Opinion | Messianism Is Israel’s Most Powerful Force, Embraced by Atheists Too
By Assaf Harel
Published September 5, 2021
Seeing it simply as a religious West Bank phenomenon stifles debate. Differences among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews can be reduced, but first reality must be faced
Men dance in a gender-divided event in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square entitled “Waiting for the Messiah,” in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag
For more than 15 years I have been studying, as an anthropologist, Jewish settlements and messianism. As part of my research, I lived in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip during the 2005 disengagement. Later, I resided in Alon Shvut, a West Bank settlement. One of my main research conclusions is that we are all messianic. By “we” I mean all the Jews who live in the Israeli-Palestinian space, across both sides of the Green Line, in the Holy Land, religious and secular, right and left.
We are all messianic because we are actualizing a political unification that transformed the face of Judaism: between an ancient spiritual yearning for redemption and its place of desire and fulfillment. This unification differentiates between Jews and non-Jews.
To understand why we are all messianic, this essay begins with a short anthropological journey among Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The journey demonstrates how anthropological knowledge is created, how it emerges from the complexity of the human experience, from the blurring of boundaries between the personal and the scientific domains. This is the source of the anthropological power of explanation as well as its vulnerability.
In addition, this anthropological journey introduces the readers to a more easily recognizable messianism: of Jewish settlers. It shows that this messianism varies, for example, in relation to the Palestinians. The anthropological section provides a stable ground that allows a movement into closer yet less recognizable realms of messianism. This movement begins by focusing on the idea of hope, which opens a window into broader meanings of messianism.
The second and longer part of the essay highlights the less discernible sides of secular messianism. It begins with a quick characterization of messianism, and then directs attention to its winding journey since its encounter with Zionism and up to these days. As will be shown, the meanings of messianism have changed dramatically over the years.
At the end of this essay, I hope it will be easier for readers to see that Jewish messianism is not limited to West Bank settlers. This understanding is especially important now, when for the first time, a religious Jew, a religious-Zionist Jew, has become the Israeli prime minister.
A poster showing a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Jerusalem with the text 'Blessing and Success, Messiah.'Credit: Ido Kenan
The hope and ‘The Hope’
Monday October 4, 2010; 26 Tishri 5771. Close to 200 Jewish settlers arrived at the arid field near Yitzhar, one of the most hawkish West Bank settlements. They demonstrated against a decision by the Israeli government to seal off a synagogue at a West Bank outpost about 10 miles away.
Down the hill, on the other side of the road, a similar number of Palestinian protesters were gathering by a newly renovated and expanded mosque. The big bright mosque, with its towering minaret almost completed, stood tall at the outskirts of the Palestinian village Burin. It was the reason the settlers’ demonstration was organized by Yitzhar.
Up above, at the arid field, a large crane truck operated as an improvised stage, with chairs, tables and a podium placed on its back. The crane held a big sign that read, “A synagogue is destroyed – a mosque is renovated,” the verbs colored in blood red to emphasize an apparent atrocity – the inversion of the natural order of things.
Earlier that day, during the dark morning hours, a mosque was vandalized at the Palestinian town Beit Fajjar, a two-hour drive south. Carpets and Qurans were set on fire, but the blaze was put out before it engulfed the entire structure. Hebrew graffiti was sprayed on the walls: a Star of David along with “revenge,” “toilet” and other profanities.
What is the connection to the demonstration later that day far to the north? “A mosque is destroyed” was also sprayed on a wall, referring to the red rallying cry of the protest near Yitzhar: “A synagogue is destroyed – a mosque is renovated.” Someone internalized the message and decided to set things straight.
After the desecration of the mosque, the email list at Alon Shvut turned political for a little while. Alon Shvut is less than 3 miles from Beit Fajjar but appears to be a half a world away. Jews very rarely go there. There is too much hostility, which goes back almost 100 years.
Life in Alon Shvut is mostly serene, definitely more relaxed than at Yitzhar, except for eruptions of Palestinian violence once in a while. The rules of Alon Shvut’s email list make sure the virtual space remains that way too. No politics.
Then, a forwarded message appeared: “This morning a mosque was burned in Beit Fajjar ... we are organizing a protest ... we will express a clear voice of peace and good neighborliness ... against the desecration of God.”
