Michael Kennedy: Deconstructing Notions of Difference as Necessary for Conflict Resolution

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is heavily characterized in religious terms. Leaders of Muslim-majority States have garnered legitimacy through their support for Palestine and the United States has claimed shared “Judeo-Christian” values in explaining its financial and military support for Israel. While religion plays an important role in the region, it is important to recognize that major historical political developments of the region have been organized on religious lines. The essentializing of religion in explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had severe consequences for both citizens of Israel and Palestinians, escalating antagonisms along religious and ethnic lines. A solution to the conflict will require a re-understanding amongst Israelis and Palestinians to create trust necessary to de-escalate and discuss political solutions to political problems.

Before Israel was formed as an official state in 1948, Jewish settlement in Palestine was an organized project meant to secure the future and well-being of Jewish communities persecuted in Europe. While the claim to Jerusalem has religious implications, and the State of Israel would take on significant religious meanings, it is first important to recognize that Jewish settlement in Palestine was a highly politically motivated, rather than totally religious in nature. Sociologist Gershon Shafir makes a compelling argument that the Zionist project of creating a Jewish state was attracted to Palestine because of the opportunity to buy private land through Ottoman Land policies from 1882 to 1914. Menachem Ussishkin, one of the leaders of Hovevei Zion, a group of organizations responding to anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, described the Zionist vision for a Jewish state in 1904:

“In order to establish autonomous Jewish community life- or, to be more precise, a Jewish state, in Eretz Israel, it is necessary, first of all, that all, or at least most, of Eretz Israel’s lands will be the property of the Jewish people. Without ownership of the land, Eretz Israel will never become Jewish, be the number of Jews whatever it may be in the towns and even in the villages, and Jews will remain in the very same abnormal situation which characterizes them in the diaspora… But, as the ways of the world go, how does one acquire landed property? By one of the following three methods: by force- that is, by conquest in war, or in other words, by robbing land of its owner; by forceful acquisition, that is, by expropriation via governmental authority; and by purchase with the owner’s consent.”[i]

While the state-forming project of Israel pertains to a religious group, it has always been a political project attempting to secure land-ownership and political autonomy for Jews. While the buying of Ottoman lands led to relatively peaceful co-existence between Jewish and Palestinian communities, the major source of conflict between Jews and Palestinians have developed over the other two uses of land-acquisition: government expropriation and force. Land continues to be contested over, specifically the Palestinian regions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 ended with Jordan and Egypt governing these regions until the Six-Day War of 1967. Since then, the lands claimed by the State of Palestine (a de-jure State not recognized by Israel and the United States) have been occupied by Israel.

The religious significance and history of Jerusalem heightens the stakes of contestations over sovereignty and legitimacy. Both the State of Israel and the independent Palestinian government claim Jerusalem as their capital; all three Abrahamic religions consider the city as historically central to their faiths. Initially, during Israel’s official establishment in 1948, the city was divided with the western half under Israeli control and the eastern quarters (including the Western Wall and the site of the Temple Mount) were under the control of Jordan.[ii] Control of the region has led to violence; the 1967 Six Day War involved the Israeli capture of the eastern quarters and political attacks have occurred at holy sites.

Control of land is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the use of violence in claiming land and resisting those claims has heightened the antagonisms between the two groups and raised the stakes of the political conflict. This use of violence has escalated militaristic interaction between the two states; Israel remains deeply invested in its military, requiring compulsory service for its citizens and Palestinian opposition groups have used tactical violence against Israeli forces. De-escalation of the conflict over land will require the exit of military presence in occupied Palestine. However, this will require a trust that is not currently present.

One major step that both Palestinian and Israeli parties must take is to dissemble and refute essentializing myths of the “other” that attribute the conflict to natural differences between Arabs/Muslims and Jews.  In Nelson’s Mandela’s letter to Thomas Freidman of the New York Times, he cites a strong sense of racism in Israel that fuels antagonisms based upon ethnic background. He writes,

“…if you follow the polls in Israel for the last 30 or 40 years, you clearly find a vulgar racism that includes a third of the population who openly declare themselves to be racist. This racism is of the nature of ‘I hate Arabs’ and ‘I wish Arabs would be dead.’[iii]

Israel is politically organized along religious lines, this has created inequalities among citizens of separate religions and worked to essentialize these differences as inherent. Jillian Schwedler in her analysis of religion and politics in the Middle East highlights that the formation of Israeli politics and policies along categories of religious belonging characterize the conflicts relating to these policies as religious. She provides a pertinent example:

“The elected parliament, called the Knesset, is open to all citizens of Israel, including Druze and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. But Israel’s non-Jewish citizens- mostly Muslim and Christian Arabs but also Druze- are not given rights equal to those of Israel’s Jewish population, which lends force to the claims of those who view conflicts in the region as religious in character.”[iv]

It is the racializing of Arab peoples as antagonistic others that Mandela recognized at the heart of what he deems apartheid policy in Israel. Public acceptance of discriminatory measures and the access of full rights to only Jewish citizens are built and maintained upon racialized frameworks of understanding. In the United States, Jewish identity is usually conceptualized in religious terms, however Jewish peoples have historically been considered, and considered themselves, part of a separate race.[v]

Mandela’s assessment of the Israeli apartheid system suggests that Jews living in Israel have maintained a claim to significant ethnic-cultural difference tied to Israeli national character. This self-evaluation, much like that of whiteness in America, has involved the “lowering” and dehumanizing of others. Mandela’s piece is useful in understanding how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not only political- involving land, people, security, and power- but reflects deeper problematic ways in which Israelis and Palestinians conceptualize one another.

Palestinian groups are also to blame for enflaming notions of unnegotiable religious differences as the source of conflict and deep distrust. In his analysis of Islamic activism, Glenn Robinson recognizes the propagation of “The Jewish conspiracy” as a core cultural framing of Palestine’s Hamas. He details,

“First, the Hamas discourse refers primarily to ‘Jews’ (al-yahud), less so to ‘Zionists’ (al-sahyuniyun), and almost never to ‘Israelis’ (al-isra’iliyun), thus seeing the conflict in fundamentally religious, not nationalist, terms. On this score perhaps, Hamas can be forgiven because Israeli Jews themselves quite often refer to ‘Jews’ rather than ‘Israelis’…. However, Hamas is properly termed anti-Semitic for propagating the slander of Jewish control of the world, particularly the world’s financial health. Indeed, according to Hamas, Jews are engaged in a grand conspiracy, primarily through the United States, against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Only this conspiracy has prevented Muslims and Palestinians from acquiring what is rightly theirs.”[vi]

The experiences of Jews and Muslims that have been able to coexist and cooperate both within and outside of Israel/Palestine are crucial in helping to deconstruct the myths of difference that are so effective in framing political conflicts as inherent religious clashes. Those removed from the insecurity and high stakes of the region can attest to the character of the “other.” Scholars are especially important in explaining the realities of religious and ethnic differences and deconstructing the religious from the political as well as help those deconstruct their sense of self from the imagined “other.” While countries are ardent in supporting Israel or Palestine militarily, the goal should be for tensions to be de-escalated.

The stakes of the contestations between Israel and Palestine are high, involving the status of nations, the homes and security of millions of families, and the identity of Muslims and Jews alike. For these contestations to de-escalate and potentially resolve, it is important for politicians and the public to recognize their nature in political, rather than religious, conflicts. It will also require soul-searching for Palestinians and Israeli Jews to recognize their construction of the antagonistic “other” in order to fully understand their capacity to cooperate and perhaps co-exist peacefully.

[i] Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), Pg. 42.

[ii] Jillian Schwedler, “Religion and Politics,” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist, Second Edition, (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2013), Pg. 127.

[iii] A Letter from Nelson Mandela to Thomas Friedman of New York Times

[iv] Schwedler, Pg. 128.

[v] Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2008)

[vi] Glenn Robinson, “Hamas as Social Movement,” in Quintan Wiktorowicz, Ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2004), Pg. 131.



Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2008)

Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)

Jillian Schwedler, “Religion and Politics,” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist, Second Edition, (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2013)

Nelson Mandela, “A Letter from Nelson Mandela to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times”, March 30, 2001.

Picture allowed for noncommercial re-use. Description: “U.S. Army Spc. Karl White, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo., provides security on a rooftop for Iraqi soldiers conducting a cordon and knock mission in the Palestine neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq, March 23.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/3404363145.