Fundamentalism and its discontents
by Noel Rooney
We are as ignorant of fundamentalists, fundamentalisms and zionisms as we are obsessed by them. The terms have acquired the status of a vague catch-all currency, but many of their putative adherents are ignorant of core doctrine, and many of their most dogged opponents operate by gleaning murkily suspicious anecdotes.
Since the transcendental reification of the war on terror, this miasma has permeated the cultural atmosphere. Or, to put it another way, given the at best chimerical nature of the proposed enemy, it has been seen necessary to identify it everywhere; so that now the enemy and the innocent victims co-inhabit a fantasy location eerily co-incident and intangibly ubiquitous.
The tacit western liberal assumption that all this fundamentalist nonsense can be happily obliterated by exporting the jewel of democracy is not encouraging in its outcomes. The actions of powerful governments, in setting new limitations on domestic freedoms and rights, bedevil their messianic export rubric with irony. Reactive ideologues (hardly the obvious model for culture bringers) are busy peddling the impossible as an antidote to the invisible.
The media, as reward for apparent political intimacy, are tasked with filtering out the irony, or at least making it palatable, and for the most part do so faithfully. Sadly, confusion sanitised for prescriptive reasons rarely leads to enlightenment, so for the mass of us this side of the television, there is an official definition of information which seems to include little more than its nuanced opposite.
This article and interview are largely concerned with a particular fundamentalism, one which is both religious and political; Zionism. Understanding it is pivotal for understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the otherwise inexplicable intransigence of successive Israeli administrations. But generally we are going to have to learn a lot more about fundamentalism if we are to be able to hold it up to the light where it belongs.
Intra-Judaism, Zionism is an oddity among the other species of fundamentalism. First, and signally, because it is the raison díêtrefor a state (as opposed to the hopeful iconoclasm of many others), and secondly because it is inconsistent with other Jewish fundamentalisms, (although it manages to share a political space with them). Nonetheless, it shares most of the features which animate and galvanise the alienated margins of the three western religions.
Externally, its unique characteristic is that it inhabits two separate religions; there are complete and independent versions of Zionism in Judaism and Christianity. This naturally muddies the metaphysical soup, especially when geo-politics demand that the two be yoked together in an arcanely antagonistic alliance. Israel the unwitting servant of someone elseís Armageddon shimmers in the mirage of Israel the abiding house of a universal Jewish God (perhaps proving the propagandistís thesis that a fata morgana can take the corners off an oxymoron).
Norton Mezvinsky, professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, is one of the small number of academics who have become expert in the history and epistemologies of the fundamentalisms which inhabit the three western religions. He spoke recently in London on both Jewish and Christian Zionism, first at the LSE, with Sharif Nashashibi of Arab Media Watch and John Rose, author of the Myths of Zionism, and then at the Egyptian Institute for Cultural Affairs. Mezvinsky is himself, with the late great Israel Shahak, author of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, a magisterial text recently re-issued by Pluto Press.
I spoke to Norton Mezvinsky at the offices of Pluto Press in north London, the night after the deliciously ironic spectacle of a Jewish professor lecturing on Christian Zionism at a Muslim cultural institute, an irony only compounded by the realisation that a Muslim audience was almost bound to be better informed about Christian fundamentalism than a Christian one.
Noel Rooney (NR): it has often been said that fundamentalists of any religion - but particularly those of the children of the book - resemble each other far more than they resemble the mainstream of their particular religion. Do you agree, or do you think the unique characteristics are more instructive?
Norton Mezvinsky (NM): I think itís both. They do resemble each other in a variety of ways, in terms of ideology, theology; theoretically, theyíre all looking forward to something which they envisage will bring back some glory of the past. We see that around Jewish fundamentalism, and they all also have literalist, their own literalist, interpretations of their own scriptures; but there are unique features of the theologies, and there are unique features in terms of what they are expecting to happen in the future.
NR: you mean, independently generated eschatologies?
NM: independent yes, and there are variances among them. But if I take for a moment some of the Islamic fundamentalists, I was in Lahore, Pakistan recently, listening to a cleric who has a big following in Islam. He made it clear that when the end time, as he interprets it, comes, first there will be a real Islamic state, and the first one will be in Pakistan and Afghanistan (although Pakistan claims itís an Islamic state now, itís not). The non-Muslims will be converted - either converted or destroyed - then some time after that, the whole world will be an Islamic state.
