The true nature of the struggle

Israel has always been devoutly secular and disdainful, if not hostile, to traditional Jewish beliefs.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
We are accustomed to think of the secular-religious divide that exists in Israel today as relating to denominational pluralism, conversions, civil marriage, Sabbath observance and other matters of ritual and budget allocations. All of this may be true, but it ignores the basic divide, which is one of values, world view and perception of ourselves and others. The recent success of Hamas in the elections for the Palestinian parliament should serve to focus the attention of our leaders and public on a hard fact that Israel has always chosen to ignore until now: that the Arab-Israeli struggle is at its core a religious dispute. Only by appreciating and understanding this unpleasant but very real truth does the struggle take on a somewhat rational and understandable, and perhaps even predictable, pattern. Since the leadership, political and academic, of the Zionist movement from its founding in 1897 and later of the State of Israel itself has always been devoutly secular and disdainful, if not downright hostile, to traditional Jewish beliefs, values and religious practices, it placed itself in a mind-frame that did not appreciate the Arab position on the emergence of the Jewish national home in the Land of Israel. If we care nothing about our religion, the Jewish leadership seemed to say, then it should be true that they - the Arabs - must also not allow religion to play a decisive role in reconciling our differences. In effect, we always maintained that since we had freed ourselves of the constraints of our religion and thus saw our way forward to territorial solutions that would end the conflict, it was obvious that eventually the Arabs would also become completely secularized - the wave of the future, as Marx predicted - and the rose garden of the Middle East would then begin to bloom. BUT THIS was and is a gross underestimation of the strength and tenacity of the faith and practices of Islam among its adherents. Europe may by now have shed most of its Christianity, but the Muslim world, which currently spans the globe, refuses to give up on Islam and the Koran. And a Jewish state in the heartland of the Muslim Middle East is a denial of the tenets of Islam as they have been interpreted for centuries on end; just as Jewish survival throughout the millennia served as a denial of early basic Christian tenets. The mere existence of such a Jewish state, no matter what its borders, would still remain an affront to Islam even if it was completely disarmed and headed by Yossi Beilin. Thus, the president of Iran, among other Muslim leaders, would still be duty-bound to call for its destruction, God forbid. And he and they mean exactly what they threaten. The secularization of Israeli society has brought much harm - physical, social, economic and psychological - to the Jews here in Israel. It has torn families apart, embittered vast sections of the public against one another, blinded generations to the richness of their Jewish heritage and distorted any understanding of the true nature of the struggle for the existence of the State of Israel. The Arabs view us as the latter-day reincarnation of the Crusaders of the Middle Ages. The struggle and triumph over the Crusaders was a victory of Islam over Christianity, pure and simple. It reinforced in the Muslim mind the exclusivity and superiority of Islam over all other faiths. It strengthened the concept of dhimmi in the Muslim world, whereby non-Muslims could exist in their society solely in a subservient, second-class state of being, and even then only at the sufferance of the Muslim rulers themselves. Religion was the motivating force in that struggle. It remains so in our current struggle. THE TRUTH is that territory, water rights, refugees, monetary compensations and mutual reparations are all items that can be negotiated and eventually even compromised. But religious beliefs and faith dogmas are not susceptible to such tactics of negotiation and compromise. Israel undoubtedly contributed to Hamas's success by its shortsighted bluffing over the unacceptability of Hamas as a player in the arena of the Arab-Israeli contest. As usual, we could not keep our mouths shut. However, even more subtly and insidiously, Israel highlighted Hamas and gave it enormous strength on the Arab street by refusing to recognize it as the Islamic religious organization it is. We preferred to see Hamas only as a terrorist organization, which it also is. But that is not what, at its core, it really is. It is a religious organization. America can label Osama bin Laden an arch-terrorist, which again he certainly is; but in the Muslim world he is viewed as a religious leader, an accepted interpreter of the Koran and of Islamic principles. The Muslim world does not speak out strongly against him - not so much out of fear as out of Islamic faith. And this is why victory for the secular West - even born-again Christian George W. Bush is pretty much secularized and, in any event, certainly an "infidel" - in Iraq or anywhere else in the Arab world is so difficult and problematic. The Cold War was fought on a secular basis. The current terrorist war is a religious struggle between the true believers and the secular "infidels," who do not seem to understand their enemy and its true motivation. I DO not expect the current candidates for prime minister in Israel to easily shed their secular mind-traps. But if they and the secular Israeli society generally showed more knowledge, appreciation and understanding of Judaism, its practices, customs and world view, and were less slavishly devoted to the ideas, fads and political correctness of the current secular Western world, we would have a much more logical, realistic and successful policy in the struggle in which we are engaged. Through understanding and knowing ourselves we would have a more accurate view of our adversaries. In the yeshiva we were taught that understanding the difficulty, the inherent problem itself, constituted half the solution. A religious struggle conducted from a purely secular point of view cannot really ever be concluded successfully, for the true core problem remains unrecognized. And this is the true religious-secular fault line that divides Israel today. The writer, a rabbi, is a essayist, historian and lecturer.