A settler protest in solidarity with Palestinians is a rare event. Indeed, some Alon Shvut residents were quick to deny Jewish responsibility. As one settler declared in the email list, “the torching of the mosque is unrelated to us. Unrelated. Period. It is inconceivable that a Jew did it.” Ignoring the foul Hebrew graffiti, another settler wondered, “Do you know for sure that it was arson?” There were also settlers who voiced support for the protest. “We need to protest when we witness violence and injustice” was one of several similar statements.
Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz.Credit: Miki Kratsman
The exchange was short-lived. It was ended by the moderators. A day later, the email list was back to normal: Someone asked in English for a copy of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (sic), only to add, a couple of hours later, “Alon Shvut is a place of culture! I have gotten a copy of the book, thank you all.”
The Jewish protest against the mosque desecration was scheduled exactly a day after the protest at Yitzhar. I attended this protest too, which was set to take place by the main junction, walking distance from Alon Shvut. I arrived early. No one was there. I knew that a group of rabbis and settler peace activists were visiting Beit Fajjar in an act of religious solidarity. Figuring this Jewish delegation was still there, I decided to join them.
I drove to Beit Fajjar but quickly stopped after seeing several dozen young Palestinians gathered at the entrance to the village, some teenagers, some younger. They were setting an improvised roadblock, made mostly of large rocks and car tires. Noticing me from afar, a few signaled me to come nearer. With my kippa marking me as a settler, I was especially afraid and kept my distance, waiting to see what would happen when the rabbinical delegation attempted to exit the village.
In the meantime, curses were heaped on me, stones were thrown at me and tires were set ablaze, producing heavy plumes of black smoke. As I was about to run away, a small Israeli military unit arrived. They started firing tear gas canisters at the young Palestinians. I left.
Back at the main junction, journalists had already arrived along with several settlers. Soon after, the Jewish delegation returned from Beit Fajjar. Altogether, there were about two dozen settlers and less than a dozen Palestinians at the protest site. They held bilingual signs in Hebrew and Arabic: “Peace is the name of God,” “Land of Peace – settlers for peace in the land.” Palestinian and Israeli cars continued to pass by. Several drivers honked, but it could have been due to traffic rather than solidarity.
A bushy-bearded settler announced with a megaphone that the protest was about to begin, that they were just waiting for several hundred young Palestinians to join in from Beit Fajjar. It was a transgressive announcement because the prospect of several hundred Palestinians suddenly arriving from Beit Fajjar is a scary thought for many settlers. It was also wishful thinking by the bushy-bearded settler, unaffected by the violent clashes less than a mile away. I learned later that the delegation had left from a different road and did not know what was going on at the other entrance to the village.
The young Palestinians never arrived. After a few short speeches, the protest dispersed without a climax. From the excited and pathos-filled stories told by the settlers who visited Beit Fajjar, the climax had already happened earlier. They described the crowded streets of the Palestinian village, their bodies trembling with excitement and fear upon feeling surrounded by thousands of Palestinians. They talked about the disgust and sorrow they felt when seeing the harm done by fellow Jews to a sacred place of worship. Some spoke as if they had experienced a religious revelation. Hearing their almost romantic tales, I wished I could have joined them. Sadly enough, my wish would be granted a year later.
I returned to my small apartment in Alon Shvut, took off my kippa, snacked, smoked a couple of cigarettes, and eventually mustered the strength to type up field notes. There was too much to write about and I hadn’t yet written about the previous day’s demonstration near Yitzhar.
Men mark a decade since the death of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to many as the Lubavitcher Rebbe.Credit: Nir Keidar
The two protests seem insignificant in size when compared to the mass demonstrations five years earlier, in 2005, when Jewish settlers were fighting for the survival of their communities in the Gaza Strip. They lost. All of Gaza’s settlements were bulldozed to the ground by the Israeli state. This watershed event accelerated changes, leading to greater religious diversity among settlers.
And so, the two protests I observed were attended by Jewish settlers who share a belief in the sanctity of the land and see our times as heralding redemption, but also differ radically in their understandings of the steps one must take on the road toward redemption.
These were two small protests that seemed to go against all the odds, both reflecting a profound desire for a drastic change in the social order, especially in relation to the Palestinians. But these confrontations of the seemingly improbable are not signs of these Jewish settlers’ disconnection from reality. They are a testament to a deeply seated hope that provides settlers with the motivation and courage to confront what they see as the imperfections of this world. This willingness to confront the seemingly improbable emerges from their messianism, from their hopeful Jewish belief in the eventual spiritual perfection of humanity.
