Is the Israel-Palestine conflict a religious war or struggle by the colonised against the coloniser?

Human pulsion toward sadism and destruction is as natural as our pulsion toward pleasure, and Gaza has become a museum of the death drive.
Published May 27, 2024

It is often said that the bloodiest wars in history were fought in the name of religion. In fact, the opposite is true.

The most inhumane conflicts in history were all secular, modernist, and conducted according to the logic of the rational sciences. While it is true that the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and other holy wars dragged on for centuries in the medieval world, these were always interlaced with “secular” interests like economics and politics of power, and their death tolls (if known) pale in comparison to those of modern warfare.

Forty million people were killed during World War I, over 50 million during World War II, the great atheist Stalin killed millions during his reign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union (even if the standard 20 million number may have been American propaganda), and Pol Pot was responsible for the genocide of two million of his fellow Cambodians (again, the numbers are disputed).

The exact number of casualties in all the wars varies, but when we enter the language of “giving or taking” a few million here and there, we have already entered the realm of humanity reduced to bare life.

Counting souls, not bodies

By comparison, the so-called religious conflicts of recent history were much more benign. The Yugoslav wars, ostensibly rooted in an immortal Catholic/Orthodox rivalry, saw around 140,000 deaths, and Islamic State terror in Iraq and Syria did not top 35,000 casualties (at the highest estimate).

Even the Hindu/Muslim fratricide during Partition “only” resulted in around one million deaths; a “small” number compared to the 20th century’s secular world wars, but perhaps more painful because it was brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. Its pain can still be felt in a way that the spectacular numbers of the world wars’ military casualties perhaps cannot be.

There are two points to be taken from the discussion so far. One, it is simply not true that religion has been the cause of the most inhumane wars and killings in history. The facts clearly illustrate an inverse situation, to the extent that one might wonder who or what benefits from this often-repeated myth.

Moreover, whereas secular politics driven by Enlightenment ideals or utopian projects like communism have regarded human life as a statistical fact subordinate to a greater imminent good, it is religion that has maintained its fidelity to the idea of a soul, that which uniquely inhabits each and every body. The soul, in its afterlife, designates a place for the individual beyond the collective good, as seen in concepts like martyrdom — a theology for which secular ideologies have no viable alternative.

And, two, the pain caused by violent conflicts cannot be measured in numbers. If this were true, then our capacity to feel pain from the deaths of our loved ones would be trivial compared to the pain felt from knowledge of distant wars. No amount of solidarity in the world can move us to such extremes of empathy.

Secular vs religious

I offer these thoughts now in a time of great suffering in the world — in Palestine — where secular and religious ideologies meet in complicated and often contradictory ways.

There is no mistaking that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a colonial conflict, meaning that it is a secular conflict in which the colonised refuse the terms laid out by the coloniser on basic principles of human dignity and justice. But this basic framework is also imbued with significant religious overtones, and a kaleidoscope of other undertones.

For half a century, leftist internationalists have invested in the Palestinian revolution as a litmus test for a potential world revolution. Similarly, for over a century, Muslims have viewed Palestinian suffering as synonymous with Muslim suffering, and Jewish dominance over Palestine as representative of diminishing Muslim sovereignty.

Israelis, too, construct their unique form of colonialism not on scientific concepts of racial superiority (akin to Nazi Germany’s colonial aspirations) but on Jewish supremacy derived from biblical prophecy.

Regardless of the efforts made by secular Jewish intellectuals, both in the past and present, to dissociate Zionism from religious influences, the fact remains that the millennia-old Jewish connection to Palestine finds its foundation solely in the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud — the sacred texts of Judaism.

At the same time, to Israelis who are convinced that their colonised subjects are inherently antisemitic Jew-haters, the question must be asked: Would Palestinians hate their colonisers any less had Israel been a Hindu or Christian settler colony? A related version of the question can also be posed to Muslim publics around the world who pray for Palestinians because they are (mostly) Muslims: Would the Ummah abandon Palestine if its inhabitants were Buddhists or Sikhs?

These are difficult questions, but we are in difficult times. Israeli soldiers have consistently used Jewish symbols during the genocide in Gaza, from erecting menorahs in bombed-out neighbourhoods to underwriting a genocidal subtext into Jewish holidays.

