Opinion | Religious Absolutism: Isaac and Ishmael

By | Jan 03, 2024
Isaac and Ishmael

If you list the elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ll see that while most are subject to compromise, one is virtually nonnegotiable: religion at its most dogmatic. It has grown more prominent over the decades as devout militants have gained power among both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

Measuring its ultimate influence is difficult, for the dispute is largely secular, and is seen that way by most Israelis and Palestinians, polls show. In theory, the two sides’ overlapping territorial claims, driven by the clash of two nationalisms, could be resolved by drawing reasonable borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. West Bank Jewish settlements could be dismantled and consolidated. Security concerns could be addressed by humane, mutual protections. Jerusalem could be shared. Palestinians could bargain away their “right of return” to former villages inside Israel in return for other concessions. The dueling historical narratives of grievance, so central to the conflict’s psychology, might gradually fade as uneasy neighbors learn to coexist.  

That is all eventually possible, but less likely when each of the issues is salted with the absolutism of divine mission, as certain Israeli and Palestinian leaders are doing. They merge the sacred and the temporal, combine faith with tribal identity, and infuse piety into their peoples’ past grievances and present longings.

 The current example is the war in Gaza. At dawn on October 7, a voice on the Hamas military frequency announced to the fighters: “Rocket barrages are being fired right now at the occupied cities! May God empower and grace the holy warriors!” The man spoke in a pitch of ecstasy, echoed by another’s exultant answer through the static: “The resistance is now inside the occupied territories!”

Allahu Akbar!” (God is most great!) the young Palestinians shouted as they streamed from Gaza through breaches blown in Israel’s border fence. Their body cameras recorded their fervent chants as they whooped in celebration over Israeli corpses. Each terrorist who died for his faith would earn the honor of being called shaheed (martyr).

Thus began the worst day for Israel in its 75-year existence, inflamed by religious slogans and symbols. Hamas wants to replace the Jewish state with an Islamic state. It named its sadistic attack “Al-Aqsa Flood,” after the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, now in Israel’s capital.

In turn, after the Hamas slaughters that day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced a biblical analogy by likening the Palestinians to Amalek, the ancient nomads whose complete extermination was ordered by God after they attacked the Israelite tribes during the exodus from Egypt. This seemed to consider the massive assaults on Gaza that followed as divinely blessed. Other religious terms were tossed around. Israeli officials named the artificial intelligence that picked its targets in Gaza “the Gospel.” Netanyahu reportedly proposed naming this “the Genesis War.”

Genesis. There, in the first book of the Torah, zealous Israeli settlers find God’s deed to the West Bank, which they call by its biblical names Judea and Samaria, given through the Prophet Abraham and his son Isaac, the progenitor of the Jewish people. For Arabs, however, the descent begins with Abraham’s son Ishmael, born to his concubine Hagar. The putative cousins are now soiling and rending the deed.

Terms of piety sound too grand for a secular conflict, but they have gained resonance in recent decades as the political power of religious fundamentalists on both sides has exceeded their number in the Israeli and Palestinian populations.

Some polling has distinguished between earthly antagonism and heavenly dictum. A significant survey this December found that while 72 percent of a sample of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza endorsed the October 7 attacks by Hamas, only 11 percent listed the “first most vital Palestinian goal” as “a religious society, one that applies all Islamic teachings.” Yet that is precisely the goal pursued by Hamas as it has ruled and armed Gaza, hijacking the Palestinian cause of nationalism.  

That nationalist cause generated much higher percentages in the poll: 43 percent chose a Palestinian state and an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the primary goal; 36 percent picked a right of return to Arab towns vacated in Israel’s 1948 war of independence.

If the religious component finishes a distant third in Palestinians’ priorities, how should it be assessed? Not with complacency when it seems marginal, according to hard experience. Holy ideology can have a stubborn appeal and demands respect.


Long before Netanyahu’s reference to Amalek, in the early 1980s, I heard as much from a group of teenage boys in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron. They were outliers four decades ago, taught by the most radical settler movement at the fringes of Israeli thinking. But they were a cautionary tale about the future, as their biblical absolutism later moved to the center of Israeli authority, right into the prime minister’s office. 