“Hatikva,” “The Hope,” is the title of the Israeli national anthem. It’s the national anthem of these Jewish settlers too, but it’s not exactly their hope. There is a slight problem with it. The Israeli national anthem speaks about a hope “not yet lost,” words that reflect a bit of insecurity about the future in a hymn that is, overall, imbued with sadness. Well, the anthem was written in the 19th century by an unhappy man who would die in the United States, alone, from chronic alcoholism. No, this isn’t exactly their hope. It’s too tentative, lacking the hopeful certainty provided by complete faith. “The Hope” is godless.
The penultimate song at the protest near Yitzhar, before “The Hope,” was “I Believe.” This hymn is based on one of the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” formulated by the great medieval Jewish sage, Maimonides: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come.” This principle of faith instructs Jews to let hope triumph over despair, to keep on believing in better days even when reality defies these expectations. Jewish messianism is therefore more than a belief in a messianic figure. It also entails life guided by a belief in the inevitable betterment of a divinely ordained world. It is about life lived under the light and shadow of ultimate hope.
Yet, ancient and deep, Jewish messianism has taken on many forms. Zionism, for example.
Messianism and Zionism
Jewish messianism entails a belief in redemption. However, because of its complex history, some scholars warn against attempts to define and limit its meanings. Therefore, I only offer a possible characterization. Messianism is more than a belief in a messianic figure. More broadly, it is an orientation toward redemption. This orientation is made of thoughts, feelings and actions. The relationship between messianism and redemption can accordingly be considered a relationship of means and end: Messianism is the human force that drives redemption as a personal, collective and universal fulfillment.
A demonstration in Jerusalem against Israel's disengagement from Gaza, in 2005.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Redemption is supposed to resolve moral contradictions, to bring about justice. Therefore, the preeminent Israeli scholar Eliezer Schweid suggests that all ideologies can be viewed as “intrinsically messianic” because they seek to rectify “all the perversities of the present” and realize what is understood as good and just. Similarly, the esteemed historian Jacob Talmon studied political forms of messianism such as communism and demonstrated how they entail a belief in a predetermined moral betterment of humanity. These insights, which view messianism as more than a religious phenomenon, are very important for understanding our reality here.
Throughout the exile, the Galut, Jews prayed each day facing Jerusalem, yearning for a messianic salvation that would include the ingathering of the exiles, the return of their independence in Eretz Yisrael and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, until the 19th century, Eretz Yisrael was experienced mostly as a spiritual place to yearn for rather than inhabit. It was Zionism that produced the greatest change in the messianic relation to the Promised Land.
Zionism was a diverse movement. Yet, eventually, the most dominant stream was the one that sought to create a national Jewish identity in the Holy Land, an identity based on ethnicity and culture rather than faith and religious laws. This identity was made possible, for example, through the transformation of Hebrew from a sacred language of prayer into a vernacular language of daily use. Following the spirit of the time, Zionism shifted the source of authority from God to human beings. Secularization.
Yet, in order to connect the national aspiration to its place of realization, Zionism relied on the messianic tie to the Promised Land. Put simply, Zionism turned Jewish messianism into a political tool that justifies a connection between the people and the land. The contradiction here is clear. In the words of the Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, it can be crudely summarized as “there is no God, but he promised us the land.”
Thus, Zionism depended on Jewish messianism but also rejected it. Zionist thinkers viewed messianism negatively as a passive and irrational yearning for divine intervention that was associated with exile. In contrast, Zionism was said to break away from these supposedly primitive shackles of tradition because it formed a rational political realization of this yearning. In this way, “redemption,” geula, became a popular term that denoted Zionist values such as pioneering and independence. In contrast, “messianism” remained a loaded and ambivalent term, rejected but also actualized as the redemption of land, geulat haaretz.
‘Here the Divine Presence shall dwell’
In 1926, Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of kabbala, wrote the most famous text on Zionism and messianism: “The Land is a volcano. It provides lodging for the language .... [But] what will be the result of the rebirth of Hebrew?... People here do not realize what they are doing. They think they have made Hebrew into a secular language, that they have removed its apocalyptic sting. But that is not so …. Every expression that is not simply made up but rather taken from the treasure house of well-worn words is laden with explosives …. God will not remain silent in the language in which He has been adjured so many thousands of times to come back into our lives.”