True, this is a perverted Judaism that does not speak for all Jews, in the same way that Islamic militancy does not speak for all Muslims, but the religious nature of Israel’s war cannot be brushed aside as a mere curiosity.

One can see shades of the militant Islamic State (IS) in videos of Israel’s conduct in Gaza and the West Bank. A particularly disturbing instance that comes to mind is a recent video in which an Israeli soldier shoots an elderly Palestinian man — a convert to Judaism — for not being sufficiently Jewish.

The video shows the soldier interrogating the elderly man’s religion and then cuts out before he is shot at point-blank range. Its cruelty jolts the memory of videos that surfaced from Raqqa and Sinjar a decade ago. So the question then becomes: Is the genocide in Gaza a religious one or a secular one? And if it is both, as is probably the case, where does one seep into the other?

The evolution of Zionism

Zionism is a project with many faces, currents, countercurrents, and evolutions. In the past two decades, its way of self-narration has adapted to global sentiments, but without sticking to any one of them exclusively. The basic frame narrative of European Jewish settlers establishing a state on the fringes of Arabia has gone from a story of utopian nation-building in a barren desert to a bellicose narrative in which there was a war with the Arabs and the Jews fairly won their spoils.

More recent shifts use the language of decolonisation and indigeneity, purporting to depict the Jews as indigenous people shouting in the wilderness for their ancestral land rights (as if they were the Navajo nation) but nobody hears them.

These shifts indicate that Israel is not immune to changing global sentiments, and that adapting to these new horizons is hard and constant work. But because the Palestinian story is now known to the world, and because this story touches the hearts of whoever hears it, Israel has had to search for new discursive strategies to situate itself in this changing world.

A new kind of narrative voice has emerged in Israel since Hamas’s uprising on October 7. This is one that acknowledges the dark matter of Israeli history that were long circumvented: massacres of Palestinian villages in 1947 and 1948, collusion with succeeding imperial powers like Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, manipulating peace treaties signed on lavish lawns of Western capitals, and so on.

Perhaps because it is no longer possible to conceal truths in the age of the internet, perspectives that were once taboo in Israeli society are now game for legitimate discussion.

Another reason for this new voice is that Palestinians have also changed. Long having favoured some version of a binational model as a solution to the Israel-Palestine impasse, younger Palestinians have shifted to a revolutionary Algerian model, one in which there is no solution but driving the colonisers out of the homeland, en masse, and even after generations. Not aloof to this new world order, the new Israeli voice says: “We are refugees, and should the Palestinian resistance win, we would have nowhere to go.”

There is a tragic sincerity in this voice. Yet, when I watch the videos from Gaza, it is difficult to empathise with Israelis who believe that genocide is the only solution to permanently safeguard their own existence on the land. We know from psychoanalysis that the death drive, as Freud called it, meaning the human pulsion toward sadism and destruction, is as natural as our pulsion toward pleasure, and Gaza has become a museum of the death drive. But it does not have to be this way.

Can the Israeli youth contemplate an exit from violence?

In a fascinating recent book on genocide, the anthropologist and psychiatrist Richard Rechtman draws from years-long research with asylum seekers in France to reach a highly original insight — that the millions of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, tribal areas of Pakistan, and Iraq who have flooded Europe over the past decade are, in many cases, not seeking asylum because they are afraid for their own lives.

These men often belong to the same religion and sometimes the same tribal lineages as the jihadists from whom they seek asylum, and therefore the probability that these men would be killed is low. Rather, they are fleeing their villages, families, and lifeworlds because they do not want to be recruited by jihadist groups that would essentially oblige these young men to become killers.

In other words, they leave everything and flee because they refuse to kill. To contain their experience to the generic category of “migrant” is a lack that does not adequately capture the ethical sacrifice that these men have made.

In lieu of such an insight, one wonders what would happen if, as the world changes around them, a generation of Israeli reservist soldiers and conscription-age teenagers wake up one morning and decide not to kill; to not participate in a holy war.

They would indeed have to leave Israel under these circumstances, but this would be an exit not as disgraced colonists but as asylum seekers — like the hundreds and thousands of young men resettled in monotonous small towns in Germany, Austria, Sweden; building new lives in distant places — who refuse to participate in a genocide in the name of religion.

Header image: Women and children mourn people killed in Israeli bombardment, at a health clinic in the area of Tel al-Sultan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. — AFP