My friend and colleague, Rabbi Jan Salzman, said shortly after October 7th 2023 that there are both a Hawk and Dove residing within her head and heart in equal measure. I believe many of us can relate. We are living through a challenging time in which previously set assumptions about life in Israel and about the conflict with our Palestinian cousins are crumbling. The confusion we are experiencing is what crumbling feels like.
There is an aspect of the conflict, especially when attempting to understand the Palestinian motivation for it, that is usually missing from public discourse, that is religion and culture. It has become more evident, especially after October 7th, that understanding the religious aspects of our enemy’s narrative clarifies a number of perplexing questions about the conflict.
Which questions? First, why do Hamas and the Palestinian Authority continue to provoke Israel with terror attacks, when it is clear to any rational observer that the military power equation is woefully tilted to their disadvantage?
Second, why have the Palestinian leadership rejected several generous peace deals negotiated with Israel over the decades, i.e. with prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin (1994), with Ehud Barak (2000), and with Ehud Olmert (2008).
Third, why do Palestinians spend huge amounts of donated Western funds and donated Muslim funds on terror infrastructure instead of on economic development in both Gaza and the West Bank?
Fourth, why does the school curricula under both Hamas and the PA educate Palestinian children to hatred, revenge, martyrdom, and prepares them for holy war, Jihad (literally armed struggle)?
What narrative fuels these Palestinian choices, and does religious ideology have anything to do with it? The commonly known Palestinian narrative justifying their fight against Israel is as follows: the colonialist Zionist forces swooped in from Europe and conquered the land that was owned by the indigenous Palestinians. The Zionists expelled most of the land’s Palestinian inhabitants in order to create the state of Israel. Therefore the Palestinians call Israel “The Occupation”, meaning that the entire land from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea is considered occupied by the Zionists.
While some are generous enough to acknowledge the holocaust trauma that accelerated the foundation of Israel, they still claim that it does not justify the oppression of, the humiliation of, and the land-grab from the Palestinian Arabs. It is also claimed that currently Palestinians live under Apartheid-like rule with no freedoms nor dignity. Therefore they understandably resort to violence in order to liberate their occupied land, and in order to gain freedom and dignity. Some Palestinians and many a peacenik claim that a “Two State Solution” will remove the Palestinian motivations for violent struggle, or Jihad.
However, growing numbers of Israelis, most especially peace activists, have come to recognize over the years that this narrative is factually and conceptually incorrect at best, and certainly incomplete. It turns out not to be the full story. As logical as the narrative may sound, it is historically inaccurate and it fails to acknowledge (or perhaps it outright launders) the deeper rooted motivations behind Palestinian Jihad.
In fact, this common narrative is a coverup. Why a coverup? Here is an analogy. Consider the “Birds and the Bees” presentation that we often offer our young when asked about sexuality. When they ask: “how do babies come into the world?”, we answer: “The birds and the bees…”. Why offer our kids a coverup instead of the naked truth (pun intended)? Because they are not yet mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the truth.
Likewise, Westerners in general and Western leaning Jews and Israelis in particular, are not mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the truth about the motivations behind the Arab Muslim Jihad against Israel (Mizrahi Jews generally are). The Palestinian narrative presented to the West is spun so that we, Westerners, can digest it. Occupation, injustice, colonialism..., those concepts we can understand. However, the real Palestinian narrative rises from deep within their unique religion and culture. What do we know about Islamic culture and religion? We, Westerners, are practically clueless.
When we begin to understand Arab Muslim culture we will discover that the conflict is not about land per se, nor occupation, nor injustice, nor oppression, nor resources and economics, nor geopolitical alliances and alignments. All the above aspects of the conflict do hold some merit, and explain limited aspects of the conflict, yet they fail to get at the essence of the Palestinian violent resistance. The conflict’s essence is a deeply rooted religious belief system. The passions behind the Jihadi commitment are essentially about religion and tradition.
In 1990 I earned my degree in Social Work from Haifa University. Our school’s student body was 50% Jewish and 50% Arab. I spent my days in cooperative, meaningful, and mostly friendly interactions with Arab fellow students. At the same time, I owned a small contracting business and frequently interacted with Arab day-laborers from the West Bank that I would hire as needed. Coexistence between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is more frequent than the war-reports and crisis atmosphere would have us believe. Like many Israeli Jews, I have had ample opportunity to encounter Arab culture, especially Muslim Arab culture and have come to know it fairly well. My years of interacting with Palestinians taught me three things about Arab Muslims, that I think are important to be clear-eyed about, especially since October 7th.
One, the Arab Muslim value system is diametrically opposite to ours. Arabs incline to value honor, religious honor, tribal honor, clan honor, family honor, and personal honor above all else. They tend to value honor above life itself, above one’s own life and the life of one’s enemy. Too, they value honor above the life of their enemy’s family - children, women, elderly. Jihad, and dying as a Shahid (martyr) indeed bring great honor to those so devoted.
More often than not, when Palestinians are asked whether they want peace, the answer is: “we want peace and justice”. Why peace and justice? Because to most Muslim Arabs “Justice” is a code word for honor. Palestinians have been badly humiliated by Israel over the past 75 years both on the macro and micro levels, collectively and individually. Therefore, their primary goal is to restore their lost honor at all cost. The conflict is not about land nor about national self-determination but about correcting for bruised dignity due to their perpetual defeats in every war they had attempted since 1948. The terms of Arab culture and religion dictate that the conflict will end when Muslim Arab honor is restored.