The boys told me they were being taught in school that Arabs are the Amalekites, who attacked the Israelites repeatedly during the exodus from Egypt. “It says in the Torah that you have to destroy all the remnants of Amalek,” said Oren, 13. Indeed, the command to Saul is found in I Samuel 15:2-3: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts. I remember that which Amalek did to Israel . . . Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

Netanyahu, not a devoutly religious man, said after the October 7 attack: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. We do remember.” 

One can rationalize away Netanyahu’s Amalek analogy as a spasm of fury, or a politically opportunistic reference to preserve his standing with the religious parties essential to his narrow governing coalition. But whatever he intended, his notes strike chords that surely resonate from ancient history into the ranks of Israeli forces pummeling Gaza. 

The holy imprimatur fits into the religio-nationalist passion driving the most militant Jewish settlers who, with government support, have turned the West Bank into a patchwork of Israeli control, foreclosing the prospect of assembling contiguous land for a Palestinian state. The Arabs could stay, explained a boy named Aharon at the Jewish settlement back then, but “we have to be ruling over them and not them ruling over us.”

That classroom lesson stands in ironic parallel with the ideology of Hamas. Its Covenant of 1988 allows Muslims, Jews and Christians “to coexist in peace and quiet with each other” but only “under the wing of Islam,” according to Article 31. “It is the duty of the followers of other religions to stop disputing the sovereignty of Islam in this region, because the day these followers should take over there will be nothing but carnage, displacement, and terror.”

Religious strife is most distilled on the Temple Mount, as Jews call the man-made plateau in the Old City of Jerusalem. To Muslims, it is the Noble Sanctuary, the site of Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, built around an outcropping of bedrock that holds sacred meaning in both Judaism and Islam. It was the place of the two ancient Jewish Temples and the spot from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended on his winged horse on his night journey to heaven. Jewish extremists speak of building a third Jewish temple there, which the Israeli government opposes, while many Palestinian Muslims harbor angry suspicions that displacing their holy sites is Israel’s nefarious objective. Repeated clashes erupt when radical Jews defy rabbinical orders and pray near Al-Aqsa.  

Islam and Christianity, which the late scholar Bernard Lewis called the daughters of Judaism, need not be in conflict over religious precepts and practices. The Quran, taken as God’s revelation to Muhammad, reveres all the prophets, including Moses and Jesus. Early Islamic ritual included prayer facing Jerusalem, a sabbath, the observance of a fast day, and the old Jewish custom of bowing and prostration during prayer. Muhammad initially looked to Jews as his followers, but because they rejected him—causing a grievance still kept alive by some Muslims—Jews appear in the Quran in passages of both respect and condemnation. 

Some 40 years ago, Rabbi David Hartman, who founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, tried to initiate a dialogue with Muslim clerics. He did not succeed to the extent he hoped. As ethical and compassionate as religion can be if you find the appropriate texts and teachings, and as much as he wished for a Judaism faithful to its fervent morality, he had no illusions about the impulses of religious culture.

“The Bible doesn’t teach you tolerance; that I want you to know,” he told me then. “Religion is the source of utopian dreams, and it is fundamentally reactionary, not pluralistic.”

David K. Shipler, a former New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. His latest book is The Wind is Invisible, and Other Poems.

Opening image: Abraham verstößt Hagar und Ismael (1833) by Josef Danhauser

One thought on “Opinion | Religious Absolutism: Isaac and Ishmael

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Better late than never, I guess. It is interesting that those who write about “religious extremism” usually don’t understand the difference between faith in the Living God (the God of Israel) and the multitude of other gods that have been touted as worthy of worship. The Bible, the Living Word of God, states in a prayer of thanksgiving to Him: “For all the gods of the people are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” I can’t speak for others and for their personal reasons that they believe what they believe, but for me, I believe because He spoke directly to me, saying: “The whole Bible is truth, from Genesis to Revelation.” I truly admire those who believe on faith alone. But, you see, I don’t just “believe”…I KNOW, as I know Him very personally and intimately. If I was in the presence of a group of radical muslims and stated the above scripture from Chronicles 16:26, I would be in great danger for my life! You, the reader, figure out the difference here. The God of Israel has His chosen ones…all who choose Him…that’s anyone. All others will answer for their choice. There is a time of reckoning coming…

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