Rabbi’s Essays

Between Hope & Despair

Eight Years

In January 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated as President, ending the eight-year Clinton Administration. In early February, Ariel (Arik) Sharon was elected handily as Prime Minister of Israel over the incumbent Ehud Barak. Israel was dealing with a resumption of Palestinian violence as the dramatic moves toward a peace arrangement had stalled. For many Israelis the choice of Sharon was mostly a repudiation of Barak, and for some it was a vote done in accordance with the old adage “only Nixon could go to China;” that a conservative leader can carry out the decisions that a liberal cannot do.

In January 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, ending the eight-year Bush Administration. In early February, Israelis voted for a coalition led by Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, rejecting the incumbent Kadima Party and its leader, Tzipi Livni. Israel was dealing with Palestinian violence, as its dramatic move toward effecting a political accommodation with the Palestinians appeared to have failed. The vote reflected the general unpopularity of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who had taken leadership when Sharon suffered a stroke), and for some, the vote for Netanyahu was done in accordance with the old adage “only Nixon could go to China.”

2009, however, is not 2001. The elections of George W. Bush and Arik Sharon eight years ago, could be considered a confluence of interests. They both represented a retreat from the focused negotiations of the Clinton years. Both leaders agreed that the future included the existence of an independent Palestinian Arab State on some —indeed most —of the land captured by Israel in 1967. Both also were interested in projecting predominating American/Israeli influence and control over their spheres of influence. They were prepared to draw the maps themselves. Thus, Bush ultimately ceded any serious involvement in Israel-Palestine relations to Sharon himself, and set about on creating a political makeover along the Persian Gulf.

Whatever one might have thought at the outset regarding the moral or political values of these two leaders’ visions, we can say in retrospect that they did not work. Bush finished his term of office with virtually unprecedented unpopularity both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Ehud Olmert’s approval rating was even lower.

In 2009, however, Barack Obama’s ascension to the Presidency represents a turn away from unilateral assertion of self-defined interests, toward more accommodation and cooperation in its foreign policy. Yet, as the militancy of the American electorate has begun to wane, the Israeli electorate hard line has appeared to stiffen. In the 120 member Knesset, following the February 10 election, sixty-five are considered to be reliably nationalist and loathe to engage in territorial compromise, while only forty-four would consider compromise. (The other 11 seats are held by the predominantly Arab parties, who historically do not take part in any Israeli government.) The confluence of interest between Israel and the U.S. that defined most of the first decade of the century is now beginning to diverge.

We can go further. American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama, the mixed-race son of an African Muslim, while roughly 60% of Israeli Jews backed political parties that promote further restraints on the country and region’s Arab population. Should we be concerned about a break in America’s (and American Jewish) relations with Israel?

2009 is not 2001, and Israel is not the U.S. The Bush Administration had greatly oversold the danger that the U.S. was facing, and Americans were tired of chasing phantom WMDs. The threat posed by a reprise of 9/11, could be handled in a much better way than wiretaps, waterboarding and troops posted in Baghdad. Militancy and anger had been mostly drained out of the electorate; we were rather prepared to embrace calmness and hope.

For Israelis, the danger has been more palpable and real. They negotiated through the 1990s, and had their proposals both rejected and met with a spike in terror violence. They engaged in unilateral withdrawal, and were repaid with radicalization and indiscriminate rocket fire. As American anger lessened (or, more properly, was directed toward banks and insurance corporations), Israeli anger and frustration has increased.

Fault Lines

Since 1967 in particular, there has been a fault line that has run through the middle of the Israeli electorate: territorial compromise or no territorial compromise. The issue has remained at the surface of policy debates and political posturing for over forty years, but the underlying arguments have shifted over time. A dominant theme has tended to be the pragmatics:

Can Israel afford to lose the strategic depth provided by the territories acquired in 1967? Prior to the Six-Day War, Israel’s width from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian (West Bank) border could be as little as ten kilometers. The Golan Heights represent strategic command of the Hula Valley.