Two, Arab Muslims on the whole value tribalism while discouraging individualism. In Middle Eastern Muslim culture, religion and politics are indistinct - no separation between religion and state. Additionally, Muslim Arabs as a whole embrace violence as a legitimate method for conflict resolution and justice restoration on both the macro and micro levels - politically as well as domestically. Martyrdom is admired not shunned. Currently, no indigenous Muslim liberal-secularism nor individual human rights exist in the Middle East. Those constructs are Western inventions. Furthermore, the Arab Muslim religious eschatology or vision of the end-of-days is one of a world forcefully conquered by, and benevolently ruled by, Islam. The Jewish vision of the end of days is one of many diverse nations equally united under One God. They and us are on opposite sides of the religious/cultural values spectrum. It is important for us to understand that it is an Arab Muslim’s religious duty to free the land from control by the “inferior” Jewish religion. Our control of the land of Israel is a religious affront to Muslims, compounded by the corrupting Western liberal values that we have introduced into their sphere.
Three, Muslim Arabs fundamentally do not aspire for statehood as we, Westerners, define it. The National State is a Western concept to begin with not a Middle Eastern one. Muslims do not need or want well-meaning Westerners telling them how to run their politics and government. Our Israeli democratic way of life rose from a European political culture, in which Middle Eastern Muslims are on the whole uninterested. Arab Muslims have organically lived under the Caliphate system, the tribal system, the clan system for centuries and don’t seem to possess desires to the contrary. Muslim Middle Eastern culture prioritizes loyalty to religious authority, to tribe, to clan, to family, not to the European nation state construct. The European nation state is incongruent with their history, with their religion, and with their culture. Therefore, Palestinians are uninterested in a democratic nation state, even if they might say so to Israelis and to other Westerners. The nation state piece of the Palestinian narrative is Western projection, if not a vailed form of Western imperialism (“we, enlightened Westerners, know what they need and want”). What then is their true motivation for armed resistance? Very simple, their motivation is fierce objection to a Jewish Western style democratic state in their midst. A Western style nation state on “sacred” Muslim land is a religious abomination and an insult to Muslim sensibilities. It goes against their religion, their tradition, and their pride.
Thus we can understand why Palestinian Muslims are not resisting an oppressive, Apartheid-like, colonial force. This incomplete narrative is the spun coverup that is intended to help you and I digest, empathize, and mercifully coddle the “victim”. If the conflict was indeed a mere land dispute or a political equity dispute, it would have been resolved long ago through the various attempts at dialogue and compromise. Why have previous attempts at negotiating a two state solution fail? Because the true motivations behind Palestinian resistance is rooted in long held and highly passionate religious and cultural traditions, not mere negotiable political differences.
Hamas’ attack on Israel, on October 7th was religiously motivated. The Hamas fighters’ “barbaric cruelty” on October 7 was a natural extension of their deeply rooted Muslim Jihad ideology. It was further motivated by the glorious promise of the Shahid, martyr. Please read the Hamas Covenant for more in-depth insight.
My father of blessed memory was a Jewish warrior for a brief period in Israel’s war of independence in 1948. He was among the defenders of Kibbutz Negbah, not far from the Northern border of the Gaza strip when the Egyptian army was rolling up the coast to Tel Aviv. In fact, my father and his friends’ fighting blocked the Egyptian progress. For the rest of his life my father was a strongly principled peace activist. He believed in a two state solution, in dialogue, and in a peaceful resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I am proud to have been influenced by his very Jewish faith in peace and by his personal example of activism. My father knew nothing about the Arab’s real narrative, though, nor about Arab religion and culture. He and his generation of Ashkenazi Jewish progressives lived in an Ashkenazi bubble, disconnected from the Middle Eastern environment they were resettling into.
Many Israeli peace activists nowadays, myself included, have ceased to believe that there is a partner for peace on the Palestinian side, and this article is partly an attempt to explain why. In the short term, the prospects for peace are close to none. Israeli security Hawks are also reassessing. On October 7th we have been awakened to Israel’s security fragility. Our delusional bubble of eternal military might has burst with the easy trampling of the Gaza border fences, and the evacuation of thousands of Israeli families from the south and the north. Can we be sure that the IDF and the government will guarantee our long term safety and security? Can Israel truly stand forever strong as it has been?
Sacrosanct Israeli assumptions on the left and the right have crumbled. I believe that as we grow to see the enemy’s true motivations on its own Arab Muslim terms, not our Western projections, we will begin to figure out better ways of responding to the immense challenge of macro-coexistence with our Palestinian cousins. Neither them nor us are leaving the neighborhood anytime soon, thus a solution must and will be found. We must and we will find a way to turn micro coexistence with our Palestinian neighbors into macro coexistence in the region. The only way to start, however, is by knowing the true narrative of the opposing side, not its propaganda tailored for Western consumption, because we can only begin resolving an issue that we truly understand.
On October 7th we have become a society of “Shattered Vessels” כלים שבורים (traditional term), in the aftermath of which we are awakening to a shifting and challenging reality. Old narratives, Arab and Jewish, Left and Right, are indeed crumbling and new ones, deeper ones, are just beginning to emerge. Please do not be surprised if you feel confused and disheartened. Our cousin’s narrative is exactly what their most fervent religious leaders say it is, our Israeli hubris is evaporating, and you are not alone in hosting a Hawk and a Dove in equal measure within.
This article is partly based on questions and concerns expressed during Rabbi Modek’s presentations on the Gaza war at The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockland County (UUCR), Pomona NY; The Art Cafe, Nyack NY; The Pleasantville Community Synagogue (January 2024).