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Milton Viorst

Fellowship Title:

The Masada Complex

Milton Viorst
April 2, 2011

Fellowship Year

(JERUSALEM) — Readers have been exposed to a great many words lately about the Islamic resurgence, some of them coming from this very typewriter. A rebirth of Koranic zeal helps explain to Westerners the recurring episodes of what looks to us like bizarre behavior in the Moslern world. Now I think it is time to turn our attention to its counterpart, the Judaic resurgence. For there is a revitalized religious urge discernible in Israel, and it has become an increasingly significant factor in determing whether there will be war or peace in the Middle East.

Photo by Manuel Bidermanus/Photo Trends

In a sense, Israel is itself the product of a Judaic resurgence. Religion is the one element that Jews around the world possessed in common during the 2000 years or so of their diaspora, and a basic tenet of Judaism during these millenia was the ultimate return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Nonetheless, the ideology which became the foundation of the new state was not religious but secular. Zionism’s roots lay in the surge of nationalism — largely anti-religious in character — that engulfed Europe in the 19th century. This nationalism tended not only to exclude the Jews from the communities in which they lived, but to imbue in them a nationalistic spirit of their own. As Zionism spread, it was influenced heavily by the socialist doctrines that were popular with Europe’s working classes, and this influence has remained strong until today. It is perhaps paradoxical, then, that the force which one would expect to find most naturally as a component of Zionism — the Jewish religion — was largely missing when Israel was founded. At the time, no one gave much thought to establishing Israel as a theocratic state.

Let me digress a moment for definition. It is true that Israel identifies itself as the “Jewish state”, just as Egypt, along with many of its neighbors, identifies itself as an “Islamic state”. But Islam makes no distinction between government and religion. Though some rabbis might argue the point, Jews as a whole interpret Judaism as endorsing the separation of church and state. As I said earlier, religion is the Jews’ one common possession, and yet Jews have forever debated whether they are a religious group, or whether their real identity is as a racial or national group. Many Israelis openly proclaim themselves atheists, without for a moment renouncing their identity as Jews. Such a dichotomy would be impossible for a Moslem. Because they have never reached agreement on what they are, Jews have tolerated an amazing amount of ideological diversity among themselves. Thus Israel can be a “Jewish state” — i.e. a state for Jewish people — without Judaism being sanctified as the state religion.

In saying this, I am not forgetting that religion is a major force in Israeli politics. Religious Jews, of varying shades of orthodoxy, represent a significant proportion of Israel’s population. Some are so orthodox that they reject the state itself, on the grounds the Bible tells them that only the Messiah can re-create Israel. These Jews do not participate in politics, or serve in the army, though they are aggressive in protecting their political interests by demonstrations and other forms of direct action. Other religious Jews, reading God’s commandments differently, are less fastidious about the Messiah’s prerogatives and support political parties for the purpose of promoting religious orthodoxy as the state ideology.

In current American jargon, Israel’s religious parties would be called “single-issue” parties. Though only fifteen percent of the voters cast ballots for them in national elections, by one of the curiosities of Israeli politics their seats in parliament have invariably represented a swing group between the coalitions of right and left. To form and maintain governments, the two sides have traditionally outdone each other in offering them rewards in return for support. Thus these parties have wielded disproportionate power throughout Israel’s history, and have given the country a more orthodox institutional structure (most noticeable in the legal system) than their voting constituency would appear to justify.

But the Judaic resurgence is not really a phenomenon of religious orthodoxy. As Jews use the term, orthodoxy refers to religious dogmas and practices which, for the most part, originated in Europe in the Middle Ages. The most quintessential of the orthodox Jews are the bearded and somberly clad Hasids, whose principal preoccupation is Talmudic study, and who are concentrated in certain quarters in Jerusalem which, no doubt, look much like the Polish ghettos of the 17th century. Though the Judaic resurgence has found allies in the religious parties, furthermore, it has not appreciably strengthened their position within the political system. In fact, the Judaic resurgence bears a greater resemblance to its Islamic counterpart than it does to orthodox Judaism. It prefers to influence the political system by outside intimidation, rather than inside maneuvers. More important, its religious zealotry is directed not to the attainment of new levels of spirituality but to a political end, the spread of the Jews’ dominion to enhance the glory of God.

I suspect there may be no coincidence in the resemblance between the Judaic and the Islamic resurgence. I wrote in an earlier APF Reporter of my disagreement with those who held that the Islamic wave is the product of a new self-confidence in the Moslem world. On the contrary, I argued, it is the harvest of thirty years of freedom from colonial domination, which have produced little but “social frustration, inner doubt and profound feelings of inadequacy”. One should note, I think, that the Judaic resurgence does not date back to the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli forces swept buoyantly across the territory of Israel’s enemies, destroying armies and seizing land. Rather, its beginnings were noticed after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel, though ultimately triumphant, was shaken to its roots, not merely by the unexpected military powers of Egypt but by its own complacency and unpreparedness, by the discord and ineptitude of its leadership, by its own moral flabbiness.

If there is a prototype of the adherent to the Judaic resurgence, I would say it is a young man or woman who has attended a university, has been trained in a profession, is upwardly mobile – and remains a trifle insecure. The ranks of Gush Emunim, the organizational spearhead of the movement, seem to me to be filled with people who meet this description. lronically, perhaps, so are the ranks of Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood, although its program is much less precise. Israel’s Gush Emunim people are looking for roots for their lives in the hills of the West Bank. “The Bible says we Jews are a mountain people,” a Gush Emunim settler told me. “This is where we belong, not down by the sea in Tel-Aviv.” At another settlement, a young mother whose husband worked as a teacher in Jerusalem conceded to me that she did not enjoy the bleak, often frightening life of the West Bank, but she said it gave her a sense of purpose such as she never experienced before.

