Review Robert Vandemeulebroucke


Synopsis of the book

This compelling book describes in great length the author’s firm belief that peace between Jews and Muslims (with Christians in the background) in Israel is not only desirable, but also attainable in order to put two thousand years of hostility and conflict between the three Abrahamic religions finally to rest.

At the centre of the book is the Old Testament biblical story of Esau and Jacob. Jacob defrauded his first born brother Esau from the blessing of their father Isaac to whose father, Abraham, God had pledged that his offspring would become the founder of a great Nation. When Esau realised he had been tricked by his brother, he planned vengeance and Jacob had to flee. After a 20 year long banishment during which he became a wealthy man, Jacob returned. Esau at first wanted to kill him but was overcome with brotherly love when Jacob prostrated himself before him seven times and offered Esau rich presents. Esau was deeply moved by this sign of humility and reconciled himself with his brother.

This story offers the gist of reconciliation based on understanding, compassion and respect, all hallmarks of the three Abrahamic religions that are able to co-exist in peace with one another. So which of the three religions should come forward and make the first move?

Here arises a first difficulty. The risk of setting the process in motion is the fear of Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, that being overpowered and subjugated by any of the two other religions is not a winning strategy. Each of the three religions is convinced of its superiority and flexibility should be shown by at least one of the remaining two. This inevitably has led to distrust and multiple devastating wars.

In short: in order to meet the desired objective Jews must ask the “Umma” (Muslim community) for understanding. Jews must feel the pain inflicted on Muslims by suddenly being offered a country by the international community without giving anything in return, and show compassion. Concurrently, Muslims must show understanding for Jews who have been persecuted all over the world for countless centuries, before having finally been offered the opportunity to return to what they consider their Promised Land.

Ideally, the West Bank and Gaza would become the nucleus of a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority, while Israel could become the embodiment of the Jewish state with a Palestinian minority.

The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque that also is the site of the first Jewish temple would ideally become the future site of both Jews and Muslim worshipping, if the three common religious characteristics (understanding, compassion and respect) could be met.

In Gottfried Hutter’s opinion, these goals can be attained.

A short note on religious intolerance among the Abrahamic religions

Until the founding of Israel in 1948, Jews never lived in their “Promised Land”, a land they could call home, defined as a country with its own institutions. Instead, they lived scattered in the Middle East and over the world as a result of the upheavals of history well before the arrival of the Messiah.

The Babylonian king Nabuchadnezar conquered Jerusalem and forced the Jews into exile, the first exodus in a long series. In early Christianity Jerusalem was under Roman occupation. Subsequent empires, most notably under Arab or Turkish rule, administered the region for centuries.

The Balfour Declaration (1917) resuscitated hopes, but the promise made to the Zionists to create a new state was quickly forgotten. It took WW2 and especially the horrors of the Shoah that finally moved the Christian West into action by honouring the 1917 pledge. The hastily, not carefully thought out decision to create a new state Israel, marks a great injustice towards the Arabs and towards Palestinians in particular: the UN nor anybody else cared to consult them prior to the UN-voting. In other words: the creation of Israel was forced upon Muslims and Palestinians top-down. The four subsequent wars by neighbouring Muslim states in order to eradicate Israel from the map were all won by Israel. So massive underlying tensions have not evaporated and peace treaties between most Muslim neighbour countries and Israel are still pipe dreams.

Christianity has had an ambiguous attitude against Jews until very recently. Throughout history Jews have always been considered second class citizens that were responsible for Golgotha and the execution of the Messiah. This stigma works like an instant powerful glue: it sticks on you and one will never get rid of it. It reminds me of another Biblical story namely that because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, never to return. Mankind was considered collateral damage by a merciless God, and each and every one will forever suffer from this original sin for which none, except the original Biblical parents, were responsible. The Christian enmity towards Jews has many unpleasant faces. Jews, Muslim and indeed many Christians back in 1099 were slaughtered by Christian crusaders “liberating” Jerusalem on papal instructions. In 1492 Jews had to flee Spain on the order of Catholic rulers except when willing to convert to Catholicism. Nazism is of course the ultimate horror in Christian Europe: millions of entire Jewish families were arrested and deported to death camps where they perished.

