UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, January 17, 2020 — Common misconceptions are complicating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and religious aspects must be a part of any effort to mitigate or resolve this protracted dispute in the Middle East, according to Professor Dov Waxman, the new director of the UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies.
"As somebody who does write and teach a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, I get to hear a lot of misconceptions about this conflict," Waxman said in his debut lecture on campus January 15.
The lecture, titled "The Religionization of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," was held in the UCLA Faculty Center and sponsored by the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center. The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA International Institute, Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, Center for the Study of Religion, Center for Middle East Development, and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History.
Waxman, who joined the UCLA faculty effective with the Winter 2020 quarter, said there's a mistaken belief that the dispute between the two sides dates back thousands of years — though he added "it's not ancient, it's not age-old; it's a modern conflict beginning roughly a century ago." He explained that this confrontation began in the aftermath of World War One when there was inter-communal violence between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
The professor, who previously was on the faculty of Northeastern University, said some people assume that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is simply a religious conflict. He said that isn't entirely accurate, however, and contributes to confusion about how old the conflict is between the two sides.
"While it is true that Israelis are mostly Jewish, not all of course (25 percent of Israel's citizens are not Jewish). And Palestinians are mostly Muslim, although not all."
Added Waxman, "The conflict between them is not over their religious differences. In fact, Judaism and Islam have a lot in common. And both religions accept the validity of the other as monotheistic faiths."
Historically, Muslims also have generally been more tolerant of Jews than Christians, according to Waxman.
Regardless, one of the issues in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is who controls land considered sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. And the epicenter is the holy city of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israeli and Palestinians as their capital.
"This not just a real estate dispute as say [White House senior adviser] Jared Kushner seems to think it is," said Waxman. "It is of course the 'Holy Land' — the land of the Bible."
Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and a former real estate executive, last June unveiled the economic portion of the Trump administration's plan to reach peace between the Palestinians and Israel. A wider peace proposal has not been released.
"Any proposed solution then that relies upon some kind of territorial compromise is going to be challenged," said Waxman.
According to Waxman, outside groups or actors motivated by religion have contributed to the "religionization" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent decades. He explained how that makes it harder to reach compromises and concessions.
"You might think that religion should be marginalized as much as possible in this [conflict], in order to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But I actually draw the opposite conclusion."
Addressing the religious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must "be part of any effort to resolve the conflict or even just to mitigate the conflict and pave the way for peaceful coexistence," said Waxman.
Waxman, who received his Ph.D. in international relations from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, was a professor of political science, international affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University, where he also directed its Middle East studies program.
An author of four books, Waxman's research has focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israeli foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and Diaspora Jewry’s relationship with Israel. His latest book is The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2019).