Monday, April 26, 2010

"Israel’s Holy War" by Martin E. Marty

From Sightings, a weekly newsletterd from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School:

Israel’s Holy War
-- Martin E. Marty

In eleven years of weekly Sightings I can’t find that I ever commented on “public religion” in Israel. The U. S. is usually in our sights, and we are aware of participation in or leadership of holy wars by Hindu militants, Muslim extremists, Buddhist monks, and Christian forces around the world. Israel, a close ally and, religiously, a kin, must have flown under the radar here, because it is on page one or in prime time almost daily, and religious themes – for example, Gush Emunim in support of illegal settlements – are prominent.

One can begin catching up on holy war in Israel in Eyal Press’s notice of four books on the subject in the April 29th New York Review of Books. The book titles are revealing: Israel and Its Army: From Cohesion to Confusion; Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2000; Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlement; and Israel’s Materialist Militarism. Press supplements these with his own reporting. The authors are consistent in noting that the IDF, Israel Defense Forces, is infused and in some outfits virtually taken over by non-secular officers and enlistees who make no secret of their intent to replace “Just War” with “Holy War.”

In language that recalls the religious rhetoric of Lieutenant General William Botkin, who regularly framed contemporary American military ventures as Christian holy wars, or Air Force Academy leadership that wanted to Christianize our warrior efforts, militants in IDF leadership echo an invited rabbi who “cast the Gaza war as a battle between bnei ha-or – the children of light – and bnei ha-hasheh – the children of darkness: “In Hebrew literature, this is an eschatological war, a messianic war.” The religious nationalism of the Orthodox after the Six-Day War in 1967 has been replaced by hard-line religious conscripts, according to Press.

Senior military officers tell the International Crisis Group that they will not help evict illegal settlers from “Jewish land” that “is promised to us by the Bible, by God,” as one of them said. “This ideology is the backbone of the army, and so I will not obey such an order.” Some observers – including Stuart Cohen, author of Israel and its Army, mentioned above – believe that the threat of insubordination is overblown, and that cooler heads in the military and government find strategic ways to “cool it” when the scene is dominated by hot-heads. Higher officers get lessons on how to handle outbursters who can quote Scripture against the more political and disciplined religious leadership.

No one, however, foresees a future in which religious, in this case messianic, influence will not be growing; such forces make any diplomatic moves toward peace vulnerable. The author tells how after November 25th and the announcement of a ten-month freeze on settlements, some settlers torched and desecrated a mosque, “part of a new strategy to exact a heavy ‘price tag’” for any measure they deem detrimental. Followers of Rabbi Kook and other Gush Emunim leaders who called for disobedience to uncongenial orders grow in number and power.

Progressively replaced by holy warriors, the “just-warriors” lose influence. It is hard to see how diplomatic and conciliatory calls and practices stand a chance in this “take no prisoners,” make-no-compromises, setting. We are used to hearing messianic, Raptural rhetoric by American Protestant Zionist allies of the Israeli militants, but their power has been limited by their distance from the scene. The people being noticed by Eyal Press are up close, so the risks are higher, the scene dangerous.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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