The Innsbruck Research Project and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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The Innsbruck Research Project and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Raymund Schwager, Innsbruck

(translated by Nikolaus Wandinger, Innsbruck)

During the past years we have worked out four joint texts in our Innsbruck research project AReligion - Violence - Communication B World Order@ to which B after extended discussion and resulting modifications and improvements B all members could consent. The first text ADramatic theology as a research program@1 concerns the founding of our work in a theory of knowledge and of science. It draws especially from works by Imre Lakatos, Wolfhard Pannenberg, Nancy Murphy und Philip Clayton. In the wake of Laktos it formulates two core hypotheses and a frame of auxiliary hypotheses. The first core hypothesis, which is inspired by Girard, is:

“A deep, true and lasting peace among people which is not based on sacrificing third persons and can exist without polarization onto enemies is very difficult or even exceeds human strength. If it nevertheless becomes reality, this is a clear sign that God Him­self is acting in the people. This logic of incarnation is shown in the biblical message as well as numerous ‘signs of the times’ in human history.”

As we realized only later, this hypothesis corresponds to the inter-religious prayers for peace to which Pope John Paul II invited to As­sisi in 1986. True peace is an asset that human persons ought to create, yet at the same time are unable to create; thus they have to pray for it to God.

The second joint text dealt with the problem of ethical basic intuitions that are universally accepted as binding in our times, whe­re pluralism and cultural differences are emphasized and European ethnocentricity is denounced. The third text was concerned with September, 11th 2001 and the problem of terrorism, while the fourth talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since this conflict has for decades led to violence and all three monotheistic religions play so­me part in it B each in their own way B this topic might be of impor­tance for the future work of the Colloquium on Violence and Religi­on. Therefore I want to dedicate some more time to it.

Conflicts have their own dynamics. Each party perceives the debate from its own perspective and constantly finds new reasons to justify its own further deeds. The longer conflicts last the more une­quivocal the matter in dispute threatens to become for each side
1) A History of Victims
The present dead-end situation in the Near East reflects political ca­tastrophes of the last century. The victimization the Jews suffered in World War II and the alarm of world opinion over the Shoah led not only to the recognition of the State of Israel by the UNO in 1948. This state was born to the Jewish people out of the aura of victim status, and also for the Western peoples it immediately became a symbol of the survival of Judaism and a test case for halting anti-Semitism. For that reason Israel=s view of its own history leads un­hesitatingly back to the question of the annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany. For some Israelis the Arab attacks and Palestinian terrorist acts are only a further chapter in the long history of anti-Semitism. But inversely, those on the Palestinian side see everything in light of a slogan of early Zionism: AA land without people for a people without land.@2 This is a slogan showing to the Palestinans that from the very beginning the Jews denied the existence of the Palestinian people. Beyond that, the Palestinians feel themselves to be victims of Western injustices

The modern world is stamped with sensitivity to victims. Whoe­ver can show that he or she has become the victim of foreign dictates and violence gains attention and receptiveness. One speaks therefore of an Ainternational victim culture.@3The struggle over special status as victim comes out above all in the discussion about the uniqueness of the Shoah, as Jean-Michel Chaumont explains in detail in his book La concurrence des victims (Competition of the Victims)4 Ri­valry over victim status plays also an important role in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, as some Israelis and Palestinensi­ans clearly see. Henryk Broder, who is Jewish, in conversation with Jamil Hamad, a Palestinian, said already in 1983, AIt is part and par­cel of the conflict that both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, view themselves as victims of this conflict. And both sides insist that they are the true and only victims. And I have the impression that both sides, meanwhile, quite enjoy the role of victim and that they are determined to remain victims at any price.@ To this statement by his Jewish interlocutor Hamad replied, AI see it in the same wayYHere we find both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, creating political capital out of their suffering. From my standpoint I call it the >Palestinian Symphony=: >They have taken our land, they have driven us out, we must live in refugee campsY=@5 Therefore the memory is a double-edged sword. It can produce one-sided traditions and if such traditions of a people=s victim status and rivalries over this status are connected with religious convictions and symbols, then the situation becomes doubly difficult.

