Political identity and Religious Tension in a Zionist State.

The fostering of political identity allows groups to exploit symbols, narratives, and ideologies, such as religion, in order to validate rules and institutions. Castell (Herbert 2004 p273) identifies two types of political identity, “resisting” and “legitimizing” within the conflict in Palestine, which are used by sections to justify their stance.

The identity of being Zionist is inherently political as it refers to supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland within Palestine. This is a “legitimizing” political identity as it infers support of institutions and policies which enable this to occur.

Zionism can be seen as a reaction to the dispersion of Jews, and an attempt to re-establish Jewish identities. The Zionist movement has utilised Jewish theology to legitimise their vision of a secular Jewish state even though exile is traditionally seen as the normal condition for the Jews, which can only be brought to an end by divine, not human, intervention.

The main Orthodox Jewish party, backed by the Orthodox rabbinate, was convinced in to giving practical support to a Zionist state in return for the promise that tenants of Judaism, such as keeping the Sabbath and kashrut in public institutions would be promoted. This was significant as Judaism was the common identity for Jews who had been dispersed across the globe, and therefore was the only basis for the formation of shared identities in a cohesive Zionist society.

Jewish symbols, the continuity of Orthodox institutions such as religious courts, public Jewish festivals and practices, and rituals of remembrance such as Holocaust day promoted civil religion within Israel. Such activities work to continuously reinforce Jewish identity and political support of a Zionist state.

Without Judaism a Zionist political identity would be impossible; if there is no sense of being Jewish, then it makes no sense to have a Jewish homeland. In order to sustain a sense of “Jewishness” haredi yeshiva, religious students are supported by the state, financially as well as practically through exemption from military service. This allows liberal, conservative and a minority of Orthodox Jews to Jews against ZionismJewish theology to form a legitimising political identity.  Traditional Judaism provides no narrative of a Jewish state, and no solutions to the practicalities of running a nation. Issues arose between Judaism and the Secular Zionist state, such as how to respect the Sabbath when hospitals and the like needed to be functional. The religious Zionist position was that Jewish prophecies would be fulfilled when Jews returned to traditions; therefore they aim to implement Jewish law in its entirety within a Jewish homeland which is supposed to be secular. Tension therefore can be detected between the ideals of those who whose identity is “legitimizing” and who validate the Zionist state, and the ideals of Israel.

Free Palestine

Central to the Palestinian/Israel dispute is the issue of land. The Hamas charter states “giving up any part of Palestine is tantamount to giving up part of its religion” (The Charter of Hamas p122) and the Palestinian National Council Declaration similarly uses religious imagery to convey the sense of Palestinian identity being indistinguishable from Palestinian land. Israel’s declaration of independence states “The land of Israel was the birth place of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed” (Wasserstein 2008 p86). Both Zionists and Palestinians substantiate their claim to the land using religion and employ narratives relating to the land to form a cohesive identity.

Zionist pioneers Israel SettlementsThe concept of “pioneering” settlements and ideals of the “noble savage” based on narratives of Jewish history acted as the basis for political military action. This is as Zionist institutions used imagery of a biblical farmer defending their homeland from intruders. Laws developed in 1948 supported the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, so that they could be settled by Jews. This shows how a legitimising political identity can be influenced by religious concepts, and impact on law-making. This also has a strategic political outcome as Jewish settlements provide a means to restrict the movement and economic abilities of Palestinians, and constrain the movements of Palestinians.

Illegal Israeli Settlements Gush EmunimOver time the influence religion has had on political identities has changed. The original secular ideals of Israel shifted as victories in 1967 were viewed as God given. This confidence created increased support for expansion, based on the religious boundaries. The Gush Emunim movement, founded in 1974 was one of the groups providing religious justification for the states objective of expansion. The state accepts the Gush as representing Zionist interests, which can be demonstrated by the Gush only military units of the IDF, the approval of their ideologies and activities implied by state sponsorship of Gush institutions and state provided defence for illegal Gush settlements and settlers.  Gush’s political identity is driven by their religious beliefs that that a Jewish homeland should be under the most expansive borders identified in the Hebrew bible. They also have formed part of a continued Jewish narrative based on the idealism of pioneers which have become part of Israeli civil religion. As well as this they endorse that which is seen sacred in Zionist society, such as the military, and the fundamental right of Jewish people to the land of Palestine. These ideals demonstrate a legitimising identity. Gush are against the concept of a secular state, and support Israel to the extent that it represents their interests and is critical of the government, so they can also be seen as having a “resistance” identity.


Palestine, Al aqsa, Muslims, ChristiansChristian Palestinians were also affected by Zionist policies, and their political identity shaped by their religious ideals. “We have always fought by the law and by Christian principles”. In the same manner that Hamas used the concept in the Quran of fighting back against those who fight you to legitimise their resistance, Christian Palestinians used the concepts of nonviolence within the bible to legitimise their form of resistance. However using Zionist institutions implies recognition of them as valid and can be seen as legitimising.