Zionism modernized Hebrew, turning an ancient language of prayer into a daily language. Scholem warns that although secularized, the Hebrew language is still laden with sacred meanings and powers. Its punctuation, letters, words, sentences have all been used for ages to communicate with the divine, to ask for redemption. He warns that this vast messianic power, expressed through the Hebrew language, cannot be contained by secular forces, not when it finally reunites with its land of fulfillment.
Israeli women march in a demonstration in the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, in 2010.Credit: Moti Milrod
“People here do not realize what they are doing,” Scholem observes in response to the use of religious language to promote political ideals. Consider the popular Zionist song written in 1908 for the students of the first Hebrew-speaking high school: “Here in the land our forefathers yearned for / All our hopes shall be fulfilled / Here we shall live and here we shall conceive / A life of nobility, a life of liberty / Here the Divine Presence shall dwell / Here the language of the Torah shall also prevail.” Used first as a marching song for the students’ hiking trips, it is still being sung these days, most notably during Israel’s Independence Day ceremony.
Scholem feared the attempt to replace religious meanings with political ones is bound to eventually fail, and disastrously so. Yet, this Zionist practice only intensified over time. For example, new national meanings were superimposed on the religious meanings of Jewish holidays. Similarly, with the establishment of the state, Talmudic and biblical terms were used, for instance, to name the Israeli parliament (Knesset) and president (nasi), as if their religious powers could be neutralized.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this practice is the emblem of Israel, with the Temple menorah representing the state as the final answer to the messianic yearning. As if the meanings of symbols could be fully controlled despite the fact that symbols are always open to multiple interpretations, opposing ones too. As if there were no possibility the emblem would symbolize exactly what was missing and needed to be realized. As if it did not make sense that the image of the menorah would signify its source as its destiny: the Holy Temple.
But Zionism is a product of its times, of the modern era, and its founders believed that the new shall replace and improve upon the old, that science, reason and secularism would solve the problems of Jews, of humanity. They thus rejected the messianic tradition but also relied on it, for it provided the necessary link to the place they could call home. As explained by David Ben-Gurion in 1941, “Zionism as an idea and a vision is as old as the ancestral Jewish people. Zionism as a movement and an endeavor is new ... and marks a turning point in the people’s will to shape its own destiny and attain its redemption through a deliberate, considered, and purposeful effort.”
These words capture the idea of Zionism as a continuation and fulfillment of Jewish messianism, but also as a political revolution that ended the messianic wait for divine intervention.
Even political opposition to Ben-Gurion was often expressed in messianic terms. Still, Ben-Gurion’s messianism was criticized by towering intellectuals such as Gershom Scholem and Jacob Talmon. They warned that all messianic movements are bound to fail because lofty ideals eventually shatter in the face of the imperfections of reality. Combined with an optimism that encourages risk-taking, the result can be disastrous.
This, for example, was the case of the second-century Jewish messianic uprising against Roman rule, which ended catastrophically. Ignoring the results of the revolt, the Zionist movement turned it into a national ethos of independence and heroism.
Yet, Ben-Gurion did not abandon his messianic language, seeing the messianic idea as an emblem of modern humanistic values of progress and liberation. In 1966 he wrote, “Our people believe that a new world will arise, a world of freedom, of justice and peace, of human partnership. Israel already contributes in some measure to the speedier realization of that better universe. As far as its modest capacity permits, it will persevere hereafter in the resolve to make a greater and a grander contribution.”
Little did Ben-Gurion know that shortly after he would write these words, the meaning of messianism would dramatically change, yet again. The 1967 and 1973 wars, the rise of the Gush Emunim settler movement, and the military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip gave rise to a secular, politically-left, Israeli critique of messianism. It now became associated with militancy, irrationality, religious zealotry and the political right.
Thus, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Orthodox Jewish intellectual and moral beacon of the Israeli left, announced: “What is termed the messianic idea is a lesion that has stuck to Judaism and has blighted Judaism through all periods and times.” Messianism was also critiqued by more liberal circles of religious Zionism who opposed the mixing of religious ideas with political programs.
These days, when “messianism” is evoked in Israel, it is used almost exclusively to denote a religious phenomenon, often in a derogatory way, even by some religiously motivated settlers.
