Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000
Israels Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999
in this issue:
From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does
Palestinians and Israelis:
Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On
What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year
Hide, Jesse, Hide
Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight
Left Behind at the Box Office
The Voucher Circus
|Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return
by Rachel Stroumsa
Last Christmas, Yasir Arafat was late to Mass.
The chairman of the Palestinian Authority had attended the
traditional midnight service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem every year since
1995, when Bethlehem came under Palestinian rule. So when he failed to appear on time, it
was generally assumed that he had been detained by bad weather. Then, just before the
stroke of midnight, he and his entourage entered the church, causing general disruption.
As far as the Palestinian press was concerned, Arafats
presence at the Christian service was just another symbol of the "unity in the
struggle" of all Palestinians, as an editorial in the Authority-affiliated daily Al-Ayyam
But to the Christians I spoke with, Arafats belated
entrance seemed blatantly calculated. Some interpreted it as simple disrespect. Others
thought Arafat was trying to play on the Christian expectation of Christs arrival at
midnight to foster an identification of himself with Jesus, just as he encourages his
identification with the 12th century Muslim warrior and liberator of Jerusalem,
Sallah al-Din (Saladin).
Either way, it aggravated feelings already rubbed raw in the
Palestinian Christian community. Christmas celebrations in 2000 had been drastically
curtailed and practically no decorations were put up out of respect for those who had died
in the latest upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But to the Muslim community the
Christian holiday festivities, limited as they were, proved that the Christians were once
again setting themselves apart.
The resentment of Christian Palestinians was not, however,
mentioned in the Palestinian press (or in any other Arab news account, for that matter),
just as several attacks on Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Muslims shortly before
Christmas were not covered. "Unity" is the Palestine medias constant
refrainan ideological commitment that requires that the numerous fissures in
Palestinian society be overlooked. Thus the same Al-Ayyam that lauded Arafats
appearance at the Church of the Nativity also mentioned (in a December 31 op-ed by regular
contributor Mamduh Nofal, one of Arafats political advisers) that protesters
"chant during their marches unity, national unity, both Islam and
Christianity." The decision to highlight this infrequently used slogan rather
than the much more common ones that underline the Islamic nature of the struggle, seems
For the religious dimension of the current conflict between
Israelis and Palestinians, often expressed in terms of a religious war between Muslims and
Jews, has created a conundrum for the bi-religious reality that is the Palestinian
Authority. The very fact that the current conflict has come to be called the "Al-Aqsa
Intifada"after the compound built on the site where, Muslims believe, Muhammad
landed after a miraculous single nights journey from Meccademonstrates the
extent to which this latest eruption of violence has a more overtly religious character
than previous ones.
This emphasis on religion is evident, first and foremost, in
popular demonstrations. In a January 12 demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah,
for example, a donkey was paraded through the streets dressed in a Jewish prayer shawl,
with a swastika painted on its forehead. Although this particular event received no
coverage, Palestinian television and radio have generally helped legitimize the
interpretation of the struggle as a religious one.
"The Israelis" have largely been replaced in
Palestinian broadcasts by "the Jews." To be sure, Palestinian television
newscasters continue to refer to the state of Israel and to Israelis, as do most of the
actual Palestinian negotiators, but all other commentators, featured personalities, and
ordinary citizens speak almost exclusively in religious terms. "A Jew is a Jew is a
Jew; this is all there is to it," declared one participant in a January 31 talk show
on Palestine TV, the official television channel, that was devoted to a discussion
of "The True Face of the Jewish People."
Palestinian radio and television also frequently broadcast
songs like the one featured in December and January with the refrain: "Where is Omar,
Where is Sallah al-Din? The Jews have killed us, in Qana and Deir Yassin!" Given how
fully Palestinian radio and television are controlled by the Authority, there can be
little question of the Palestinian leaderships willingness to demonstrate, if not
highlight, the religious character of the struggle. Similarly, the daily Al-Hayat
Al-Jadidah, which is often considered an official Authority publication, on February
15 ran passages from a new Palestinian play in which the plays hero calls down
heavenly curses upon the Jews for stealing his land.
Control of Al-Aqsa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are
unquestionably religious issuesbrought to the fore by negotiations over the final
status of Jerusalem. More surprising, however, is how the issue of the Palestinians
right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel has been transformed within the
Palestinian community into a religious issue on a par with Jerusalem. Indeed, some
Palestinians have begun to call the conflict the "Intifada of the Return." (An
organization called "The Brigades of the Return" claimed responsibility for
detonating a bomb in an Israeli taxi March 1.)
Arafat first defined the right of return as
"sacred" in a speech to a conference on Palestinian refugees in Gaza on
September 17, 1996. While other Palestinian leaders occasionally echoed his remarks over
the next couple of years, it was not until the summer of 1999 that the "sacred right
of return" became a rhetorical commonplace, not just among politicians but also in
In August 1999 the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem,
Michael Sabbah (who calls himself a refugee), visited the Deheisheh refugee camp near
Bethlehem and, in a widely reported remark that was often repeated among Christians,
compared the refugees plight to that of Jesus, "who lived as a refugee in a
cave." On the Muslim side, some newspaper columnists now describe the Palestinian
right of return as "fardh ayn" as opposed to "fardh
kifayya"meaning that it is a religious precept that every Muslim is obliged to
perform personally, not one that the community can fulfil by proxy. This means, in effect,
that a refugee who does not attempt to return to his ancestral home is transgressing a
This sacralization of a Palestinian right of return may be at
the root of the widely divergent reports in the Israeli and Palestinian media on the
progress of negotiations in Taba in late January. Whereas the Israeli side leaked news of
serious and significant progress on the refugee issue, the Palestinian dailies and
television newscasts reported that the progress was only slight and that "a huge
gap" remained. The differing Israeli view was generally attributed by the Palestinian
media to a desperate wish on the part of the Barak government to deliver achievements
before the presidential election.
