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Israel's war with itself

The rift between the Peace Party and Zealots that sent the Jewish nation wandering for 2.000 years has reappeared.

July 21, 2009|Rich Cohen | Rich Cohen is the author of "Sweet and Low," "Tough Jews," "The Avengers," "The Record Men," "Lake Effect" and the forthcoming "Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History."

Afew years ago, while walking through Mea Shearim, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, I came across a strange poster. It pictured the Second Temple, the center of the world before the world was smashed in AD 70 by Rome, over a Hebrew phrase that means something like, "Jews! Watch what you say! For The Holy of Holies was destroyed not by Roman soldiers, nor by the Divine will, but by the gossip of the people."

What could it mean, this talk of gossip? After all, the history and its lessons seemed plain. The Jews revolted; Titus sent in the legions; Jerusalem was sacked and burned; soon after the wandering began.

In other words, don't defy Rome.

To makers of the poster, though, the story has a different meaning. Israel was not destroyed by Rome, they say, but by the feuding that preceded the invasion, the battle between the members of the Peace Party, who wanted to render unto Caesar, live like Greeks and then drift away gracefully in their own beds, and the Zealots, who wanted to die fighting. It's a debate that ribbons Jewish history, disappearing for centuries but reappearing in moments of stress.

As we head into yet another round of peace talks and the heat is turned up on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it's crucial to understand the divisions that run beneath Israeli life. There's the rift between Arabs and Jews, yes; the rift between Labor and Likud, yes; but there's also the rift between descendants of the Peace Party and descendants of the Zealots, evident in the never-ending debate: Are we too stubborn, or not stubborn enough? Are we too hated, or too afraid of being hated? Are we too aggressive, or has our fear of appearing aggressive caused us to sit in the sun as old Nebuchadnezzar builds his nuclear gallows?

In the 19th century, when the first modern Zionists decamped from Russia, they came with many theories but a shared intention -- to build a country where being a Jew would be so inconsequential that being a Jew would cease to have meaning. Only in a nation filled with Jews, they believed, could a Jew be free of being a Jew. These were secularists, scientists, students of the Enlightenment. They, and the waves of immigrants who followed them, became the elite of the new community: the left-wing politicians, professionals and kibbutzniks who built Israel, which they envisioned as a pragmatic, sane little country free of zealotry. For years, this state went unrecognized by certain ultra-religious Jews, to whom it was a grotesque presumption because, in their view, only the Messiah can gather in the exiles and restore the Kingdom. In the state of Israel after independence, many of them were marginalized -- and marginalized themselves -- while the state was run by the progressive secularists, epitomized by David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister.

But the national mood began to change in 1967, when, as a result of the Six-Day War, Israel took control of old Jerusalem with its holy places and the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Judea and Samaria of the Bible. The images of the war -- Israeli tanks in the tight lanes of Jerusalem, the Star of David flying above the Temple Mount, Jewish soldiers praying at the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple complex -- were too powerful. People went mad with the miracle of it. For certain groups of religious Jews, the victory seemed to prove that God had in fact been involved all along -- that Yahweh was the secret force behind Zionism. No longer sinners, secular leaders like Ben-Gurion were now seen as dumb beasts, in the nature of the ass that pulls the cart with the tablets, knowing neither why nor whither it goes.

In this way, the Zealots got back into the Temple and then wandered out to the West Bank, where they built and prayed. In the years that followed, they and their right-wing allies gained political power, especially after the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, the first non-Labor Party prime minister of Israel. In this way, the argument resumed. The positions are basic: For one group, Israel is the only place a Jew can stop being a Jew; for the other, Israel is the only place a Jew can live an authentically Jewish life.

Though they inhabit the same nation, such people live in different worlds -- those who are in Israel to be more Jewish, and those who are there to be free of Judaism. If the former, you will see a flaw in relinquishing the West Bank. Without Judea, you will no doubt feel, Israel is not Israel. If the latter, the problem is just as acute. Israel, in possession of the West Bank, is outside the law, and being outside the law is not the way for a Jew to shed distinction.

History has described a tremendous arc, returning us to that same mountain, the same walls -- this time called the "security fence" -- where the rivals fight the same fight: more or less, worldly or pure, settle or retreat? (Last time, the Zealots won -- a victory followed by 2,000 years of nowhere to go.)

Unless Israel can find a way to settle this argument, the poster in Mea Shearim may well read as prophecy.

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