‘We are the flowers’
Since the rise of Zionism in the 19th century, in a relatively short span of Jewish history, secular Zionists, especially those associated with the left, altered the meanings of messianism in response to changing political realities. Before 1967, redemption was invoked as a political ideal over messianism as a religious phenomenon. Then, since 1967, messianism as a whole has been portrayed as something morally wrong and dangerous that religious settlers do “over there,” not secular Israelis “over here.”
The rapid change in the meanings of messianism is a testimony to its highly charged potency in the Israeli-Palestinian space. The 1967 encounter with the very heart of the biblical land engendered a stronger messianic unification with the place. However, it was but a more easily recognizable messianism.
Just as traditional messianism did not cease to exist with the rise of Zionism, Zionist messianism did not cease to exist with the rise of religious-Zionist messianism. It became less debated, less discernible to the public eye, but always present, shaping and being reshaped by the Zionist relation to the land and the non-Jew.
Zionist messianism operates by turning the spiritual distinction between Israel and the Nations into a political distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This distinction is translated into a Zionist logic and practice that remain identical across both sides of the Green Line: as much land as possible with as few Arabs as possible.
Readers who do not agree with the former statement are encouraged to find out how many towns and villages were established for Jews and Arabs by all the Israeli governments, right and left. The redemption of land.
As a result of the Zionist revolution, Jews here are stronger than non-Jews, embodying a political unification between an ancient yearning and its land of desire. As shown by the work of the Israeli intellectual Haviva Pedaya, there is no need to be aware of the messianic forces here in order to actualize them.
This is the story of the 2011 social justice protests that touched the basic bond between people and place: a home. The masses united around the rallying cry “The people! Demand! Social justice!” – which ignored those who are not part of “the people” and stopped at the Green Line without demanding justice “over there.” Jewish unity through disregard of non-Jews. In essence, the protests demonstrated that despite the housing crisis, many Jews see themselves as the landlords here.
“Here is home.” That is how the chorus of “A Tribe of Brothers and Sisters” begins. Merging “the parties of Tel Aviv” with dreams and prayers “of living in Eretz Yisrael,” this 2019 messianic anthem has become a huge hit. It’s a Zionist call for national unity performed by dozens of Israel’s leading singers. All Jews. As explained by Rabbi Chaim Navon in Makor Rishon, a religious- Zionist newspaper, “In no Western country would such a song pass today, except for Israel. This fact is an honor to our country.”
When it comes to the lyrics, the rabbi has a problem with “our forefathers are roots and we are the flowers.” He agrees, of course, with “our forefathers are roots,” but disagrees with the messianic message of “we are the flowers.” We are not “flowers,” he states. We are not “the final product of the tree.” Rather, we are the “branches.” After all, this is not how the flowers of redemption are supposed to look like. The rabbi may have a point.
Compared to other Jewish population sectors here, the national-religious one is more connected to the rapid messianic pulse. How does redemption look? How do you bring it about? What is the role of Zionism in the redemptive process? What is the place of non-Jews? These are just a few topics of discussion and study that are tied to intensive activities on the ground. This connection may have contributed to the success of national-religious Jews. As a case in point, a former director general of the Yesha Council of settlements became the prime minister with the support of the left-wing Meretz party.
The support given to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett by the Zionist left offers an opportunity to recognize that the differences are smaller than the denied similarity: messianism. For that matter, the alliance between the Zionist left and the prime minister may be seen as a political alliance of one type of messianism (mamlakhtiyut/being statesmanlike) in opposition to another type of political messianism (melekh/king) that aligned with Torah messianism (mamlakha/kingdom). Our messianism can be categorized further in many more ways.
Messianism is more than a belief in a messianic figure. It is the most powerful Jewish force in the Israeli-Palestinian land, enacted by people of faith and atheists alike. Seeing it simply as a religious West Bank reality helps keep its secular realities out of consciousness, debate and critique, thereby limiting the ability of many Israelis to become more aware and involved in its shaping.
As Scholem wrote long ago, “The land is a volcano.” Zionism released from the heart of Judaism a bubbling lava flow of messianic meanings and practices. It can only be stopped by a great disaster, a catastrophe. However, since we are all part of this flow, its various directions can be influenced: Differences among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews can be reduced. But first, reality must be faced.
For better and for worse, messianism is rooted deeply within us. Here, we are all messianic.
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