Or, how much stable and secure peace can Israel gain for how much territory returned? Through the 70s and early 80s, this conversation was mooted by the unwillingness of the frontline states to negotiate (Egypt, of course, became an exception.) When Jordan ceded rights to the West Bank to the PLO, then Israel refused to deal until the 1993 Olso agreement. At that point, the argument in Israeli circles centered on whether Arafat (or his successor) was capable of being a real negotiating partner with sufficient willingness or ability to stand behind any agreement.

These debates tended to mask profound ideological differences. Let us set aside the practical issues, and look at the underlying assumptions.

I. God and Israel

The best known of the ideological positions has been the so-called Biblical argument. Israel (from the Jordan River to the Sea) was promised by God to the Jews. The argument is then bolstered by the dual events of 1948 and 1967. First, against apparently overwhelming odds, a small band of Zionist settlers and Holocaust refugees, operating over and against a British imposed arms embargo, nonetheless beat back the combined armies of six Arab nations in order to create the first independent Jewish state since the failed Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century.

Then, once again facing virulent threats “to throw the Jews into the Sea,” Israel not only warded off the three-prong attack of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, but also regained the biblical lands of Judah and Samaria and a reunified Jerusalem. How could anyone doubt that such miraculous events —particularly occurring so soon after the disaster of the Holocaust —were indeed proofs that God was keeping the divine promise to God’s Chosen People?

There are a number of ironies that arise from this argument. It is held, as one would expect, by those who most expect to see God’s Hand in historic events. Such a position is mostly found among more conservative religious believers. Among Jews, the divine promise theory would be most congenial to the Orthodox, and, indeed the settler and the maximal nationalist groups in Israel tend to be religiously traditionally observant.

Orthodox Jews represent only about 20% of Israel’s populace (not dramatically different in size than Israel’s non-Jews). Further, the religious nationalist camp is only a portion of the total Orthodox population. Many of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) are either non-Zionist, as they are categorically opposed to a Jewish State that is not governed strictly in accord with halakha, or anti-Zionist, as they believe that no legitimate Jewish State can come into being until formally announced by the coming of the Messiah.

Actually, the divine promise basis for support of Israel, including its hold onto acquired territories, is promoted mostly by conservative Christians. Christian Zionism, the belief that God intends that Jews should return to the “Holyland,” whether as a prerequisite for Christ’s return or not, is centuries old. Its sources, arising among early Reformation and Enlightenment thinkers, are quite independent of any Jewish belief, and substantially pre-date the modern Zionist Movement. Israel’s military successes in 1948 and 1967, therefore fit neatly into this particular Christian mindset, and make the American evangelical community among the most vociferous supporters of a Greater Israel.

The question of God’s promise to the Jews becomes a lightning rod in debates over Israel. Its defense by conservative Christians (on Scriptural and theological) grounds, leads to widespread opposition: Islamists question the promise by questioning the Scripture itself. Liberal Christians and secularists are made uncomfortable by what they see as theological naiveté, or worse, strong-arming. To a lesser or greater extent, Israel is opposed because the Scripture or the very use of the Scripture is challenged. Meanwhile, relatively few Jews are employing the argument from God’s promise at all!

II. Refuge or Redemption

Religion plays an undeniable role in the Middle East, but I would argue that its positive value has been greatly underestimated. In Israel, however, the central ideological fault line is best framed outside of any religious issue, but rather over the nature of anti-Semitism.

Early modern Zionist thought generally focused on the issue of liberating Jews from the Jewish question. The question was: what place do Jews have in Europe? And the Zionist answer was: none. Removing Jews from Europe and placing them where they could have their own land and language would solve the Jewish question both by freeing Europe of Jews and reintroducing them into the modern political world as a nation among nations.

These Zionists were practical dreamers. They were fired by the ideal of a normalized Jewish life freed of the systemic disabilities of being a mostly despised minority in someone else’s land. But, they were not so ungrounded that they did not think through the political, economic and social difficulties that needed to be surmounted in order for their dream to take root. Idealism was continuously tempered with pragmatism.