I confess I was reminded in talking to Gush Emunim people of members I have met of the religious cults which have abounded in America in recent wars. I found them open, friendly and totally convinced of their own righteousness. I have wondered whether it is the wave that has swept through the Middle East that is also producing cultists, fundamentalist Christians and other forms of zealots throughout the West. The Gush Emunim people all talked to me of a search for roots, for belonging, for a purpose to life, which they have found in the fervor of the Judaic resurgence.

Other characteristics which the Judaic resurgence holds in common with its Islamic counterpart are an extreme intolerance of disagreement, and a penchant for violence. I suppose the two go hand-in-hand, at least in societies like those in the Middle East, that are accustomed to bloodshed as the standard concomitant of political struggle. I learned in Egypt recently that the Moslem Brotherhood has added to its program of breaking up left-wing political meetings and rock concerts the burning of Christian churches. In Israel, where information is more easily disseminated, it is public information that Jewish fanatics on the West Bank have shot at Arab demonstrators, have beaten up Arabs at random and have even defaced Arab places of worship. It is a tribute to the power of both these resurgent movements that they have managed to perpetrate such acts, if not with impunity, then without the state’s exacting serious penalties for them.

Even more alarming, to me, is the power the Judaic resurgence has shown to deter the state, through the threat of collective violence, from pursuing its legitimate political goals. Last year a band of 300 settlers girdled themselves in barbed wire, armed themselves with pipes and stones and, by threatening to die in battle with the Israeli army, exacted a battery of concessions from the government in return for surrendering a patch of farmland in the Sinai which had been promised to Egypt as part of the peace treaty. In agreeing to give up the land in the Sinai, Gush Emunim warned that its settlers would not consent to relinquishing their settlements on the West Bank under any circumstances, not for peace or anything else.

Since that time, there have been several confrontations between the government and West Bank settlers, and in each case the settlers have won. At Elon Moreh, most notably, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of land which the settlers had illegally seized from its Arab owners, but the government has been more willing to be seen by the world as impotent than challenge the settlers’ wrath. The government has offered to settle the matter with money, but Gush Emunim steadfastly proclaims the principle that its right to occupy land that is Biblically Jewish supercedes current Israeli law. It is openly debated now whether Gush Emunim, by its strong-arm strategy, is running Israel. Accused of blackmail, leading figures of the Judaic resurgence show no remorse. They declare quite openly that they prefer civil war between the Jews to any peace treaty that would return the West Bank to the Arabs.

Neil Libbert/Photo Trends
Neil Libbert/Photo Trends

When religion is put to the service of aggressive nationalism, as the Judaic resurgence is doing in Israel today, the result can be very unpleasant. A few weeks ago, many religious Jews protested because the kidney of a dead Israeli — a Yeshiva student killed by an Arab sniper — was transplanted to an Arab girl who wore a bracelet of the PLO. The protest was too much even for Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who has strongly supported Gush Emunim and has declared the Torah forbids the return of any West Bank land. Goren decreed that the transplant was a good deed, and that Jews must not discriminate in the saving of a life. But the fact that many Israelis challenged him seemed an index of the xenophobia, wrapped in religion and dignified by God’s name, that is sweeping the country.

This xenophobia, the mirror image of Israeli self-righteousness, has made a growing segment of the country impervious to any criticisms from abroad. I do not want to exaggerate that. Israel remains an open society, where every opinion is heard, where arguments rage constantly and tumultuously. Still, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, as Jefferson put it, seems to be a diminishing phenomenon here. Always on the alert for anti-Semitism, Jews now see it increasingly — sometimes quite accurately, other times rather grotesquely — in the rising criticism of Israel. Each new UN resolution is taken as further proof that the universe is ganging up. Rather than explore the reasons for so much disapproval, much of Israel finds spiritual comfort in a deified nationalism, and a nationale for closing ranks against the hostile forces of the non-Jewish world.

I have long been disturbed by Israel’s fascination with Masada, an archeological ruin atop a butte on the shore of the Dead Sea, where some 1900 years ago a thousand zealots committed suicide rather than submit to Roman rule. More recently the Israeli government has excavated a site called Gamla on the Golan Heights, where, during the same struggle, some 5,000 Jews leaped to their deaths in preference to defeat by Rome. In its veneration for Masada, and latterly for Gamla, Israel seems to extol not merely the heroism in its history, which every nation admires, but an ideal of collective, patriotic suicide.

Many Israelis these days speak, with some mixture of respect and dismay, of the nation’s “Masada complex”. I think they use the term to mean a fight-to-the-death courage as the enemy closes in around them. But there is a hint in the term that Israel, touched by some hysteria, is setting events on a course that makes a Masada-like outcome nearly inevitable. No doubt there is something pure, heroic, even incorruptible about Masada, and about the current Judaic resurgence. But as long as this spirit governs Israel it is difficult to see how there can be peace. Gaining the West Bank may be a Biblical imperative but Masada, too, is a part of Jewish history, and I am not alone in wondering whether there is not some deep compulsion in the Jewish soul to re-live them both again.

©1979 Milton Viorst

Milton Viorst ends his fellowship study on Zionist and Islamic Ideas in the Mideast Crisis with this issue.