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March 21, 2014

Religion in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict-The Untold Story

Rana Abdulla

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Anyone who is familiar with the nature of what is called the "Israeli-Palestinian conflict" understands that the issues at stake are not religious ones. The people of Palestine have never identified universally with a single religion. Although the great majority of Palestinians can be identified as "Sunni Muslims," Palestinian Muslims live out their religious identity in many different ways. And of course there have been Palestinian Christians since the time of Jesus himself. In fact, Palestine has long been inhabited by people of many different religious faiths who have accommodated each other, developing an open and tolerant society.

On the other hand, the notion of a “Jewish state” was first advanced by secular Jews, many of whom wished to turn “Jewishness” into a national identity without reference to religion. Today, about 2 million Jewish citizens of Israel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Even when the large population of Israeli Arabs is assumed to be faithful to a particular religion, Israel is one of the least religious nations outside Europe. Furthermore, commitment to Judaism as a religion is not related to a commitment to Zionism. The groups that are called “Orthodox Jews” in Europe and America include some of the most militant Zionists in the world, but also some of the most militant anti-Zionists in the world—Jews who believe that the State of Israel in its present form is an unholy mockery of a nation that, they believe, can only be created by divine intervention.

The complaint of the Palestinian people is not based in particular religious beliefs, but rather in the facts of colonization, occupation, and continued oppression. The actions of the government of Israel are not based in particular religious beliefs, but rather in a desire to establish a secure base where people of Jewish heritage, regardless of their ideas about religion, can protect themselves from the attacks to which they have been subjected for thousands of years.

Despite these incontestable facts, there are people who insist that religion is the true foundation of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. These people never seem to have any genuine attachment or involvement to the people who suffer or the land that has been occupied. Despite this, they have a real effect on events in Palestine. It should not be a surprise that the main achievement of these extremist outsiders is to inflame conflict and sabotage the work of those people on both sides who seek justice and peace—goals that all people who are truly faithful hold in common.

What may be surprising to many of our readers is that the religious extremists who do the most harm to the Palestinian cause are neither Jewish nor Muslim. They are not members of one of the Christian sects in Palestine. Rather, they are a group of Protestant Christians. What may be even more surprising is that one of the most politically powerful of these zealots is none other than Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of our famously moderate nation.

Christian “Zionists”

The full impact of so-called “Christian Zionism” was news to me, and the idea that major political figures—much less our own Prime Minister—might advocate the beliefs I am about to describe would have seemed ludicrous. These facts came to light for me after a random online conversation with an American who happened to contact me. It turns out that this apparently unbelievable account is no secret—as you will see, it is very easy to find evidence of these positions.

The doctrines of “Christian Zionism” are associated with a Christian theological movement called “dispensationalism.” This school of thought was developed in Great Britain in the 1830s, and was very obscure for decades. However, in the 1870s, it began to catch on among some American Protestants who saw themselves as traditionalists. In the coming decades, dispensationalism was spread by revivals and Bible colleges, and by the 1920s it was very widespread among the Protestants who called themselves “fundamentalists.” Almost all the most prominent Protestant revivalists and activists in the United States have held these beliefs. The founders of the Religious Right in the US, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, along with more “moderate” leaders such as Billy Graham and Rick Warren, are all dispensationalists.

Dispensationalism is an attempt to reconcile the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, with Christian beliefs about Jesus. The prophets whose words are recorded in the Hebrew Bible predicted that the Messiah would return to Jerusalem and establish a kingdom that would bring peace, plenty, and knowledge of God to the whole world. Historically, most Christian leaders taught that the “kingdom” described in the Hebrew Bible was the Christian church.

However, as scholars began to look at the Bible with a more critical eye, it became clear that there was no historical evidence to support the idea that the words of the ancient Jewish prophets could apply to the Christian church. Many of these scholars abandoned traditional Christian beliefs, but some worked to establish a system that could explain these discrepancies. The central teaching of dispensationalism is that the Israelites were set apart by God as a holy people, and that Jews today are still the “chosen people,” with a destiny and purpose that is separate from all other nations and which will continue until the end of the world. Furthermore, dispensationalists teach that some of the prophecies about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible apply to Jesus in his first appearance on earth, while others apply to a future return of Jesus that is still awaited. Based on a very detailed examination of the words of the Bible, and particularly by assigning very specific meaning to various symbolic passages of the Bible, dispensationalists have constructed a very detailed account of the last days that is directly relevant to current events in Palestine.

The Teachings of Dispensationalism

Dispensationalists believe that the last days will begin with the sudden disappearance of all believing Christians from the earth in an event called the “Rapture.” When the rapture occurs, every person who has true faith in Jesus Christ as their savior will vanish without a trace, leaving the unbelievers to face the turmoil that follows this event. Very quickly, a leader will arise and unite the entire world into a single government that he heads. Under his leadership, the world will see an end to war and religious conflict. In particular, he will end the conflict between Israel and its neighbors by negotiating a comprehensive peace treaty that will confirm the Jews’ right to control Israel and arrange for the rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif). During this time, only a few people will be able to see the truth: that this new leader is actually the Antichrist, who will use both natural and supernatural power to fight against God and the faithful. This peaceful rule of Antichrist will continue for 42 months.