2) Religious Symbolism
A religious symbolism of world-historical extent encumbers the con­flict between Israelis and Palestinians from the very start, and religi­ously motivated forces play a definitive role in both parties to the conflict. For believing Jews Jerusalem is the holy city that God cho­se, and the land is a holy land that God promised and gave to them. The Jewish settlers who crowded into the West Bank after the Six Days War were religiously motivated for the most part (with the ex­ception of settlements directly around Jerusalem), and they belong to the movement Gush Emunim.6 However, the effect of the growing settlements has been to make a political solution extremely difficult. This Jewish theology of the land became a red flag for Christian Pa­lestinians, even an embodiment of a false religious ideology which made it harder and harder for them to approach the Old Testament.7 Conversely, the Muslim Palestinians are not only convinced that the enemy has taken their land unjustly, but that their faith proclaims that an area which was once Muslim and belonged to the dar al is­lam (House of Islam or House of Peace), may never be given up, and must be defended if necessary with violence against pagans and ene­mies.8 This goes doubly for Jerusalem, which after Mecca and Medi­na is the third city of the Islamic world, with both its mosques on the Temple mount (Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock).

Furthermore, the Jewish faith is not only important for the indivi­dual believer. It plays also an important part in how the State of Isra­el views its own identity. Although there have been many nonbelie­vers in Israel, the religious forces have nonetheless maintained a vi­tal tradition, and through the centuries this tradition has probably been a decisive factor enabling the Jewish people not to disappear among other peoples. Even into our own time, many non-religious Jews spontaneously feel connected with the religious tradition du­ring times of crisis. Therefore Israel understands itself expressly as a Jewish state offering the right of immigration to all Jews throughout the world. Thus the form of religious faith dominating at present lea­ves the parties in conflict, stuck as they are in the victim=s role, with scarcely any latitude for political compromises.

There is yet another way in which religious motives play a role. They are a factor not to be underestimated in America=s support of Israel. Already in the 18th and 19th centuries there were Christian apocalyptic groups in the USA who believed that the Jews would return to Palestine before the end of the world and the second co­ming of Christ.9 Zionism and the events of the 20th century gave the­se forces massive impetus. Many saw the founding of the State of Israel even as the most important event since the resurrection of Christ and considered it the central point of all prophetic predic­tions.10 A primary example of this view is Hal Lindsey11, whose books sold dozens of millions of copies.12These circles, which be­long to the new Christian right, have long pursued a completely pro-Israel politics13, and Prime Minister Sharon speaks to them, when they gather in Israel. Christian Palestinians are thus particularly of­fended by this AChristian Zionism,@ as they call it.14

Finally, religion plays an especially problematic role in the more extreme and extremist factions on both sides. The Muslim suicide terrorists show through their Asacrifice of life@, on the one hand, that the Palestinians are really a people who, like the Jews, will not allow themselves to be dissolved among other peoples.15 They intend to leave no doubt that the slogan of Zionism, AA land without people for a people without a land,@ was an error. On the other hand, these sacrifices of life are very difficult to distinguish from blind revenge and murderous self-destruction. The experience of constant subjecti­on, moreover, arouses also a dangerous, religiously motivated anti-Semitism among Muslims outside of Palestine. So it was after the Saudi Arabian peace plan and after Israel=s invasion of autonomous Palestinian areas, Sheik Abderrahman as-Sudais, in a Friday sermon, accused Israel of not accepting the peace offer of the AUmma@ (Mus­lim community) and of desiring only the annihilation of the Palesti­nians and driving them off the land. The Muslims had allowed them­selves to be deceived, he said, and the question concerning Palestine and al-Aqsa to be shifted from the religious into the political sphere:

ASurely today the Islamic Umma stands opposed to its old ene­mies, the Bani Kuraiza and the Bani Nadir [two Jewish tribes in Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad]. This is a conflict of faith, of identity, and existence, not simply of borders. The Jews of yesterday had bad ancestors, and those today have yet more evil ones. This is a people full of evil and everything reprehensible. They sought to kill the prophet Muhammed and prior to that despised his followers. The Jews scorn the Arabs and the Muslims. The curse of God and the angels weighs upon them and they deserve it.@16 It is not just anybody saying this. Sheik Abderrahman as-Sudais is Imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca, and his sermons are broad­cast in Saudi Arabia on state television and radio. His words reveal how bitter and fundamental the conflict has become for many Muslims.

There are extremist forces likewise in Israel. There are many of the ultra-orthodox Haredis, according to whom the people Israel is still in exile, but who nevertheless has a great influence in political parties like Shas,Yahadut Ha-Torah und now also Likud. The pree­minent political-religious faction however is the National Religious Party aligned with the Gush Emunim movement, for whom redemp­tion has already begun with the founding of the state of Israel and especially with the 6-day war, when the Israel Army conquered Sa­maria and the eastern part of Jerusalem. According to this view, it is a religious duty. to collaborate with the work of God and never give up the holy Land, which God has given a new to his people. Many in these currents advocate a basic superiority of Jews over non-Jews. Extremists hold that to take land from the Palestinians is not theft but a consecration of the land, for thereby it would go over from a satanic to a holy domain.17 So Jewish ex­tremists correspond to Muslim extremists, and both use their respec­tive opponents to justify their own position.

3) Peace Process
For realistic political solutions it is indispensable to break out of the inclination to remember only one=s own sufferings but overlook tho­se of the other side. Although the Palestinians experienced injustice, and have long clung to their victim=s role, in the peace discussions in Oslo the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat leaped over its own shadow. It relinquished 78% of the land that it believed belon­ged to the Palestinians and recognized Israel as a state. It did this in the hope of getting the remaining areas in what had been set aside as the area of the Palestinian state. Likewise the Israelite government under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres leaped over its own shadow and granted the Palestinians a certain limited self-administration and placed the possibility of a Palestinian state on the horizon. So the process was set in motion that promised genuine peace. But despite this positive beginning, both sides again engaged in acts which wor­ked against it. Palestinians carried on with their earlier anti-Jewish propaganda and committed attacks that contributed to the hardening of the Israeli position. On the other side, with regard to the religious groups the Israeli government could not manage to stop the settle­ment activity, and it also opened wide the doors for immigration of Jews from eastern Europe. The upshot was that the hope of the Pa­lestinians for the restitution of the remaining land and the return of their refugees was buried. The murder of Yitzhaq Rabin by a fanatic religious Israeli made the situation even worse.

In spite of this, in July of 2000 both sides C under Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat C seemed to be willing to put the past aside once again in their negotiations at Camp David, but they did not succeed. Who bears the blame?18 Both sides shifted responsibility to the other par­ty. The Israeli government insisted that around 80% of Jewish sett­lers had to remain on Israeli territory, which would have entailed Aimpossible borders@19for the Palestinian State. The Palestinians we­re ready to give up, at most, 2-3 % of the land in addition to the 78% they had relinquished in Oslo; they also insisted that the refugees would in principle have the right of return, even if the concrete me­chanism was yet to be worked out. The negotiations at Camp David and later in Taba suffered from a growing, reciprocal mistrust, and therefore the old stereotypes of the other side again won the upper hand. Both Barak and Arafat might have had more profound fears about the resistance coming from forces opposed to them on their own side than about the failure of the negotiations as such. Both we­re able to empathize with their own history, but not enough with that of the foreign others; in this they were quite different from the lea­ders of the Blacks and Whites in South Africa. There both negotiati­on parties were unified in never letting assaults lead to breaking off the discussions. Only in this way may one prevent conceding to ex­tremists on both sides a veto right over the negotiations.

After the failure of the official talks at Camp David and Taba the­re were further clandestine negotiations between the two sides. One representative of the Israeli delegation was Moshe Amirav. Accor­ding to his judgment, these secret talks basically failed because of the rivaling claims to sovereignty over the Temple Mount. 20 Arafat as well as Barak had been willing to make far-reaching concessions, if they had had the opportunity to be remembered by history as the political leader who brought his people final sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Yet, since it was impossible that both achieved that goal, failure was inevitable.

In addition to the whole history of that violent conflict, this final failure shows very clearly the role religion plays here. Some see it as a corroboration for the widespread view that the monotheistic reli­gions are especially violent. The German news-magazine ADer Spie­gel@ has described the history of Palestine during the last three thou­sand and the last fifty years as a series of atrocities and as a Aslaughterhouse of the religions@ (8 April 2002). This view is self-righteous and deceptive, because the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians originates in Western politics, above all in the crimes the Nazis committed against the Jews.

The contrary and Apolitically correct@ view, which avoids critici­zing the religious attitudes of Jews or Muslims, maintains that the conflict has no religious causes at all. According to this view, religi­on is merely being misused for political purposes. However, this view is likely to be false as well, because religious leaders are active players and a clear separation between religious and non-religious purposes, as the quoted opinion presupposes, cannot be made.

The religions concerned are complex phenomena and their mani­fold workings can only be judged adequately, when their different and oftentimes counter-running tendencies are clearly distinguished. There have been and continue to be religiously motivated peace-groups on both sides. Moreover, modern society has differentiated (cf. Luhman) in such a way that religion plays a different role in each sector. The relationship between religion and violence therefore is shaped today by many factors, which are to be judged differently according to each situation. Because all three monotheistic religions are entangled in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it offers an example of high current relevance and of world-historic dimension that can serve as a case study in order to validate B and maybe differentiate or modify B the hypotheses of mimetic theory. Therefore I think that the Colloquium on Violence and Religion ought to follow any further developments of that conflict very close­ly.21 I think every new step in the development or steps toward a solu­tion of this conflict can give us new insights in the problem of religi­on and violence.

