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Religious conflict in Jerusalem may not have political solutions

Research shows that fights over heavenly real estate may not be amenable to earthly solutions.

Jerusalem: the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. (July, 2014)
Jerusalem: the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

As the US unveiled its new, controversial embassy in Jerusalem this week, 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces after they attempted to storm the Israel-Gaza border in protest. Though this recent swell of violence is the latest in a long history of clashes, religious symbolism and claims have been particularly prominent in the past few days.

Understanding what happened this week requires recognizing that the conflict is not just a material struggle for land. Instead, territorial control has tremendous symbolic significance for the religious and national identities of Israelis and Palestinians. But US evangelicals also perceive the conflict in religious terms. That is, Jews, Muslims, and Christians disagree not just about earthly ownership of the 50-square-mile territory but also about divine intentions. Research shows that the theological roots of the conflict will make it particularly difficult to solve — yet religion can also point toward new solutions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about many things. Both sides have important material stakes and demands: defensible, contiguous borders, mutual security, and access to resources. Third-party interventions in this conflict generally aim to negotiate a solution to those material conflicts. Indeed, this focus — and the accompanying notion that land and resources are fundamentally negotiable and divisible — is at the heart of the search for a two-state solution.

However, Israelis and Palestinians often do not see it this way. In a recent study, one of us found that a majority of sampled Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians residing in the West Bank all framed the conflict as primarily identity-based: either nationalist or religious in origin. While 51 percent of Israeli Jews saw the conflict as nationalist in nature, Palestinians were particularly likely to view the conflict in religious terms — nearly 64 percent of sampled Palestinians in the West Bank and 50 percent of Palestinians in Israel.

Does it matter whether people are fighting over religion or land? In a word, yes — a great deal. Earthly territory is divisible. By contrast, many religious groups perceive that real estate in the afterlife and divine will on earth are not amenable to division, compromise, or bargaining. Indeed, the recent study in Israel and Palestine showed that those who perceived the conflict in religious terms were much less willing to compromise, even accounting for other important factors like ideology and religiosity.

Scholars argue that theologies create several “scarce resources” to which different religious groups claim privileged access: understanding of the divine will, access to sacred territories, and entrance to the afterlife. Yet different groups’ claims are mutually incompatible. For instance, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is revered by Jews as the site of the ancient Jewish temples and by Muslims as the location of Mohammed’s ascent to heaven, making this single site one of the most contested spaces in the world.

But the problem is not just disagreement. What makes it especially hard to resolve religious conflicts is that the claims are mutually unverifiable. No territorial deed or real estate registry can satisfactorily resolve disagreements over divine intentions for a sacred space. Religious faith tends to imbue followers with moral conviction in their own claims, yet it does not provide a common tool or framework for resolving disagreements. As a result, when different groups’ claims over religious resources conflict, violence is especially likely.

Two other features of religion exacerbate this explosive tendency: religion’s potency as a form of group identity that heightens perceived grievances, and its unique capacity to inspire self-sacrifice.

Indeed, evidence shows that religion increases militancy among Israeli Jews. For instance, Israelis take “more hard‐line positions against a land‐for‐peace compromise” during times in the religious calendar that require intensive prayer. Likewise, Israelis who identify with religion over nation tend to more strongly endorse retaliation against Palestinian militants. But the causal arrow points in the other direction, too, from violence to religious claims. Violent militants strategically adopt religious rhetoric to mobilize followers and retain members, resulting in a cycle of violence steeped in religious language.

As a result, framing the struggle over Jerusalem in terms of sacred values intensifies the conflict and cuts off avenues for resolving the conflict. If both sides perceive that losing Jerusalem dispossesses them not only of land but also of sacred resources, certain compromises become unacceptable. Moreover, if both parties use religion as a legitimation strategy in bargaining, they can become locked into rhetoric constructing Jerusalem as fundamentally indivisible. For example, despite the wide range of views in the Israeli population about the feasibility and contours of a two-state solution, 73 percent of Israeli Jews support moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and only 5 percent oppose it.

Moreover, though Israeli Jews (unlike Palestinians) are still more likely to frame the conflict as nationalist than religious, this may be changing as Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and religious settler enterprise continues to drastically expand and gain control of levers of government. Within 40 years, 29 percent of Israel’s population is projected to be ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) — a threefold increase from the current 9 percent.

What makes this conflict yet more intractable is that US-based evangelical Christians have become a third religious stakeholder. As the role of two evangelical ministers in the opening ceremony of the US Embassy made clear, religion is also key to understanding support for Israel on the American right. Among American evangelicals, “belief in Biblical inerrancy engenders ‘messianic’ militarism.”

Two aspects of evangelical theology promote support for Israel: a belief that God has established a covenant with the people of Israel, and visions of a coming “end times” starring Israel. For instance, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro drew controversy this week for claiming that moving the US Embassy “fulfilled a biblical prophecy ... that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state.”

Thus, the events in Jerusalem, Gaza, and across the West Bank result not only from material disagreements and national interests but also, in part, from mutually incompatible claims over the divine will: Who has the God-given right to this land?

At present, the goals of American evangelicals and the hawkish Israeli government largely align. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that evangelical Christians perceive themselves as taking part in a divinely foretold prophecy in which their Jewish Israeli allies are supporting actors who will either eventually convert to Christianity or suffer eternal damnation. This evangelical script may not easily accommodate prospective Israeli attempts at rapprochement, or partial cession of sacred spaces.

Yet just as religion exacerbates conflict, it also has the potential to create new solutions. What R. Scott Appleby called the “ambivalence of the sacred” leads religion simultaneously to inspire suicide bombers and “militants for peace and justice.” Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. constitute just two of the most prominent leaders who have drawn creatively on religion’s human and ideological resources to build new movements and “political theologies” that leveled inequalities and created bridges between religious groups. In Israel, groups like the Interreligious Coordinating Council, among others, are working to do just that.

The conditions facing would-be religious entrepreneurs for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine are daunting — yet they may hold the key to succeeding where more earthly approaches have failed.

Amy Erica Smith is an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on democratic citizenship, religion, and representation. Carly Wayne is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, and the psychology of political violence.

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