Today’s guest bloggers are Joshua Stanton and Mirah Curzer. Joshua is a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. He is also founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ and a 2007 – 2008 Fellow of the Interfaith Youth Core. Mirah is participating in a year-long fellowship program at a major Israeli civil rights organization. She will enter New York University Law School in the fall of 2009. Josh and Mirah graduated from Amherst College in 2008 and now live in Jerusalem, where they are about to celebrate six months of marriage. Neither author is writing in an official capacity; both are merely expressing their personal views.
The headlines of international newspapers are full of reports of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The bad news ranges from suicide bombings to Quassam rockets, from attacks on soldiers to police brutality, and most recently to settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron. There is plenty of blame tossed around as to who is the aggressor and who is the victim, and whose responsibility it is to take which steps toward ending the conflict. But the constant is that these events are almost always classified as confrontations between religions – specifically, between Jews and Muslims. While it is true that many recent incidents have been inter-religious in nature, we believe that it is impossible to understand them without looking deeper than the surface differences between Muslims and Jews.
Religious tension underlies many instances of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, to be sure. But it is our belief that internal tension between moderate and extreme elements of each tradition plays a much larger role in inter-religious conflict than has been acknowledged.
Tensions between different movements within a given religion can be seen particularly starkly in the bitter conflict playing itself out right now in the West Bank city of Hebron. Last week, the Israeli army evacuated the much talked-about “House of Contention” amid violent protests. In March of last year, 100 Jewish settlers moved into a building in the middle of an Arab neighborhood of Hebron. They claim that they purchased the building, while the Arab owner claims they were simply squatting. After an extensive investigation, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the settlers to vacate the building, and when the settlers refused, the court authorized the army to evict them. Last Thursday, 600 Israeli troops evacuated the house in a lightning raid, physically carrying about 200 settlers from the house when they refused to cooperate.
In addition to the fighting that occurred as soldiers removed settlers from the house, the evacuation sparked a series of violent confrontations throughout Hebron. Angry settlers burned olive groves, shot at Palestinians, and set houses on fire in what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later referred to as “pogroms” against Palestinian civilians. Fears of Palestinian reprisals then prompted the Israeli government to close the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslim men under 45.
The conflict over the “House of Contention” can be seen as a conflict between Jews and Muslims. But it makes more sense to look at it as a conflict among Jews, whose fallout has dire consequences for Jews and Muslims alike. In Israel, moderate Israelis find themselves compelled to intervene against the radical and increasingly violent elements of the settler movement. It is a conflict of Jewish religious and political ideology and identity. The right-wing settlers targeted Palestinians, in large part out of defiance to the Israeli army and Supreme Court.
The settlers who lived in the “House of Contention” for over a year made it no secret that their goal was ultimately to drive out the Palestinian residents of Hebron and claim it as a Jewish city. But while this week’s violence was directed against Palestinians, it was also an act of opposition to the moderate Jewish majority in Israel. By attacking their Palestinian neighbors, the Jewish settlers of Hebron were making a statement: they would only be removed from Hebron by force, and even then at the cost of Palestinian lives and livelihoods.
Very similar dynamics are occurring within the Palestinian camp, as well. The political standoff between the more moderate Fatah government in the West Bank and the radical Hamas leadership in Gaza is coming at a substantial cost to the lives and livelihoods of Israeli civilians. As rocket after rocket lands in the south of Israel, approaching the population center of Ashkelon, Israeli civilians are being caught up in a political feud between rival Palestinian factions. The extremists in Hamas claim to be espousing the ‘true’ cause of Palestinians and of Islam. To demonstrate their military might to internal opponents, they compromise the safety and well-being of civilians who are otherwise far removed from Palestinian politics.
In both cases, it is internal divisions and power struggles that exacerbate violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet the underlying intra-religious tensions are often overlooked in the analysis of the conflict, and what emerges is a grossly oversimplified picture of Jews and Muslims who are united among themselves and pitted against each other. In the effort to reach an enduring peace, it is important for moderates from each ethno-religious community to reach an accord with one another. But it is equally important to resolve internal conflicts within these groups, and to bolster the moderates among both Jews and Muslims.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.