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War, Religion, and Truth

Do we want to live in a world in which what we write is who we become

Copyright © 2002 Dorian Scott Cole

This commentary is about things that we write about : the human condition and the human experience - our triumphs, our tragedies, and how we interpret them.

One of the larger tragedies in the world today is the Arab/Israeli conflict in the land of Palestine/Israel. Millions of people on both sides live with personal tragedies from years of continued carnage and destruction, and live with the distress to their psyches from living in continuing fear, suffering, hatred, and violence. From an American point of view, it is too easily an armchair conflict.

The news media and religious leaders can often make their points without getting their hands dirty. Rather than reading history, we are a dissociated witness to it. Those who have studied the ancient Middle East in a religious setting, hear ancient echoes of long past civilizations stirring their souls. It is a conflict rife with religious overtones. For some, today's Middle East events can be seem as an example of the "End Times" and the inevitability of final destruction, pointed to in an almost gleeful manner by those whose sense of religion is more oriented toward spectacle and proof than compassion and assistance, making the "inevitable" a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our perspective and what we believe influences what we write, and what we do.

Realism. I try to be a fair and unbiased person. There are no sides to choose in this conflict. I want the Israelis to get what they want, so long as they respect the rights, needs, and dignity of the Palestinian people who share their land. I want the Palestinians to get what they want, so long as they respect the rights, needs, and dignity of the Jewish people who share their land. Both have inhabited the land, and so have Christians and others, since antiquity, and both populations are expanding rapidly.

This conflict is often framed in religious terms, with each side garnering support by citing common religious heritage. It is a powerful thing to shout, "God is on our side!" That power was demonstrated by the ancient Israelites who carried the Ark of the Covenant before them into battle - they conquered a land with it. Today religion is used to incite people to terrorist acts of murder and suicide. Yet Christians, Jews, and Muslims share the same fundamental religious beginnings - at minimum they are all descendants of Abraham. God is on everyone's side. Now what?

People appeal to religion for power, but the conflict is primarily a political battle oriented around cultural and religious heritage. The Zionists want to secure as much of Palestine for their culture as they possibly can, and have been working in that direction since well before WWII. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has its roots in the PLO, a military organization bent on driving the Zionists and all Jews into the sea. Only recently has Yasir Arafat and the PA recognized the right of "Israel," as a political and geographical entity, to even exist.

It isn't that a home for Jews didn't exist before. In the early 20th. Century, the entire area was dominated by primarily Arab style ideas of government (Ottoman Empire). That is, a loose style of government, not centralized, and dominated by local tribes or areas. Prior to 1900, persecuted Jews, mostly from Russia, migrated to Israel, followed later by Jews from Poland. These groups tended not to associate with the local Arabs. As this movement garnered support, this became the Zionist movement, and gained British and other European support. The goal of the Zionists was to provide a home for those Jews who needed it, supported by law, and later supported by charter.

While Zionism was a social movement, and religiously neutral, Zionism had several splinter groups. One Zionist party insisted on following Orthodox religious law. Two other groups, the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, and The Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (LEHI), used terrorism to reach their goals. With all of the political idealism, nationalism, and upheaval going on in the first half of the 20th. Century (the wars, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire), Zionism gained nationalistic fervor and began to want the entire land of Palestine as its nation. The British, who were sympathetic and supportive, tended to support this movement. The official declarations and support for Jewish communities sewed the seeds of conflict. All Arab nations, fearing a Jewish state, immediately opposed the declarations. Tension grew. In 1929, the Arabs made a major attack against the Jews in a dispute over the Jew's use of the Temple remnants (wall). Tension has continued to grow. The Palestinians don't want to be dominated by Zionist rule and ideas. There is no right or wrong to this conflict - these are legitimate points of view.

The British thought that the area would be a good homeland for Jews who were persecuted (and exterminated) in Nazi Germany and other countries - any Jew who wanted to could move there. There had been fighting between Zionist and Arab groups since the turn of the Century, so internal violence and terrorism was a way of life that has continued. Realizing that a continued influx of Jewish immigrants would create tension in the area that could explode, and there was no protection there, the British occupied the area with troops.