Although a chief rallying cry among the early Zionists was “a land without people for a people without land,” they fully knew that the land was not people-less. While most of the Jews who made aliya in the half-century or so before the founding of the State were singularly myopic regarding the reality of the indigenous population —they sought to separate and isolate themselves as much as possible from existing Arab settlements —they recognized that the Jewish State they envisioned would have to be constructed around, and not on top of them.

Thus, the Zionist settlers built new neighborhoods outside the protective walls of Jerusalem, and created new communities up along the coast from Jaffa. They eschewed the built-up villages along the central spine of the Land, and instead struggled to reclaim the uninhabited swamplands along the Mediterranean coast, or the arid, but potentially fertile lands of the northern Negev. In brief, they went where the Arabs were not, including a concerted effort at purchasing lots from absentee owners. Their eyes were on the prize: an independent State for the Jews. Territorial compromise was a small price to pay in service of this goal.

This brief summary of history reflects the dominant stream of Zionist thought. There was, however, a significant dissenting opinion. While the main thrust of Herzlian Zionism proceeded from the notion that a Jewish State on its own land could solve the problem of endemic anti-Semitism, the alternative view —classically referred to as Revisionist Zionism, and associated with Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky —asserted that nothing could solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Jews needed a land of their own, not in order to be able to take their place as a nation among nations, but rather in order to assure the survival of the Jewish people.

Revisionist Zionists were not looking for a way to reduce or eliminate anti-Semitism. They wanted Jews to have the means in order to protect themselves from it. In this vision, the prize is less nationhood as it is security. Mainstream Zionists might have wanted to work around the indigenous population, believing that a normalized Jewish nation could exist peacefully beside any normalized Arab entity. Revisionists envisioned no such peace and simply wanted them cleared out.

This divide is more and less severe than it appears. Both Zionist visions focus on the matter of Jewish nationalism, a concept that intrinsically brackets out the non-Jew. Mainstream Judaism has been historically more aware of and sensitive to the existence of a non-Jewish population on the land, but no less than the revisionists, they sought to develop a State that was substantially free of non-Jews.

In this regard, the fundamental debate between mainstream and revisionist thinkers is now, and has always been, a matter of just how much land can the Jewish people commandeer and control to the discomfort and/or exclusion of other peoples.

While both sides promote an essentially exclusivist Jewish national development, the fundamental difference resides, I believe, in their attitudes toward anti-Semitism. Mainstream Zionist thought was founded on the notion that, with proper conditions —namely a separate Jewish State —the underpinnings of anti-Semitism would wither and disappear. Revisionists were certain that anti-Semitism was a permanent and ineradicable component of the human condition: as long as there were Jews anywhere in the world, there would be anti-Semites.

On one side, therefore, a hope is held out that some formula might be found by which Israel, as a Jewish State, will become fully accepted in the family of nations, including its neighbors. The other side, however, sees no realistic hope. Instead, the most that can be expected is a begrudging accommodation of Israel’s existence, based on the fact that the world (Arab and the rest) have no choice.

We see this clash exemplified in the political dance between Kadima and Likkud following the 2009 elections. Kadima insisted that Netanyahu agree to the two-state formula (an independent Palestine) before it would agree to enter into a unity government. Netanyahu has refused, although he has spoken about support of Palestinian economic and cultural aspirations. Kadima is reflecting classic mainstream Zionist thinking in the form that an independent and viable Palestinian State is the sufficient and necessary step for the acceptance of Israel in the region. Netanyahu’s response is ambiguous, and suggests (at least to me) that some members of his party (including himself) accept this formulation, but others remain convinced that no amount of accommodation will slake a fundamental animus that Arabs (and virtually everyone else) have toward Jews. Giving the Palestinians a State of their own, therefore, will solve nothing.

