When Is a “Religious War” Not Really a Religious War?

Is Jerusalem seeing a “religious war?”

A day after last Tuesday’s terrorist attack that killed four worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue, Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz  that the “attack reinforces the concern that the terror is taking on the trappings of a religious war (not that these trappings were totally absent from the conflict before). We hardly need to elaborate how dangerous this motif is.”

“Palestinians believe that Israel is pushing for a religious war, with the extremist right wing currently ruling Israel,” Palestinian journalist Ahmad Melhem wrote from Ramallah in Al Monitor. “It is trying to build the third Jewish temple in Al-Aqsa’s place, and establish the Jewish state that Netanyahu called on Palestinians to recognize. This means expelling Palestinians from their land, and marginalizing Christians.”

Israeli journalist Avirama Golan, though, contends that casting the situation as a “religious war” only fuels apocalyptic extremism:

So far the usual reasons all the misconceptions of the conflict taking place in Jerusalem are part of religious folklore. But this image would not have gained such great momentum now if there were not certain players that have a vested interest in imposing it as the exclusive interpretative framework for recent events. Chief among those are the leaders and rabbis of the religious right in Israel; lending their vocal encouragement to that group are evangelical Christians in the United States. The latter are looking forward to the last war of Armageddon, in which the Jews have, according to a certain Messianic tradition, a central role. The former, however, wish to bring about the final redemption and the coming of the messiah. This will happen only with the rebuilding of the Temple Mount.

While religious incitement plays a role, describing the current escalation in violence as a “religious war” misses the mark, writes Elisheva Goldberg, who attended the shiva for one of last week’s terror victims, Moshe Twersky:

I saw an Arab man walking out the door with an entourage. His name was Ibrahaim Wassim, and he had come to pay his respects to the victims’ families. He was the deputy head of the Palestinian-Israeli village in the north called Baka el-Garbiyye. He told me that they had come, a delegation of Arab citizens of Israel, because he didn’t want “the extremists to drag us into this.” Har Nof’s residents, too, had sent busloads of community members to the Druze police officer’s funeral, the fifth victim of last Tuesday’s violence. The last thing Wassim said to me was, “We came in the rain and in difficult conditions because we have the same grandfather who commanded us to live together.”

Wassim’s visit was organized by Tag Meir, the same group that brought Jewish Israelis to the East Jerusalem mourning tent of the Abu Khdeir family this summer, when Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered soon after the same fate befell three Israeli boys from the Gush Etzion bloc. There, too, religious people demonstrated that they can share in each others’ losses.

Goldberg isn’t just engaging in a kumbaya moment here. Her discussion of “religious people” sharing common ground, common space, sharing in grief, and (presumably, at some seemingly far-off time, sharing in joy) is not intended to make you think that everything would be rosy if all “religious people” were sufficiently generous of spirit to pay their respects to mourners of their enemies in a so-called “religious” war.

As Goldberg acknowledges, religious incitement, particularly around the Temple Mount, is fueling some of the violence. But more than by religious feuds, Goldberg writes, the violence is driven by power, powerlessness, and frustration:

[T]here can be no such thing as coexistence when disparities of rights and power, such as there are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, maintain their grip. It is in part for this reason that religion has long taken a back seat to the question of sovereignty, borders, and rights. East Jerusalem is aflame not because Islamists are enflaming it, but because life there has become unbearable. The two cousins who armed themselves, made their way to Har Nof early in the morning and then rushed into a synagogue screaming “Allahu Akbar” were allegedly members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization that, since its founding, has been an avowedly secular organization. The “Allahu Akbar” is, as it has often been, a cultural affect to the drama of their act. No one has proved that these were religious men. Indeed, the only motive whirling around the rumor mill is that they were incensed by conflicting reports regarding the circumstances of the death of a Palestinian Egged bus driver who they believe may have been murdered by Israelis.

Consider the situation in East Jerusalem right now — not as an excuse for violence, but as a motivator for violence. For the last few weeks, there have been clashes in East Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian youth not because the Israeli police officers are Jewish, but because there has been a massive “crackdown” — in the words of one Jerusalem Post opinion writer, “collective punishment”. This includes closures of main roads, arbitrary and excessive use of crowd dispersal methods (tear gas, rubber bullets), and the random spraying of ghastly “skunk” water among houses. Last week in Issawiyya, for example, the police blocked off three of the four main roads in and out of the neighborhood. In a protest against the police action, sixteen protestors were treated for excessive tear gas inhalation, and an 11-year-old boy was shot in the face by a rubber bullet and rushed to the hospital. These kinds of reactions are the rule, not the exception.