What thanks did the British get? When some of the Jews decided they didn't want the British "occupying their land," the Irgun and LEHI used terrorism to drive the British out. In one action, Zionist Menachem Begin blew up the King David Hotel, killing innocent civilians. Terrorism worked for the Zionists - eventually British troops pulled out of the area. Through the UN, the area was given self-determination in 1948.

Once adopted as a legitimate mechanism for getting what you want, terrorism is extremely difficult to stop. The Palestinians use the same tactics against Israel, who is "occupying their land." Terrorism was a bad decision for both sides.

Why do the Palestinians care if the Jews, who were already there, occupy their land? The Israelis seize land, force the Arabs off of it into exile or camps where they live in poverty, destroy their homes, and resettle their land with Jews, forbidding the Arabs to return. What's not to like?

What do the Jews care about the Palestinians? They threaten their security and many want to drive them into the sea. Of course, if you continue to incite an enemy by your actions, then you have to defend yourself.

Today's Middle East is not Ancient Israel, and no self-respecting God and religious people of today carry the Ark of the Covenant before them into other lands and seize other people's property for their own selfish reasons. Neither does any self-respecting God or people use terrorism to kill innocent people, or anyone else. People can work out their differences and live together peacefully - these same people do it all of the time in other places. People in the Middle East are no different than you or I, despite their baggage.

What about the religious support for Israel? While much has been said about terrorism and the lack of religious support, very little has been mentioned about Israel and religion. Christ, who is identified as a religious leader by all three religious nations, said that we must "Worship God in Spirit and in truth." We seem to read that word "truth" as if it had a capitol "T" as in some absolute philosophical sense. It has a much deeper meaning. It is about the nature of God. Following is a very abbreviated version of what the Prophets had to say.

The people of Ancient Israel, years after their Temple was first completed by King Solomon, came to believe that they were impervious to others and, having God's favor, could do anything they wanted with impunity. The Temple to them was a symbol of God's favor. Religion to too many of them was simply the act of performing religious rituals (and they even let that slide). They believed that by performing rituals God would protect and prosper them. So they thought that how they lived and treated others was irrelevant. They neglected weightier things like justice and kindness. As a result, their Temple was becoming a symbol of injustice and the perversion of God's law. This was kind of like the notion of religion among some Catholics in the middle ages. If you knew the priest would assign you certain penance for doing a specific "sinful" act, you could do it and then go pay the price. Payment charts were developed so people knew in advance what the price would be for what they wanted to do. You could buy your crime.

The fortunes of the recalcitrant Israelites changed one fateful day. As the Egyptian army was marching to make war against the Babylonian army, King Josiah decided to march his undefeatable Israeli army out to make war against the Egyptian army. The Egyptian army rolled over Israel's army like negotiatiing a bump in the road. Scared witless, the people ran for the safety of the Temple. The Prophet Jeremiah met them at the Temple gate, saying, "Do not trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord." He asked, would they steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and then come to this Temple and say, "We are delivered?" only to go on doing these abominations? Has God's house become a den of thieves? With hearts hardened by years of doing wrong, the Israelites could no longer find God in their Temple.

As they returned from exile, hoping to rebuild their Temple, the prophet Isaiah tried to explain it all to them again. What God desires from his servants is not super-pious hypocrites who can perform religious rituals, but those who do social justice, kindness, and respond to him. He asked them, do you think that God needs a house? This Temple is for your benefit. In the future it would be called a house of prayer for all people, and everyone including foreigners would be accepted and they could even be included in the priesthood. Didn't happen. The Prophets kept coming and kept reminding them, but they remained closed to others, fearful, and obsessed with keeping the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of it. Their drive was to form an independent distinct group around the Torah (their religious laws).

Finally the Prophet Amos spoke to them. An earlier Prophet had told them to quit thinking about their own miseries and turn their fastings to feasts. They did. But did it help? Well... Amos said to them, you who turn justice to wormwood, trample on the poor, take bribes and turn the needy aside, while wishing for the terrible day of the Lord for others (judgment and vengeance), "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. ...(I will not accept your offerings), take away from me the noise of your songs... but let justice roll down like waters..."

