I do the following fisking with some reluctance. Daniel Landes is a cousin and friend, whom I love and deeply admire. But this piece illustrates too many of the fundamental errors of a “liberal” Judaism attempting to solve problems that are clearly beyond its ken. So, alas, the following.
For the religious Zionist Jew who wishes to grasp Israel’s present situation in a rational way, the hardest act is to shake off the messianisms that envelop his society – ranging from overt and imminent “end-time” scenarios, to the hazy metaphor of the “beginning of the dawn of our salvation.”
Of course, it also behooves anyone trying to grasp Israel’s present situation in a rational [sic] way, to become aware of the messianisms that envelop Israel’s enemies. Anyone who has not read at least one of the following, has no business discussing the conflict between Israel and its “neighbors” in terms of messianic tendencies.
Timothy Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden (New York: Praeger, 2005)
Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad (New York: Oxford, 2006);
David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008);
Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (NY: Oxford University Press), chap. 14;
Jean Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).
This of course doesn’t even begin to get at the literature on groups like Hamas, who are “near” enemies, and whose apocalyptic delirium places them at the heart of the most dangerous form of apocalyptic belief: active cataclysmic (i.e., we are the agents of the catastrophic destruction that must cleanse the world of evil). That form of apocalyptic belief has, in the past, caused mega-deaths on the scale of tens of millions (Heaven on Earth, chaps 7 (Taiping, ca. 35 million), chap. 11 (Bolshevik, ca. 50 million), chap. 12 (Nazism, ca. 40 million), not to mention Maoism (ca. 70 million).
I think that any comparison of Jewish and Islamic messianism (I prefer the term millennialism), makes it clear that Jews have a far more extensive fire-wall against apocalyptic outbreaks, especially violent ones, than do the current generation of Muslims. It’s almost grotesque to blame our current impasse on Jewish messianists. Like so many people motivated by a belief that the solution to this conflict is somehow “in our hands,” Rabbi Landes is willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for peace (or even just to save lives). The tragedy here is that the only thing standing between the awful situation of “occupation” and the vastly more horrible situation of Jihadi civil war (à la Syria), is Israel’s continued control of the the West Bank. Painful sacrifices for peace is one thing, painful sacrifices that empower the worst kind of war, is quite another.
What they share and engender is an optimistic feeling of ultimate victory and security. We are assured that the Jews’ political failure and physical catastrophe is as finished as the Galut (Exile). But in the actual psyche of the religious Zionist, the persistently suppressed horror of that past repeating itself propels us further – into a delusional messianism that needs to be coupled to a secular rightwing ideology promising salvation by standing ‘strong’ and ‘proud’, that is confirmed by our increasing isolation.
Of course, we have left-wing variants of this misplaced messianic hope and confidence, expressed, for example, in J-Street and everything to its left (Olive Tree Initiative, Jewish Voice for Peace, etc.), who think that the genocidal threat against Jews is over, and all we have to do to appease the Arab/Muslim hatred of Jews is to give back the “territories” and then we’ll have Peace. This vision of a post-modern world in which we’ve all left behind the madness and superstition of the pre-modern world propels us further – into a delusional messianism that needs to be coupled with a secular left-wing ideology promising salvation by being ‘generous’ and ‘peace-loving’ and ‘accommodating’. You know, “tikkun olam” in support of BDS.
This messianisms must be confronted, and in the language of Jewish thought from whence it emerged. If one reverts to a rigorous halakhic realism – one that says that we will know the Messiah when he arrives and not before – then how do we approach our current situation? The Torah recommends “Your Elders will tell thee”. Luckily we have had three tough, smart old guys as our reference points. Neither political liberals nor lovers of the Palestinians. Hardly. But their combined message is clear – we need, we must get out of our Palestinian embrace.
The greatest Talmudic theologian of modernity was my master, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Both Kantian and existential, he elucidated absolute legal concepts and the aloneness of the covenantal model. But he did not allow halakhic absolutism or mystic tilting at windmills to cloud the truth of a situation.
The real problem is: what is the “truth of the situation”?
Already back in 1967, the Rav was clear that while sanctity of place such as the Temple Mount have great meaning in Jewish law, they are nothing compared to the safety of the Jewish people. The meaning of the Six Day War was the preservation of Jewish lives and the integrity of the State, all else was meaningless: “But I don’t need to rule whether we should give the West Bank back to the Arabs; we rabbis should not be involved in decisions regarding the safety and security of the population. These are not merely halakhic rulings, they are a matter of pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) for the entire population. And if the government were to rule that the safety of the population requires that specific territories be returned, whether I issue a halakhic ruling or not, their decision is the deciding factor….”
