Israel and the Religion of Peace

Dore Gold came to Washington this week and listed the three most important challenges facing Israel in the next decade. Iranian hegemony and Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons were first on his list. Followed (of course) by the necessity to establish a framework for peace with the Palestinians. But it was his third choice that most captured my imagination. Mr. Gold, who manages Israel’s foreign ministry, declared unequivocally that the necessity for world order is more important now than it has been in a very long time. To my American ears, this listing of the decline of Pax Americana by Israel’s top diplomat was not only surprising, it also expressed the realization that an era in world history is now coming dramatically to an end.

Since WWII the US has been able to fight its foreign wars as policeman to the world, establish a hegemonic position within the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and achieve such power with only minimal economic repercussions. This world role has been accomplished through the use of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. Such a privileged role allowed Washington to run massive trade and current account deficits. However, within the last sixteen years the US economy has slackened considerably as huge contradictions within the system have mounted.

First and foremost has been the loss of the US position as the world’s number-one manufacturing nation. This fact has eroded incomes, minimized GDP, created massive debts, paralyzed unity within domestic politics, created numerous large global asset bubbles, and in the end has made the US a poorer country. In turn, the US is now less able to play the role of global policeman.

It is within this economic context that Dore Gold (and others in the Middle East) have expressed doubts about the present anarchistic course of world geopolitical order. For without a US-based order in the Middle East, who or what will take its place? Will it be Russia and Iran, or perhaps just Iran alone? Similar potential vacuums could exist in Europe and Asia, especially as the global economy depresses.

However, it is not just sentiment in the US driving it toward a less robust and active foreign and military policy. There is indeed a revolt against the political establishment. This is clearly visible within the American electoral process. This revolt is against Wall St. and the economic divisions created over the last seven years of the Obama administration, and for twenty years before that by both American political parties. As global stock markets fall, the future becomes more and more murky.

Zionism began in earnest slightly over one hundred years ago in a similar economic environment. It was a period of time of weak economic growth in Europe. The decades-long promise of economic and political liberalism for the new Jewish intellectual elite waned in the face of a rise in virulent nationalism within France, Austria and Germany. If Jews could not assimilate as Jews within a western liberal European culture, what then became the answer to the perennial Jewish question of statelessness and its lack of physical protection? Meanwhile, the pogroms had begun anew in the despotic regions of Russia’s “Pale of Settlement” area. As poor and uneducated eastern European Jews flocked westward, the promise of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment and westernization through secular learning) also waned.

There were three reactions to the European Jewish question of survival. They were: assimilation through socialism, migration to the US (a slow but near-certain generational assimilation), or Zionism. Of the first two, socialism has failed as a world system, and US migration has led to widespread assimilation through inter-marriage. Zionism, on the other hand, has provided a temporary answer to the problem of Jewish statelessness; but as yet, this movement has been unable to connect in any meaningful way with its millions upon million of Muslim (non-European) neighbors.

Early Zionism was a secular movement, a synthesis of a particular and a universal. The Jews saw themselves as a distinct people, and yet culturally they aspired to the more universal goals of social justice and peace. But peace has never been attainable within the milieu of Islam. In fact, it could be argued cogently that stateless Jews from an extremely dangerous and unrelentingly hostile European environment were transplanted into the midst of a Muslim “holy war” against them in the Middle East. But it also could be cogently argued that secular Zionism never found a footing within such a deeply religious Islamic atmosphere. And this is precisely where we are today. Israel is surrounded by neighbors (though not necessarily their unrepresentative governments) who seek the destruction of the Jewish state.

However, Islam itself is now in the midst of a multi-dimensional civil war. Not only is there a violent millennial schism between the religion’s two predominant branches, political Islam has also emerged to challenge the establishment centers within both sects, Sunni and Shia alike. It is this new political Islam that wants to unseat the nation-state system and create a form of religious caliphate in its place. Whether it is Iran seeking to overthrow Sunni governments, or Sunni political Islamists seeking their own form of power, it is against this backdrop of anarchy and violence emanating across the region that Israel now finds itself.

But Zionism and Israel have never been equipped to deal with their own religion, let alone Islam and its varied interpretations. Israel was conceived by a nationalist sentiment through both a liberal and a socialist parentage. Judaism has had very little to do with it. In fact, to this very day the actual allegiance of traditional Orthodox Jews to the State of Israel remains to be determined. From the very beginning, Zionism was a secular movement and therefore outside a distinctly Orthodox religious culture that it deemed stultified to the point of ossification. Zionism rejected such orthodoxy, and in the process, rejected G-d’s protection. Zionism chose instead to arm and defend the Jewish people through normal self-protection and not by a reliance on a Divine covenant.

