National Colonial Theology

By Raz, Amnon | Tikkun, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

National Colonial Theology


Raz, Amnon, Tikkun


National Colonial Theology

Amnon Raz is a professor at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er-Sheva, Israel.

The distinction between "secular" and "religious" identities is one of the common categorizations used to describe Israeli society and culture. Often presented as a clash between two opposite civilizations or between "democracy" and "theocracy," the secular/religious distinction frequently has been applied to the debate over the peace process. For example, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 was commonly interpreted in terms of religious zeal.

It's true that, since the 1970s, many--albeit certainly not all--religious groups have adopted a right-wing ultranationalistic attitude. Radical national-messianic groups have led the policy of settlement in the occupied territories and rejected any kind of political compromise with the Palestinians. On the other hand the majority of secular Jews--though again, certainly not all--have identified themselves with the "peace camp."

Nevertheless, the presentation of the political debate as one between secular and religious world views is misleading and superficial. First, it ignores the religious groups, especially Shas, which have supported the peace process and adopted a moderate policy in Israeli terms. Just as importantly, however, this presentation obscures the messianic elements inherent in the Zionist myth, and prevents us from examining the cultural attitudes which have led to the continued oppression of the Palestinian people. By identifying "secularism" with "peace," we have created a false image of the "secular" as "righteous" and "enlightened," obscuring the limitations of the concept of "peace" in Israeli culture.

It is not my intention to underestimate the danger of national religious groups, and of the process of national-religious radicalization. The religious zeal that dominates most of the settlers and their supporters is undeniable. My argument is that what made the rise of political-messianic interpretations in present Israel possible is the national-theological myth considered "secular." It is the "secular," not the religious, consciousness that facilitates the continuous policy of occupation and defines the boundaries of political discussion.

In what follows I will try to briefly describe the colonial dimension and the Orientalist images inherent in the construction of the "secular," focusing particularly on the way the secular presents the Jewish theological myth as "national" in the modern sense of the word. I will then analyze how the link between theology, nationalism, and colonialism impacts the perception of peace and allows Israelis to ignore the issue of Palestinian rights. Understanding the nature of the secular/religious debate, and especially the various aspects of the "secular" identity, is a crucial precondition for any attempt to create an authentically liberal approach, an attempt which is meaningful only if it is based on equality between Jews and Palestinians.

The very terms of the secular/religious debate define Israeli society as exclusively Jewish. Indeed, on the various occasions when the debate between "religious" and "secular" tendencies is reproduced, the participants are exclusively Jews, and tend to be Ashkenazi. Palestinians, even if they obviously hold "secular" attitudes, are not participants in the debate at all because secularism is seen as relating only to the Hebrew-Jewish culture. Being an Arab and being secular are considered mutually exclusive categories for the purposes of this debate.

The function of the religious/secular debate is, therefore, to determine the ethnic boundaries of the Jewish state. Its effect is to exclude the Palestinians, as a part of their marginalization. Rather than dividing the nation, as it is often assumed to do, this debate in fact creates and defines the boundaries of the state through its implicit inclusions and exclusions. The debate is not really about "secularism" at all, but about redemptive nationalism, prompted by two different cultural visions of the Jewish nation.

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