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Religious Fundamentalism and Government: Setup for Failure

The current war in Gaza began on October 7, 2023, when terrorist Hamas gangs invaded Israel, killed 1200 and kidnapped 247. The ferocious response of Israel’s military has killed more than 30,000 civilians in Gaza [1] and has displaced more than 75% of its 2.1 million people. No reasonable person can excuse Hamas or Israel for their horrendous cruelty to each other. Yet, no matter how great the suffering and hatred, a remedy that creates peace must be found. To do that, the harsh truths at the root of the conflict must be confronted.

Israel isolated Gaza and killed the invading fighters within a few days, preventing further loss of life within its borders. But since the subsequent November seven-day truce and hostage release, little discernible progress has been made. On the contrary, Israel’s troops have sustained casualties within Gaza, its excessive use of force has radicalized another antisemitic generation, both in Palestine and around the world, and it has escalated the conflict with attacks on Syria and Iran.

Why is Israel’s government persisting in this unproductive and increasingly self destructive war? Is it just revenge and self-serving distraction of its people from their government’s failures? No. I claim the obvious but rarely spoken truth, that Israel’s current “secular” government is steeped in religious fundamentalism and biblically justified bigotry. Consider the Otzma Yehudit Party platform of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir [2]. It begins: ”… G-d of Israel made an everlasting covenant with Avraham’s descendents” and continues, “By virtue of the Divine promise to the Jewish People, the entire area of Eretz Israel as defined by the Torah belongs to Am Israel in all of their generations …” Similarly, the Likud Party platform [3] of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant begins: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal …” These Party platforms disclose an institutional commitment to religious dogma and the letter of the biblical text. That is religious fundamentalism. Note that Likud and Otzma hold half of the 76 Knesset seats controlled by the current majority coalition. Self-proclaimed religious parties with comparable views hold the other half. [5]

Otzma’s platform continues: ”We must act to restore those parts of our Homeland that were stolen from us over the generations …” This demonizes as thieves non-Jews who occupy the God-given land. It is religious dogma which justifies the racial bigotry and intended ethnic cleansing of Ben-Gvir, who has publicly stated: “We do not want to expel all Arabs … Those who are loyal, fine.” For his part, Gallant officially announced “a complete siege of Gaza” two days after the attacks with the racist statement [4]: ” … no electricity, no food, no fuel … We are fighting human animals …”

These are the stated beliefs and intentions of those who control Israel’s government [5], armed forces and police. No such person should ever hold the state’s authority over life and death. Their fundamentalist commitment to a God-given entitlement transmutes their racist nationalism to righteousness that can excuse any act, no matter how repugnant. This religious dogma has driven Israel’s corrosive expansionism into the neighboring Palestinian territories and that has played a prominent causal role in the resultant cyclic violence.

The bitterly divisive injustices caused by religious dogma in government are not unique to Israel. Theocratic governments led by Islamic fundamentalists in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan hold women as second class citizens and criminalize homosexuality. Christian fundamentalist public officials in the United States have degraded both women’s rights and the integrity of the nation’s secular educational system. India’s Hindu nationalist government has enshrined prejudicial policies directed against Moslems in federal law. Many nations protect the religious freedom of their people, but nowhere is the law or government policy protected from religion.

The Palestinian people live in the West Bank (85%, 2.7 million); Gaza (100%, 2.1 million); and Israel (21%, 1.9 million). [6] The current locus of war, Gaza, is a 240 square kilometer strip bordered by Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea. It has been governed since 2007 by the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. Hamas was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by America’s CIA in 1997. [7] 

This a map of those killed within Israel by the October 7 attacks. It is adapted from oct7map.com. The close proximity of all of the deaths to the Israel/Gaza border demonstrates the inability of Hamas to project power at a distance. This along with the fact that no Hamas incursions into Israel have occurred since October 7, despite the provocation of Israel’s war in Gaza, demonstrates that Hamas does not pose an existential threat to Israel.

The map of those killed on October 7 [8] shows the close proximity of the attacks to the Gaza border. This illustrates the profound limits on Hamas’s ability to project power at a distance, i.e. that Hamas does not pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. In fact, it never has [9,10]. The map also highlights Israel’s folly in permitting vulnerable communities in close proximity to Gaza without adequate border defense.

That folly is magnified 1000-fold by Israel’s 50-year policy permitting Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories outside its borders. In 2005, imminent threats in Gaza led Israel to unilaterally dismantle its 21 settlements there, relocate the settlers, and redeploy its troops along the border. But there has been no such pullback for the half million settlers living in Palestine’s West Bank. Most of those settlements are indefensibly intermingled with and outnumbered by Palestinian communities [11]. Fortunately, no wholesale bloodshed like that of October 7 has ever occurred there. Though the West Bank is accessible to Hamas and other terrorist organizations, it’s clear that the Palestinian people are not controlled by terrorists or committed to violence. That sign of simple human decency is, in my opinion, justifiable cause for hope. So too is the fact that both sides have so much to gain from reconciliation.

Jewish and Palestinian settlements in the West Bank are shown in the left and right panels respectively. This image was adapted from JewishVirtualLibrary.org. The Jewish settlements are vastly outnumbered and surrounded by Palestinians, yet no attacks comparable to those of October 7 have occurred. This provides real hope that Jewish and Arab people can live peacefully in close proximity, despite the extraordinary brutality of those who make war in their name.

Going forward, it is the people of Israel and Palestine who must force their governments to act. Palestine must release the remaining hostages held in Gaza, offer restitution to the families, and bring to justice those responsible for the October 7 attacks. Israel must bring to justice the members of its government and military responsible for the unjustifiable civilian deaths and destruction in Gaza and must forever cease building settlements in the West Bank.

 [1] AP News, 29Feb2024
[2] Ozma-yeudit.com: The Platform of Otzma Yehudit
[3] JewishVirtualLibrary.org: The Platform of Likud, 1977
[4] Times of Israel, 9Oct2023
[5] An Israeli government must control at least 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Likud won 32 in the November 2022 election. Their coalition with self-proclaimed religious parties now controls 76. 14 seats: Religious Zionist Party [12] ; 11 seats: SHAS: Assoc. of Sefardi Observers of Torah Haredi; 7 seats: United Torah Judaism &
Shabbat; 12 seats: National Unity Party: incl New Hope (4) — since 12Oct2023. The Times of Israel, 20Nov2022: Separating from Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam
[6] CIA World Factbook: Gaza Strip, Israel, West Bank
[7] CIA World Factbook: Terrorist Organizations, Hamas
[8] oct7map.com : Mapping the Massacres
[9] JewishVirtualLibrary.org : Background and Overview of Hamas
[10] Encyclopedia Britannica: Hamas, Definition, History, Ideology, & Facts
[11] IsraelPolicyForum.org: West Bank Settlements Explained

About the Author
Don Krieger is biomedical research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh (United States) with particular interest in head injury and its effect on brain function. He has served in the past on the board of directors of an Orthodox Jewish Schul.