There was a time —not that long ago —when the broad outlines of a stable peace between Israel and its neighbors was pretty clear, at least in the minds of most Israelis. In 1999 and 2000, the Barak government was negotiating a substantial return of the Golan Heights in return for diplomatic relations with Syria, and the re-division of Jerusalem in order in order to accommodate a capitol city for an independent Palestine Authority. Opposition to these initiatives was muted, although both would have been considered politically and strategically impossible concessions just a decade earlier. Mainstream Zionist thinking overwhelmed revisionist attitudes in the Israeli electorate.

Even after both negotiations fell apart, the general consensus still supported notions of territorial compromise in favor of peace. Thus, the Sharon government’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and continued talk of a two-state solution were broadly confirmed in subsequent elections (March 2006). Three years later, and the vision of ten years earlier has been greatly blurred. An increasing number of Israelis are entertaining the notion that maybe the revisionists were right all along.

Zionism Revisioned

The revisionist Zionist position requires serious consideration. Maybe peace, at least in the sense of reconciliation and mutual recognition of the other, is not possible. Every step toward accommodation seems to be met with two steps back. Moreover, anti-Semitism in the world seems not to have abated at all. Israel is singled out for fierce criticism well out of proportion to its actions, especially in a world where mass killings and systematic oppression of local populations is widespread. Maybe all Israel can do is take the steps necessary that ensure it can protect itself from a regular and endless assault on its existence —at least until the Messiah decides to show up.

Is this bleak prognosis really the case? A short answer is: yes, if this is how one wishes to frame the fundamental relationship between Jews and the rest of the world. If one believes that it is now, has always been and will always be a constant battle of survival against unappeasable enemies, then one can always find evidence to support this worldview.

Years ago, I averred that any approach to the Middle East must not resort to a recitation of the “facts,” because there are none. There are only interests. That is, we cannot adequately tell the difference between what we believe to be the case, and what we wish to be the case. I want to suggest a different frame for understanding and dealing with the current hostility being expressed regarding Israel.

Doing so is not merely a pious preference. It is also a philosophical choice. Jabotinsky’s opposition to mainstream Zionism did indeed serve an important purpose of countering an unwarranted optimism. As we are well aware, the creation of a Jewish homeland did not bring about an end to anti-Semitism; it did not necessarily even reduce its presence in the world. At its heart, however, revisionist Zionism is solely the negation of a negation: anti-anti-Semitism. It is pure reaction in its outlook, therefore, unable to evoke a positive future, unable to provide hope.

So, let us return to the current situation and look at it with hopeful, if not wildly optimistic eyes.

The Jeering Section: Anti-Israel Attitudes Beyond the Arab World

No good turn goes unpunished. For most of the twentieth century, the Zionist project in Israel (both before and after the founding of the State) was socialist. Its dominant institutions were the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) which owned land on behalf of the entire Jewish people, and the powerful and influential Labor Federation, the Histadrut. The kibbutz, a uniquely successful collective settlement, and the moshav, equally successful but more modestly socialistic, produced most of the Zionist leadership, political and military.

While the Jewish State is hardly as labor socialist as it was through most of its history, many elements, including universal health care and a weaker but still robust Histadrut, remain in place. Nevertheless, Israel tends to be demonized throughout all the world’s liberal-left institutions. Compounding this state of affairs is that the American Jewish community continues to be overwhelmingly liberal. The individuals and groups with which Jews are most socially and politically comfortable, are also the fiercest critics of Israel.

This circumstance is deeply problematic, but needs to be put into a proper perspective. Liberal-left animus to Israel arises, I believe from two different sources; one is more contingent and the other systemic. The contingent source is the intertwining relationship between Israel and the U.S.

Israel and the United States are attached at the hip. American foreign policy cannot stray too far from fundamental support of the Jewish State. This is the case both because most of the American public tends to be more sympathetic to Israel than to the Arab nations, and because U.S. foreign policy values stability. Israel, as a well-functioning democracy, is far-and-away the most stable political entity in the Middle East. It is the only nation that can tolerate socially and politically a complete change in its government, without giving in to violent recriminations and radicalized policies. Israeli leadership —liberal and conservative —recognizes in return that they cannot stray very far from American interests. Thus, the Israeli Prime Minister, whoever it may be, is inevitably one of the first voices in support of an American foreign policy initiative.