So, is it a “religious war,” when some people are indeed feuding over control of holy sites, when people are targeted for their religion, when people invoke something sacred as a justification for their cause? Or does calling it a “religious war” only serve as ammunition for its aspiring combatants?


  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    When is a religious war not a religious war? When it is over, and everybody loses. Both sides assume God is on their side. They have something to learn.

  • georgeclifford@bellsouth.net' GMClifford says:

    The answer to your concluding questions is both: it is a religious war when people invoke the sacred to justify their fighting (something antithetical to the world’s great monotheistic religions when it comes to fighting one another) and it adds fuels to the fires of hatred and animosity. The real issue is not religious but a mixture of power, fear, etc.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    It isn’t a religious war when it cuts against a narrative that particular person has been trying to spin.

  • braddough@hotmail.com' BradD99 says:

    This seems to be a biased, anti-Israel editorial written by someone who seems to be going out of her way to indirectly shill for Islamic terrorist organizations by pretending they aren’t motivated by crazed religious fundamentalist insanity, when they clearly are.

    All I learned from this is to be very suspicious of Sarah Posner’s writing about Israel or topics relating to Israel in the future

  • There is an interesting discussion going on at LinkedIn – Interfaith Professionals as the result of the synagogue bombing and whether sympathy should be given to the families of both the victims and the bombers. This article brings up some of the same points that are being made in that discussion among members of the religious community here and elsewhere.

    BradD99 thinks that this is an anti-Israel piece, and yet I did not get that impression when I read it. It asks a valid question about how do we separate secular war from religious war when both sides use religion to justify their actions. The Jewish Nation-State law that the current Israeli government is trying to pass is using religion to justify a program of hatred against Arabs currently living peacefully in their nation that is no different than the anti-Semitic laws passed in Germany in the 1930s. That is a secular issue, not a religious one, and the Arabs who have lived peacefully in Israel since its inception are being demonized just as peaceful Jews were demonized in Germany. That is secular, not religious, and it is meant to gain power, not grace. The fact that this generation of leaders fail to see that they are repeating the worst moment in their own history, only this time as the perpetrators not the victims, is appalling.

    The fact that the religious right in both the state of Israel and in the United States seem determined to create a situation where their religious horror stories will come to pass is wrong. It plays into the most evil parts of the human soul, and it will cost far more than either group should be allowed to force others to pay, because make no mistake, it will not be these political/religious leaders who fight the wars they start, it will be the average person and the losses will be horrific. We do not need to destroy others to have religious grace or salvation, and we should never allow our secular leaders to determine what is God’s will for us, which is what they are all trying to do on all sides. God does not advocate for war, He advocates for peace (hence the commandment Thou shalt not kill), and anyone who uses war and hatred as justification from their religion is following a false God called Power. Secular wars are secular, and no amount of religious justification can change that fact.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR

  • aravistarkheena2@gmail.com' Aravis Tarkheena says:

    RD in general is pretty anti-Israel. It’s just something one has to accept — take the good with the bad. Most of its coverage is really quite outstanding, but on this issue, it definitely has swallowed a lot of the currently fashionable — and in my view, intellectually dishonest — views on the subject.

  • aravistarkheena2@gmail.com' Aravis Tarkheena says:

    I’m afraid that once again, when it comes to Israel, Judaism, and other related topics, your knowledge is thin, to say the least. I’ve called you out on ignorant statements you’ve made about Judaism in the past, but it seems to have little effect.

    A few points of clarification:

    1. Israel was *not* founded as a religious state or on religious grounds. It was founded, primarily, by European socialists, and even today, the majority of its population is secular. Israel is a Jewish state, in the nationality/peoplehood sense of “Jewish.”

    2. You confuse the Israeli Arab population with the Palestinians. Israeli Arabs — that is, Arabs with Israeli citizenship — have substantial representation in the Knesset (Parliament) — and live under far better conditions than *any* Arab, in the Middle East.

    3. The commandment is “Thou shalt not murder.” “Thou shalt not kill” is a mistranslation. Something I would think a “pastor” would know.

    4. Israel has been under attack, by its neighbors, since its founding; neighbors who outnumber them 10 to 1; neighbors who used to be vassal states of the Soviet Union; neighbors, among whom there is not a single liberal democracy; neighbors, in whose countries you will be put to death, if you are an open homosexual; etc; etc; etc. Israel is by far the most liberal and tolerant country in its region.

    5. My mother is a Bergen-Belsen survivor. My father’s family fled Germany in 1933, and came to what was then Palestine. My father was in the Haganah as a teen and spent most of his time smuggling Jewish refugees from the concentration camps into the country, as the British had imposed a strict quota on their entry.

    Your comparison of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors with Nazi Germany is ignorant, stupid, and offensive. I strongly suggest you stick to topics that you actually know something about — if there are any.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *