The sacred for the profane: How religion challenged secular politics in Israel & Palestine

Palestine Update  138

The sacred for the profane:
How religion challenged secular politics in Israel & Palestine

Anne Irfan

It is clear that hard-line religiosity greatly shapes the contemporary politics of both Israel and Palestine. This can suggest that the conflict between the two is inherently religious in nature. But is this correct, or an oversimplification? Anne Irfan, a PhD candidate in International History at LSE, and a Teaching Fellow in Middle Eastern History at the University of Sussex traces the recent history of the conflict, noting a simultaneous shift on both sides from a largely secular to a

In 1978, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat travelled to Mecca on the Hajj pilgrimage. While there, he proclaimed the Islamic sanctity of the Palestinian national cause:

Palestine and Jerusalem have never been just a Palestinian question, or solely an Arab question, but they are a problem for every Muslim… The liberation of Jerusalem is a commandment upon every Muslim… I declare from here, from the land of the Prophet, from the cradle of Islam, the opening of the gate of holy war for the liberation of Palestine and the recovery of Jerusalem.

Arafat’s remark is consistent with popular understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a primarily religious confrontation. In recent decades, it has become increasingly common to discuss Palestinian nationalism within the wider context of rising political Islam, while Israeli politics are often analysed through the lens of Jewish religious identity. Yet in reality, both Palestinian nationalism and Zionism functioned as predominantly secular movements for most of their histories. The role of religion, while always present, remained marginal until very recently.
Far from being typical, then, Arafat’s 1978 statement in Mecca was an exception to the period’s usual expressions of Palestinian nationalism, which tended to frame the movement as an anti-colonial liberation struggle rather than a religious battle. In making the remark, Arafat – a practising Muslim – may have been expressing his own sincere sentiments as a Hajj pilgrim; he may also have been drawing on the tactical potency of positioning his cause as a struggle for Muslims everywhere. Either way, the statement was not an accurate representation of Palestinian nationalist discourse at the time.
For much of its history, Palestinian nationalism’s primary affiliation was not to the global umma but to the Arab world – a concept defined in secular terms and including significant Christian populations. When the Israeli state was established in 1948 – resulting in the dispossession of around three-quarters of the Palestinian people – Arab voices everywhere attributed their defeat to Arab disunity, rather than Islamic foundering. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, the hero of the Palestinian cause was Egyptian President Gamal abd-Al Nasser, who promoted an ideology of secular pan-Arabism.
The roots of Zionism were similarly secular. While religious forms of the ideology existed from the early days of its emergence in the late 19th century, the mainstream movement was inspired far more by post-Enlightenment notions of secular nationalism than any religious text. Zionist forefather Theodor Herzl was an atheist, as was his close colleague Max Nordau. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who led the hardline Revionist Zionist movement in the interwar years, also eschewed religion, defining his Jewishness in secular nationalist terms.
This trend continued after the establishment of Israel. President Chaim Weizmann (in office 1949-52) and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (in office 1948-54 and 1955-63) were both self-proclaimed atheists. For the first three decades of Israel’s existence, national politics were dominated by the socialist Mapai/Labor Party, which favoured a secular leftist form of Zionism. The popularity of the kibbutz movement in the first few decades of Israeli history was a further testament to the mainstream nature of socialist secular ideas in early Israeli society.

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism had strongly leftist dynamics in the mid-twentieth century. From the late 1960s, two of the largest parties in the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Both adhered to Marxist-Leninist ideologies and promoted the notion of Palestinian liberation through full political and economic revolution. The parties’ leaders were not only secular, but were avowed atheists from Christian backgrounds; the PFLP’s George Habash had sung in his church choir as a young boy, while DFLP founder Nayef Hawatmeh had been raised in a Catholic family. In other words, they were as far removed from political Islam as possible.

This is not to say that leftist ideas subsumed Palestinian politics entirely at this time. Arafat’s Fatah, the largest Palestinian party, always distanced itself from explicitly leftist ideologies – and as the opening quotation shows, Arafat himself was not afraid to draw on religion when addressing certain audiences. Yet nor was Fatah a religious party; its ideology was simply that of Palestinian nationalism, and ideas – religious or otherwise – were incorporated or rejected based on whether they appeared to serve the national cause.
For much of the twentieth century, then, political Islam was marginal to the Palestinian nationalist movement. It was only at the end of the century that this started to change, with the creation of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 1981 and then Hamas in 1987. The latter became a particularly significant force, winning parliamentary elections in 2006 and taking power in Gaza the following year. With its name taken from the Arabic acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’, Hamas’ discourse explicitly fuses Palestinian nationalism with political Islam. The party has positioned itself as the clean God-fearing alternative to the secular corrupt PLO, and even cited secularism as the reason for Palestinian defeats; its first communiqué proclaimed ‘Islam as the alternative and the solution.’
Religious politics have also been on the rise in Israel in recent decades. The first significant shift came in the 1977 national election, which saw Labor lose its long-running monopoly as Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud Party swept to power, buoyed by religious support. In more recent decades, the Israeli religious-nationalist movement has continued to grow, due in part to the higher birth-rates among religious communities. Studies have found that religious observance among Israeli Jews is increasing, as religious Zionists make up an increasingly large proportion of the Israeli army.
The historical trajectories of religious politics in both Israel and Palestine pose considerable challenges to conventional assumptions about the region. Not only do these histories undermine presumptions that the conflict is inherently religious, but they also reveal surprising alignments between the two sides. Both had secular roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; both became aligned with leftist ideas in the mid-twentieth century; and both saw the rise of religious politics in the century’s closing decades. These trajectories thus expose the complex historical dimensions of Israeli and Palestinian politics – a history which remains crucial for understanding the region today.


Don’t befriend me for a day, and leave me a month. Don’t get close to me if you’re going to leave. Don’t say what you don’t do. Be close or get away.
لا تصاحبني يوماً .. لتهجرني شهراً ولا تقربني .. لتبعدني .. لا تقل ما لا تفعل كُن قريباً .. أو ابتعد.
Mahmoud Darwish.