NR: So this is the traditional Muslim Brotherhood eschatology?
NM: Yes, though there are some of these people who wonít quite go that far. And the Jewish fundamentalists, they donít expect that, they donít care about that, they want just the area of Palestine, and the rest of the world is of no consequence.
NR: And if you stretch this out to include the Christian fundamentalists, they are in some kind of opposition to the Muslim fundamentalists, competing eschatologies?
NM: Well, yes, they expect to set up the reign of Christ for a thousand years; what Iím saying is that the Jewish fundamentalists, they donít have that kind of world view. But many scholars work on fundamentalisms collectively; thereís a new book out written by three people who wrote a big six-volume work, and in there the definition of fundamentalism is broad and they talk about similarities, and they include Hindus and others.
NR: Hindutva is actually a classic case in point. Certainly politicians who have sympathy for a particular fundamentalism would recognise a great deal in Hindutva.
NM: Yes, thatís right. So of course there are similarities.
NR: Letís look at some of the basic differences; the proximity of the end time, but also the location of the first time, the times that weíre all so to speak returning to.
NM: Thereís a golden age of the past, that in itself is common.
NR: In the book, you locate the golden age of Jewish fundamentalism in a very recent past.
NM: Thatís not very far back, thatís right; it belongs in the 18th century, with the situation of Jews living in Poland and Lithuania.
NR: Thatís curious in comparison to other versions of the myth. Itís neither very far back, nor consonant with the historical origin of the religion.
NM: Yes. These people want a return to a situation which didnít exist everywhere; a situation where communities were run strictly and narrowly (with some exceptions) with the Rabbi as arbiter, and thatís the golden age. This was not the originary condition of Judaism.
NR: But this message of a limited and specific golden age managed to de-localise itself and translate into a sort of universal?
NM: Well, perhaps normative rather than strictly universal. First, the number of Jewish people living in this situation was larger, in percentage terms, a couple of centuries ago. Nowadays, the percentage of the population of Israeli Jews who hold these beliefs per se is small, but their political influence goes way beyond that, and itís growing. It doesnít mean lots of people are necessarily following that ideal; after all, 40 per cent of the Israeli population is anti-religious. There is real opposition, but on the other hand thereís sympathy and more than sympathy - thereís concrete support for them.
NR: When you consider the anti-fundamentalist tendency in Israel, would you say there is more space for them to speak and operate than in the States? There doesnít seem to be very much noise of that sort in the States.
NM: That may not be so easy to answer. Thereís far more expressed antagonism to this kind of thing in Israel than there is in the United States. Thatís because firstly Israel is a smaller place, and the political set-up is far different. These people (the fundamentalists) exert influence by being 20 per cent of the Knesset and giving support to coalitions; that doesnít occur in open politics in the States. They people the settlements, and they are in the elite units of the armed forces, and they get concessions from the government.
This means they are more in the centre of things, and theyíre known about, and after all, the States has only six million Jews in a population of 300 million. Thereís no concern there that the United States will turn into theocratic state. So they are not considered by Jews to be the threat they are in Israel. I would guess that far more people in Israel know far more about these people than do people in the States, and that is perhaps indicative of their status.
In the States, they are more likely to be seen as an oddity; people with arcane styles of dress and appearance and some quote unquote ridiculous religious practices, and well yes thereís some good religious music thatís come from them, mainly from the women, but thatís it.
In terms of operating, the thing is that Israel as you know, has only one form of official Judaism; there are a few reform and conservative people around, but they donít have any official standing. For instance, when it comes to getting married, itís the only situation I can think of where non-Jews in Israel have a right that Jews donít have. They have a right to a civil marriage; Jews donít. They have to be married by a rabbi, and the only rabbis are orthodox rabbis. Some people get married twice; first officially by the orthodox rabbi, and then unofficially by a rabbi they have some sympathy for.
So paradoxically, reform or conservative Jews have far more religious freedom in the United States or in Britain than they do in Israel. And thatís been a matter of antagonism for quite some time.
NR: Why are so few books available with a critical view of Jewish fundamentalism and Zionism? Books like the Politics of Anti-Semitism, for instance? Iím not aware of a debate in the Jewish community in the States.
