Religion, Politics, and War

January 18, 2015

5 min read

Salvation? Curse? Or a bit of both, as well as being something that pervades and is impossible to avoid?

There are no end of the lessons to derive from Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher market.

Yet it cannot be entirely clear what they are.

Mystery is never far from this subject.

Being religious is vague in the extreme. Individuals may appear indifferent, but an event or expression may arouse dormant feelings that become strong. The most assertively atheistic sound as committed as the devout, perhaps in another direction, or to an idea that they hold as tightly as others hold God.

Which God is another issue, not solved by the monotheisms. There are Jews for whom God is abstract and distant, yet cleave to what their rabbi preaches about law, custom, and the political party that must be supported. Christians may place Jesus or Mary as high or higher than God the Father. Muslims elevate Muhammad to something close to Allah, or more important, insofar as the Prophet explained what Allah taught, with deadly quarrels about the appropriate line of descent from the Prophet.

Religion has been at the core of major bloodlettings since the Cold War gave way to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most of the blood has come from wars between Muslims. There are fewer casualties among the western forces, and even fewer from the occasional attacks against Jews and other non-Muslim civilians.

The differences remind us of Stalin’s comment that one death is a tragedy while a million is a statistic. The Jews and others killed in Paris in the recent past are, to us, tragedies. Four million people marched in response to 20 killed at Charlie Hebdo, the Kosher market, and among the police.

The millions who have been died or turned into refugees in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are statistics easily ignored, until a boatload of refugees arrives in Europe or sinks on the way. The non-Muslim infidels killed in the Middle East and Africa are not of our color or culture, and get little more than mention in the media.

In Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands, all with substantial Muslim populations, we see the rise of nationalist parties opposed to Islam and/or immigration. Government efforts to prevent incitement, both by Muslims and anti-Muslims. A toughening of enforcement against Muslim extremists, reflecting intelligence about who is preparing to act. Government efforts to deal with home grown Muslim extremists who seek to fight for their cause in the Middle East and then return home to implement what they have learned.

No matter how commentators try to dress it up by saying that it isn’t about Islam, but a response to the poverty of immigrant communities or a blowback against the violence, hypocrisy, and greed of colonialism (according to an American Jewish intellectual writing in al Jezeera), the bloodshed comes almost entirely from individuals cursing others in Arabic and claiming the highest quality of Islam.

An aggressive mode of Judaism had not been an issue since the second century when the Romans squashed Bar Kochba. Israel’s creation with a Jewish majority was less a matter of religion than nationalism. The Jews who built the country were overwhelmingly secular and at least a bit anti-religious. Moreover, they had all they could do to create the rudiments of a country with the remnants from the Holocaust and refugees from Arab countries. The 1967 war began a change, although the initial construction in an expanded Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank were the products of overtly secular governments. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1980s that religious settlers became a political force, taking over the National Religious Party, which had been a primarily concerned with the application of religious law throughout Israel. With the transformation of the National Religious Party to Jewish Home the power was more clearly in the hands of Orthodox Jews concerned with territory, and wanting to absorb into Israel or settle more of the West Bank.

It’s a great stretch to consider the Judaism of the settlers aggressive in comparison to that of the Muslims, or what had been that of Christians. The settlers want to live where they choose, with some wanting to expand the reach of the Israeli state in order to defend themselves. Killing heretics or infidels is not on the agenda of any Jew with a following.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has put himself on the line between defending Jews, inviting those of the Diaspora to find greater safety in Israel, and limiting those wanting major expansions of settlements.

Jewish Home is not entirely a settlers’ party. Naftali Bennett is trying to lead people with roots on both the religious and territorial sides of political Judaism, as well as a secular territorial element. The results of the party primary look like a salad, with a bit of each, but not quite fitting the metaphor of a soup where the components meld themselves into a composite. Bennett is at the top, and–if projections bear out–may be able to dictate which colleagues get seats in a coalition headed by Benyamin Netanyahu, but his campsite will not be a happy one. His MKs will sing and smile only on camera.

Labor (i.e., Zionist Camp), Lapid’s There is a Future, and Meretz are close to non-religious or even anti-religious. Flags being waved at a Labor celebration of the victors in the primary election bore some resemblance to the flags of Israel, but instead of the Star of David in the center they had עבודה (Labor).

Those who might be considered the most traditional of the religious Jews, i.e., the ultra-Orthodox, are the opposite of aggressive. They stand against expansion via easy conversion, and have not staked out a clear position on territorial issues. They shun the IDF and are troubled by the issue of recognizing the State of Israel, except as a source of money for their schools and welfare payments. It is common for the ultra-Orthodox to ignore the national holidays of Independence Day, and Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust and Fallen Soldiers. Many of the ultra-Orthodox live emotionally in the shtetls or ghettos of their grandfathers.

Some may see the Israel-Arab conflict as a war of religion, but it is closer to a war of competing nationalisms. About half of Israel’s Jews are not religious, and there has never been a Prime Minister or commanding general of the IDF who fit the conception of “religious.”

Christianity had a long period of bloody conflict over doctrine and sectarian loyalties that extended well into the 17th century. Or the 19th if one counts assaults against the first generation of Mormons in the US; or the 20th if one counts the murder of abortionists. But that recent stuff is small change compared to what comes from the Muslims.

Muslims have been in the headlines since the Taliban took over much of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, then Arab Spring morphed into civil wars. 9-11 was the iconic Islamic attack against the West, but it was not the first against the World Trade Center, or against other Western capitals.

With all of the tragedies and statistics, we must be aware that Muslims are the primary victims as well as the perpetrators of the bloodshed, and that many, most, or almost all (who really knows?) Muslims living in western countries wish the frenzy would disappear. Just as individual Muslims protected Jews from the 1929 Hebron massacre, so a Muslim employee of the Kosher market led Jews to refuge in the store’s refrigerator.

What is most frightening is the capacity of the craziest to recruit thousands of young people from western countries, including a few who convert from family backgrounds as Christians or Jews. Are these the equivalents of secular kids who rebelled against parents by smoking grass, going to Woodstock, and joining the most radical of the Black cadres? Or is it all of that with a level of fury that we’ve seen before linking with a frenzied faith in some version of the Almighty? Included among the barbarians are children taught to kill others and themselves, perhaps without a fully developed sense of death, men who expect to meet 70 willing virgins when they press the button on their belt, and women who see themselves cleaning a stain of misbehavior by self sacrifice.

God help those of us who doubt.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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