An Excess of Zeal

The Jews have no interest, and no place, in a Huntington-style cultural war of Christianity against Islam, certainly not on the side of Christianity.

One wonders what Judah Maccabee would think about this "war of good against evil" being waged by America. Certainly, he would not feel sorry for bin Laden and the Taliban, and perhaps Iraq, and Hezbollah, and all the other ruthless terror organizations. These, he would gladly see destroyed. But what about ordinary religious Muslims, what about the scores of millions of devout believers worldwide, "fundamentalists" even, who oppose what they call the "Americanization" of their culture and society? How would the leader of the Hasmoneans relate to them? Would he see any parallels, however imprecise, between their struggle and his struggle against the imperialistic Hellenization of his time? After all, what was Hellenism trying to do if not introduce, albeit by force, a little modernity, a bit of progress into the fundamentalist lives of the inhabitants of Judea?

If Judah did see any resemblance, it would put a real damper on the gung-ho exhilaration felt by American Jews these days. Perhaps this mood is only natural. Their beloved country is fighting a brutal enemy who is also the declared enemy of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Their fighting spirit and patriotism know no bounds. Indeed, almost without noticing it, the hatred, initially focused on one man and one organization, has swelled into a great wave of self-righteous (and racist) enmity toward peoples and nations, a culture and a faith.

Many American Jews, out of love for America and also for Israel, are joining - again without noticing it - a growing jingoistic crowd of Americans who are spoiling for what is essentially a worldwide cultural war on Islam.

Quite possibly, these same Jews took part in the organized efforts of citizens who patroled neighborhood mosques and protected their worshipers after September 11. There is no contradiction here, because these Muslim worshipers are Americans. You can see them in the non-stop television commercials now being aired in the United States, alongside the Christian Americans, the Jewish Americans, the white Americans, the black Americans, the Chinese Americans and the countless others, representing every imaginable combination, who proudly and movingly declare, "I am an American."

But those who are not American, those who live in Asia or Africa and wear a galabia instead of jeans, and do not want to give up that galabia for jeans, are now suspected of conspiring to burn down jeans factories in the heart of America, not to mention the church next door and the synagogue down the block. These people are devout Muslims, which is to say, fundamentalists, which is another word for terrorists.

In Israel, too, there are people who have succumbed to the temptation to view themselves as participants in a kind of crusade led by the United States - although the word "crusade" is now avoided as politically incorrect - inspired by a Judeo-Christian culture trying to defend itself against the depredations of Islam. How chests expanded with pride this week at the sight of President Bush speaking of revenge and victory, the Israeli flag visible behind him.

But again, this is only natural, because a victory over bin Laden is also our victory, and American revenge tastes just as sweet to us. These feelings of satisfaction and solidarity aside, however, we - and American Jews even more so - must distinguish between a war on terrorism and a war of cultures, and we must keep rehearsing that distinction. The Jews have no interest, and no place, in a Huntington-style cultural war of Christianity against Islam, certainly not on the side of Christianity.

The violent neighbors' quarrel waged in these parts between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, is dictated by geography. In the end, geographical disputes usually have solutions. But the confrontation between Judaism and Christianity, shaped by history, and even more by theology, is, on a certain deep level, eternal. Perhaps today, after the centuries of blood and fire (with the Crusades marking a particular nadir in the annals of Jewish martyrdom and persecution), an era of tolerance has finally arrived in which the Judeo-Christian debate can be conducted in a dignified manner, without violence and without hate. That is what we mean by Western enlightenment.

Enlightenment, however, need not erase the horrors of the past, nor blur the differences between our interests for the future. While the United States, the Christian superpower in which the influence of Christian fundamentalists is steadily increasing, can afford to wage war with the peoples of Islam for years, or even generations, the Jewish state does not have that luxury.

The same geography that has pitted Israel and Palestine against each other in the bosom of the Arab world determines Israel's existential interest in avoiding a situation in which the Muslim world perceives the Jewish state as a religious enemy, as opposed to a political and territorial adversary. If that should happen, it is hard to foresee the conflict here ever ending peaceably.

The Israeli right, in its post-'67 messianic folly, has contributed perniciously to the growth of such thinking among the Palestinians and in some of the Arab countries. For American Jews to be swept up now in a headlong Western (read Christian) Kulturkampf against Islam - spuriously citing Jewish nationalism to enhance their zeal - will not only fail to strengthen Israel in the long run, but may weaken its chances of ever been accepted in this region and thriving here.