This enormous sense of Christian culpability led immediately after the war to the resuscitation of the Balfour pledge and the coming into being of a new state Israel, to the detriment of Palestinians and Arabs who were never consulted. Christians, especially Evangelical Christians in the US under President Trump went even a step further: they have encouraged succeeding Israeli governments in any possible way and by all possible means to do what good was for Israel by offering unconditional US support and aid while stiffening legitimate Palestinian demands and weaken their influence, if not authority, in their own heartland.

The Catholic Church on the other hand, arrived quite late on the scene of reconciliation with the declaration ‘Nostra aetate”.

In comparison, the Muslim “Umma” for the greater part of European and Middle Eastern history in the last fourteen hundred years, was generally benevolent to the Jews whom they considered “people of the Book”. Jews, with minor restrictions, were thus able to keep their own way of life under the “Dhimmi-contract”, including worshipping. It was, therefore, quite insulting to Arabs that the UN and the international mainly Christian community, treated them so poorly after WW2.

My opinion

If enough people with authority and goodwill involving the three religions can be found at once, brought together and work in unison, this new religious reconciliation edifice may come about but it will require a lot of religious and secular support over a considerable length of time, on condition that work can continue unabated and without outside interference to delay the intended objective. But relying on spiritual values alone in one of the most volatile political hotspots in the world, will not bring this immense issue closer to its realisation.

Politics also will have an overriding place in rebuilding this edifice.

Remember the Biblical story of Kaïn murdering his brother Abel because his own offering was turned down by God. At that moment, politics entered the Bible and they played a substantial part in all subsequent Old Testament stories.

Another difficulty will be to convince Jews and Muslims alike to share the same plot of land in Jerusalem for worship, namely the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque that equally hosts the remains of the first Jewish temple. Both edifices have an enormous importance for both religions. The Al Aqsa mosque because from there the Prophet Mohammad moved to heaven. The Temple Mound because it houses the remains of the first Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans. Blame Caliph Omar who, centuries later, selected the spot of the first Jewish temple to erect the Al Aqsa mosque. It is exactly the plot chosen by Jews to rebuild the temple. Even less religious Jews will not be ready to cede the plot to Muslims only. Too much history to both religions is spread out in this small area.

Finally, there are pressing political reasons that will hinder reconciliation for a long time to come like Israel’s security and issues on land and demography.

First security. Israel’s history since 1948 is riddled by wars against Muslims and by multiple attacks against Israeli citizens perpetrated by Muslim jihadists of all creeds inside and outside Israel. A hard line Israeli cabinet under Benjamin Netanyahu, unconditionally supported by the US, only adds fuel to the fire. American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeio, suggested weeks ago that he saw no legal reason for Israel not to annex the West Bank. If that were the case and if Israel would annex the West Bank pure and simple as suggested by Washington, it would deprive the Palestinians of most of their territory. It could mean war and it annihilates whatever remains of common ground to bring both parties together (as if there was any common ground left).

Then land and demography. Israel’s doctrine, even under the pre-Israel Zionists, still continues to be “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs”. This justified the exodus in Israel’ eyes of roughly half of the population in 1948 and the capture of 80% of “Mandatory Palestine”, thus achieving this proposed territorial-demographic strategy. These extensions of Israeli territory have never been formal or legal, except the annexation of East-Jerusalem. Further, the West Bank, the original Palestinian state to be, was broken up in three areas. Area A was granted autonomy, area B received only limited autonomy while area C remains under direct Israeli control with a minority of Palestinians living there together with a growing number of “Israeli colonies”. This too does not engender goodwill from the Palestinians who find it difficult to move around their own land due to a multitude of barriers erected by Israel. Demography is another factor: around 2025 – 2030 there may be more Palestinians than Israelis living in Israel due to the higher birth rate of Palestinians. This too will increase pressure.

And Gaza, with more than two million suffering inhabitants living in cramped conditions on a small sliver of land, emphasises the Israeli adagio of “maximal land with a minimal number of Arabs”.

In short, I cannot see how one can change the mind of any of the three contenders in a foreseeable future to show understanding, flexibility and generosity towards the other two and promote the noble objective of this book’s author.

Rather, it seems to me that a multitude of hot political issues must be tackled first before the religious itinerary proposed by Gottfried Hutter may gain track.

Brussels, 31 December 2019

Robert Vandemeulebroucke

Ambassador (retired)