and has recently instituted FGM for women and expulsion of Christians from its territory. Thus, both groups employ political power in the service of doctrinal purity. In contrast, the modern state of Israel is founded on a historical narrative that only Christian and Jewish fundamentalists now accept unquestioningly – that there once was a “Land of Israel” governed by the kings David and Solomon.