By Uri Avnery
05/30/06 "Information Clearing House" -- -- ONE OF our former Chiefs-of-Staff, the late Rafael ("Raful") Eytan, who was not the brightest, once asked a foreign guest: "Are you Jewish or Christian?"
"I am an atheist!" the man replied.
"Okay, Okay," Raful demanded impatiently, "but a Jewish atheist or a Christian atheist?"
Well, I myself am a 100% atheist. And I am increasingly worried that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, which dominates our entire life, is assuming a more and more religious character.
THE HISTORICAL CONFLICT began as a clash between two national movements, which used religious motifs only as a decoration.
The Zionist movement was non-religious from the start, if not anti-religious. Almost all the Founding Fathers were self-declared atheists.
In his book "Der Judenstaat", the original charter of Zionism, Theodor Herzl said that "we shall know how to keep (our clergymen) in their temples." Chaim Weitzman was an agnostic scientist. Vladimir Jabotinsky wanted his body to be cremated - a sin in Judaism. David Ben-Gurion refused to cover his head even at funerals.
All the great rabbis of the day, both Hassidim and their opponents, the Missnagdim, condemned Herzl and cursed him ferociously. They rejected the basic thesis of Zionism, that the Jews are a "nation" in the European sense, instead regarding the Jews as a holy people held together by observance of the divine commandments.
Moreover, in the eyes of the rabbis, the Zionist idea itself was a cardinal sin. The Almighty decreed the exile of the Jews as punishment for their sins. Therefore, only the Almighty Himself may revoke the punishment and send the Messiah, who will lead the Jews back to the holy land. Until then, it is strictly prohibited to "return en masse". By organizing mass immigration to the country, the Zionists rebel against God and, worst of all, hold up the coming of the Messiah. Some Hassidim, like the Satmar sect in America, and a small but principled group in Israel, the Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City) in Jerusalem, still adhere to this belief.
True, the Zionists expropriated the symbols of Judaism (the Star of David, the candlestick of the Temple, the prayer shawl that was turned into a flag, even the name "Zion") but that was only utilitarian manipulation. The small religious faction that joined Zionism (the "Religious Zionists") was a marginal group.
Before the Holocaust, we learned in the Zionist schools in Palestine to treat with pitiless scorn everything that was "exile Jewish" - the Jewish religion, the Jewish Stetl, the Jewish social structure (the "inverted pyramid"). Only the Holocaust changed the attitude towards the Jewish past in the diaspora, referred to in Hebrew as "Exile".)
Ben-Gurion made some concessions to the religious factions, including the anti-Zionist Orthodox. He released some hundreds of Yeshiva-students from military service and set up a separate "state-religious" school system. His aim was to acquire convenient coalition partners. But these steps were based on the assumption (common to all of us at the time) that the Jewish religion would evaporate anyhow under the burning Israeli sun and disappear altogether in one or two generations.
All this changed in the wake of the Six-day War. The Jewish religion staged an astounding comeback.
ON THE Palestinian side, something similar happened, but against a quite different background.
The Arab national movement, too, was born under the influence of the European national idea. Its spiritual fathers called for the liberation of the Arab nation from the shackles of Ottoman rule, and later from the yoke of European colonialism. Many of its founders were Arab Christians.
When a distinct Palestinian national movement came into being, following the Balfour Declaration and the setting up of the British Government of Palestine, it had no religious character. In order to fight it, the British appointed a religious personality to the leadership of the Palestinian community in Palestine: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who quickly assumed the leadership of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist immigration. He endeavored to give a religious face to the Palestinian-Arab rebellion. Accusing the Zionist of designs on the Temple Mount with its holy Islamic shrines, he tried to mobilize the Muslim peoples in support of the Palestinians.
The Mufti failed miserably, and his failure played a part in the catastrophe of his people. The Palestinians have all but obliterated him from their history. In the 1950s, they idolized Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the standard-bearer of secular, pan-Arab nationalism. Later, when Yasser Arafat founded the modern Palestinian national movement, he did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Right up to his death, he insisted on calling for the liberation of the "mosques and churches" of Jerusalem.