Religion and Jewish Terrorists

In light of JTA's current series on Jewish "extremists" and "radicals" in the "settlements" [e.g., SPECIAL REPORT: JEWISH EXTREMISTS] it is urgent for us to review some of the pertinent issues that we treated in a course we gave on Religion and Terrorism.

Some of what we summarize here on the subject is based on the work of Marc Juergensmeyer in his book Terror in the Mind of God.

What is the Zionist vision and why do some Jewish terrorists think is has been betrayed?

Zionism is a form of Judaism that advocates for Jews to return to the land of Israel as part of a process of national redemption. Zionists do not believe in a Messiah per se. They do have a messianic vision of creating a better, more perfect world for Jews and through that for humanity at large

How then does a group of Zionists come to create for themselves an angry and destructive culture instead of the optimistic and constructive society envisioned by Zionism?

Mark Juergensmeyer starts right in with the history that you need to understand this distortion of the dynamics of redemption to the paths to violence.
The 1999 peace talks with Palestinians constituted a 'betrayal,' Jewish activists in Israel asserted, echoing remarks made after the Wye River negotiations in October 1998.' Members of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza described Israel's stance as a 'pathetic capitulation' and proclaimed that the Israeli prime minister was 'no longer our leader.' Intentionally or not, their strident posture in 1998 had helped to prepare a climate of hatred that justified a series of violent demonstrations against an already weakened government that toppled at the end of the year. These angry statements and outbursts of activism were not just expressions of disagreement with policy, however; they were signs of frustration with a world gone awry. The dissenters' anxiety was personal as well as political, and in a fundamental way their fears were intensely religious.
In my work I have written about these individuals as marginal members of Israeli society who are frustrated that they are not the leaders of the Zionist enterprise. Juergensmeyer says,
The antipeace demonstrations in 1998 and 1999, following the tragic assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Yigal Amir and the 1994 attack at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, have shaken many Israelis' image of themselves as a tolerant and peace-loving people. Yet the perpetrators of both of these acts of terrorism justified their deeds with Jewish theology, historical precedents, and biblical examples. In the world view of Amir, Goldstein, and many of their colleagues, their people are caught up in a war with cultural, political, and military dimensions. In talking with Israel's religious activists, it became clear to me that what they were defending was not only the political entity of the state of Israel, but a vision of Jewish society that had ancient roots.
This belligerent attitude is not confined to Israeli activists. A local rabbi in New Jersey wrote a tirade recently 'disengaging himself' from the 'corrupt' State of Israel.

Click to read the rant/essay, Leaving Israel Because I'm Disengaged where the rabbi clearly says, 'Israel has betrayed Jewish history' (whatever that means?).

What were the Jewish activists thinking?

In another post we discussed the 'moods and motivations' that served for Bray and Hill as religious justifications for their criminal acts. We see another set of ideas in the Jewish examples here.

The assassin of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 acted on religious motivations:
Rabin addressed a cheering crowd of 100,000, telling them that he thought that Israelis believed in peace and were 'ready to take a risk for it.' Observers said that it was one of Rabin's finest hours, a high point in his political career, and a moment of great personal satisfaction. Minutes later, just after he had descended the staircase and was walking to his car beside the government building, a student from Tel Aviv's conservative Bar-Ilan University aimed his pistol and shot the prime minister at point-blank range. As Rabin lay dying on the sidewalk next to the car, the student, Yigal Amir, was apprehended by the police. He was quoted as saying that he had 'no regrets' for what he had done, adding that he had 'acted alone and on orders from God.'
The details of the justifications in people's minds vary. Amir thought he had legal Talmudic approval:
His decision to kill the prime minister was influenced by the opinions of militant rabbis that such an assassination would he justified by the 'pursuer's decree' of Jewish legal precedence. The principle morally obligates a Jew to halt someone who presents 'a mortal danger' to Jews. Such a danger, Amir reasoned, was created by Rabin in allowing the Palestinian Authority to expand on the West Bank.
What is Apocalyptic Orthodox Judaism?

I originally wrote an essay in 1987 to analyze and characterize some of the darker clouds that I started to see on the horizon within Orthodox Judaism. I've posted it with revisions that I made in 1994, taking account of Rabbi Schachter's opinions against women's prayer groups.I'm sorry to say that I don't see much improvement in sight. I still don't consider the violence committed by Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein in my assessment. I leave that to Juergensmeyer and others to analyze.

At the time I wrote this I did not have in mind to teach, "War and Peace in Judaism, Christianity and Islam." In the early years of my teaching I believed that we should study the positive side of religion and that we ought to consider the destructive impulses that religion fosters as mere aberrations.