Today, Israel remains primarily a secular liberal bastion (socialism has receded) surrounded by a culture of believers (Muslims) who hate it with a passion. But such a secular liberalism can never succeed within the Muslim Middle East without a direction that can also encompass a form of religion that is tolerant, moderate and peaceful. Israel needs a religious authority willing and able to communicate its own sense of covenant and Divine destiny to an Arab culture steeped in religious symbolism. The great irony is that Islamic culture encompasses through revelation more than a thousand years of Jewish history. Without a religious outreach, the Zionist project will remain (to Muslims) a foreign intrusion outside the realm of covenant and revelatory authority.

But Zionism does contain the seeds of a deep religious-cultural past that has long engulfed the spiritual life of Jewish history. It is these seeds that offer us great hope for the future. Jews rejected all lands — other than the Land of Israel — for their transplantation from a European culture which demonized and murdered them. Zionism might have rejected traditional rabbinical authority, but the Jewish yearning to return to the land of their ancestors never subsided.

But Judaism is not just about the land of Israel. And the secular Zionist idea that Jews should aspire to be normal (just like everyone else) has also not taken root within the Jewish cultural or religious heart. Normal politics and normal secular life are not a part of the Jewish religious and historical heritage. The idea that the land can be conquered, without the prophetic aspiration of a genuine religious peace between Israel and its neighbors, has become the central contradiction of both secular and religious Zionism.

Religious Zionism has always been a minority faction within a much larger Zionist secular body politic. It was established as a very minor religious thought hoping to merge the community of socialist-pioneering Jews — in pre-state and early state Israel — with a projection as to the Divine Will within history. In other words, the birth of the State of Israel by distinctly human enterprise was not to be perceived without Divine authorship leading to a messianic concept of its inception. This becomes the crucial religious antecedent to a far more prophetic injunction than the mere settlement of land or the necessity for normal strategic military depth. Within this context, the birth of Israel becomes the condition necessary for the birth of world peace.

Within religious Zionism, Israel has become the Divine answer to the European Holocaust. The return of Jewish sovereignty within the Biblical domain of land promised through covenant, and the utter destruction of Europe’s Jews, cannot be interpreted as a mere coincidence. They happened within three years of each other! But what is to be the nature of this happenstance? Is it a sign of the Redemption for just the Jews alone, or are the Muslims involved as well? If you choose the former, then none of the prophets were correct. But Judaism has never been about empire and conquest alone. Judaism has always been about an end-time of peace. It must be so!

But what about Islam? Many of its followers describe it as a “religion of peace”. Yet unlike Judaism, it has had a far more identifiable relationship to empire and war. Certainly the adherents of political Islam (both Sunni and Shia) view war and empire against the world’s only Jewish state as obligatory and proper. But is there a silent majority of believers within this Islamic “religion of peace”? And can there be a dialogue of peace between religious Zionists and the representatives of this silent Islamic majority? Many people claim that such a silent majority of Muslims does not really exist, that what is meant by peace within Islam is a global submission to Sharia law. Surely no rational Muslim believes that to conquer the entire world is, in this day and age, possible.

So what are the Jewish and Islamic definitions of their respective “religions of peace”? Perhaps if this question can begin to be answered, then actual peace on the ground can slowly be developed. In the final analysis, only a true theological peace can save Israel from the fate of being “normal like everyone else”. For, as Dore Gold and others have asked in recent days, what will be the nature of both the regional and the world order? Because with the coming spread of nuclear weapons, the challenge of a world in ecological crisis, and the demise of the growth component to world capitalism, the risk of an unprecedented war is huge.

Religious Zionism, through an interfaith commitment to peace, can begin to redefine the nature of the modern Middle East. World order is a Euro-Asian project with the US operating as the off-shore balancer. Israel and the Arabs must begin this global project by first putting their own respective houses in order. A nuclear-weapons-free zone within a region that outlaws direct and indirect attacks on its neighbors must become the blueprint for the rest of the world. The Middle East is now in such chaos that such a project is not only possible, it has become realistic. But to be successful, the two “religions of peace” must be true to their destinies. Their shared destiny could be a Judaic-Islamic civilization that regards all human life as the sacred creation of a supernatural force in search of human partnership.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).