Truth reflects the nature of God, not the Temple and laws and other religious things that are given to man for man's benefit. It reflects how we should treat each other. Those who practice ritual and law, but give no thought to the spirit of the teaching which reflects the nature of God are on the wrong road, and make religion look bad. This includes people who take other's homes as well as those who murder others by blowing themselves up.

Strong nationalism became an even more fervent drive as Hellenism (Greek culture) came to predominate in the area. Then Seleucid King Antiochus IV plundered the newly restored Temple and part of it became a military garrison. What happened next was pivotal regarding nationalism in the history and tradition of Judaism. According to Encyclopedia Judaica, the freedom to live according to tradition was threatened, sparking a revolt that rejected the kingship of Antiochus. Political and religious freedom were the goal.

Religion and politics were inextricably fused in the national consciousness, even though many of the religious purists were against it. (Christ later completely refused to associate religion with politics.) The Maccabees led the revolt and ultimately marched on Jerusalem and recaptured the Temple. The Feast of Hannukah celebrates this event. As Judas Maccabee continued to fight for political independence for the nation, he was defeated and slain. So while political independence was fused into the national consciousness, it has not been achieved since before 170 BC, and for 300 years prior to that they lived under Persian and Greek dominion even though they had a measure of self government.

Dreams of a current day Jewish state that are based on an idealized version of history in which a strong Israelite nation was suddenly dominated by the Romans, and became politically frustrated, is wholly inaccurate. The golden age of Israel as a strong and independent nation only lasted for a few hundred years after King David (to about 750 BC). After that time it was a weak ghost of itself, constantly dominated by other powers, and its citizens were often carried captive into other nations. Yet the heartfelt dreams of a people still echo today in the lives of those who still want a unique identity and religious freedom with the protection of nationalism.

While the Prophets called for an open society to benefit all nations, the people opted for a closed, secure, and independent society, which ultimately infuriated dominating nations and caused them to be carried into exile and their Temple destroyed numerous times. In latter days, despite being a religion steeped in high ideals, their contempt for the outside world was made evident to all by a sign written in stone prominently displayed on the Temple that said, "No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the Temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death." Foreigners who became Jews could enter. The religious legal side of this can be argued endlessly, but a spirit of openness to other nations was not indicated. They had little competition to worry about. At the time of Christ, the Samarians and others who occupied the same land with them had continued to be objects of scorn. The Moslem religion didn't begin until 600 years later.

As for the Temple, rebuilt again by the Roman King Herod in 20 BC and then soon after destroyed for the final time, while it is considered to be "the" holy place of the Israelites, a portion of it is covered by the Moslem Dome Of The Rock holy site. This is irrelevant, except that it does kind of make the Temple one for all nations. The Temple is on Mt. Zion, the holy mountain, (Zion means City of God), and anywhere on Mt. Zion would probably be fit for a Temple. The entire area around the top of the mountain is "most holy."

Some religious groups watch for the rebuilding of the Temple as a sign of End Times. Despite the signs, and the snit about The Dome Of The Rock being on top of the Temple, the Temple is a symbol used to garner support for nationalistic causes. In reality, the competitive archaeology of both Palestine and Israel, proves nothing. Both groups of people have lived on the land from antiquity, and neither can lay complete claim to it. In the end, they have to live together as they always have.

For those who see rebuilding a Jewish nation in terms of religious motivations, it would be better to build a virtual or metaphorical "New Israel" than to build a geographical and political one that defiles the respect of others and is an abomination to the ways of God.

The people of a nation, and the government often share differing perspectives. Many of today's Jews have the custom of sitting an extra place at their table in case a stranger should stop by. Similarly for Muslims, in Morocco I personally found the Moroccans to have a strong custom of hospitality toward strangers, and know that this custom is widespread in the Arab world. The people of these regions are very kind, except where tainted by war and fanaticism (or when just burned out on foreigners who make pests of themselves). Many Palestinians and Jews hate the conflict and disapprove of their government's handling of it. Most realize the road to peace is not through conflict.

