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Why Law and Religion – The Attempt to Define Identity

BS”D

I have earlier talked a little about why I chose to study religion, but the other day I was asked why I chose to focus on law in religion. What is it about law, which triggers me, makes me aware, makes me want to understand the finesses and theories, which by others would be considered way too boring or abstract to even begin considering it? Well, it’s a little complicated to explain, but I will give a try anyway. But first I need to correct something I wrote in the before mentioned post on why I chose to study Comparative Religion. There I wrote that I would be focusing on the role of the woman in Israel, something which has changed. Or actually, I returned to my first focus though I at the time wasn’t so sure that that was my focus. What I want to say is that my focus is going to be on the mutual attitudes between Jews and Muslims, especially in the context of religion in Israel.

But there’s more to it than that. During my under-graduate studies I took my minor in cultural studies, where identity and the thought on identity preoccupied my quite a lot. It still does. The whole question of how we identify ourselves and what influences this really talks to me, I find it fascinating. Not only that, how do we relate to each other based on that, is also something which, I think, is of crucial importance.

Law and religion is two very strong identity markers, each in its own way. Religion as deciding on identity is obvious, people normally identify themselves according to what they believe, in some cases according to what they think they believe, as well as relating themselves to those who share their beliefs. Law is different; law is more of a deciding factor in how you are identified by those deciding the law. Law doesn’t care much about feelings, only facts (true, those deciding the laws might pay attention to feelings, but they will still have to establish a structured defining system, otherwise making the law too vague to decide anything). But law can also be influenced by those following it or relating to it, by whether they accept it at all (or have to be forced to it) or choose to relate to another system of laws instead. And what will happen in that case?

I’ve downloaded the introduction to a book called “Law and Identity in Mandate Palestine,” written by Assaf Likhovski, which deals a lot with what I’m focusing on, though not so much from the perspective of religion. Likhovski writes about his book that it “is a book about the role of law in defining the self and the collective, in balancing tradition and modernity, Western and non-Western norms. Every non-Western culture confronts this problem, which also constitutes one of the main issues in the momentous conflict between Islam and the West that is now unfolding before our eyes. In this battle, law plays an important role. It serves as a banner under which combatants fight, a weapon for overcoming enemies, a middle ground for meeting them. Law also defines the nature of the participants in the conflict.

Law is definitely defining for identity, especially in relation to who is among “us” and who isn’t. Everyone the law grants rights and citizenship is per definition one of “us,” everybody isn’t granted this is not. And law is used in this perspective as a weapon, everybody with just the faintest knowledge of the right of return here in Israel, should be aware about that.

Likhovski later relates to the status of the whole matter of identity in then Palestine, and how it was without any clear form:

“Another singular aspect of the country was the unstable identity of its inhabitants. Many twentieth-century societies witnessed a process of identity transformation— the rejection of traditional identities based on religious or tribal loyalty and their replacement by modern national identities. But in mandate Palestine, the process of identity transformation was especially evident. Here Muslim and Christian politicians were engaged in constructing a new Arab identity following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Zionist Jews were busy creating a novel “Hebrew” self, purged of the marks of the Jewish exile. Even British rulers were occupied with reexamining the foundations of their imperialism in response to the challenges posed by the interwar era.”

I believe we still struggle with the problem down here even today. I can point to a couple of examples on the struggle between identities, for example Israeli vs. Jewish, Palestinian vs. Israeli, Arab vs. Palestinian, all being dealt with in extensive discussions. For example, according to the law on Right of Return every Jew, descendant of a Jew, or spouse of a Jew, has the right of return to Israel, becoming a “Oleh Hadash.” There are some exceptions and details influencing the final decision on whether one is allowed in or not, but all in all the law is rather clear. Or actually it isn’t. The problem is who is a “Jew,” a question which has been discussed for millennia (just see the Biblical account on the ‘Yehudim’ vs. the Samarians in the Book of Ezra and Nehamyah), and today is the cause of great fights between various Jewish groups, particular between the Reform movement in the States and Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel. Here a secular law is suddenly being caught up in the discussion of a religious law and how it should be deciding in favor to or against a defined group of participants. The problem is not so much on those descendants from Jews, being for sure Jews, but rather those who convert within the Reform movement and as such will not be recognized as Jews by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Another example, to stay here in Israel, is the one of being Palestinian and/or Israeli. How are Palestinians defining themselves here in Israel? The vast majority of them do define themselves as Palestinian, though some refuse to define themselves this way, but rather prefer to describe themselves as Israeli Arabs. Some define themselves as Israeli Palestinians, but still, most define themselves as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, or so it is my experience. But it doesn’t stop there, this is only a question of nationality and belonging to either or both nationalities (Palestinian and Israeli), another question appears when we deal with religion, having most Palestinians in Israel being Muslim, but a large majority being Christian, and the religious definition is important, and can be of crucial matter, also in comparison on whether one first define him or herself as Muslim or Palestinian. This is a matter which can cause conflict between the Islamic movements and the nationalist movements. Take an example as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for a Caliphate, not a Palestinian state (since that would be a national state based on Western ideas and as such against Islam), and how their expectations would clash with the nationalist expectations of the more secular Palestinian movements (or maybe even other Islamist movements not sharing the same expectations).

In the meeting between religion and the secular society, especially in the question of law, insights and understandings of how identity is defined, as well as the flexibility and demands of the religion is extremely important. Does the religion demand total loyalty, denying any acceptance of other authorities besides its own authority? How does it allow to rule on behalf of it? How are we dealing with conflicting identities and definitions of identities? Those questions are among the questions I hope to deal with, because in a country like Israel these questions are important to answer, in order to understand the relations and mutual attitudes between Jews and Muslims of today. And that is why I’m focusing on law in the two religions. Among some other reason as well.


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