At the end of the 42-month period, the Antichrist (Al-Maseeh Al-Dajjal) will enter the rebuilt Temple and demand to be worshipped as God by all the people of the world. He will also institute some kind of universal identification system that will be mandatory for anyone who wants to trade legally. The Jews and a relatively small group of Gentiles will refuse to either worship him or take part in his system. Israel will become the center of resistance to Antichrist, who will do everything possible to persecute, torture, and eliminate their opposition to the Antichrist’s new world order. At the same time, a series of supernatural disasters will strike the large majority of people who willingly worship the Antichrist and have joined in his system. These awful events—disease, swarms of giant biting insects, massive crop loss, environmental collapse, and famine—will make the world a place of even greater suffering for non-believers.

After a second 42-month period during which all this takes place, the Antichrist will form a massive army to invade Israel and destroy it completely. In a climactic battle near Tel Megiddo, a hill in northern Israel, Jesus and the Christians who vanished seven years earlier will return to the earth, where they will reinforce the Jews and their allies and utterly destroy Antichrist and his army. In the aftermath, Jesus will be crowned as King of Israel in Jerusalem and will be acknowledged as the ruler of the whole world. His reign will last for 1000 years, and will end with a brief insurrection that will be followed by the final judgment of the living and the dead.

Political Implications of Dispensationalism

Every phrase in the description above is referenced by dispensationalists with Bible verses and interpretations, but I won’t even try to explain how this account is taken from the Bible. Instead, I want to remind you that these beliefs are held by hundreds of millions of people around the world. It isn’t easy to find polling data on religious questions, but the best estimates are that 60 million Americans and 3 million Canadians are expecting the Rapture to take place in the not-too-distant future. Evangelicals tend to be politically active, and so they have had a major influence on US foreign policy in the Middle East and are having a growing impact on Canadian policy as well. These effects are pernicious in several ways.

First, dispensationalists believe that the Antichrist will begin to rule when he negotiates a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and its neighbors. Since there will not be peace in Palestine until that treaty is signed, there is no hope of achieving peace between Israel and Palestine. Thus, while some dispensationalists do pay lip service to the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they know that actual peace will never be established by human means—God has ordained warfare between Israel and its neighbors.

Second, dispensationalists believe that Israel has an absolute, God-given right to the “promised land” as defined in the Hebrew Bible. They are more deeply opposed to a “two-state solution” than all but the most irrational Zionists. Zionism was founded as a political movement and so it can be adapted to meet political realities. As defined in the Hebrew Bible, Canaan included almost all of what is now Lebanon as well as the modern-day state of Israel. However, no credible political voice in Israel, even on the far right, suggests that Israel has a divine mission to invade and conquer Lebanon. From a political point of view, the position of the Jewish nation would not be strengthened by such a move. In the same way, the basic proposal of “land for peace” is a political solution to a political problem, and one that could be embraced by political Zionists as a way to safeguard their nation. Christian “Zionists,” on the other hand, believe that God has given the Jewish people the eternal right to the “promised land.” Thus, unlike the Jews they believe they are supporting, Christian “Zionists” pursue a policy that rejects all compromise

Third, dispensationalists do not distinguish between the state of Israel and Judaism in general. As outsiders, Protestant dispensationalists are largely unaware of, or insentitive to, the range of opinion among Jews in Israel and around the world. They simply equate Israel to Jewishness. They tend to have distorted ideas that associate Judaism with religious observance, even though they tend to have very limited knowledge of Judaism and its history. They are unable to distinguish between support for the current government of Israel, support for the State of Israel, and support for the Jewish people in and beyond the borders of Israel. As a result, they push the United States (and Canada) to grant Israel free licence to violate the civil rights of its own citizens, to continue to oppress the citizens of Palestine, and to ignore international norms and judicial determinations.

Fourth, dispensationalists literally demonize their opposition. Since they believe that the man who makes peace in the Middle East will be the Antichrist, they are suspicious of anyone who attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on any terms. Furthermore, because they believe that the Antichrist will unify the world under one government, they reject international cooperation and especially the work of the United Nations. Even though the Christian Bible records that Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers,” dispensationalists view those who try to make peace in Palestine as either agents or dupes of the Antichrist’s advance guard.

In order to understand the actions of the Harper government, we must understand the religious beliefs that motivate Stephen Harper and many of his allies. It is no surprise that Harper has been quick to dismiss the United Nations and embrace the militant wing of the Israeli right. Like every person, our Prime Minister has the right to his beliefs. But when his beliefs are so far removed from the mainstream, we have the right to insist that our nation be guided by the principles our country is founded on rather than the theories of one person. It is vital that the people of Canada understand the reasons for the actions of their leaders, and hold those leaders accountable for their actions. No one who cares about Canada should stand by while its international reputation is destroyed in the service of religious extremism.

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