Fetishizing the Trigger
Jay Michaelson

There was once a prisoner who yearned for freedom. One day, the prophet Mohammed appeared to him, and gave him a set of keys to his cell, saying "Your piety has been rewarded. Allah has set you free." So the prisoner took the set of keys, mounted them on the wall, and prayed to them five times a day.

- Sufi tale

Since moving to Jerusalem three months ago, the most disturbing aspect of living in Israel again has been the congruence of religion and politics. In the days leading up to the disengagement from Gaza, the vast majority of the religious public was staunchly opposed -- and the majority of those opposed were religious. Wearing a kippa became synonymous with wearing an orange (anti-disengagement) ribbon, and those few of us (almost all Americans) who were both religious and pro-disengagement were left in a very lonely place.

Now, it might be expected that the Israeli religious public generally was anti-disengagement, pro-"greater Israel," and against the Palestinians. This is true around the world. Populations which are more religious, particularly more fundamentalist, tend to be more conservative and more patriotic. Islamists in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia; Christian fundamentalists in America; Hindu nationalists in India -- it stands to reason that people who are extreme about their religious particularism tend to adopt political positions that are equally ethnocentric, and often equally extreme. While we in the Jewish community seem unable to label our own fundamentalists and terrorists as such -- witness the silence in the Orthodox community around Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's statements that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for American support of disengagement, or for Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski's statements that the Jerusalem gay pride parade was like "bringing a pig to the Al Aqsa mosque" -- it should still not be surprising that those who are "extreme" or "ardent" in their religious fervor are equally so politically.

What was most unsettling when I first arrived, though, was not this community's zealous patriotism. It was that the "peace and love" crowd, the hippies who are most likely to meditate, sing songs, and smoke marijuana before davening -- these people were not only anti-disengagement, they were some of its most hard-core opponents in the country, even more so than the ordinary national-religious camp. To Israelis and others who live here, this is not so surprising; we are all familiar with the sight of shaggy-looking, floppy-kippa-wearing settler youth who play guitars and carry M-16s. But to outsiders, the cognitive dissonance can be shocking. In America, we're used to hippies being for peace and love not just rhetorically, but politically as well. The only debate among the dreadlocked crowd in the states is whether to vote Democrat, Green, or not vote at all. In Israel, I heard one Anglo immigant hang up the phone by saying "peace," and then reveal that he lives in the territories and can't believe that "our" government was committing national suicide by leaving Gaza.

What's going on? How is it possible that a population that says it loves peace is actually so vehemently against the most rudimentary steps toward achieving it?

There are two uninteresting possibilities in play, I think, and a few other elements which are fascinating.

The first possibility is that the religious-hippie-settler crowd -- and their Amen corner in the Carlebach community in Israel -- is simply lying, or in delusion. They say they want peace, but they don't really; really they just want to indulge in their narcissistic spirituality, and if it comes at the expense of Arabs they hate, then so be it. Having lived with some of these people for three months, I don't think this is fair. Some, surely, just want to play their guitars, and own their land, and precisely the same obliviousness to reality that enables them to go on great spiritual trips also enables them to ignore the demographic problem of two million people who don't want Israel to rule over them. (None of this crowd, when pressed, has ever offered a solution to the crisis other than Divine intervention or ethnic cleansing. In fact, one hears the former so much that one suspects it is but a cover for the latter.) Many, though, at least from my own anecdotal experience and from reading their literature, seem sincere both in their desire for peace and in their opposition to the peace process. They're not lying. So, the situation seems more complicated than mere hypocrisy.

Another possibility is that the religious-hippie-settler crowd is right, and that the peace process as it is currently unfolding really will not bring peace. Obviously, this is what they themselves say: that, if you're for the Arabs, "you don't understand." As with the first possibility, there is some truth to that. Much of the American Jewish Left seems to regard the Palestinians as noble victims of Israeli aggression, a proud, gentle people to whom we must extend an arm of peace and reconciliation. In reality, though, a large percentage of the Palestinian population supports armed violence against Israeli civilians, and an erasure not just of the occupation but of Israel itself. Any arm that's extended might well be cut off. The Left is correct that this is a subjugated people (or at least, these are people who see themselves as such) -- but, as a result, the Right is correct that a significant percentage of them are devoutly committed to violence. Moreover, as an occupied people, the Palestinians have only an embyronic "high culture" and educated, liberal population; the Right is correct that there's a lot of hooliganism, vandalism, extremism, corruption, and crime. Of course, much of the Right then proceeds with a racist and absurd claim that this is due to something about the people as an ethnic group, rather than the conditions of living under occupation. But on the surface level, the phenomena are certainly there.

So it's not that the hippie right is incorrect about some of Palestinian society. But what do they propose to do about it? The total absence of any Right-wing alternative to the current process -- which, it may be recalled, is itself a Center-Right alternative to a more negotiated solution -- belies the rightists' claim that it's only the current process that they oppose. Since they have no alternative, one can only assume that they oppose any process: land for peace, economic development, unilateral withdrawal, whatever. The hippie-Right's view of the Left, moreover, is a straw man. Sure, there are probably some dovish Lefties who still buy into the myth of the noble, suffering Palestinians. But most Israelis are pragmatic; they just want this problem to be solved. Were there another option, one that didn't involve perpetually subjugating (or exiling) two million people, I and I'm sure many other people would certainly be happy to hear it. But there isn't one, at least not one that the Right has proposed, and so the situation is more complex than the religious hippies say as well. You can't say you're pro-peace and have absolutely no suggestion as to how to pursue it.

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Image: Bara Sapir

October 2005

Keri HaRishon
Bruce Lokeinsky

Happy Jew Year
Haya Pomrenze

Ochila La'Eil
Hayes Biggs

The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania
Joyce Ellen Weinstein

Fetishizing the Trigger
Jay Michaelson

The Goats of War
Jennifer Blowdryer

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