The principal ramification of this relationship is that Israel is irrevocably bound to the ups and downs of America’s standing in the world. Note that during the years —particularly the 1990s —that the U.S. is perceived as a force for peace and justice on the international stage, criticism of Israel becomes more muted. The Bush White House brought about a decline in America’s standing, and with it, attacks on Israel increased. I would imagine, therefore, that even with a more right-leaning government, Israel will enjoy a measure of reduced disapprobation during the Obama Administration.

The second element is more systemic. While many observers have commented on left-liberal criticism of the Jewish State as being a manifestation of a new anti-Semitism, I think this point-of-view only tends to cover up the real and continued persistence of the old anti-Semitism. The left-liberal position, while being unhelpful, is something else.

Classic anti-Semitism is rooted in fear. Jews are the perpetual “other.” Their presence in society is disrupting at best, but often considered a cause for suspicion. In its milder forms, the anti-Semite wishes to control the activities of the Jews, generally keeping them away from the institutions of culture and society. In more pernicious forms, the anti-Semite calls for their eradication (expulsion or death). This type of anti-Semitism persists mostly among radical ideologues of all stripes. For them, Jews in their midst are a violation of their sense of proper order.

For many on the liberal-left, Jews are not a source of fear or distrust. Many left-of-center individuals will express an appreciation of Judaism. The problem arises out of a pernicious philo-Semitism: an idealized and thoroughly unrealistic impression that Jews should somehow be better than all this; in particular, that that they are better than harboring nationalistic ideas. The issue is not Israel’s policies with respect to Arabs, but rather that Jews should have sullied themselves in something as sordid as engaging in nation-building. Leave such more primitive concepts as ‘nation’ to lesser folks, like the Arabs. Certainly, some hard-line leftists want Israel and Jews to disappear. But, this is because they want all divisive labels to disappear into a world of universal undifferentiated humanity. And, they want the Jews to lead the way!

This liberal attitude is a two-edged sword. It can, on the positive side, serve as a goad against complacency. Israel’s policies can be better, smarter, more effective in achieving a durable and secure peace. The negative side is its thorough lack of realism regarding Jews and Judaism. For the most part, this problem can be ameliorated by continued contact.

A case in point: a number of mainline, basically liberal Protestant Church judicatories, have had proposals placed before their assemblies calling for a harsher attitude toward Israel, usually through divestment of firms and institutions that do business with or in the Jewish State. All of these proposals have been voted down in general assemblies. The delegates at these assemblies are mostly congregants who, in interfaith programs and other forums, have simply come to know Jews and Judaism better.

Tough Neighborhood—Palestinians and other Arabs

The assault on Israel from liberal or socialist critics is, at the very most, irritating. It is not, however, dangerous. Most of the criticism is shallow, inconsistent, or mostly misdirected, expressing rather a coded opposition to American policies. Israel’s real problems are exceedingly closer, and are to be found in the neighborhood in which it resides.

Israel-Arab/Palestinian relations are the central issue with respect to the long-term health of the Jewish State. Its significance is two-fold. First, however one envisions the future, at the end of the day, Israel remains in the midst of an Arab, overwhelmingly Muslim world. Further, the resolution of tension between Israel and the Arab nations is a necessary, if not sufficient, element in the international pursuit for peace and stability throughout the region. Many of the headaches arising in the Middle East —Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon and Iraq, the Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, deeply unrepresentative and/or oppressive governments, and a host of tribal rivalries —exist quite independently of the challenge of a Jewish State. None of them can be tackled adequately, however, until peace with Israel is worked through.

I believe the situation looks far worse than it actually is. In the 1939, the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a letter to Mohandis Gandhi. Gandhi, already famous for his doctrine of non-violent resistance, was urging the Jews to engage in the same tactic in face of the rise of Nazism. He particularly opposed the Zionist solution of taking refuge in Israel. Buber replied to this last point with the following:

[Y]ou come and settle the whole existential dilemma with the simple formula: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.” What do you mean by saying that a land belongs to a population? Evidently you do not intend only to describe a state of affairs by your formula, but to declare a certain right. You obviously mean to say that a people, being settled on the land, has such an absolute claim to the possession of this land that whoever settles in it without permission of this people has committed a robbery. But by what means did the Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest and, in fact, a conquest by settlement. . . Thus, settlement by force of conquest justifies for you a right of ownership of Palestine. . .These are the consequences that result from your statement in the form of an axiom that a land belongs to its population. In an epoch of migration of nations, you would first support the right of ownership of the nation that is threatened with dispossession or extermination. But once this was achieved, you would be compelled—not once, but after the elapse of a suitable number of generations—to admit that the land belongs to the usurper.

There is no record of a reply by Gandhi. Buber’s argument, however, was both forceful and prescient. By the beginning of this century, the existence of Israel as the Jewish State has been taken for granted among the nations of the world. Most telling was the reaction to Hamas’ election victory in 2006. Every world power —in particular Russia, China and Saudi Arabia —publicly expressed their concern that the new Palestinian legislature reaffirm the two-State solution that had been the basis of negotiations since Oslo. After a century of occupation in Palestine/Israel (the means of occupation, whether just, unfair or some combination, is beside the point), Jews have indeed become identified with the land.

The Special Case of Hamas

The Islamist Palestinian party, Hamas, continues to be quite vocal in its rejection of the Jewish State. The recent Gaza operation, however, highlights the severe limitations under which Hamas operates.

In 2008, Israel and Hamas worked out a six-month long cease fire, which effectively ended the firing of rockets into the border town of Sderot. The agreement expired in mid-December and indirect talks through Egypt failed. The rockets began to pour down on Sderot again. At the end of the month, Israel began a comprehensive operation to shut down the rocket fire.

While Israel had pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it continued to maintain control of the borders, attempting to restrict the importation of war materiel. The blockade became more intense when, in January 2006, Hamas won its legislative victory. A year later, Hamas fighters routed Fatah supporters and took sole control of the Strip. Smuggling tunnels were dug —hundreds of them —in order to beat the blockade. All sorts of goods were brought through the tunnels, including, of course, the rocket-making materials. Many defenders of Hamas have argued that the rocket fire into Israel is resistance to the blockade.

That Hamas and other Gaza Palestinians would want to resist the stranglehold that Israel (with the support of the U.S., Europe, Russia and the U.N. —the “Quartet”) put on the territory is hardly surprising. The large tunnel smuggling project moreover is understandable within the same context. Firing unguided and mostly ineffective missiles at nearby Israeli communities, however, does not seem to be a meaningful response. Indeed, it appears that Hamas’ tactics were designed precisely to provoke some sort of Israeli reaction. When the assault was over, most of the Palestinian deaths were of non-combatants. Very few direct confrontations between Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers were recorded. I believe that most plausible explanation is that Hamas strove to avoid military causalities in favor of building up as many injuries and deaths among Gaza residents as possible. With cold-eyed cynicism, they goaded Israel into unleashing a fearsome attack that would mostly inflame greater anger and hostility toward the Jewish State. And Israel complied!

On one level, Hamas achieved a goal of creating increased tension between Israel and allies such as Turkey. The tactic, however, more acutely reveals that the party has backed itself into a corner. In 2006, Hamas realized great success in general elections on a message that it could restore dignity and independence to a Palestinian Authority that was rife with corruption. At the same time, they took the triumphalist position of Islamic hegemony throughout the Middle East, i.e. the disappearance of the Jewish State. The latter, however, fairly counteracts the former.

