LTTE: An appeal to reconsider how we think about Jews, Arabs and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

As a professor who teaches courses on the history of Zionism and anti-Zionism and on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, I have been struck by the misinformed rhetoric used in the discourse on our campus about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most glaring is the misapplication of American and Christian-informed paradigms that do not fit the situation.

It is often asked, “If Judaism is a religion, why should the Jews have a state? There is no state for Presbyterians or Catholics. Only national groups have states.” That perspective on Jews and Judaism reflects a Christian understanding of the relationship between religion and nationality (or ethnicity). In the ancient world, nationality and religion were customarily coterminous. The Hellenes (ancient Greeks) practiced the religion of Olympian gods and goddesses. The Sasanians (ancient Persians) practiced Zoroastrianism. The ancient Israelites, or Judeans, practiced the Israelite religion, which became Judaism. Christianity introduced to the Western world the idea that there could or should be a dichotomy between one’s nationality (or ethnicity) and religion. As Christianity became the hegemonic religion of the Western world, that notion determined the prevalent conception of religion and nationality. Judaism, however, retained the pre-Christian, interconnected notion. In the 19th century, some Jews, inspired by German Christianity, began asserting that they were actually Germans of the Jewish faith. While the concept of religion decoupled from ethnicity gained popularity among many Jews, it remained a minority view among Jewry overall and was later marginalized.

A North American, British and Australian understanding of indigeneity shapes the debate over who is the region’s indigenous population. In the case of Arabs and Jews, however, it is impossible to say that one group is clearly native to the region while the other group is inherently a settler-colonial population in the modern sense of colonialism. There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the region for millennia, and Jews ruled much of the region, with intermittent interruptions, until its initial conquest by the Romans in 63 B.C.E. Arab Nabataeans ruled other parts of the region, particularly Jordan, the Negev and Sinai, from the fourth century B.C.E. until Roman annexation in 106 C.E. The Eastern Romans, or Byzantines, ruled the region until the seventh century. Islam came to the region between 633 and 637, when the Rashidun Caliphate conquered these Roman provinces. Later, the region came under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.

Finally, describing the conflict as “white people oppressing brown people” is a misapplication of American binary racial thinking. The majority of Israeli Jews are from Arab countries and Muslim countries. These Israelis lived for millennia as a minority population in the Muslim Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. They spoke Arabic and Persian and were physically indistinguishable from their Muslim neighbors. Even in Europe, where Jews had lived for centuries, they were considered outsiders and frequently characterized as “Oriental,” i.e., Middle Eastern.

We need to stop thinking about Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish and Arab societies and histories on American, Western or Christian terms and start thinking about them on their own terms.

Jay Geller, Professor of History

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