How Hebrew teaches us something about ourselves, Part 4

Israel vs. Israel: Judaism, Islam and Zionism

“It pained him that Jews are being killed, but it doesn’t pain him to kill Arabs? Arabs were created in God’s image too. They are people, with a soul and everything, just like us. Jewish law states that you shouldn’t kill people … The Torah says: don’t kill. Unequivocally. It doesn’t say, “don’t kill Moses, or “don’t kill Mohamed.” — From the Israeli movie “Hatalyan” (The Hangman) by Netalie Braun and Avigail Sperber.


I have often heard in discussions with friends that their stance against Israel stems from it being a religious state, which seems to be the prime reason for their position. 

I believe one can have a clearer picture of Israel through understanding European nationalism.


Israel was created as a military state inspired by the rise of the nation state in the 19th century. Its founders aimed to join the colonial projects at the time. They created armed organizations that later formed the military institution, which is the raison d’être of the state of Israel. Whether a religious state, or not, this is of secondary importance. At any rate, all can use religion to justify their actions, whether those who cry out for peace, or those beating the drums of war. It is therefore not religion per se, but rather the context it exists in, that helps us understand the actions of its adherents. Religious Israelis have built their state on the expulsion of the residents of the land, and religious European Jews were subjected to the biggest mass killing in modern history, the Holocaust.


But, what actually happened in Israel? Judaism armed itself with a military, police force, judiciary and incredible power that enabled it to discriminate against anyone who does not belong. The original Jewish victims became the new executioners. The state also passed laws benefitting the Jews, such as the Law of Return, which grants any Jew in the world who wants it Israeli citizenship.


Judaism, like any religion, embraces verses and interpretations that preach tolerance, as well as others that are extremely dogmatic. This is well known by secular intellectual Arabs, who claim — whether in good conscience or not — that they stand against Zionism not Judaism.



It always seemed to me that Islam and Judaism have similar origins. They are like two folks who speak the same mother tongue, hold similar beliefs, have a lot of common friends and shared knowledge, then suddenly find themselves living in a foreign land. They grow envious, competitive and bitter; success of one is perceived as the failure of the other. It is the kind of bitterness that doesn’t exist between, say, Egyptian and Japanese expats living in a foreign land, but is present between two distant cousins who have come from the same hometown, speak the same language and have the same lineage. 


It is true that the Quran includes many verses that are disparaging of Jews, but consider the intimacy of this verse: “O children of Israel, remember My favor, which I have bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you over the worlds.” (2:122) Here, God speaks of a special relationship with the sons of Israel, the essence of all Jewish religious texts. Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) is perceived as a flirtatious dialogue between God and the people of Israel. The Quranic critique of the Jews, however, is not only based on their sinfulness, but on their breaking of the vows that existed between them and God. This is not just any tale of enmity, one could say, but one that was preceded by a love story. In previous stages of my life — when I had more faith and certainty — I always wondered why God designated all these verses in the Quran to the Israelites? Why does he care so much? I guess because it is more complicated than mere enmity.


If it weren’t for the structural homogeneity between Islam and Judaism, it wouldn’t have been possible for what is known in hadith studies as Isra’illiyat (traditional Jewish narratives) to make its way into interpretations of Quran. It was hard to spot the Isra’illiyat narratives in the corpus of Quranic exegesis. It took Islamic scholars a lot of effort to convince people to disregard certain narratives originating from the Isra’illiyat. After all, many Quranic verses and prophetic hadith consider Jews to be beholders of knowledge and mysteries. The phrase, “ask Jewish scholars,” is common in Islamic traditions, used to confirm a particular narrative and as a reference for Islam.


Many Jewish scholars have adopted this respect-hate relationship vis-à-vis Islam, especially in the Arab world. They translated “Yahweh” or Jehovah to “Allah” and “Allah” to “Yahweh.”  The preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish Rabbi, Musa Ibn Maymun, allowed Jews to pray in mosques, but not in churches. In Andalusia, Jews and Arabs joined forces against the Catholics. And Jews have written their medieval poetry in Arabic forms (awzan). Not only that, they have also written the Arabic language in Hebrew script. And it seems that Hebrew grammar imitated Arabic grammar rules. Still to this day, Jews take pride in being referred to as “ahl al-kitab” (people of the book), without knowing the reason behind this reference in the Quran.


