The trag­ic events in Israel/​Palestine on and fol­low­ing Octo­ber 7, 2023, spot­light a life and death strug­gle for con­trol of sacred ter­ri­to­ry that is deeply root­ed in dif­fer­ent the­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tions. It is not just anoth­er con­test by com­pet­ing peo­ples and nation­alisms, or anoth­er instance of geopo­lit­i­cal rivalry. 

The strug­gle involves not only local Jews, Mus­lims, and Chris­tians, but also world­wide faith com­mu­ni­ties whose inter­ests and stake in what tran­spires are long­stand­ing. Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty antic­i­pat­ed that God’s promis­es would be ful­filled at some unde­ter­mined time in the future and these beliefs were not sus­pend­ed by cen­turies of defeat, exclu­sion, or absence from the land itself. 

Islam saw ful­fill­ment as self-evi­dent and incon­tro­vert­ible. In 636 CE the Umayyad Caliphate con­quered Pales­tine and the land was part of its empire through World War I. For all these cen­turies of Islam­ic rule, the­ol­o­gy con­cern­ing the Holy Land was large­ly dor­mant. How­ev­er, the Jews’ deter­mi­na­tion to reclaim and rebuild their home­land, cou­pled with the sud­den and unan­tic­i­pat­ed dis­so­lu­tion of the Ottoman Empire by Euro­pean Chris­t­ian states, shook the foun­da­tions of reg­nant the­olo­gies. Each had to refor­mu­late tra­di­tion­al reli­gious claims in sec­u­lar terms suit­able to the new real­i­ty and dis­course of the con­tem­po­rary world. 

My book, Israel/​Palestine in World Reli­gions: Whose Promised Land?, high­lights that despite the expec­ta­tion that moder­ni­ty would inex­orably lead to sec­u­lar­iza­tion, reli­gious cul­ture retains its pow­er. Since the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, uni­ver­sal terms super­seded par­tic­u­lar­is­tic reli­gious beliefs. Debates before inter­na­tion­al bod­ies and in the pub­lic square ref­er­ence uni­ver­sal rights: self-deter­mi­na­tion, his­tor­i­cal prece­dence and indi­gene­ity, legit­i­ma­cy through pur­chase, treaties, and labor. These con­cepts, com­mon in aca­d­e­m­ic fields, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the social and polit­i­cal sci­ences and in law, pre­dom­i­nate. Yet even in the new pub­lic dis­course, con­tend­ing the­olo­gies con­tin­ue to echo and influ­ence cul­tur­al mem­o­ry, iden­ti­ties, and pol­i­tics of both devout adher­ents and the avowed­ly sec­u­lar. It was once imag­ined that a com­mon uni­ver­sal lan­guage of shared val­ues would clar­i­fy and mit­i­gate or even resolve con­flicts. That hope has not mate­ri­al­ized in Israel/​Palestine. 

My point is not that reli­gious belief sys­tems are para­mount. Rather, my new book demon­strates that sec­u­lar and the­o­log­i­cal posi­tions may be main­tained simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and are often inter­wo­ven. Debates in the pub­lic sphere typ­i­cal­ly ref­er­ence human rights and inter­na­tion­al law, not cita­tions from Scrip­ture and argu­ments based on Divine promis­es. How­ev­er, as Daniel C. Kurtzer, the for­mer senior Amer­i­can diplo­mat and cur­rent pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, points out, the book elu­ci­dates the cru­cial role of reli­gion that has gen­er­al­ly been over­looked by pol­i­cy makers. 

A strik­ing illus­tra­tion is super­s­es­sion­ism, or replace­ment the­ol­o­gy, that informs Chris­t­ian and Islam­ic claims to pri­ma­cy. Super­s­es­sion­ism comes from the belief that Jews no longer have an active role in his­to­ry and so there is no basis for Jew­ish claims to Palestine/​Holy Land. Divine or his­tor­i­cal right of return has lapsed. This reli­gious belief under­writes a par­al­lel sec­u­lar ver­sion of super­s­es­sion­ism: Zion­ism is colo­nial­ism and Israeli Jews are colo­nial-set­tlers, for­eign­ers with impe­r­i­al aims. Accord­ing­ly, only the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple have a unique his­tor­i­cal, unsev­ered con­nec­tion to the land. The his­tor­i­cal record and mil­len­nia of vital Jew­ish con­nec­tions are thus erased in this line of think­ing. Vio­lence against Jews who estab­lished a state on Pales­tin­ian Mus­lim land is both nec­es­sary and jus­ti­fied when placed with­in this argument. 

To under­stand the con­flict over the Holy Land we must rec­og­nize how tan­gled our long­stand­ing reli­gious beliefs are with seem­ing­ly neu­tral and uni­ver­sal sec­u­lar argu­ments and beliefs. 

This blend­ing of the sec­u­lar and the­o­log­i­cal is painful­ly evi­dent in the dis­course accom­pa­ny­ing the 2023 – 24 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In its char­ter and pro­nounce­ments, Hamas pro­vides the­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mur­der­ing Jews and reclaim­ing all the land from the riv­er to the sea.” The chant that calls for the anni­hi­la­tion of Israel has been tak­en up in the sec­u­lar pub­lic square, where lib­er­al defend­ers of Hamas invoke inter­na­tion­al law to demand human­i­tar­i­an aid for Gazans and Israel is tried at the Hague for alleged geno­cide. Israel invokes its legit­i­mate right and oblig­a­tion to defend its cit­i­zens and sov­er­eign­ty. It iden­ti­fies itself as a demo­c­ra­t­ic state and presents evi­dence of strin­gent efforts to avoid col­lat­er­al dam­age to civil­ians delib­er­ate­ly used by Hamas as human shields, argu­ing its behav­ior is like that of oth­er states in sim­i­lar engage­ments. At the same time, ele­ments of Israel’s reli­gious right cite Divine promis­es in their efforts to influ­ence nation­al pol­i­cy. Lis­ten­ing here and at oth­er points of this cen­tu­ry-old con­flict, one hears a cacoph­o­ny of sec­u­lar and the­o­log­i­cal dis­cours­es that are deeply entan­gled with each other.

As a his­to­ri­an, I do not hold to deter­min­ism. The­ol­o­gy does not make con­flict and vio­lence inevitable. At many points in the his­to­ry of this con­flict, choic­es have been made. Ele­ments with­in Chris­tian­i­ty and, more recent­ly, Islam indi­cate accom­mo­da­tion to a Jew­ish state is pos­si­ble. My point is that to under­stand the con­flict over the Holy Land we must rec­og­nize how tan­gled our long­stand­ing reli­gious beliefs are with seem­ing­ly neu­tral and uni­ver­sal sec­u­lar argu­ments and beliefs. 

Mutu­al under­stand­ing demands inter­ro­gat­ing the com­plex­i­ty of con­trary claims on dif­fer­ent lev­els. In the first part of the book, I explain when and how sec­u­lar dis­cours­es achieved appar­ent pri­or­i­ty over the the­o­log­i­cal in the pub­lic square. The next two major parts ana­lyze the mod­ern, sec­u­lar dis­course and the the­o­log­i­cal. My effort has been, as Boston College’s Lebanese-Amer­i­can schol­ar Franck Salameh observes, to treat neglect­ed reli­gious foun­da­tions.” If we fail, he warns, we risk ush­er­ing in yet anoth­er cen­tu­ry of more-of-the-same in our future.” This book is an effort to address, not avoid, these dif­fi­cult ques­tions and to appre­ci­ate the com­plex con­text and intri­cate pat­terns of sec­u­lar and reli­gious beliefs that under­lie the ques­tion: Whose Promised Land?

Rec­om­mend­ed Reading

S. Ilan Troen is Lopin Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern His­to­ry, emer­i­tus at Ben-Guri­on Uni­ver­si­ty of the Negev, Israel, Stoll Fam­i­ly Pro­fes­sor in Israel Stud­ies, emer­i­tus at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty, USA, and found­ing direc­tor of the Israel Stud­ies cen­ters at both insti­tu­tions. He is Found­ing Edi­tor of the jour­nal Israel Stud­ies, and 2023 recip­i­ent of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Israel Stud­ies Life­time Achieve­ment Award.”