Israel's Holy War -- Sightings

In recent months we have watched as the government of Israel has consistently rebuffed the requests by the White House to freeze its settlement building activities.  All of this is to no avail -- perhaps in part due to the fact that members of Congress are unwilling to support the President -- as the settlements expand and the situation becomes more dire.   Those of us who want a just peace in that area are continually frustrated by the actions on all sides, but the ideological direction of the Israeli leadership is troubling. 

Martin Marty notes that rarely if ever has his Sightings column ventured into the Israeli situation, but a review of four books on the Israeli military in the New York Review of Books caught his eye.  There is a dangerous trend in Israeli military circles as more extreme religious views take root.  Thus, just war is being replaced with holy war ideas.  That does not bode well for peace.   I invite you to read and respond.


Sightings 4/26/10

Israel’s Holy War
-- Martin E. Marty

In eleven years of weekly Sightings I can’t find that I ever commented on “public religion” in Israel. The U. S. is usually in our sights, and we are aware of participation in or leadership of holy wars by Hindu militants, Muslim extremists, Buddhist monks, and Christian forces around the world. Israel, a close ally and, religiously, a kin, must have flown under the radar here, because it is on page one or in prime time almost daily, and religious themes – for example, Gush Emunim in support of illegal settlements – are prominent.

One can begin catching up on holy war in Israel in Eyal Press’s notice of four books on the subject in the April 29th New York Review of Books. The book titles are revealing: Israel and Its Army: From Cohesion to Confusion; Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2000; Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlement; and Israel’s Materialist Militarism. Press supplements these with his own reporting. The authors are consistent in noting that the IDF, Israel Defense Forces, is infused and in some outfits virtually taken over by non-secular officers and enlistees who make no secret of their intent to replace “Just War” with “Holy War.”

In language that recalls the religious rhetoric of Lieutenant General William Botkin, who regularly framed contemporary American military ventures as Christian holy wars, or Air Force Academy leadership that wanted to Christianize our warrior efforts, militants in IDF leadership echo an invited rabbi who “cast the Gaza war as a battle between bnei ha-or – the children of light – and bnei ha-hasheh – the children of darkness: “In Hebrew literature, this is an eschatological war, a messianic war.” The religious nationalism of the Orthodox after the Six-Day War in 1967 has been replaced by hard-line religious conscripts, according to Press.

Senior military officers tell the International Crisis Group that they will not help evict illegal settlers from “Jewish land” that “is promised to us by the Bible, by God,” as one of them said. “This ideology is the backbone of the army, and so I will not obey such an order.” Some observers – including Stuart Cohen, author of Israel and its Army, mentioned above – believe that the threat of insubordination is overblown, and that cooler heads in the military and government find strategic ways to “cool it” when the scene is dominated by hot-heads. Higher officers get lessons on how to handle outbursters who can quote Scripture against the more political and disciplined religious leadership.

No one, however, foresees a future in which religious, in this case messianic, influence will not be growing; such forces make any diplomatic moves toward peace vulnerable. The author tells how after November 25th and the announcement of a ten-month freeze on settlements, some settlers torched and desecrated a mosque, “part of a new strategy to exact a heavy ‘price tag’” for any measure they deem detrimental. Followers of Rabbi Kook and other Gush Emunim leaders who called for disobedience to uncongenial orders grow in number and power.

Progressively replaced by holy warriors, the “just-warriors” lose influence. It is hard to see how diplomatic and conciliatory calls and practices stand a chance in this “take no prisoners,” make-no-compromises, setting. We are used to hearing messianic, Raptural rhetoric by American Protestant Zionist allies of the Israeli militants, but their power has been limited by their distance from the scene. The people being noticed by Eyal Press are up close, so the risks are higher, the scene dangerous.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Web Forum editor emeritus Spencer Dew explores the relationship between Jack Kerouac’s religious thought and its expressive practice in the act of writing: “Indeed, his entire oeuvre can be read as an expression of his personal religious stance, a kind of ‘fusion’ of Catholic theology with notions taken from Buddhist philosophy and practice.” Through a close reading of Kerouac’s novella Tristessa, Dew suggests that such a fusion—despite exemplifying Kerouac at his writerly best—leads to a solipsism that is ethically troubling, and likely reflective of Kerouac’s personal and professional shortcomings—especially later in his life. “Devotion to Solipsism: Religious Thought and Practice in Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa,” with invited responses from Benedict Giamo (University of Notre Dame), Nancy Grace (College of Wooster), Sarah Haynes (University of Western Illinois), Kurt Hemmer (Harper College), Amy Hungerford (Yale University), Omar Swartz (University of Colorado, Denver), Matt Theado (Gardner-Webb University), and Eric Ziolkowski (Lafayette College).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


emanuel appel said…
Israel has the right to build within its own capital as Obama has to build within the District of Columbia.

Those who begrudge the Jews basic courtesy, the most basic of human rihgts within their won land are nothing short of suffering a mental or ethical myopia-obsession. Funny that these smae people turn a blind eye to the evil that Moslems do to Christians every day.

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