Christian Palestinians describe Jewish school Children viewing the ruins of their village which was destroyed by Zionist military (Dairymple 2008 p107). It was described to them as an ancient Roman ruin, with a synagogue at its centre. This was only partially true. This misinformation by institutions of religious education ensures children grow up believing in the Jewish historical claim to Palestinian lands and villages, thus shaping a legitimising political identity.

Tensions between religious and secular objectives within Israel have been referred to earlier. Another way this manifests itself is in relation to the fundamental question “Who is a Jew?” Who is Israel a homeland for? Secular and religious answers to this question have differed. In Jewish tradition one who is born to a Jewess or converts to Judaism is considered Jewish. In a modern secular democracy, citizenship is based on active consent, birth, or lineage. Lineage being the most fragile link. The law of return promises citizenship to every Jew who wants it.

Tensions occurred regarding how to uphold the secular, democratic ideals of the state, and its legitimisation through the concept of a dispersed Jewish nation. Secular definitions of concepts customarily defined by religious authority had to be developed, and the definitions were often opposing.

This can be seen in the case of a Christian priest who tried to claim citizenship on the basis of lineage and was declined. Religious authorities would have considered him part of the dispersed Jewish nation, however secular authorities did not. There are also cases in which people have claimed citizenship based on the religion of their father and were granted it, however religious authorities would not have considered them Jewish.

Also Arab citizenship to Israel has to be considered. As stated secular laws usually grant citizenship to those born within its borders. Within Israel this does not seem to be the case. Palestinians were initially required to go through a complex procedure to claim citizenship in the land of their birth and their lives. Those within the occupied territories were not granted Israeli citizenship, despite the fact Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and does not recognise Palestine as a separate state. Again this could be interpreted as down to the conflict between religious and secular law. If Palestinians were easily granted citizenship, as they would ordinarily under secular laws, it could be seen as a threat to the ideal of a Jewish homeland, as non-Jews would soon outnumber Jews within Israel, having a major impact on politics and representation in government. It would no longer be guaranteed that a government that prioritised Jewish interests would be elected.

The Palestinian political party Hamas was formed in 1987 as a reaction to its opposition to the PLO negotiating with oppressive Israel. It identifies itself as standing up against oppression and the illegal conquest of Palestinian and Arab lands. It uses the narrative of Islamic history and previous conquests of Jerusalem to validate their categorical position against a Zionist state, and provide a Palestinian shared sense of experience. It also uses concepts from Islam, such as;

 “Allah forbiddeth you only those who warred against you on account of religion and have driven you out from your homes and helped to drive you out, that ye make friends of them. Whosoever maketh friends of them – (All) such are wrong-doers.” (Quran 60.9 Pickthall)

hamas wins election celebrationsto support their unrelenting stance. As well as this they use the concept of dar ul harb, or the abode of war to justify suicide attacks on civilians.  Hamas demonstrates a “resistance identity” which opposes the state of Israel. However Hamas is now part of the democratically elected government of Palestine, therefore its stance can be seen as a legitimising identity in relation to the “production and maintenance of organizations and institutions that support the dominant interest within society” (Herbert 2004 p273) where the dominant interests are seen as being those of the Palestinian people.



salah ud deen defender of the muslims jihad mujahid palestineThere are differences in the role religion plays in the formation of identities that legitimise the Jewish state in comparison to Palestinian resistance identities. The Hamas Charter shows their dedication to Islam and supports their position using Quranic ayat. They clearly refer to the state of Israel as “evil” (The Charter of Hamas) and state that fighting against their oppressors is an individual obligation for every Muslim. It uses historical narratives of successful Muslims defending against conquests, such as Salah ud Din, to form a continuous identity with Palestinian Muslims of the past.  Hamas also aspires to proliferate Islamic ideals within Palestinian society. It does this through education, welfare and medical assistance. Its legitimacy comes from following Islam in its entirety; this does not only refer to its relation to Israel and territorial disputes, but also to actions within its society.

The Israeli Declaration of independence similarly refers to shared historical claims and implied biblical references, however it paradoxically asserts, while its existence is to benefit Jews, the aims of the state are secular and for the wellbeing of all inhabitants of Palestine. It does not use imagery of war to defend its position, rather placations of peace. Zionism can be seen as considering religion seems as a vaguely defined concept based more on ethnicity then a precisely defined way of life defined by individual actions and religious traditions. The exception to this is the afore mentioned religious Zionists.

Israelis and Palestinians have succinct separate identities. Their concepts that bind them together as a society are conflicting. Their historical narratives and sense of shared history often sees them on opposing sides. At the centre of these concepts is religious ideologies used to justify stances. Without religion followers of both sides lose their identities and their legitimacy. Zionists have worked hard to combine their secular intentions with the concept of Jewishness. However when the intention is a Jewish state, and they state supports groups who believe that non Jews are not human and have no souls, they can never be truly secular or democratic.

Posted on 26/03/2013, in politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: