In this long form piece, Matthew Norman takes a deep dive into religion as a driving force in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
In his essay ‘The Future of an Illusion’, Freud illustrates the psychological rationale underlying man’s need, and thereby creation, of gods and the supernatural. He outlines the three tasks that the gods must achieve for humankind:
“They must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”
All the psychological requirements fulfilled for us by gods – though really fulfilled by our own minds in creating such gods – centre on the need to quell fear. The first task of the gods, according to Freud, was to pacify and humanize the devastating power of nature: “A man makes the forces of nature not simply into persons with whom he can associate as he would with his equals – that would not do justice to the overpowering impression which those forces make on him – but he gives them the character of a father. He turns them into gods.”
This first task is best exhibited in the pantheons of ancient civilizations. The Egyptian god Osiris, for example, was not only god of the underworld, but symbolized the cycle of Nile floods that Egyptians relied on for agricultural productivity. And Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, was not just a god associated with war and hunting. His eyes, respectively, were symbolic of the sun and the moon. The same nature-based assignment can be seen in the stable of Aztec gods: Mixcoatl, god of the hunt and stars, Chalchiuhtilicue, the goddess of water, Tlaloc, god of rain.
The second task of the gods is to placate man’s fear of death. And so man created an afterlife, to reconcile his fear “Death itself is not extinction, is not a return to inorganic lifelessness, but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies on the path of development to something higher”.
The third task, which is to compensate man for his suffering and privation, is configured as an extension of this afterlife, that is, the notion of reward and punishment as illustrated by heaven and hell. Freud argues that this third task, the task of remedying the “defects and evils of civilization”, becomes the main focus of the gods after “It was observed that the phenomena of nature developed automatically according to internal necessities.” And that “The more autonomous nature became and the more the gods withdrew from it, the more earnestly were all expectations directed to the third function of the gods – the more did morality become their true domain.” The withdrawal of the gods from nature and their increasing involvement in morality and ethics, in the minds of men, was likely the first step away from polytheism, and towards monotheism.
Freud’s illuminating arguments seem to highlight three common traits within the human species: wishful thinking, pattern seeking, and preferring a half-baked explanation to no explanation at all. For example, plagued by mental turmoil, or unable to carve a clear identity, a person may turn to astrology in an attempt to understand themselves in an easily-digestible way. The racketeering business of ‘star signs’ offers people an explanation, which for some is better than a comprehensive one. Or, if a baby falls from a high-rise building and survives, the event can be added to the stockpile of ‘miracles’, which exists as a result of our need to seek patterns: a good or unlikely event occurs, it must be a miracle; and if an abhorrent event takes place, it is because god moves in mysterious ways.
Mankind has satiated its curiosity with incomplete explanations, with insufficient answers, and has filled knowledge gaps with divine motive because the human mind is too impatient for the real answers. It has prescribed god for the illness of ignorance.
As for wishful thinking, I don’t believe much explanation is needed. To be human is to be wishful, unless one consciously guards themself against it. We all live under illusions, some small and inconsequential, some so significant that they alter the way we choose to live our lives.
It is plain to see that the urge to create supernatural beings, and the theistic frameworks that follow, is as immutable in the psyche of our species as the urge of a spider to weave a web. Illusions are innate, and though they belong to the infancy of our species, serving as explanations for a then unknowable world, they continue on in the minds of today. Karl Marx perhaps put it best in his contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
And so the illusions that formed in the minds of early Homo sapiens have travelled into the modern era, where they saturate the minds of men who have access to devastating weaponry. The real physical threat of ballistic weapons intensified by the presence of unalterable mental convictions. This is where we come to the question of Palestine. A library of interpretations has accumulated through the efforts of historians to analyse the religious, political and historical claims to the land. Most of this historical analysis lends legitimacy to either Jewish or Arab claims based on either the periods of time in history when Palestine was occupied by either party, the intentions of the Zionist movement, or the imperialist policies and interventions mandated by the British. This essay is not intended to further interpret the existing analysis, but rather to try and highlight how supernatural illusions are the original cause, and the intensification factor in this dispute of real-estate. In other words, to ask the question: Can the Israel/Palestine problem ever be solved whilst monotheistic illusions are present in the minds of the warring parties?
It is difficult to examine the motives of Jews or Arabs in staking their claims to this land without referring to some of the historical analysis I mentioned above. Yaacov Lozowick echoes the point of biblical legitimacy in his book Right to Exist, where he expounds on one of the central themes of Judaism, the idea that the messiah would eventually reveal himself once god had led the Jews back to their homeland. He further states that the Zionist movement’s aim was to revive the idea of messianic redemption, claiming that the then leader of the movement, David Ben-Gurion, believed the recapturing of the land of Israel was the only way his people could live in peace. However, for me at least, the idea of ‘legitimate biblical claims’ is completely nonsensical, like saying ‘recognised fictional rights’ or ‘genuine supernatural interest’.
In his book The Early History of the Israelite People, Professor Thomas Thompson of Marquette University, Milwaukee, claims there is no archaeological or historical evidence to support the historicity of many events that occur in the bible. After a 15 year archaeological study, on which his book is based, Professor Thompson drew the conclusion that the Exodus, including the reading at Mount Sinai and the Israelite journey to find the promised land, never took place. Furthermore, a study conducted by Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel-Aviv University, which examined ancient copper smelting sites in the Arava Valley, found that camel bones were exhumed almost exclusively in the 9th century BCE, centuries after camels featured in the bible as patriarchal-age pack animals. The researchers argue that this inconsistency proves that the biblical tract was compiled a long time after the events it describes.
In 1999, Ze’ev Herzog of Tel-Aviv University wrote in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells”.
The case for Palestinian Arab claims to the land based on religious text is somewhat less evident in the historical interpretations. However, Edward Said argued in his book, The Question of Palestine, that the Palestinian Arabs had occupied the land from 136AD through to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Giving them the rights to the land. He further claims that by the end of the seventh century Palestine had become a largely Arab and Islamic country, and that even with the steady influx of Jews after 1882, an Arab majority still existed until the establishment of Israel in 1948. Perhaps the reason for the relative scarcity in the literature of the religious convictions of Palestinian Arabs, as they relate to claims on the land of Palestine, is because Islam as a religion was not founded until 610CE. Some 474 years after the Palestinian Arabs began to live in the region. Thus, for the half a millenia that Palestinian Arabs lived in Palestine before Islam, the city of Jerusalem had not been sanctified by the Qur’an and no Muslim claims to the land existed.
It is all too painfully obvious today however, that the violence inflicted by Arabs in the region is a result of Islamic belief. Hamas makes this clear by calling itself the “Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement”. Their preoccupation with holy claims to the land is unmistakably present on their website “it is Hamas’s right then to resist with all means, including armed resistance, guaranteed by divine and international laws.” I can’t be certain of any divine law, because I can’t claim to have access to the mind of a god as religious groups do, but a statement like this makes it clear that an illusion of supernatural support is present. Additionally, one only needs to refer to the 1988 Hamas Covenant to gain a sense of the organisation’s religious fanaticism. Article 6 states “The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished palestinian movement, whose allegiance is to Allah, and whose way of life is Islam. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” While article 13 states that “Palestine is an Islamic land… Since this is the case, the liberation of Palestine is an individual duty for every Moslem wherever he may be.”
Another factor that may contribute to Hamas’s actions can be found in some of the hadith, the recorded statements of the Prophet Muhammad. Within some articles of the hadith, a preached hatred and distrust towards the Jewish people is easily discovered. A passage from Hadith 103 reads “The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him.” The last hour being the day of judgement, or the al-Qiyamah. Another article, found in hadith 132, tells how a companion of the Prophet Muhammad named Umar b. al-Khattab, once heard him say “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim.” With messaging like this there can be no confusion as to the motives of the extremist factions of Islamic society, including and especially Hamas.
Religious illusions are just as present, and damaging, on the Jewish side of the conflict. Jewish fundamentalist groups have long contributed to violence in the region on the basis that they believe they have been given divine authority over the land of Israel. The occupation of the West Bank by messianic Jewish settlers is the resultant action of an illusory belief. A belief that revolves around the restoration of the holy land of Israel before the return of the Messiah. Those Jews occupying the West Bank are determined to fulfil this prophecy, even if it means the destruction of the lives of Palestinian families. There are many references to the provision of land by god in the Torah, within Genesis 17:8 it is written “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
It is just bad luck for the modern world, and for civilization, that the narratives lining the pages of ancient holy books are concerned largely with either the provision, or the sanctity of land. Jerusalem especially – as it homes the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, both sacred sites within Judaism; and because in Islamic teaching, it was the first city to be a Qiblah (direction which Muslims must face to pray) – is viewed as a sacred site by Jews and Arabs. It is also, according to the Qur’an, the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s ‘night journey’ took place. This is why Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war, despite calls from the international community to exit the territory. It then extended its law to East Jerusalem and illegally claimed it as part of Israel.
The list of abhorrent repressive practices executed against the Palestinian people in the West Bank since is a long one, but includes: the disbanding of the elected Arab council, the transfer of services provided by Palestinian companies to Israeli companies, a 5-year tax exemption for Jewish settlers, not given to Palestinians, who were landed with a higher income tax bracket. Palestinian neighbourhoods were boxed in by new Jewish settlements in an effort to stop Palestinan expansion, and services to Palestinian communities were reduced so that in time basic infrastructure failed, effectively closing down schools and ensuring poor sewage and garbage disposal. By 2017 there were 370,000 Palestinians living in these claustrophobic areas, all under tight restrictions as to their movement. In 2018, a new Israeli bill saw a further 12,000 Palestinians stripped of their right to live in East Jerusalem.
This region of the world serves as such a deep well of illusory resources thanks to religious texts. Such that, those suffering from the illusions of one monotheism, have sought to bring destruction to the adherents of another. And in the crossfire lies the bodies of thousands of innocent men, women and children, shattered ornaments in a global story of despair. It is a pessimistic conclusion to draw, but in my submission a realistic one, that until humankind can outgrow its supernatural illusions, then this war for ‘holy’ land will continue indefinitely.
This article was updated on August 3, 2021 to amend an error.
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