By putting up a rejectionist front, Hamas reinforced Israel’s interest in controlling Gaza. Rather than creating better conditions for acquiring economic and social independence, a broadly observed blockade rather served to impoverish the population further, creating more breakdown in society, and necessitating increased aid and relief assistance from the U.N. and other agencies. By the end of 2008, Hamas’ standing in Gaza was dropping precipitously. Provoking a war with Israel could and did restore its standing, but also did nothing to benefit the beleaguered Gazans. Thus, Hamas’ bind: it cannot begin to improve the lot of Gaza without reaching some accommodation with Israel, and it cannot retain its fundamental value of Islamic hegemony without forsaking its responsibility toward the welfare of the people.

Back to Religion

Hamas’ dilemma is caused by its ideological commitment to the end of the Jewish State. The party is broadly identified as a Islamist faction —an offspring of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood —and thus the enduring hostility to Israel is treated as being religious. I want to respond to this notion in both a narrow and broad fashion. The narrow question is whether Jewish hegemony in the midst of Arab territory is actually anathema to the Muslim religious thought. The broader issue is whether religion in general serves to retard or promote the possibility of a stable peace and a secure Israel.

Islam and the Jewish State

It would be foolhardy to suggest that there is no connection between Islam and enmity toward Israel. The most explicitly religious elements in the Muslim world —particularly Hamas, Hizb’allah and Iran —are among the most strident in their opposition to the Jewish State. The more secular entities have been more pragmatic: Jordan and Egypt have formal diplomatic relations; Syria and the Fatah branch of the Palestine Aurthority are willing to engage in negotiations. Yet, the connection between Islam and principled anti-Zionism is not particularly obvious. Consider, for instance, that one of the most conservative Muslim communities, Saudi Arabia, has publicly accepted the concept of the Jewish State (within the pre-1967 borders).

Islam is over 1300 years old and encompasses a population of roughly one billion people. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is not internally consistent. Thus, similar to Judaism and Protestant Christianity, Muslim ideas and practices, though reflected in a sacred text, are wide open to interpretation, unimpeded by a formal hierarchical structure (such as the Vatican). Most religious positions are a meditation between the text and faithful readers, who are always subjected —consciously or not —to contemporary social and cultural currents, as well as to their own predispositions.

In brief, the Qur’an does not provide an explicit set of concepts regarding either Jews or their claim to the land of Israel. One can find, for instance, statements such as the following (Sura 21, lines 71-2): “We (God) delivered him (Abraham) and his nephew Lot to the land which We have blessed, and We bestowed upon him Isaac, and as an additional gift, Jacob. . .” The implication here is that the land (Israel) was given by God to the line of Abraham that passed through Isaac and Jacob. Of course, the text need not be read in this fashion, and the Qur’an is filled with assertions about Jews that are both approving and condemnatory. A Muslim attitude on the issue of Israel is formed by factors that reside outside the text itself.

I think that the principal factor is Islam’s relationship with the secular West. (I have discussed this issue at length, but from a different angle in the essay “After 9/11.”) The Arab world has been on a multi-century losing streak. Since the early nineteenth century, most of the Middle East and Northern Africa have been under European domination. As the colonial and mandate powers began to retreat following World War II, Israel, made up substantially of European Jewish immigrants, beat back local opposition and a combined force of five Arab armies, to establish their independence. Arab forces were overwhelmed again in 1967. From a military standpoint, Israel continues to dominate the region. While Zionists view the founding of Israel principally as a matter of historic Jewish national aspirations, Arabs may see those same Jews as an extension of Western and European suppression of Arab and Muslim freedom and dignity.

One of the clearest manifestations of the identification of Zionism with the West is in the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has definitely risen throughout the Muslim world, but it is mostly imported. The Jews depicted in Arab-language anti-Semitic tracts are always iconically Ashkenazi, and dark mutterings of some international cabal of Jews is drawn from the Tsarist-era Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although Jews have lived in the Arab-Muslim world throughout the entire history of Islam, the “Jew” is unmistakably European.

Islam, like all religions, serves a primary organizing agent for communities of like-minded individuals. As such an agent, it can go in either of two directions with respect to its historic relationship to the West. It can serve as bulwark in opposition to Western secularizing and modernizing forces, or it can enter into a form of dialogue with Western modernity and engage in theological reform. The former is best expressed by the implacable anti-modernism of the Taliban and other Muslims particularly in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The latter is found among Muslim thinkers in Europe and North America.

