Benjamin Netanyahu, very belatedly, has decided to confront the settlers on a limited scale, and their reaction has been violent. At some point an open conflict with the national-religious movement will be inevitable, because Israel will end the occupation either on its own initiative or through growing international pressure. For many years Israeli decision-makers have been worried about how this conflict will be played out.
To predict the course of this confrontation we should look at the extremes of the national-religious movement in a wider historical perspective. Active Messianism is, an incarnation of the much wider historical phenomenon of Millenarian movements in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These were fuelled by the belief that the end of time was near, that the messianic period was close, and needed actively to be brought about. This was one of the theological foundations of the crusades; it plays an important role in Shiite theology, and it has of course played itself out in Judaism a number of times, most famously in the messianic frenzy around Shabbetai Zvi in the seventeenth century.
The rise of Israel’s modern national-religious movement in the last decades is also not unique. As historian of religion Karen Armstrong has shown, Jewish political Messianism is part of a wider phenomenon: Since the 1970s there has been a parallel rise of fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Along with political scientist Benjamin Barber, Armstrong has argued that this rise in apocalyptic religiosity is a reaction to the growing power of global media that threaten all religious traditions. The result is radicalization and an attempt to shield itself off from the rest of the world.
What happens to Millenarian movements? Their prophecies are at some point falsified by history: the second coming of Christ does not occur when predicted; no Mahdi re-establishes the Caliphate. The national-religious movement will have to face the failure of its prophecy that the founding of the State of Israel and the conquest of the West Bank is the onset of the Messianic period. It will have to realize that Israel is part of an international system that has standards of legitimacy that can and must not be disregarded.
The problem is that national-religious Messianism will not go quietly. Most of my conversations with national-religious rabbis give little ground for solace: they are deeply convinced of the utter truth of their vision, and completely devoid of any understanding of international relations; they hope that Israel will ultimately become a theocracy. In this, they are no different from all their millenarian predecessors and equivalents, Jewish or non-Jewish.
Like its Christian and Islamic counterparts, the extreme of Political Messianism has an apocalyptic tinge. In some of its versions, it shares the belief of Evangelical sects in the U.S. that the fate of the Middle East will be sealed in the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog. Hence, neither Israel’s political isolation nor the threat on Israeli democracy matter to the radicals in this movement. The opposite is true: like all extremist sects, it reacts to looming danger by intensifying its beliefs.
The question is, what price will Israel have to pay until its citizens realize that four decades of messianic politics are threatening to destroy the down-to-earth, realistic vision of being free people in our own country? Messianic politics has already done immense damage to Israel, and its impact is now reaching a climax: Even mainstream politicians from the Likud and Kadima often join anti-democratic legislation, and a wave of ugly racism is sweeping the country.
Worse - ever more Israelis are infected by the symptoms of Messianic thinking: “We are right, and the whole world is wrong; hence we must no longer listen to anybody.” Messianic politics has been instrumental in driving Israel into unprecedented isolation. Unfortunately, many Israelis as yet prefer disregarding the reality that international pressure will soon exact a heavy price that we all want to prevent.
Whether through its own initiative or as a result of international pressure, Israel’s sane majority that wants peace and democracy rather than war and theocracy will wake up and break the destructive stranglehold of messianic politics. The occupation will end and the radical version of national-religious Zionism will take the course of all Messianic movements: it will transform itself into a de-politicized variation of Judaism for whom the Messiah becomes an abstract ideal and not a concrete, political goal – as it was throughout most of Jewish history.
There are examples for such developments in contemporary national-religious circles, as in the thinking of Yuval Sherlo and David Stav, but they are, at this point, a minority. The question is whether these moderating forces in national-religious Zionism will gain in strength in time to avoid the violent confrontation we all want to prevent.