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Today’s article comes from an interesting place: a discussion of religious conflict in Israel, published 3 days before the Palestinian attack. Even more surprising, it is not about a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, but one among Jews. The subject is a statement by an Orthodox member of the Knesset that the current social struggle in Israel is in fact a religious war. The opposition leader responded, “No, Rabbi Gafni, we are not in a religious war, because we have the same religion. We are Jews.”

What is this struggle about? To be honest, I do not know beyond what I have read in this article. It appears that there is some movement to secularize some aspects of public life and government in Israel. I found another article that mentions four disputed areas of religion and government in Israel: the Sabbath, conversation to Judaism, military conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, and marriage and divorce laws. I don’t know if any of these are in dispute specifically, but it seems likely that at least some of them are. In any case, they do provide an idea of the kinds of things likey to be debated.

This might seem like a strange subject for a religious war, but it is also a good time to discuss what we mean by “religious war.” I have a feeling that most non-specialists tend to think of religious wars as combats undertaken to convert other people to one’s religion. These are, historically, quite rare. Two examples that might qualify: the expansion of the Islamic state after the death of Mohammed, and Charlemagne’s wars against pagan Saxons. While both of these did lead to conversions, I doubt that they were undertaken mainly for that purpose. The Islamic caliphate did not forcibly convert people; although huge numbers did ultimately convert to Islam in the conquered areas, the wars were not followed by mass involuntary conversions. Charlemagne was more brutal in his conversion of the Saxons, and I don’t know enough about his motivations to know if converting pagans was at the top of his list. I do know, however, that the Saxons were often at war with the Frankish kingdom — as most neighbouring states were at war, in that period, much of the time — so Charlemagne would not have needed a religious reason to fight them. Most likely he converted them as a logical thing to do after conquest, not as the primary motivation behind the conquest.

The classical period of religious wars occurred in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and these were very different. Most of the combatants wanted to live in a Christian state of their preferred faith, as indeed it was difficult to conceive of any other kind of state besides one firmly based in religion. Again, I’m sure they were happy to convert anyone they could, but the wars would have taken place even if people had broadly expected to allow freedom of conscience in the new governments anyway. Freedom of conscience was by no means sufficient for zealous adherents. They wanted the government to be based on certain religious principles (which usually had administrative implications — bishops in Catholicism and Lutheranism, congregationalism in Calvinism) and they definitely wanted the correct faith to be honoured and supported. When we speak of “religious wars” in this classical sense, therefore, we are talking about wars about how a nation is to be governed.

The disputes in Israel are more along those lines, although the dispute is between a more or less secular vision of government, not between two disputing religious views. As in our recent post on Secularism and the State, the role of government in religion is never simple to define and will always have conflicted regions.

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