I agree. And no matter how painful, if giving back the Temple Mount could really bring peace, I could get behind that, however reluctantly, however much such a move would represent a colossal injustice to the Jewish people who are the only ones to administer the place fairly, with respect for other religions.
Self-referential religious pronouncements are “silly statements” alone.
One might argue that this whole piece is self-referential. There’s no grappling here with the nature of the enemy in question. (Or should we not even use the word enemy for a leadership that wants to wipe us out?)
Soloveitchik maintained: “These decisions require a military perspective which one must research assiduously. The border that must be established should be based upon that which will provide more security.” In brief, the religious law is determined by security issues alone, and that decision must be made by the experts.
But can we give back the land? The greatness of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s public position is that it was delivered in public forums designed for policy and Halakha Pesuka (decided law). Yosef had an uncompromisingly clear attachment to the sanctity of the Land of Israel, meaning that both that a Jew (merely by living in the land) can be seen as an observer of the commandments, and that, conversely, it is forbidden to give up the land to non-Jews including monotheists such as Muslims.
Nonetheless, the attachment of the Jew to the land and the prohibition for selling it to non-Jews are overridden by the same imperative of pikuach nefesh – “if the military chief of staff with expert statesmen establish that there is an issue of pikuach nefesh, if we do not return the territories, we rely upon them and permit the return. And just as when there is a concern of danger regarding a sick person whether he should fast on Yom Kippur or not… that even 100 doctors say he can fast, while the Tur [1270-1340] says he must eat, we feed him, for in life or death cases we are lenient… one must therefore return the territories out of concern for the danger of war.” In this concern for pikuach nefesh the views of the greatest Ashkenazi and Sephardi interpreters of Jewish law in recent history, both Rav Soloveitchik and R. Ovadia Yosef concur completely.
And so we also turn to the experts. For that we can’t do better than Ariel Sharon. Arik discovered that despite his high evaluation and ready use of Jewish power, Israel cannot survive controlling the Palestinians. Seeing in Alistair Horne’s The Savage War For Peace, a book he kept on his bedside table, that just as France understood itself inextricably identified with Algeria, but De Gaulle needed to sever that suicidal link, so too Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians and consequently much of the land they occupy, for what we halakhically call pikuach nefesh.
It is somewhat bizarre to invoke that book, which is about the Algerian War for Independence, in the context of Israel. The French could cut and run (which they did), but they left Algeria to melt down into one of the most horrendous civil wars, in which civilians were the target of Jihadis intent on “destroying the world to save it.” It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate model for Israel to follow than the French case, especially when your new “neighbor” is right next door, and if anything, thanks to the Algerians’ pioneering techniques in Jihadi violence (including beheading videos), the slope from independence to Jihad against everyone (including “fellow” Muslims) is so well traveled it has ruts. Indeed, some might say that today, the Algerians have brought their war of revenge and domination into France.
As Rav Solovetchik put it so modestly, it’s not up to rabbis to make the call on what will lead to pikuach nefesh in politico-military matters. Perhaps if our rabbis spent a little less time navel gazing about the dangers of “rightwing messianism” among Jews and a little more time on the insane, genocidal hatreds of Islamic messianism, they wouldn’t be such easy prey to the delusion that “separating from the Palestinians and much of the land they occupy” would be a move towards peace.
The tragic thing for liberals is that as long as Palestinian (and Arab and Muslim) political culture is committed to hard zero-sum solutions (exterminate or be exterminated), as long as the incitement to genocidal hatred runs unopposed among them (they tend only to denounce these matters in English to us), we don’t have the good options we’d like, even the painful good ones of getting out of the Palestinians’ way. We’re in their way by our very existence, which shames them. We are infidels who should be dhimmi in Dar al Islam, and liberal/progressive fantasies aside, until there’s a fundamental change in their approach, we have no good options.
To quote Rabbi Landes, “If one reverts to a rigorous halakhic realism – one that says that we will know the solution when it arrives and not before (Peace When) – then how do we approach our current situation?
These old guys, call out to us from their graves – “Wait for the true Messiah, but in the meantime – get out while you can, or you will inevitably join us here.”
What on earth makes you think we can get out? What evidence do you have (even remotely allusive evidence) that such a withdrawal will not lead to increased aggression on their part? Even if there were no settlements, getting out at this juncture is not an option.
If you want to contribute to peace, start pressuring your progressive friends to actually criticize Palestinian extremism to the Palestinians, and work to create a genuine civil society there, instead of affirming their grotesque sense of victimization (Naqba = Holocaust), and their insane genocidal hatreds. Of course, that might take some time. A lot of time.