A couple of years ago a guy asked me to contribute to a project to make a film about why Israel should hold on to the territories. “We’ll give strategic, political and biblical reasons,” he said. I disagreed — I thought biblical arguments would hurt his cause. “After all, anyone who will listen to them is either an Orthodox Jew or an Evangelical Christian, and almost all of them are already on our side,” I told him. “You’ll just turn off the secular people.”
But now I’m not so sure. Because this is actually what the conflict is about. There is a reason that we haven’t been able to reach a compromise on borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc. There is a reason that Arabs are prepared to die for al-Aqsa and Jews want to live in Hevron (other than “why shouldn’t they?” which is also a pretty good reason). There is truth in the remark of PLO official Abbas Zaki, whom I quoted in my post “The Jews and the Land”, that Zionism will collapse if we leave Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, because our relationship to these places is at the heart of Zionism.
Secular Europeans — which today is most of them — and Americans don’t get it. To them, religious beliefs, especially religious beliefs that affect real actions in the world and not just abstract talk, are irrational or worse. But these beliefs are among the strongest motivators of human behavior.
Religious wars are stupid and pointless, they say. But war is rarely rational, despite the attempts of politicians to make it so. Religious belief is the model for all ideology — today’s progressive secular humanism that animates many of Israel’s left-wing critics is no more rational or better examined than Judaism or Islam.
The struggle for Jerusalem is an ideological one — and the struggling ideologies are religious.
An aside: People often distinguish between ‘religious’ (dati) and ‘secular’ (hiloni) Israelis. What I think they really mean are ‘observant’ and ‘not-so-observant’. I think a majority of the so-called ‘secular’ Israelis, as I wrote previously, have a strong — I would even call it ‘religious’ — connection to the Land of Israel, even if they rarely go to a synagogue and drive on Shabbat.
If we want to make people see our side of the argument, we have to be honest about what we are fighting for and why. We have to be honest about our ideology and our values, and about our story.
The most convincing of the spokespeople for the Arabs are the Islamists. That’s one reason their philosophy has been wildly successful in recent years. I was once told by a Palestinian Muslim (who at least purported to favor coexistence between Jews and Arabs) that he felt much more comfortable with religious settlers than left-wing academics. Why? “They believe in God,” he said.
The story of the Jewish people is written in the Torah. You can treat it as concretely or abstractly, as literally or allegorically as you wish, but it is the most fundamental source of the Zionist idea (even if Herzl wouldn’t have agreed).