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“Israel” – a Secular State?

The key to peace – revealed in the name “Israel”?



Today’s Israel was founded, so the story goes, by a purely secular movement, the “Zionists”. If that had been true their choice of the name of “Israel” as the name of their state would have been strange to say the least.  If the Zionists were a solely secular movement, why did they choose “Israel” rather than, say, “Zion” or “Judea” or “Canaan”?

Could these Zionists really have been so secular as not to know the narrative connected with the name “Israel”? Even if that had been the case, wouldn’t they have looked up the name in the dictionary before deciding on it? It seems more likely that the Zionists knew perfectly well that “Israel” is by no means a secular name.

 “Israel” is, in fact, the most un-secular name imaginable, because “Israel” is the name Jacob was given when he returned to the Promised Land, after decades in exile:

Jacob had been in exile because he had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright. He had embezzled the blessing of his father Isaac, and then fled the country.

In order to wield his birthright he had to return to the country of his birth, and in order to do that he had to face his brother.

Esau had already heard of his brother’s coming. He had mustered a small army of 400 men to meet him.

Jacob was scared.

At first he pieced together a huge herd of the best of his animals and sent it ahead to offer it as a present to his brother, as his gift of reunion – in combination with his request for forgiveness.

While still some way off, he sent the remainder of his people across the river Jabbok to prepare the meeting with his brother as his messengers of peace.

Jacob alone remained on the far shore of the river. He spent the night in prayer. There he encountered an unknown force, fighting with him all night long. This was no ordinary fight and Jacob’s opponent was no ordinary opponent, it was a representation of God himself. That much Jacob realized. Before the night was over his opponent wanted to leave, but Jacob clung to him and would not let him go – unless, so Jacob requested, he blessed him. At that point the fight grew so intense that Jacob’s hip was dislocated, and for the rest of his life, Jacob could walk only with a limp. But in the end Jacob received the requested blessing and with that blessing he received a new name: henceforth, his name was to be “Israel”, “the one who fought with God and won”.

Out of all possible choices the purely lay Zionist movement selected that name, “Israel”, to be the name of their newly reborn state – clearly referring to the return of their father Jacob from his exile. Who would they want to make believe that this had no significance and that their state was purely secular?

Could Prime Minister Rabin – or any other Israeli politician –have ever believed that “Israel” could be a solely secular state? And what welcome present did the Israelis have in store? How did they propose to appease their displaced Palestinian brothers and sisters in God?

Thus, the name “Israel” contains the key to modern-day Israel’s quest for peace. It makes clear that Israelis need first to apologize for intruding into the sacred space of the Umma (as Jacob apologized when he returned from his exile); then they need to bring a generous present to their hosts (instead of disowning them).

To bring a present was on Theodor Herzl’s mind. He offered cover for the Sultan’s budget. But the Sultan dismissed his offer. The essential other part was missing, the apology, the compassion. It seems that Herzl had not fully realized what it meant for the Islamic Umma to have a non-Islamic entity intruding.

Both are needed, the compassionate apology and the generous gift – but after that the returning Jews will be entitled to refer to the Qur’an’s commandment of acceptance of all children of Abraham, and then their former hosts will no longer be entitled to demand any submission (as the Sharia-dhimmi-standard). Then both will meet eye to eye to negotiate their way of coexistence and cooperation in a peaceful atmosphere.


Gottfried Hutter, chairman of “the Temple Project Association”

www.temple-project.de, gottfried.hutter@gmx.de