There is also a middle ground: an enduring skepticism regarding the enticements of Western ideas, but also a forsaking of hostility. This approach entails both conservatism and pragmatism, and thus a slow internalized reform that eschews any radicalism. I believe that most of the Muslim Middle East, including Iran, falls into this broad middle ground.

Religion: Prod or Obstacle?

Hamas and Hizb’allah are often characterized as being radical Islamists or Muslim fundamentalists, and thus are generally grouped with al-Qaida and the Taliban. There are, however, some elemental differences. The latter operate in mostly rural and intensely conservative regions where any foreign or modernizing tendencies are going to be treated with deep suspicion. Hamas and Hizb’allah draw from a much more diverse population. While undeniably conservative, they are much more open to both modernity and diversity. One useful indication of the distinction is that the Palestinian and Lebanese Islamic movements are nowhere near as virulently misogynistic as those in South Asia.

Undoubtedly religion in the region of the world where Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose is somewhat more open to messianism than elsewhere. Thus, there are hard-liners among all three religions who enthusiastically believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner, and that now is no time to compromise or retreat from one’s comprehensive vision of their faith triumphant. The Palestinian peace activist Mohammed Dajani Daoudi has referred to such as attitudes as the Big Dreams that only serve to quash the Small Hopes of steps toward enduring peace.

Where otherworldliness and/or despair exist, religion can help preserve and exacerbate these conditions. The Middle East’s long history of colonial domination by Europe, and the even longer history of anti-Semitism are a ripe medium for Muslims and Jews to have just these feelings. Yet, most of the Jewish and Palestinian population neither act on nor articulate such emotions. The reason for this moderation arises out of religion as well.

Religion —let me focus on Islam and Judaism —both invite passion and attempt to restrain, or at least focus it. Rhetoric is permitted to be far more extravagant than action. While heads are occasionally in the clouds, feet are supposed to be planted firmly on the ground, as religious principles are designed to serve the realities of life. In brief, neither Judaism nor Islam is about bringing the Messiah —only God can do that —but rather about how to live in the unredeemed world that exists until the Messiah comes. Such a life requires tempering ideals with reality.

Here are two brief observations: On Purim 1993, Baruch Goldstein burst into the central mosque of Hebron and killed two dozen worshippers. His grave in the intensely nationalistic religious Jewish settlement enclave near Hebron is treated with veneration to this day, but Goldstein’s murder spree has never been duplicated. The acts of Jewish settlers, fired by religious zeal, can be characterized as racist and disgraceful. It includes harassment of local Palestinians, vandalism and sometimes the throwing of stones. With the pronounced exception of Goldstein, it stops short of serious harm. Religious zeal tempered by religious discipline.

The second observation is drawn from a March 2009 news article on Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ most public leader. The article was prompted by the formation of a new Israel government by Benjamin Netanyahu. Meshal had survived a botched assassination attempt in the late 1990s, when Netanyahu was last Prime Minister. The key sentence in the article was a quote by Meshal cautioning observers to evaluate Hamas on what they do, rather than what they say. Language is one thing, but action is much more important.

Religion brings one more very important virtue to the effort to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors; it embodies hope. Yes, religion itself can be captured by despair —evidenced by suicide bombers who shout “God is Great” before detonating themselves and all those around them —but mostly religion works to overcome despair.



Currently, most of the Arab Middle East is wallowing in self-pity and despair. The circumstance is lethal and has proven to be considerably more self-destructive than effective. Israelis, on the other hand, are beset by frustration. While not nearly as damaging, it only retards any constructive effort to move forward. There is very little Israel can do to alleviate the current Arab condition, but that is no reason to act on its frustration.

The Jewish State has indeed become a normal member of the family of nations. It is only its borders that continue to produce upheaval. With a calmer, more thoughtful and less easily demonized administration in the United States, one can hope for progress.