Rachel Shabi, a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands, with Al Jazeera last week outlining the dangers of framing the latest unrest in Jerusalem as “religious conflict.”
That an ultra-orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem was chosen for this latest, gruesome attack, in which four Jewish-Israeli men were killed by two knife-wielding Palestinians, has detonated appalling historic associations and has been widely condemned. This attack has also, inevitably, sparked descriptions of a “religious war” in the region – depicted in media headlines as being in various stages of development: either a current reality or an unavoidably impending one.
For some months now, [Netanyahu’s] hard right coalition government has not just tolerated but actively supported a movement agitating for “Jewish prayer rights” at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – a sacred site to both Muslims and Jews. This movement goes against a long-established status quo agreement, whereby non-Muslims can visit, but not worship at this holy site housing both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
But more than that, it runs contrary to what Jewish religious leaders have been saying for centuries, which is to rule against Jewish prayer at Temple Mount. Today, there is only one, growingly influential rabbinical strain that says otherwise and that’s the one guiding the religious-settler movement, which should make it abundantly clear that the issue is political, not religious.
To play down the provocative nature of these attempts is either misinformed or disingenuous in the extreme. This is, after all, the same movement that talks openly about destroying the Dome of the Rock and replacing it with a third Jewish Temple.
Indeed, Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel – yes, an active minister in the current cabinet – has said that he supports such a project.
[Pushing] this conflict into the religious realm, defining it as a “religious war”, serves a clear political purpose. It means the Israeli government can bind its cause with the “war on terror”, claiming that Palestinians are just like ISIL in their motivation – a hyper-violent, hyper-fundamentalist jihadi mission rather than a quest for self-determination. It deprives Palestinians of cause or motivation, save for just one factor: religious hatred.
But now more than ever, with religion so rampantly abused to weaponise increasingly brutal wars in the Middle East, the worst thing we could do is to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as religious. Now more than ever, only a just, political solution to this land- and rights-based conflict can save the holy capital from even more bloodshed and grief.
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