The leader chosen to represent people has a lot to do with the course of history. For example, Menachem Begin, who became a Zionist in 1930, and resorted to terrorism to drive the British from Israel, went on to become Prime Minister. Not all Jews supported his controversial actions. Despite winning the Nobel Peace prize for negotiating peace with Egypt in '79, Begin strongly opposed giving back any land gained through war, and opposed a Palestinian state. To stop the militant PLO and supporters, he invaded Lebanon in a bloody battle that caused many civilian casualties, and that cost him international and local support. He resigned from office.

In Israel, when the people elected Ariel Sharon as leader, they elected a military man to lead them. This sent a strong message that can't be ignored by the Palestinians. The Palestinians, in continuing to endorse Arafat, who has a long history of supporting terrorism, are sending another strong message that can't be ignored by the Israelis. They both clearly understand the power of the other to totally disrupt each other's lives. More punctuation of this point is less. Perhaps it is time, as many suggest, for the people to send different messages while there is still someone to send them to.

How we interpret events determines what we do about them. What is really going on in the Middle East? On the one hand, Israel and the US are drawn into a game with the terrorists. Terrorist actions are interpreted today as the Palestinian's attempt to force Israel to negotiate and accept terms less favorable to Israel. So nothing is done, such as meeting with Arafat or continuing negotiations which would seem to make terrorism look like a victory.

What also might be happening is that those who still want to see Israel driven into the sea, use terrorism as a way to prevent or disrupt negotiations, giving them more opportunity to strike the Israelis. Each time negotiations begin, terrorists disrupt them. Additionally, as long as the Israelis can stall negotiations, they have more time to grab more land. Sharon's demand that Arafat both denounce and stop terrorism before negotiations continue is probably an impossible demand. Arafat is not a commander with the power of an office of someone like Sharon. Sharon can delay forever with impossible demands.

On the other hand, Arafat, by continuing to snub his nose at peace agreements, "missing opportunities," maybe stalls so that the Palestinians can make gains. One could easily interpret the actions of both groups as simply being stalling tactics to give themselves time to advance their causes outside of the negotiating arena, and then return when it is useful. Does either side actually want peace at this time? It seems doubtful.

The current claim is that there can be no negotiations as long as there is terrorism. The strategy is what, stop terrorism to remove the pressure on Israel to make concessions? Israel can control terrorism through its own level of retaliation, which is obvious. Did Sharon spark this conflict by going into the Dome Of The Rock and laying claim to it, so he would have an excuse to wipe out the militants? How is the high profile US being used as a pawn in these strategies? Arafat rallies the entire Arab world to pressure the US to pressure Israel. Groups throughout the Arab world secretly sponsor terrorism against Israel, and many rejoice in terrorist success. Israel pressures the US through US citizens, religious groups, and political leaders to support its efforts and its actions. All during this time, the US pays a greater share than any other country of the expenses of running the Palestinian refugee "camps" which are actually villages.

Very little in the Middle East adds up at face value. While I am religious, I believe that religion is often used as a tool to preserve people's ways of life and get what they want - ways and wants that have nothing to do with religion. Even the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi White Supremacists back up their beliefs with religious claims. The Knights of the Crusades in the Middle Ages used religion as an excuse to conquer and slaughter Muslims in the Holy Land. Explorers to the New World used religious claims as an excuse to conquer, plunder, and slaughter the natives in these lands. Usama Bin Laden used religion to motivate dupes for his political aspirations that had nothing to do with religion (overthrowing Saudi Arabian government). Others in the Middle East do the same. Deception is the rule.

I also firmly believe that people accomplish what they want to accomplish, and when they are giving excuses, it usually means that they don't want to do it. So when they say that they can't negotiate until there are "seven days of peace" or can't "while there is terrorism," or until "terrorism is denounced and stopped," I am mostly looking for why they don't want to negotiate. People don't want to negotiate when they want to improve their position. In negotiation strategy, deception and misdirection rule.

The interpretation of history, religion, truth, violence, and negotiations in the Middle East is a negotiation strategy. Those outside the region should not be deceived into supporting strategy and insanity. The Middle East is a quagmire of nationalistic, cultural, and religious motivations, each with a legitimate goal that begs for peaceful resolution.

- Scott

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