Israel’s Fundamentalist Temptation

“I would say that today Israeli democracy has one central mission, and that is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its historical role, and it must be dismantled and bow before Judaism,” – Benny Katzover, a leader in the settlement of Elon Moreh in Greater Israel, cited in a new must-read by David Remnick.

The entire report from Israel is as excellent as you’d expect from Remnick. Which is why it is also terrifying. As I argued in my post-9/11 essay, “This Is A Religious War,” and in my book The Conservative Soul, my own view is that the core dynamic in the world today is between fundamentalism and liberalism. By liberalism, I mean an acceptance of ideological and cultural diversity, a limited government, and a clear separation between church and state. This does not Israel_118mean an obliteration of religion; in fact, liberal democracy has, in America, helped religion flourish and evolve in constantly surprising ways, by no means all fundamentalist. By fundamentalism, I mean the attempt to enshrine certain scriptural or religious doctrines into literal reality for ever and to fuse them with politics and national identity.

Of course this is a grand simplification of a world beset by many other subcurrents. But the core battle between Western democracy and theo-political fundamentalism is as real as it is vital. In the US, thanks in large part to Obama and the younger generation, fundamentalism is losing the battle for hearts and minds for the time being, but remains dangerously irrational in its deep, panicked and bewildered hostility to modernity. In the Muslim world, it is waxing turbulently – from Pakistan to Egypt – and has killed thousands in its murderous wake. But it is also true that Greater Israel is, alas, an increasingly fundamentalist project, built on the most dangerous fusion there is: land and monotheism. All religions have the fundamentalist temptation, and Christianity has historically been one of the worst, but the point is not to single out any specific faith tradition, but to note this danger in all of them, and the distinction between a confident live-and-let-live faith and the neurotic need to enforce religious doctrine through civil law on others – a temptation that Jesus warned so often against.

Next week’s Israeli election will almost certainly mean the end of even the illusion of any two-state solution ever happening – and of a secular country able to make peace with its neighbors, let alone relent in its aggressive re-population of the occupied territories. It looks as if it will empower the fundamentalist, racist far right in ways we have not yet seen. Which is to say: If you fear a nuclear-armed theocracy emerging in the Middle East, Iran should not be your only worry. The slick and truly modern theo-fascism of a man like Naftali Bennett bears all the hallmarks of modern fundamentalism. Including its tendency toward violence when challenged.

(Photo: Naftali Bennett, leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), delivers a speech during a meeting at the Tel Aviv International Salon on December 23, 2012. A former high-tech entrepreneur, the 40-year-old is a former protege of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is expected to lead his party to one of their best results ever in the upcoming election. By Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.)