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Why the U.S. Must Heed Palestine’s Call for Religious Freedom

Picture by Edoardo Costa, licensed under BY 2.0
Picture by Edoardo Costa, licensed under BY 2.0

The recent raid of the Al-Aqsa mosque demonstrates the daily reality of Muslim and Christian Palestinians as they are unsafe and restricted in the practicing of their faiths. The right-wing Israeli government and settler movement have actively taken measures to ensure that Palestinians are unable to engage with their religious community and, as a result, are made to feel isolated in their religious identities. However, Palestinians may be able to draw attention to these state-sponsored acts of discrimination to successfully garner more public support for their cause and eventually challenge the oppressive conditions.

The Israeli government has aimed to deprive Palestinians of their right to practice their faith in two distinct ways. First, the Israeli security apparatus has strictly limited the mobility of Palestinians in attending their places of worship and holy sites in Jerusalem. Palestinians who try to visit holy sites in Jerusalem are subject to numerous checkpoints, security inspections, and possible arbitrary detainment. Israel has imposed a strict curfew upon Palestinians, which restricts their ability to attend prayer and interact with their community. Mosques and churches are often raided and destroyed by the Israeli security forces and settlers living in the occupied territories for “security reasons,” making it near impossible for Palestinians to feel secure in their places of worship.

Second, the Israeli government has used subtle tactics and aggressive rhetoric to disenfranchise and otherize Muslims. The Likud Party has tried to revise the Israeli constitution to make all non-Jewish citizens second-class members of society. This, along with Netanyahu’s barrage of Islamophobic rhetoric, has sent a clear message that non-Jews are inferior in the eyes of the government, which only increases the discrimination that Palestinians and non-Jewish citizens face in broader society. The government has alsodetained Muslims for wearing religious garb at Jewish holy places, essentially criminalizing people for practicing their faith. This is made all the worse when Israeli settlers who vandalize and destroy Palestinian places of worship rarely face any degree of punishment. These double standards create a discriminatory agenda, which discourages Muslims from openly practicing their faith for fear of persecution.

Israel and its key ally, the United States, have been able to deflect all previous criticisms by using generic and offensive responses implying that Palestinians are incapable of running a state or are primarily terrorists that cannot be negotiated with. Yet, when a vast number of ordinary Muslim and Christian Palestinians question why they cannot freely practice their faith, as all Jews do in Israel, these two states will find it difficult to provide a “legitimate” justification to the international community.

If nothing else, the Israeli government will grant some concessions to the Palestinian people, which ease their lives and allow them to more freely practice their faith. However, what is more likely is that Palestinians begin appealing to the sympathies of the international community, specifically those of the United States. The United States is a key third party actor in two-state negotiations and currently is Israel’s most powerful ally. However, a central part of America’s identity rests upon the freedom of religion. When Americans recognize that defending the status quo comes at the cost of sacrificing their nation’s identity, it will become much harder to justify the oppression of four million Palestinians.

The ability to practice one’s own faith is a basic human right. The Israeli government is unlikely to produce a plausible security or practical justification for why it denies Palestinians this fundamental right. Religious freedom needs to be an additional issue in addressing the conflict, along with human rights, freedom, and self-determination. For the US to be taken seriously on other matters of religious freedom, such as violations in Muslim countries and Russia, it must be equally concerned about religious freedom in Jerusalem, the holiest of cities in the world.

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