Whose Religion Is This, Anyway?

The American Jewish filmmaker told me he was doing a documentary on possible answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- one state or two -- and human-rights issues. When he showed up at my Jerusalem apartment on a recent afternoon to interview me, he was wearing a beret. His wife and producer wore a maxi skirt; a scarf covered her hair. Their attire showed they were Orthodox Jews. Hers, in particular, fit the stereotyped look of the Israeli religious right, of settlers and their supporters, including some Jews abroad. I was surprised. Maybe, I thought, I was the token leftist interviewee in a project by settlement backers aimed at showing that there is no exit from the conflict and that Israel must hold the West Bank forever.

I was also painfully aware of an irony: My own skullcap identifies me, correctly, as an Orthodox Jew. Countless times, my appearance has also caused people to assume, incorrectly, that I belong to the religious right. One look has been enough for them to assign me to the camp that regards Israel's establishment and its conquests in 1967 as part of a divine plan for final redemption and has made settlement and Israeli control of the West Bank into principles of faith. I'm weary of being prejudged and could feel the reflex was to prejudge my visitor. I gently asked him about the purpose of his project. His concern, he said, was to "see a just and equitable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Once the cameras were running, he asked if I thought the theological right was distorting Judaism. Yes, I said, realizing he'd come to record me saying what he felt himself. Afterward, I told him of my initial concern, and we laughed.

It was another reminder that being an Orthodox dove in Israel is a complicated business. The tension, I should stress, is not between my religious and political commitments. I have no doubt that the pursuit of peace is the most basic of Jewish obligations, that the first lessons of Judaism's sacred texts is that all human beings are created in the divine image and deserve freedom. The first religious figure who inspired me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the European-born American theologian who returned from marching at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. and declared, "Our legs were praying." That is, seeking social justice was not only a religious requirement, it was an act of worship. Heschel protested the war in Vietnam though it meant challenging the polices of the country that gave him refuge during the Holocaust. His kind of faith did not allow him to stay silent. I can’t know for sure what Heschel would be doing were he alive today, but I believe strongly that he would be working for peace in Israel.

The tension of being an Orthodox dove is partly sociological. Most Israeli Jews with whom I could pray don't share my political views. Most Israelis who share my politics do not understand why I enter a synagogue. More basically, the presumption of the society in which I live is that one cannot be an Orthodox critic of the occupation. That matching up of the political divide and the secular-religious one is a mistake. For a religious dove, however, there is an additional dimension to the argument about territories, settlements, and peace: The stakes are not only the future of one's country but also of one's religion.

One of the most accepted historical narratives in Israeli society is that since the conquest of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in 1967, the driving force for keeping the "Whole Land of Israel" has come from the country's religious minority, while opposition has come from secularists. That's part of the real story, but not all of it. The victory of '67 did create a wave of messianic excitement among those known as religious Zionists -- the segment of the Orthodox community that is integrated into general society, unlike the ultra-Orthodox. The victory was seen as part of a divine plan to bring final redemption.

Since the mid-1970s, the most vocal proponents of settlement in occupied territory have been Orthodox. Religious Zionists dominated the protests against the Oslo process and the Gaza withdrawal. The most shocking event in Israeli political history was the assassination of secular Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious extremist. Today the settlements deepest in the West Bank -- the ones most certain to be evacuated in any two-state solution -- are almost all small religious communities.

On the other hand, settlements wouldn't exist without the support of every Israeli government since 1967. Nor would the two-tier legal system of the West Bank, in which settlers enjoy the rights of Israeli citizens and Palestinians do not. Ariel Sharon, architect of settlement under successive Likud governments was not Orthodox. Nor were Likud prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, nor is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Going further back, the original decisions to settle Israelis in the West Bank after 1967 came under Labor governments, which followed the secular Zionist left's gradualist strategy from pre-independence days: settling land to establish a Jewish claim to it. In reality, the religious right has created a dangerous synthesis: It has adopted Labor's settlement ethos and the secular right's intransigence and transformed them into theological principles.

Part of what obscures the secular role is that the secular-Orthodox fissure dates back to the beginning of the Zionist movement and still runs deep among Israeli Jews. It shapes debate not only on social issues but on the meaning of Jewish identity, as an ethnic or a religious category. It's convenient to adopt a unified field theory of politics, to map all other divisions onto this one.

Besides that, the range of views among secular Israelis is easier to ignore because opinion appears one-sided among religious ones. "It is completely and unequivocally obvious that the majority of religious Zionists position themselves on the right," Bar-Ilan University political scientist Asher Cohen has written – though he stressed that many are "pragmatic hawks" rather than radical rightists.

And yet, there has always been a dovish religious minority. One of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the occupation was Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a scientist and theologian who began warning almost immediately after the 1967 conquest that ruling over the Palestinians would lead to the "corruption characteristic of every colonial regime" and eventually erode the ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews. The religious right's view of the Land of Israel and the state of Israel as inherently sacred was a form of idolatry, Leibowitz argued. Holiness, he said, could not be imputed to soil or to human institutions. Members of the dovish religious minority today include – just as one example – the leader of Breaking the Silence, the organization that recently published soldiers' testimony challenging the official version of last winter's war in Gaza.

Leibowitz, who died in 1994 at the age of 91, is remembered as a strident, raging man -- a rationalist philosopher with the impatient fury of a prophet. Going back to his early writing against the occupation, it seems clear that he feared not only the corruption of the state but also the corruption of Judaism.

Today it's clear that his fear was well-founded. In the public sphere in Israel, Judaism is identified with the worship of land, not with the pursuit of peace. For those of us in a half-visible minority of a minority, that's one more pressing reason to end the occupation.

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