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Not My Messiah

by Editor on August 18th, 2010

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

When I think about my co-religionists, I must admit that in less generous moments it is easy to dismiss some of them as members of a messianic cult. For many so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, there is a kind of messianic fervor that exerts a definite pull on their behavior and views of the world, whether it’s the anti-Zionism of the Neturei Karta (I once attended a protest rally at which these folks, and some others who called themselves simply Satmars, received much abuse from other Jews) or the “presumed with assurance” Schneersonism of some Lubavitchers, or some of the settlers occupying Palestinian lands. We may all be Jewish, but their Judaism and mine differs in a variety of ways, not the least of which is their belief in the messiah as something more than an abstract concept.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to see current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted in a new article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, saying: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs”. Indeed, I do not want this, and for a brief second I thought Netanyahu was speaking about the prospect of Jews more Orthodox than he taking over the state of Israel. After all, this seems to be part of Orthodoxy’s official goal, if (for example) the hubbub around a new “conversion” bill is to be placed in a broader context.

Except that Netanyahu was talking about Iran, which is the focus of Goldberg’s story, an examination around a series of questions: Will Iran get the bomb? Will they use it against Israel, if they do? Will Israel attempt to stop them by preemptively attacking their nuclear installations? Will Israel succeed in setting back Iran’s plans, or only provoke a broader war? And is the US doing enough to act as a deterrent, both to Israel’s preemption and Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

The problem is that the two-thirds of the article takes the view that Iran is motivated by an instinctive, unyielding anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, driven by this “messianic apocalyptic” view of the world—in contrast to the people of Israel, who have no such crazy beliefs and are not at all driven by some sense that they have a greater, grander, theologically inspired destiny.

I should not really be so surprised. Whatever Goldberg’s strengths as a security analyst, he also tends to be an apologist for Israel (or, more nicely put, an unapologetic supporter of Israel). With that statement, let me be clear about two things: first, I support Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. Second, I support containment of nuclear weapons, and I have no desire to see Iran acquire them. However, I object to a journalistic presentation (even under the guise of some kind of analysis) that simply presupposes that some people or nations are inherently good, and other people are inherently evil, and that seeks to ignore evident ambiguities or contradictions. Or put another way: in Goldberg’s view, it is acceptable for Israel to insist on its policy of opacity around its own nuclear weaponry—this is just a clever playing of politics, nothing more, and no greater honesty is needed—but Iran’s “official” anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism absolutely must be taken at face value and cannot be viewed as political theater or the means to distract a beleaguered populace from oppression closer to home.

Parts of the article are more honest, such as when Goldberg presents an anonymous Israeli view with a different perspective. He writes: “Israeli policy makers do not necessarily believe that Iran, should it acquire a nuclear device, would immediately launch it by missile at Tel Aviv. ‘On the one hand, they would like to see the Jews wiped out,’ one Israeli defense official told me. ‘On the other hand, they know that Israel has unlimited reprisal capability’—this is an Israeli euphemism for the country’s second-strike nuclear arsenal—‘and despite what Rafsanjani and others say, we think they know that they are putting Persian civilization at risk.’”

I agree with this view, and I have written before that I do not believe that Iran will bomb Israel, or that the US will bomb Iran. Iran can be remarkably pragmatic, as even Goldberg acknowledges in describing how they play the game around international sanctions. So, again: it is offensive that Goldberg presents the broader contours of this dynamic in such a way that there is an unchallenged sense that Iran’s motivations are irrational, while Israel’s are eminently and obviously the opposite.

The problem with any kind of messianism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, is that it leaves little room for genuine discussion or debate. But it can just as easily be said that messianism is a problem equally in all three faiths. After all, the entire premise behind an uncompromising view of keeping the occupied land of the West Bank is based on a Biblical, messianic view of Judaism, Israel, and that land. Every other justification, including security concerns, could be negotiated in a settlement; it is only the religiously held views that cannot be swayed by other outcomes. Similarly, look no further than the messianic strain within Christian Zionism (the root of much contemporary American support for Israel). Some Christians believe that supporting Israel and the return of Jews to Israel is essential for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the “rapture.” Just Google “Christian Zionism,” and you cannot miss it. The hypocrisy here from an Israeli perspective—or even that of an American Jewish one, since we not only tolerate but encourage these Christian Zionists in their support for Israel—is clear and unambiguous: they are “our” messianists, so it’s all ok, and anyway, we don’t believe that the rapture presents much of a threat to us.

Iran on the other hand…

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