The Jewish Left tends to frame the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of competing nationalisms and victimologies. The Right often frames the conflict as motivated by traditional antisemitism.
But this conflict is, at its core, over theological birthright, symbolized by the land of Israel generally, and by Jerusalem and the Temple Mount most acutely, and it is not limited to the Arab world generally versus Israel, but spills into and exacerbates the broader conflict between the West and Islam.
To grossly understate its centrality, the Torah is the single most important document to Jewish civilization. And yet, the Torah paradigm for our relationship with Yishmael and his status as outlined in Genesis was disregarded and dismissed by the Labor Zionist architects of the modern State of Israel, and is still frequently disregarded and dismissed both by Zionists and non-Zionists.
When living in the same house, a house where Yitzchak is the favored and primary of the two, the Torah promises jealous rage on the part of Yishmael. And while many Jews, particularly on the right enjoy noting that the Torah derides Yishmael as a â€œwild ass of a man,â€ they prefer to gloss over the promise that Yishmael will be a â€œgreat nationâ€.
A â€œgreat nationâ€ is an influential nation. And it seems to me that the Torah means more than a military greatness. It is rare (if ever) for the Torah to employ the term â€œgreatâ€ as denoting mere physical or military greatness. Rather, a â€œgreat nationâ€ would suggest spiritual and intellectual greatness as well. A greatness that would spawn algebra. A greatness that would create the largest purely monotheistic religion on earth. A greatness that would incorporate different nations and empires into its fold and manipulate them to do Yishmaelâ€™s bidding.
The Labor Zionists were aware of the Torahâ€™s warning. But they accepted the condescension of the European colonists as their primary lens for perceiving the Muslim world. This has proven a most foolish and disappointing self delusion.
We have always been the center of the competition between the West and Islam. Jerusalem was the focal point of contention during the Crusades. Both sides believed Jerusalem and the Temple Mount critical for symbolizing their supercessionist theological victory over Judaism as much as each other. In fact, the first would determine the second. That Muslims do not accept Jewish texts in their canon and are frequently revisionist towards Jewish history does not eliminate their supercessionist tendencies. That is a large part of why Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam and why the Al-Aqsa Mosque is standing (both physically and theologically) where the Temple once stood.
Even now, many secularists and Zionists cling to downplaying the theological root of Muslim outrage. Abba Eban famously quipped that “the Palestinians never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But that is only true if the true goal is a national aspiration of a Palestine. It is not, or they would have it already. Eban and his fans are merely shlugging up the press releases. The real point of contention is too embarrassing for Muslims to discuss with the international community. For the Islamic problem of the State of Israel are not the ones stated, such as the mistreatment of Palestinians (real and exaggerated) or their national aspirations. It is the awesome theological problem presented by the existence of the State of Israel.
Islam became the largest strictly monotheistic faith in the world. Of course, they were not the first. But they were the greatest, and that was enough.
Or was it?
Certainly, concern about what the Jews’ subsistence represented to the supremacy of Islam was evident at the beginning of Islamâ€™s codification under Mohammad, when genocide was committed against the Jews of Medina.
But as long as the Jews were in a position of Dhimmi, at least in theory, they were frequently tolerated to some extent, provided they didnâ€™t publicize their belief in their status as the favored son and the heir to a more direct and comprehensive theology of Avraham.
The State of Israel publicizes just that, as it challenges all aspects of Yishmael’s birthright. How aggravating this must be to the rank and file Muslim believer. True, Islam does not harbor deicide against the Jews, but the Muslims, especially the Muslim Arabs, have their own special wound inflicted by the Jews.
Muslims are well aware that their matriarch, Hagar, was considered a slave to Sarah by the Torah, and by the Jews. This and the claim of Yitzchak as Abrahamâ€™s favorite son could be dismissed as Jewish lies before the State of Israel, but its existence creates doubt. It demands doubt. The entire claim of Islam as the primary and supreme, (and not just largest), monotheistic religion is cast into doubt. The Jews created a Jewish state (too Jewish enough by their standards!) in the exact Arab land they never relinquished their claim to; a land they claim was given to them by God to Avraham and then to Yitzchak; not to Yishmael. They manipulated the world despite their paucity of numbers. They still claim to be the â€œchosen people,â€ and the world obviously considered it a possibility on some level. The Jews claim Yitzchak to be Chosen One instead of Yishmael, these descendants of the people adhering to the most ancient, codified, monotheistic faith. These descendants of Sarah, the slaveowner of Hagar, who claim Yishmael was banished from Ibrahim’s house.