That is not my opinion now. Here is the opening of my essay:
Fundamentalist spokesmen in Orthodox Judaism of late have grown more vocal and militant. Recent protests, proclamations, and actions of Orthodox Jews have not just risen in intensity. Rather a substantive transformation has overtaken a segment of the Jewish community. It does not suffice to categorize Orthodox groups as "reversionary" "ultra" or "right-wing". We must explain what generative conception distinguishes one group claiming to be Orthodox observers of Torah and mitzvos (commandments), true to the ideals of halakhah (Jewish law), and loyal to their rabbinic figures of authority, from another group claiming the same traits, but appearing to form its social life and defend its ultimate goals in recognizably different manners. Some forms of fundamentalist Orthodoxy have become apocalyptic styles of Judaism. This form of Judaism has coherent world views and particular ways of life that thrive on conflict, that live on the margins of society and that employ predictable modes of discourse.
Read more of my article...

How do some justify violence within Jewish culture?

You've read about Baruch Goldstein who killed Arabs in a mosque out of his anger and frustration. Others like him sought to make him a hero or martyr for their cause. We shall see more of this thinking when we examine the phenomenon of Islamic suicide bombers. Goldstein's tomb is treated as a shrine by some:
After Rabin's assassination, when public attitudes turned hostile toward zealots such as Goldstein, the Israeli government attempted to prohibit the construction of a shrine at Goldstein's gravesite by outlawing the building of memorials at the grave of any murderer. Yoel Lerner and his comrades had protested this law and claimed that it would apply to the grave of Yitzhak Rabin as well as Dr. Goldstein, since Rabin had authorized the killing of Jews in the Altalena incident at the time Israel was created, in 1948. Lerner and his allies set up a vigil on Mount Herzl across from Rabin's grave, and although they were not allowed to display signs directly referring to the fallen leader, they cleverly displayed words from the scripture, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill,' to make their point.
Ironically, the use of irony such as this in their protests further alienates the activists from the mainstream of their culture.

What are some of the distortions of the Messianic bases for believing in the centrality of the Jewish State in Zionism and Judaism?

Juergensmeyer discusses Rabbi Kook's theology and the popular ideology that followed the Israeli military victory in 1967:
Ever since the creation of the state of Israel, some Zionists have been impressed with the idea that the present-day secular Jewish state is the forerunner of the established biblical Israel. According to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kuk (also transliterated as Kook), the chief rabbi of preIsrael Palestine, the secular state of Israel is the avant garde for the religious Israel to come; it contains a 'hidden spark' of the sacred, a Jewish mystical concept used by Kuk. This messianic Zionism was greatly enhanced by Israel's successes in the 1967 Six-Day War. The military victory led to a great national euphoria, a feeling that Israel was suddenly moving in an expansive and triumphant direction. Jewish nationalists impressed with Kuk's theology felt strongly that history was quickly leading to the moment of divine redemption and the recreation of the biblical state of Israel.
Rabbi Meir Kahane twisted and distorted this theology in what Ehud Sprinzak called 'catastrophic messianism,' and what I would now call 'terroristic messianism':
Kahane deviated from Kuk's version of messianic Zionism in that he saw nothing of religious significance in the establishment of a secular Jewish state. According to Kahane, the true creation of a religious Israel was yet to come. Unlike other Jewish conservatives who held this point of view, however, he felt that it was going to happen fairly soon and that he and his partisans could help bring about this messianic act. This is where Kahane's notion of kiddush ha-Shem was vital: insofar as Jews were exalted and their enemies humiliated, God was glorified and the Messiah's coming was more likely.
Sanctioning Kiddush Hashem usually implies advocating martyrdom or other dramatic violent public acts.

Not surprisingly, Kahane was assassinated in 1990. He was a dangerous man and charismatic speaker. I met him on several occasions, once on a plane going to Israel. I was relieved when the plane landed safely. Kahane taught:
Kahane called on the people of Israel to rise up and reclaim the West Bank as an act of 'just war.' He argued that defense was not the only religious basis for warfare: national pride was also a legitimate reason. He reminded the Jews that their claim to the West Bank came from a two-thousand-year-old vision, when the Jews came 'out of the fear and shame of exile.'
Here Kahane takes from the universal classic themes of Zionism that led to the miraculous vision and creation of the modern State of Israel. He twists and distorts them to serve his own narrow angry and racist vision. As we have seen and will continue to see, that is often how religion and violence meet. [Repost from 9/2007]

1 comment:

Richard said...

I think that it is important to remind the readers that the roots of Zionism were not in religion per se, but rather an aspiration of nationalism on the part of marginalized Jewish communities within Europe. The importance of founding the State of Israel was made all the more necessary after the disaster of the Holocaust, in which it became clear that Jews could not rely on non-Jewish states for the protection and safety. Indeed, the early Zionists were in fact secular and often socialist in their political philosophy. It was only at a later stage that the movement was hijacked by a Jewish Messianic right wing that bears little resemblance to the one of its founding fathers (and mothers).