My personal opinio: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a case study for academic research, but also a case study for the reli­gions involved. Through this conflict they have to learn, that violen­ce is selfdestructiv

1 Vgl. http ://

2 H. Suermann, Zwischen Halbmond und Davidstern. Christliche Theologie in Palästina heute (Theologie der Dritten Welt 28). Freiburg i.Br.: Herder 2001, 140. 149.

3 Cf. J. Güntner, Opfer und Tabu. Günter Grass und das Denken im Trend. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung 23./24. Febr. 2002, 33.

4 Cf. Jean-Michel Chaumont: Die Konkurrenz der Opfer. Genozid, Identität und Anerkennung. Aus dem Französischen ( La concurrence des victimes) übersetzt von Th. Laugstien . Lüneburg: zu Klampen 2001.

5 H. Broder, Die Irren von Zion, Hamburg: Hoffmann u. Campe 21998, 270 (eigene Übersetzung).

6 Cf. I. Shahak, N. Mezvinsky, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. London: Pluto Press 1999, 78 - 95; Ian S. Lustick, The Evolution of Gush Emunim

7 Cf. N.S. Ateek, Justice, & Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Orbis Books 1989.

8 Cf. A. Khoury, Toleranz im Islam. München: Christian Kaiser 1980, 138 -176.

9 Cf. B. MacGinn (Hg.), The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum 1998-2000. Vol. 3: St. J. Stein (Hg.), Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and the Contemporary Age. New York: Continuum 1998, 48 - 55; M. Scherer-Emunds, Die letzte Schlacht um Gottes Reich. Politische Heilsstrategien amerikanischer Fundamentalisten. Münster: edition liberación 1989, 34-36.

10 Scherer-Emunds, Letzte Schlacht (cf. note 9) 48 - 56.

11 Hal Lindsey also maintains a Web-Site, where he comments on the events in the Middle East solely to the disfavor of the Palestinians; Cf.

12 Cf. Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism III (s. note 9) 166 - 177.

13 "Many Evangelical Christians are passionately pro-Israel. Some of the strongest support for Israel comes from Bible-belt states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, that have few kosher restaurants. Evangelical preachers such as Pat Robertson pull off the extraordinary feat of being both anti-Semitic and passionately pro-Israel. Bestseller lists are full of apocalyptic tracts about the end of the world and the return of the Jews to Israel. A group of Pentecostal Christians in Mississippi breed red heifers for sacrifice in Israel when the Second Coming reclaims Jerusalems's Temple Mount from the Muslims." Lexington: No schmooze with the Jews. In: The Economist, April 6th 2002, 47.

14 Cf. A. Rantisi, Gegenwärtige politische Interpretationen des Alten Testaments. In: Suermann, Zwischen Halbmond und Davidstern (s. Anm. 2) 102 - 107.

15 The Israelite peace organization Gush Shalom (Uri Avnery) says about the conduct of Israeli troops in Jenin: "Nations are built on myths. I was raised on the myths of Massada and Tel-Chai, they formed the consciousness of the new Hebrew nation. (In Tel-Chai, 1920, a group of Jewish defenders, led by the one-armed hero Josef Trumpeldor, were killed in an incident with anti-French Syrian fighters.) The myths of Jenin and Arafat's compound in Ramallah will form the consciousness of the new Palestinian nation." (

16 Islamische Empörung gegen 'die Juden'. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23. April 2002, 3 (eigene Übersetzung)

17 Shahak, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (s. Anm. 6) 55 - 95, vor allem 64.71.

18 Yossi Beilin, Israel=s Minister of Justice under Rabin and one of the architects of the Oslo-Accord told in an interview with The Middle East Media Research Institute (19. Juni 2001) after the negotiations at Camp David had failed, what had been the mistake in the Oslo Accord and how peace could still have been achieved in his opinion; Cf. Very revealing is: Ron Pundak, From Oslo to Taba: What Went Wrong? (

19 Says a Israeli peace-movement ; cf.,

20 M. Amirav, The Palestinian Struggle for Jerusalem. Published 2002 by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

21 René Girard has spoken yesterday about Shakespeare and how the poet had fun to play different roles. The political persons in the Near East also play different roles – not by fun, but by bitter political necessity. Therefore I think all the resources of literary criticism are necessary to understand what is going on. After the failure of the negotiations At Camp David Shlomo Ben Ami, the chief-negotiator under Ehud Barak, said Arafat is an oriental, a mythical person. This shows that Ben Ami had a feeling for the complicated game, but he didn’t understand it really.

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