Sunday, May 9, 2010

Religion and Socialism in the Middle East conflict

It used to be, that when Arabs and Jews went to war, socialist Jews would fight socialist Arabs. Kibbutzniks were disproportionately represented among the commanders of the Israel Defence Forces, PLO factions were all called the Popular Front and the parties which ruled the Arab world described themselves as socialist. Israel was totally under the thumb of the Labour party and in the Six Day War it was socialist Nasser against the Kibbutznik Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.  

Now that Middle East socialism seems to be in terminal decline, the religious have taken over.  Israeli officers facing Sunni fundamentalists in Gaza or Shia fundamentalists in Southern Lebanon are likely to live on the West-Bank and share a devout belief in a single invisible deity with their bitter enemies. However there are differences, for whereas the Islamists are likely to represent the most fanatical Moslems of their respective peoples, the most fanatical of Jews - The Haredis - steer clear of military service.  

Eshkol and Nasser were, of course, also nationalists as are the settlers and Islamists so in that sense there has been continuity in the conflict. What has changed over time is the identity of the most extreme nationalists.  Where once the Nationalist Socialists dreamt of Empires that resurrected ancient values now Religious Nationalists seek to restore the Caliph (Osama Bin Laden and Hamas)  and return the Islamic world to its stature in the post-crusader times while the most extreme Jewish nationalists dream of rebuilding the Jewish temple.   

The Haredis (As Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known) have managed to avoid military service and have tried to steer clear of nationalism but this may be beginning to change.  Reports say that within the next twenty years secular Israeli Jews will become a minority and the pressure on Haredis to contribute more to the military is growing.  

The army in Israel is its great melting-pot. After the mass migration in the fifties, the major fault line of Israeli society was the Sephardi - Ashkenazis cultural and economic divide.  Military services helped limit the damage, it was the first point of contact and, under conditions of danger and with few women to cause rivalries, military buddies crossed ethnic lines.  Today the Sephardi-Ashkenazi issue remains sensitive, but a growing percentage of Israelis are the product of mixed marriages and the conflict is clearly healing.
In the nineties Russian immigrants became a noticeable presence in the army at a time when there were complaints that too many weren't Jewish, that 'their' culture was undermining Israeli values. However the propensity of  boys getting killed on the front to have Russian names made it clear that the new immigrants had brought with them Soviet second world war traditions and were giving more than their fare share.  Today is the anniversary of the Nazi surrender and hundreds of Soviet veterans will be marching in Jerusalem,while wearning Jackets covered in improbable quantities of medals.  

The two major fault lines of Israeli society are now the Arab-Jewish divide and the Ultra-Orthodox - Secular divide.   A recent article in HaAretz warned that within twenty years these two groups may form the majority in Israeli society and there is concern that the military burden may become the burden of a minority.  As a result there have been calls to ensure that Haredi children learn English and Maths, while the army is putting together special programs where Haredi men can serve in the army without having to abandon their lifestyle. It is still too early to tell, but we may yet see the most fanatical Jews fighting the most fanatical Moslems. 

Although nationalism is clearly the major force in the conflict, it is not purely nationalist but also religious.  Once the socialists started resolving their differences, the orthodox took over the conflict taking it to new places.  I believe that any efforts to achieve peace need to take that into account and seek to incorporate religious ideals in gestures of peace.  


No comments:

Post a Comment

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...