It is now clear that the Taba negotiations focused on ways to
compensate the refugeeseither for their years of suffering (according to the
Palestinian interpretation) or in return for their houses (according to the Israeli view).
Because agreements on compensation were achieved, the Israelis saw substantial progress.
But because the Palestinian right of return was not discussed, from the Palestinian
perspective little was accomplished. As the Arab press prominently reported, the Mufti of
Jerusalem, Ikrima Sabri, an Arafat appointee, had previously declared in a fatwa
(religious decree) that it was "religiously impermissible" for refugees to be
forced to choose between return and compensation, since "the land of Palestine is
blessed and holy and is not something that can be bought or sold."
Why has the "sacred right of return" tended to take
the religious spotlight away from Jerusalem? The most plausible answer is that Jerusalem
tends to bring to the fore tensions between Christian and Muslim Palestinians.
On the one hand, Christians have no basis for claiming that
Jewish rule over the church of the Holy Sepulchre is intrinsically less acceptable than
Muslim rule, especially given the problematic treatment of Christian rights in Jerusalem
before 1967 under Jordanian sovereignty. On the other, the voices declaring that Jerusalem
is only Muslim and harking back to Sallah al-Dins victory over the Crusaders can all
too easily turn against the Christians.
This helps explain the position of nationalist intellectuals
like Abdallah al-Hurani, expressed in a December 27 op-ed in Al-Quds,
the independent, largest circulation Palestinian daily. His piece was entitled
"Jerusalem is part of the cause, while the refugees are the entire cause"a
position that he reiterated in a long interview with Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah on
December 31. The undeniably critical issue of the refugees can, in short, be raised
without in any way calling national unity into question. Sacralized, in effect, as an
article of Palestinian civil religion, the issue permits both Christians and Muslims to
unite against the Jews.
In contrast to the Palestinian media, the press in other Arab
countries has dealt with the religious dimension of the latest intifada in different ways.
In Lebanon, for instance, scarcely a day goes by without a prominent mention of the
refugees and their right of returnbut the religious aspect of that right is
downplayed, both because of the Lebanese fear of re-igniting their countrys own
smoldering divisions and because a large proportion of the journalists are themselves
Christian; there is little love lost between them and the Muslim Palestinians. As for the
personal testimonies so common in the Palestinian media, they are replaced by features
describing the refugee camps as "The Time Bomb," as the headline to a lengthy
story in the weekly Al-Usbu al-Arabi declaredan existential
danger to the Lebanese state.
In the Egyptian and the Gulf press, on the other hand, the
refugees are not given such prominence, and Jerusalem retains top priority. Al-Khalij,
published in the United Arab Emirates, recently ended a 22-installment exposition of
"Islamic Jerusalem Throughout the Ages," displaying both the Muslim connection
to Jerusalem and showcasing clerics and scholars denying the existence of a Jewish Temple.
The Egyptian and Gulf press have also been marked by a
proliferation of in-depth stories asserting that the Israelis are not true Jews at all.
The motivation behind these stories is to avoid the charge of fostering "religious
war" by showing that the Arabs do not object to the Jews per se, but only to
the Jews in Israel. This claim is demonstrated in various wayseither by pulling out
Israeli statistics on the number of Russian immigrants to Israel who are not considered
Jewish, or (as in a January 17 article in the main Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram) by
claiming to demonstrate that Israels Askenazi majority, being of European origin,
are not "original" Jews but members of the Central Asian Khazar tribe who
converted to Judaism for practical reasons in the 9th century.
That being said, it is worth mentioning that the increasingly
religious tone of the Arab-Israeli conflict has led to a reaction from mainstream Egyptian
journalists, most of whom are decidedly secular. Indeed, an op-ed by Fahmi Huwaidi in Al-Ahram
on January 23 praised the growing rapprochement between religion and
secular politics in the Islamic and Arab world.
This very different treatment of the religious dimension of
the conflict only underscores the distinctive evolution of the Palestinian medias
approach. While Jerusalem and the holy sites on the mount initially served as religious
rallying cries, they have proved to be tricky given the demographics of Palestinian
society. Although Palestinian Christians comprise only about two percent of the population
in the West Bank and Gaza, their importance to the Palestinian economy and self-identity
is far more substantial. The Palestinian newspapers, ever wary of promoting civil strife,
have worked hard to bring Christians into the struggle by highlighting the refugee issue.
Palestinian television, more inflammatory than the print media, has overtly pitted
religious people of all faiths (including the small Druze and Samaritan populations) against
the immoral Jews.
Yet this approach may itself turn out to be something of a
double edged sword. For in promoting the unity of Christians and Muslims, it highlights a
different tension in Palestinian society: the struggle over reforming the corrupt
institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Even now calls are being heard to capitalize on
unity by beginning "The Internal Intifada"the fight against
corruption. Leading the calls are the Palestinian Authoritys old rivals, the Islamic
See companion articles:
letter to the editor from Ron Stockton, University of
Michigan-Dearborn, with reply from Rachel Stroumsa
Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News,
Israels Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999