I read a quaint article once in an Israeli cultural paper titled, “How did the people of the book become the people of the bestselling book?”


Referring to Christians and Jews as “ahl al-kitab” (the people of the book) did not come out of nowhere. The Tanakh (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible) is also known as “Miqra” (derived from the Arabic-Hebrew verbal root ‘qara’ (to read)). It is considered to be the most influential book in both the ancient and modern worlds. Jews believed in this book, the Church incorporated it into its bible, and the Quran retold its stories. It is not just any ordinary book, it is “The Book,” which seems to be what the Quran meant when it referred to Christians and Jews as “the people of the book.”


There is an intrinsic similarity between Judaism and Islam. Firstly, there is a similarity in the linguistic structure of Hebrew and Arabic. And secondly, both religions are linguistic in nature.  Judaism is affiliated to Hebrew (the language of the Miqra), and Islam to Arabic, the language of the Quran. Accordingly, the written word has a strong prominence in both religions. There are magical words, such as “kun” (be), which manifests God’s power of creation in the Quran: “When He decrees a matter, He only says to it: “Be! — and it is [kun fayakun]” (2:117).


There are also the unique letter combinations that form opening verses in the Quran. And then there are said to be mysteries behind the word “hay” in Hebrew, in addition to words like “amen.”  The Hebrew word for God, “Yahweh,” is written, but thought to be too powerful to be spoken. It is only referred to as “the name,” “the sacred name,” “the four-letter name,” “Adonai” (the Lord), or its emphatic plural “Elohim” (my Lord). In Islam, there is a prayer that calls on God by invoking all the names he assumed for himself, and all the others he kept hidden. The strong affiliation of Judaism and Islam with language, with words, stems from the fact that their holy books exist in their original languages. This stands in contrast to the Christian bible, which was encountered in translation, not in any of its original languages, which are believed to have been Greek and Aramaic.


Another reason might be that Islam and Judaism are believed to be the direct words of God. Yawheh spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, and in Mecca’s Cave Hira, the Angel Gabriel dictated God’s words to prophet Mohamed, who was illiterate. This differs greatly from the Christian Bible, which was authored by Jesus’s disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection.


The third manifestation of the resemblance between Islam and Judaism is in the structure of their sacred books. Both books include many sermons, historical narratives, and instrutions for war, violence and jihad, in addition to love and peace. They are written in a combination of prose and poetry, alongside extremely detailed legal verses. This is in contrast to the Christian Bible, which includes only spiritual sermons, and no legislation. This is because it is believed that Jesus did not come “to destroy the law of the prophets … I came not to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Mt. 5:17)


There are still notable differences. Firstly, Judaism is an ethnic religion, and conversion is extremely difficult. This is because Judaism is associated with the Israelites, whom God is believed to have pledged the covenant of circumcision to. Judaism is not a global or missionary religion, which is why the term “goyim” (gentiles) has far greater significance in Judaism, compared to Christianity and Islam. This is also why, unlike Islam and Christianity, interfaith marriages are completely forbidden in Judaism. Nevertheless, from King Suleiman, all the way to European Jews and others, this prohibition was often disregarded.


Aware of the ethnic nature of Judaism, the Quran does not address “the Jews” in its verses, but rather speaks to “the Israelites.” When the Quran speaks of God favoring the Israelites, it does not refer to them as “Jews,” but rather as “the sons of Israel” (in reference to the 12 tribes of Israel — the descendants of Jacob). When Israelis today are told that Israel is a religious Jewish state, they respond that Judaism is an ethnicity, not a religion. They claim that Israel is Jewish, the same way France is French. This is obviously not true, because Jews have bred through intermarriage throughout history. They have often mixed with other so-called “goyim” through marriage, and the differences in features between a white European Jew and a black Ethiopian Jew is enough evidence for that. But theoretically speaking, we cannot claim that Judaism has a “universal message,” such as with Christianity and Islam.


