Readers of this blog are, by now, well aware of the fact that I am of the firm opinion that the Arab-Israel conflict was, is and will remain essentially religio-cultural. It has much less to do with post-colonialism, economics or secular nationalism. I have been of this conviction since I read Bernard Lewis' 'The Return of Islam' (Commentary, January 1976) and that conviction has grown and intensified as time has gone by. That is why whenever I'm invited to speak in Israel or abroad, I try to convince my hosts that some variation on this theme ought to be included in the program. I am not doing so in order to sow despair. I do so out of the belief that challenges can best be met by looking them straight on.
The willingness of the various academic, intellectual and political groupings, here and abroad, to hear this point of view has been very wan. The cognoscenti love to dismiss this idea as just so much drivel, despite the fact that very accomplished scholars maintain exactly this position (inter alia, Bernard Lewis, Yehoshua Porat, Richard Pipes, Richard Landes, and Martin Kramer).
Now, further confirmation has come from an unexpected source. None other than the first of the so-called 'New Historians,' Professor Benny Morris, has come to exactly this conclusion in his new book on the war of independence. As excerpted in this past Friday's Jerusalem Post (with interview):
To be sure, while mentioning "God," Ben-Gurion... had failed fully to appreciate the depth of the Arabs' abhorrence of the Zionist-Jewish presence in Palestine, an abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots. The Jewish rejection of the Prophet Muhammad is embedded in the Qur'an and is etched in the psyche of those brought up on its suras. As the Muslim Brotherhood put it in 1948: "Jews are the historic enemies of Muslims and carry the greatest hatred for the nation of Muhammad."
Such thinking characterized the Arab world, where the overwhelming majority of the population were, and remain, believers. In 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt sent out feelers about a negotiated settlement of the Palestine problem, King Ibn Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia responded that he was "prepared to receive anyone of any religion except (repeat except) a Jew." A few weeks earlier, Ibn Sa'ud had explained, in a letter to Roosevelt: "Palestine... has been an Arab country since the dawn of history and... was never inhabited by the Jews for more than a period of time, during which their history in the land was full of murder and cruelty... [There is] religious hostility... between the Muslims and the Jews from the beginning of Islam... which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims and their prophet." Jews were seen as unclean; indeed, even those who had contact with them were seen as beyond the pale. In late 1947 the Al-Azhar University 'ulema, major authorities in the Islamic world, issued a fatwa that anyone dealing with "the Jews," commercially or economically (such as by "buying their produce"), "is a sinner and criminal... who will be regarded as an apostate to Islam, he will be separated from his spouse. It is prohibited to be in contact with him."
This anti-Semitic mindset was not restricted to Wahhabi chieftains or fundamentalist imams. Samir Rifahi, Jordan's prime minister, in 1947 told visiting newsmen, "The Jews are a people to be feared... Give them another 25 years and they will be all over the Middle East, in our country and Syria and Lebanon, in Iraq and Egypt... They were responsible for starting the two world wars... Yes, I have read and studied, and I know they were behind Hitler at the beginning of his movement."
The 1948 War, to be sure, was a milestone in a contest between two national movements over a piece of territory. But it was also - if only because that is how many if not most Arabs saw it (and see it today) - part of a more general, global struggle between the Islamic East and the West, in which the Land of Israel/Palestine figured, and still figures, as a major battlefront. The Yishuv saw itself, and was universally seen by the Muslim Arab world, as an embodiment and outpost of the European "West." The assault of 1947-1948 was an expression of the Islamic Arabs' rejection of the West and its values as well as a reaction to what it saw as a European colonialist encroachment against sacred Islamic soil. There was no understanding (or tolerance) of Zionism as a national liberation movement of another people. And, aptly, the course of the war reflected the civilizational disparity, in which a Western society, deploying superior organizational and technological skills, overcame a coalition of infinitely larger Islamic Arab societies.
Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders. This is a mistake. The 1948 War, from the Arabs' perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity. In the months before the invasion of 15 May 1948, King 'Abdullah, the most moderate of the coalition leaders, repeatedly spoke of "saving" the holy places. As the day of invasion approached, his focus on Jerusalem, according to Alec Kirkbride, grew increasingly obsessive. "In our souls," wrote the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, "Palestine occupies a spiritual holy place which is above abstract nationalist feelings. In it we have the blessed breeze of Jerusalem and the blessings of the Prophets and their disciples."
The evidence is abundant and clear that many, if not most, in the Arab world viewed the war essentially as a holy war. To fight for Palestine was the "inescapable obligation on every Muslim," declared the Muslim Brotherhood in 1938. Indeed, the battle was of such an order of holiness that in 1948 one Islamic jurist ruled that believers should forgo the hajj and spend the money thus saved on the jihad in Palestine. In April 1948, the mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Muhammad Mahawif, issued a fatwa positing jihad in Palestine as the duty of all Muslims. The Jews, he said, intended "to take over... all the lands of Islam." Martyrdom for Palestine conjured up, for Muslim Brothers, "the memories of the Battle of Badr... as well as the early Islamic jihad for spreading Islam and Salah al-Din's [Saladin's] liberation of Palestine" from the Crusaders. Jihad for Palestine was seen in prophetic-apocalyptic terms, as embodied in the following hadith periodically quoted at the time: "The day of resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews, until the Jews hide behind trees and stones and until the trees and stones shout out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'"
The jihadi impulse underscored both popular and governmental responses in the Arab world to the UN partition resolution and was central to the mobilization of the "street" and the governments for the successive onslaughts of November-December 1947 and May-June 1948. The mosques, mullahs, and 'ulema all played a pivotal role in the process. Even Christian Arabs appear to have adopted the jihadi discourse. Matiel Mughannam, the Lebanese-born Christian who headed the AHC-affiliated Arab Women's Organization in Palestine, told an interviewer early in the civil war: "The UN decision has united all Arabs, as they have never been united before, not even against the Crusaders... [A Jewish state] has no chance to survive now that the 'holy war' has been declared. All the Jews will eventually be massacred." The Islamic fervor stoked by the hostilities seems to have encompassed all or almost all Arabs: "No Muslim can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands," reported Kirkbride from Amman. "Even the Prime Minister [Tawﬁq Abul Huda]... who is by far the steadiest and most sensible Arab here, gets excited on the subject."
Nor did this impulse evaporate with the Arab defeat. On the contrary. On 12 December 1948 the 'ulema of Al-Azhar reissued their call for jihad, specifically addressing "the Arab Kings, Presidents of Arab Republics,... and leaders of public opinion." It was, ruled the council, "necessary to liberate Palestine from the Zionist bands... and to return the inhabitants driven from their homes." The Arab armies had "fought victoriously" (sic) "in the conviction that they were fulfilling a sacred religious duty." The 'ulema condemned King 'Abdullah for sowing discord in Arab ranks: "Damnation would be the lot of those who, after warning, did not follow the way of the believers," concluded the 'ulema.
Another graduate of the university...of duh. Welcome aboard.