There are many reasons for the Israeli-Arab conflict.
But one reason is often overlooked: sex.
Modern day violence between Jews and Arabs in the Levant began with the Nebi Musa riots in 1920. Palestine’s Arabs—-increasingly disturbed by Jewish immigration to Palestine—attacked Jews in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish-Arab violence has continued to this day. If anything, the violent conflict between Arab and Jew has only gotten worse.
It is remarkable that this conflict never gets resolved. It is worth asking why.
An Enduring Conflict
After all, the past century has seen conflicts in many corners of the world. All of these have either been resolved or they have diminished to the extent that they only occasionally grab the attention of the world.
On the other hand, the Israeli-Arab conflict has lasted for nearly a century, shows no sign of ending anytime soon, and is as violent as ever.
Historians, politicians and journalists have proffered a variety of reasons for the conflict: the clash of civilizations between the Muslim and Western worlds; religious intolerance of both Jews and Muslims; Arabs’ historical resentment of western colonialism; territorial disputes; conflicting claims of Arab and Jewish nationalism; and population displacements (both Arab and Jewish).
Muslim Humiliation and Western Threat
I don’t dismiss any of these factors as explanations for the conflict. But one factor is often overlooked or downplayed: sex. Or to be more precise, differences between Arab and Jewish values that govern gender roles and sexual conduct.
Middle East historian Bernard Lewis has written extensively about the reactions of Muslims and Arabs to the impact of western civilization on a dormant Muslim world. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Western military and cultural forces began to impinge on Muslim countries. The military, scientific and cultural ascendancy of the western world became a source of shame and threat to a Muslim world frozen in the isolation and backwardness of previous centuries. Muslim countries experienced military defeat, colonial conquest and erosion of traditional cultural and religious roles within Muslim society itself.
Muslims believed they were superior to non-believers, that is, to Christians and Jews. Thus, western military, economic and cultural conquest of the Muslim world was first and foremost, a shocking humiliation. In the Muslim view, non-believers, destined to be ruled by Muslims, instead themselves became the rulers of Muslims. Israel, perceived by Muslims as a European outpost of western forces, became a key component of Muslim humiliation. This was exacerbated by repeated military defeats of Muslim countries by the Jews, that is, by Israel.
But the most deeply felt western imposition is one that struck at the very heart of Muslim Arab life. And that was the challenge of the west to traditional Muslim values about the roles of men and women. For this was a humiliation—and a threat—that went beyond issues of Muslim hegemony. The up-ending of the traditional role of the male in Muslim society sent disruption into the heart of the Muslim home, the relationship of fathers and husbands to their daughters and wives, and the very concept of the dominant role of the male in Muslim society. These forces continue their disruptive effect on Muslim society to this day, as evidenced by the efforts of Mohamed bin Salman—- Saudi Arabia’s new heir apparent—-to open Saudi society to a fuller participation of women.
In his book, One Palestine Complete, journalist Tom Segev explored the intimate details of day-to-day life in Palestine between the defeat of the Ottomans in 1917 and the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. In one passage, he described the Arab murder of a young Jewish couple who had recently come to Palestine from Europe.
The Jewish couple decided to walk, hand-in-hand, to the shore. This simple act, innocent to the westerner, enraged the local Arabs. In the eyes of the Arab assassin, the Jewish couple had committed a vile act. Unlike Arab women, the young Jewish lady walked openly and unashamedly with her arms, legs, face and hair uncovered. She appeared in public with a man who was not a member of her family or clan. Worst of all, by holding hands, the couple flaunted traditional mores about conduct between the sexes.
The Arab assassin may not have been able to articulate the source of his rage. But certainly much of it arose from fear—-fear that these new and uncomfortable norms would up-end the Muslim patriarchy that was the glue that held the Arab home intact. The Jewish couple had not simply violated good taste. They had threatened something deep within Arab culture.
Arab outrage and the Arab’s perception of threat must have played out again and again as greater numbers of Jews arrived in Palestine throughout the first half of the twentieth century. This was—-and continues to be—-a source of the perennial Israeli-Arab conflict.
A hint of the role of sex as a basis for Jewish-Arab conflict appeared in the 2010 autobiography of Mosab Hassan Yousef, Son of Hamas. Yousef is the son of a founder of the Islamist terrorist group, Hamas. As a young man he attempted to get weapons to kill Jews and as a result spent time in an Israeli prison. In prison, the Israelis allowed a form of self-governance for the Arab inmates who in turn created a microcosm of Arab society behind prison walls. Yousef’s description of day-to-day life within this captive population revealed much about the sexual mores of conservative Muslim Arabs.
One day Yousef passed the time by watching television. He was startled by a loud noise, and the sudden appearance of a board that covered the television screen. Looking up, he saw that a fellow inmate controlled the movement of the board which was attached from the ceiling with a cord. A bit of questioning by Yousef revealed the situation. Hamas prison leaders had assigned the board-operator a task. Whenever anything that was sexually suggestive—-for example, a woman without a head scarf—-appeared on the television screen, he yanked the rope and the board fell in front of the screen, preventing the inmates from seeing the suggestive images. The board-operator explained:
Being in prison presents unusual challenges…We don’t have women. And things they show on television can cause problems for prisoners and lead to relationships between them that we don’t want. So this is the rule, and this is how we see it. (p. 90)
Later in Yousef’s account he became a scribe and record-keeper for the prison’s Hamas leaders. Hamas conducted constant “investigations” of the prisoners, using threats, rumors and forced interrogations. Yousef’s job was to record information about the prisoners, gleaned from these coerced interrogations. Yousef described his work,
Written on the thinnest paper available, the files read like the worst kind of pornography. Guys confessed to having sex with their mothers. One said he had had sex with a cow. Another had had sex with his daughter. Yet another had had sex with his neighbor, filmed it with a spy camera, and given the photographs to the Israelis……..[the couple] kept having sex together and collecting information and having sex with others and filming it, until the entire village seemed to be working for the Israelis. And this was just the first file I was asked to copy. (p. 99)
It soon became clear to Yousef that these accounts were false. The prisoners provided them simply to end the torture at the hands of the Hamas leader. Yousef concluded that these “confessions” served to feed the sexual fantasies of the Hamas leader.
In the minds of Hamas leaders, the “crimes” of Israelis and their collaborators are mixed up with fantasies of sexual contamination by Jews. It is no accident then, that the most radical opponents of western influence on Arab society are obsessed with sexual matters. In their worst nightmares, the unjust and unnatural sovereignty of non-believers has led to Muslim sexual chaos and societal disintegration. These fears are at the core of Arab and Muslim objections to the state of Israel.
Sex is only one factor in the complex Israeli-Arab conflict, but it is an important one. It is also a factor that has been largely overlooked.
For those interested in understanding the conflict it is time to take a look at sex.