No Holy Ground

No Holy Ground January 3, 2009

The world’s attention has been riveted these past few days by Israel’s assault on Gaza, in an attempt to oust the Hamas-run government and put a stop to rocket attacks on southern Israel. Hundreds of Palestinians were reported killed in a wave of airstrikes, over a thousand wounded, and as of this writing, a ground invasion looms as a continuing possibility. Although the conflict began after a six-month ceasefire expired and Hamas refused to renew it, it’s now Israel that’s rejecting calls for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The Israeli invasion has drawn a chorus of condemnation from around the world, except in the U.S., where politicians from both parties march in a virtual pro-Israel lockstep. (This despite the fact, as Glenn Greenwald notes, that opinions on the matter among the American public are far more similar to those elsewhere in the world.) The confluence of a hawkish, politically influential pro-Israel lobby and the influence of a major voting bloc of right-wing Christians probably has a lot to do with this.

The Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed is something I’ve never seen the sense of taking sides in. To all except mindless hyper-partisans, it should be obvious that neither Israel nor Palestine is wholly at fault, and as far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of good reasons for blame on both sides. Hamas is deliberately provoking Israel with attacks on civilians, counting on massive Israeli retaliation to cause death and destruction among the Palestinians so that they’ll rise up in anger and rally to Hamas’ banner – callously using the suffering of its own people to shore up its own support. Israel, for its part, is suffocating Gaza with military barricades – preventing even necessities like food and medicine from reaching innocent Palestinians – and using its much greater military power in overwhelming reprisals against defenseless targets, spilling far more blood among Palestinians than any terrorist attack ever did for Israelis. Neither side has made any serious, sustained effort to lower the tension level or restrain itself in the service of a lasting peace.

As in almost all of the world’s lasting trouble spots, this conflict has its origins in religion. Both sides are poisoned by a toxic mixture of beliefs about “promised lands” and “chosen people”, which inevitably inspire hatred and xenophobia against members of the out-group. Two thousand years and more of bloodshed have grown from that bitter seed.

On the Israeli side, these beliefs manifest in the hardcore settlers who believe that controlling the entire occupied territories is their God-given right. In one especially horrifying incident, a mob of settlers tried to lynch a Palestinian family (page has sound), whose lives were only saved by a group of journalists on the scene. These settlements need to be rolled back for there to be any lasting peace, but Israel lacks the political will.

On the Palestinian side and throughout the Muslim world, these beliefs manifest in rampant and vicious anti-Semitism, including teaching schoolchildren the ancient blood libels handed down from medieval Christianity. (See also articles 22 and 32 of the Hamas Covenant.)

Christianity also plays a major, if indirect, role in this conflict. Mostly this is due to right-wing evangelicals, who see the Jews as pawns that need to be moved into place so that they can play their part in the apocalypse by being sacrificed. (This view was most infamously expounded by Pat Robertson when he said that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was because God struck him down as punishment for trying to trade land for peace.) Not only have these groups prevented the American government from applying any significant political pressure to Israel, they themselves have inflamed the conflict by actively encouraging further Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, even getting churches to “adopt” particular settlements.

It’s often stated, as if it were greatly ironic, that the so-called Holy Land is the site of the most enduring and deeply felt hatred on earth. But in truth, that’s exactly what we should expect. The whole point of a “holy land” is that said land is valued irrationally highly, much higher than any material concern would ever justify. Such belief is bound to clash violently with the lives and well-being of humans; that is what always happens when things are valued more highly than people. And the danger is far greater in this case since it’s not just one, but all the world’s major monotheistic faiths that place this insane importance on a tiny and inconsequential strip of ground.

When fanatics of opposing sects go to battle, with each side convinced of its own righteousness and inevitable victory, the only possible outcome is never-ending bloodshed and chaos. In truth, I see only one way out of the destruction that holy-land mythology has wrought on humanity, and that’s for all sides to hear the call of reason and turn away from their suicidal mutual destruction. But with the combatants blinded by self-righteousness and zealotry, I see little prospect of that happening any time in the near future. The fertile crescent that birthed destructive fundamentalism may well be the one place on Earth where it survives the longest.

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