Playing Politics With God in the Holy Land

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The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, November 20, 2014.Credit: AP

Much of the tension now gripping Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East these days seems increasingly colored by religious belief. More to the point, it is built on the generally unspoken but sometimes expressed conviction by Jews, Christians and Muslims who guide themselves by religion that God is sending them messages that they are duty-bound to follow. To be sure, since God is silent, these messages must be deciphered through events in the world that resonate with cosmic significance – nowhere more than Jerusalem, holy to all Abrahamic faiths.

Since, to believers, God’s messages are not open to compromise or negotiation, we are tempted to assume there’s no possibility of compromise or negotiation on the believers’ part as well. Hence the truism that only unbelievers are amenable to realpolitik and compromise, whereas the faithful can never listen to reason: For them, God’s will must always be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Messages from God are not new when it comes to the Holy Land in general and Jerusalem in particular. In the aftermath of the 1967 and later the 1973 war (and for some in retrospect the 1947-8 one), many religious Jews and Christians saw the “miraculous” victories of the few against the many, and the conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem, as a sign that God wanted his people to take possession of what he gave to them; in 1973 it was to show them that it all could be taken away and would be unless they settled it and made it their own. To many this was a sign that settlement led to redemption.

Many evangelical Christians read that same message, seeing the Jews as the canaries in the mine, their victory over those whom many Evangelicals saw as the anti-Christ, as a message from God that he was preparing the world for the Second Coming by first returning his people to the place where they had once scorned Jesus, but to which the Redeemer would return and give them a chance to get things right and greet the thousand-year reign of Christ.

Islamists likewise saw in these events a message from Allah. They concluded that their ignominious defeats were signs that God was dissatisfied with their secularity, their hyper-nationalism, and their desire to emulate the culture of the Crusaders and the Jews. If only they would be better Muslims, abandoning their Westoxications and false dreams, they could and would once again gain the upper hand and throw the infidels out of Dar al Islam (the House of Islam). The putative victories of Islamists – whether Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Islamic Republic of Iran – over Israel and the West (“victory” being redefined as an unwillingness to be bowed or cower in fear) were proof that when they were better Muslims, they could not be beaten and would ultimately be conquerors.
Messages from God still animate Jews who hear the call from God to pray on the Temple Mount, lest their abandonment of this holy sanctuary leads to their losing it to unbelievers. They are urged on by evangelical Christians who have funded such organizations as the Temple Institute which raised over $100,000 in sixty days for modern architectural plans for the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem and build vessels to be used in it. And they no less stir Muslims who see in these plans and desires an assault on God’s wish that they alone remain in control of this contested space.

But these beliefs are not really generated purely by religion. They are driven rather by a political ideology that uses a selective interpretation of God’s will to support these dogmas.

A religious person could just as easily draw alternative messages from God or Allah. For example, a long-held Jewish religious belief, reiterated most recently by the respected Novominsker Rebbe at the Agudah Convention and Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi insists that Jews in their present ritual state are prohibited to set foot on the Temple Mount. That they nevertheless have increasingly done so could be easily interpreted as an affront to the Almighty. Seen thus, the religious believer could point to the tragic attacks and murders of Israelis, including most recently religious Jews at prayer, perpetrated by Muslims enraged by what they see as an assault on their sacred space, as a message from God that He rejects the return to the Temple Mount as a place of worship by Jews. After all, is there not a famous midrash (Talmudic source) that the Third Temple will be built by God himself and will descend out fire from heaven?

Likewise one might ask Islamists why the high number of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza war and before that of Lebanese in the war against Hezbollah, or the ignominious losses suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are not perceived as a message from Allah that time has come to lay down swords?
To the Evangelicals, one might ask whether the waning attachments of world Jewry to Israel and the unlikelihood of its wholesale return to Israel should not seen as a sign that the Second Coming may not be quite at hand as some of their preachers predict.

Religious beliefs need not be an obstacle to peace. If one understands that God’s will is hard to fathom, and to treat with skepticism those who claim unmediated, univocal messages from God, but that here on earth it is individuals who must act on their own and trust that if they make peace, God will indeed shine his grace on them.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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