Muslim fear and rage that this is a possibility is not explicitly evident in their litany of complaints, though it is often alluded to. But it is certainly visible in their actions.
The choice of the timing to begin the Yom Kippur War should have alerted the Jews that this was a theological conflict. Instead, it was dismissed as purely a strategic decision.
Meir Kahane, the radical Fundamentalist-Zionist leader who first espoused the impossibility of satiating those whose enmity was theological in nature was assassinated, risking the first World Trade Center terrorist operation in order to silence him. Was this because they feared he would eventually become more influential if they succeeded in their diabolical plans? If certainly would make sense for them to have feared his message considering both their own world view and their intentions.
After 9/11, Al-Qaeda moved against synagogues in Turkey, Tunis, and a Jewish Community Center in Morocco. Iran had already previously risked damaging their international reputation in orchestrating the bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. The list is massive; the focus is frequently the Jews, not the State of Israel, even when the strategic value of demolishing these places is dubious, because the symbolic value is not– not if the problem is the threat to Islam from Judaism generally because of the existence of the State of Israel, not just the specific misdeeds and history of the Zionist Entity itself.
The concern over the Jewish stateâ€™s theological slight to Islam can also be witnessed in the continued rage at the Jews over Danish cartoons.
Many have dismissed the theological nature as central to this conflict because of the supposed secularism of both Muslim and Jewish leaders. But this is a mistake.
True, none of Israelâ€™s leaders have been religious in the strict sense, and many, particularly and consistently on the Left, have been ardently secular. But that does not mean that they truly perceived Judaism to be as equally obviated in the modern world as Islam. Even if religion is the opium of the masses, there are different strains of opium, and there are different classes of masses. No Israeli leader ever gave Islam the same gravitas and consideration they gave Judaism, even if they rejected religion generally. They may have denied the validity of the Torah, but they didnâ€™t even bother to consider the question of a belief in the Koran. That wasnâ€™t a question. It isnâ€™t for most Jews, even secular ones. For instance, most Jews consider the punishment of amputating a thieves hand under sharia law as an example of how Judaism is superior to Islam. The fact that many Jews do not understand that the Torahâ€™s insistence of an â€œeye under an eyeâ€ to be one of economic compensation instead of the frequent Christian misinterpretation of the Torah demanding physical retribution does not diminish their own belief that in practice, for as long as anyone can remember, Judaism did not and does not advocate a punishment of amputation of limbs, even if they are not aware that according to most interpretations the Torah explicitly outlaws executing such a punishment even to gentiles. But they suspect it is antithetical to Jewish morality, and most secular Jews, even those critical of Judaism, believe Judaism morally superior to Islam. Secular Zionist leaders were hardly the exception. The secular architects of the State of Israel were not particularly interested in the theological problems that a Jewish state would present to Islam, (though Ben-Gurion may have feared the global fallout of controlling Jerusalem in its entirety) because they found supercessionist beliefs of other faiths towards Judaism ridiculous. Yet except perhaps for Herzl, the Zionist leaders found Judaismâ€™s claim of Zion as the Promised Land for the Jews less ridiculous, even if they attempted to subterfuge their belief in purely secular rationalizations. But a belief in Birthright was, at the very least, a vestige of Judaismâ€™s influence on them.
The return to Israel from Europe did not begin with the Socialist Zionists. Jews constantly attempted to make pilgrimages to Israel throughout history. A call to settle in the land, though not to resettle the land, was given by both the Vilna Goan and some Chassidic leaders. As a civilization, Jews never accepted that the ancient Covenant was superseded by any other religion or any other people. Most Muslims would disagree. Many strongly. The means employed are certainly disparate, and the radicals, in terms of percentage, few. But sympathy to the plight of Islam afflicted by the existence of the Jewish state is ubiquitous for all believing Muslims.
The future is increasingly ominous, and I wonâ€™t pretend that I am hopeful. But we are certainly never going to effectively counter our embittered and numerous Islamic rival as long as we continue to deny the main point of contention, and disregard our Torah.
This is an ancient conflict over Birthright. Once it was visibly contained to manifesting itself predominantly within the frame of secular nationalism. Now it is increasingly being revealed as the theological struggle it has always been.
Letâ€™s accept it for what it is.