The second difference between Islam and Judaism lies in the Talmud, the second Jewish sacred book after the “Miqra.” In one of her odes, the Israeli poet of Iraqi origin, Haviva Pedaya, rightfully describes it as a polyphonic creative text. After the Miqra was written, thousands of pre-Christian-era rabbis from locations spanning between Palestine and Iraq, Babel and Yerushalim, compiled their legal opinions and teachings, in addition to their interpretation of the Miqra in the Talmud. Some of these opinions are extremely dogmatic, while others are quite tolerant. The opinion of a specific rabbi is followed by the counter-argument of another to makeup the Talmudic text, which is structured as a main text surrounded by numerous comments and footnotes by Jewish rabbis. Islam does not have a similar text, its two sacred books are the Quran (a divine text) and Hadith (a registry of the sayings and deeds of the prophet). There is no room for multi-vocal expression.  




In the lead up to the establishment of the State of Israel, Zionists sidelined the Talmud, elevating the Miqra as a historical and national text, rather than merely a religious one.  Their rationale was that the Miqra was written when Jews were powerful and ruled Palestine/Eratz Israel, while the Talmud and the rest of the Jewish legal books were composed when Jews were at their weakest, ruled by the “goyim” in the diaspora in Babel.  Zionists have expressed their disdain for Judaism of the diaspora, while holding on to their faith in the Miqra, written in Eratz Israel, because they simply wanted to reinforce that the true Jew is the one returning to Israel, rather than living elsewhere in the world. This carried a heavy cost, as Zionists have crushed a fascinating and long heritage of a Judaism that was articulated all over the world, expressed in the Talmud and other writings of diaspora Jewish scholars.


This is one of the reasons behind the tension between “being Jewish” and “being Israeli.” Both are definitely linked, but moments of tension reveal a deep-rooted defect in the Zionist makeup. In other words, we can say that there exists two “Israels:” The first takes the feminine form and refers to the state, and the second a masculine form that refers to Jacob, who has come to symbolize the non-scholarly or ordinary Jews in Jewish thought.


Before the establishment of Israel, the word “Israel” referred to the Jews all over the world; all those who were called upon by God in the alluring hail, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This verse is the Jewish version of the Islamic declaration of belief in the oneness of God (the shahada): “lāʾilāhaʾillā-llāh.”  I was always allured by the Jewish hail and would repeat it to myself in the busy streets of Cairo to evoke the divine who lies beyond the cars, the exhausts, and the perspiration of the wearied. Following Jewish and Christian translations, I have also dropped “Yahweh” from my translation of the call, which should have read: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.”


Also, before the establishment of Israel, Jewish Egyptians used to write “Israeli” for their religion on their identification cards. This made complete sense back then, but would raise eyebrows nowadays — an issue that Nadia Kamel’s documentary on Egyptian Jews tackles under the title, “Salata Baladi” (An Egyptian Salad).  It is also worth noting here that the Quran could not incorporate the idea of “Israel” as a singular referring to a plural, so it translated it to “Bani Isra’il” (the children of Israel).


I am personally fond of this Israel, but not the other one. I am fond of “Israel” in its meaning of ordinary Jews, their heritage, language and relationship to God.  I am not fond of Israel, the state, which expels Palestinians to build its villages on their ruin; I am not fond of the Israel that has dismissed the rich Jewish heritage, that of Israel himself, and stigmatized it as helpless and weak.


From now on, the new Israeli, the true Israeli, is the shameless (chutzpan) young man with short pants and a machine gun pointed to kill. It is no longer the Jew, who is preoccupied with the Torah, and worships his God in peace. The lesson of the Holocaust, according to Zionism, is for Jews to never again goose-step their way to be slaughtered, to be strong to scare their enemies away, and live in peace.  It is true that the State of Israel has used full violence against the inhabitants of the land for its settler colonialism. It oppressed them, burned down their villages, expelled them by force, and built a wall to shield itself from them. But they, Palestinians, have never fled, and they, Israelis, have never lived in peace.


This is the fourth article in a five-part series. 

Nael El Toukhy 

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