Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

The Fundamentalists of the War

Before retirement, I taught Sociology and Jewish studies, specializing in the subject of religious fundamentalism. Jews and Jewish behavior have a place in the American Academy in general and sociology in particular. My latest book, Following Similar Paths is a discussion of how religiously observant American Jews and Muslims have adapted to living in America and what they have to learn from one another. It presents an alternate narrative to Jewish and Muslim interaction from what we see in the Middle East and most recently on campuses in America.

The October 7th Hamas attack, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies was the deadliest terrorist attack in the last half-century, as measured by number of fatalities per capita, yet I would be the last to argue it is the original sin for the ongoing war. Still it was not unexpected. Both sides in the conflict have come under the control of religious fundamentalists who stoke this war as well as earlier ones. These are groups of Muslims and Jews who remain convinced that God is on their side in this struggle and wants only their side in control from the entire land. This God is not a compromiser and must be obeyed.  The ongoing attacks against Israel by fundamentalist terrorists of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamist regime and Israel’s extremist government’s responses also controlled by its religious extremist wing and a corrupted prime minister constitute a continuing tragedy wrapped in religious justifications. Nor am I surprised that Hamas’s promise as well as Hezbollah and Iran’s continued threats, that even were this war to end, as long Israel exists there will be more such attacks from the other side. As Susie Linfield argues, “Iran, Hezbollah, Houthis, Hamas, Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq—aren’t opposed to the Occupation. Truly, I don’t think they give a hoot about that. They are opposed to Israel, and they seek to establish brutal Islamist dictatorships there and throughout the region.” This has precipitated a predictable reaction from Israel’s own religious extremists that they cannot stop until final victory, leading to precisely what extremists want: an endless war rather than good government for their people.

This responsibility of extremists on both sides is overlooked by many of those, especially on American campuses, who are calling for a ceasefire that considers only the Jewish side to blame and to dismantle Israel, a fundamentalist-like position no more justified than those who claim that Palestinians have no right to some sovereignty and should be second class citizens or exiles.

Although I define myself as a religiously observant Jew, I believe that only a political compromise based on the realities on the ground can solve this conflict. That requires a free and democratic negotiation among all parties, one that eschews a ‘religious’ solution. For that to occur fundamentalists on all sides need to be removed from decision-making. But alas, the continuing demonstrations and spreading campus calls throughout America for an end to this war do not endorse this sort of a solution. Instead, on many campuses, protesters have taken sides in an uncompromisingly, fundamentalist (and poorly informed) attack not only on Israel’s existence but on Jews in general and their right to have their own state in the Land of Israel from which Judeans (the historical predecessors of Jews) emerged. The repeated campus calls that “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,” and “Intifadeh is the only solution” – Islamist slogans often parroted by protesters who don’t know which river and which sea and what the goals of the Intifadeh were. Both slogans effectively call for Israel to be wiped off the map and Jews to be targeted and slaughtered as they were in previous uprisings. The “free,” in the catchphrase refers to Palestine being free of the presence of a Jewish state and Jewish people between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea (or “Judenfrie” as the Nazis put it) and “Intifadeh” as a solution echoes another ‘final solution’ that Jews experienced in the past.

The October 7 attack, the single greatest murder of Jews since the Holocaust, seemed to many Israelis and Jews throughout the world as the first step in that goal. It was a reminder that the state of Israel, born in the aftermath of that Nazi firestorm when six million were subject to genocide and made stateless, conditions the world promised would never again happen if Jews at last had their own sovereign state. That memory is seared into Israeli consciousness, and repeated as it was last week on Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Day and tomorrow on Israel’s Memorial Day. As a refugee who came to America with my holocaust-survivor parents,  and who now is an Israeli I share it.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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