NM: There actually is. For example, there are a good number, perhaps a majority of orthodox rabbis who will not sit down and have religious discussions with reform or conservative rabbis. They donít want to give recognition to the other tendencies. They donít consider them to be real rabbis; many orthodox rabbis think reform Jews are even worse than non-Jews. This has caused antagonism.
NR:So a little like the contempt which runs through some forms of Sunni-Shia debate?
NM: thatís right. But that antagonism has been somewhat limited in its expression. Itís mostly been in American-Jewish publications, so most people arenít aware that the debate is there, or that itís going on; and most people includes most Jews.
The other thing is that the majority of American Jews really arenít very religious. They call themselves Jews but donít go, or only go occasionally, to the synagogue. They donít know, nor do they care to know, much about Judaism.
NR: Bbut they retain the cultural identity which goes with the religious practice, or at least is not ethnic?
NM: Well yes, and that raises a question of how do we define Jews. A good friend, a non-Jew, often asks me: how do you expect us gentiles to know what Judaism is when you Jews are still debating the issue? He of course has a point.
NR: So the identity we havenít quite identified, how does it relate to the self-identity of Jews in Israel?
NM: There is an argument which I think has a lot of validity in terms of definition. Itís a negative argument, really based on anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. Jews have survived all this time because other people have identified them as Jews: thatís effectively philo-Semitism, but the same argument applies, curiously, from the view point of anti-Semitism. This is a course a tie-in to Zionism and to Israel.
Thereís another tie-in, and thatís more difficult to define or pinpoint rationally. There are a good number of Jews, in the States and elsewhere, who donít really pay much heed to Arab-Israeli things, donít want to know very much about Israel, donítí go there. When they are asked once a year for some money, for the Ďall-in-oneí drive, they give; when they are asked if they support Israel as a Jewish state, they say yes; if you ask why they will say that Jews should have a place where they can be safe.
How much they really believe that is difficult to determine. Itís as if they admit to being Jewish, and unthinkingly express those views, so that Jewish groups and organisations will leave them alone. We want to say weíre Jews and this is a Jewish thing to do somehow.
NR: You could almost use a double negative; itís not so much ďweíre JewsĒ as ďweíre not non-JewsĒ.
NM: That may well be true. In any case, the whole mind-set is riddled with confusion.
NR: Let me change tack. I wanted to ask you about the rupture which inevitably occurs when fundamentalists interpret scripture; ironically, given their apparent obsession with literal truth, and literal readings, these interpretations usually veer wildly from traditional or historical readings. When such a strong misreading is implied, how do people cope with the rupture?
NM: Well, in the Jewish context, there is an apparent rupture. The Kabbala is a mixture of mysticism and numerology and other elements. But its proponents would argue that all that stuff actually is in scripture; itís just that only they, with their exotic interpretative methodology, can find it and say it. And itís of course only the spiritual elite who are imbued with this ability. Thatís how they justify the rupture; itís a matter of our incomprehension rather than their eccentricity.
NR: How does that compare with the notion of ijtihad in Islam?
NM: that is similar and we can even bring in people like Derby  for the Christian connection. Skewed readings are a combination of elite scholarship and ďthe proddings of the Holy SpiritĒ. The interpreter argues that God is telling him, and that means things really are as he says they are.
Menachem Schneerson, the Lubovitcher rabbi, when he was alive, (many believe he was the Messiah, so he never really died, but however) he was the one who knew Godís word about almost everything. If people wanted to get married, they had to go and see him so he could decide if God wanted them to get married. He knew this because he could see if their souls had been mated before they were born. He always had Godís word. His ďproddingsĒ were way beyond even Derbyís.
NR: This sounds rather like a species of Jesuit probabiliorism; sanctity is vested in the celebrant rather than the celebration.
NM: Thatís right.
NR: And how about the apparent show of unity between Jewish and Christian Zionists; doesnít this make the rupture even more ironic?
NM: Absolutely. When I see orthodox, and ultra-orthodox rabbis, arm in arm with Christian Zionists, Iím amazed. You donít see those rabbis going to any kind of Christian thing; itís even considered sinful to do that.
NR: The phrase ďcognitive dissonanceĒ comes to mind. I have always assumed that Judaism is the least ecumenical of the three religions.
NM: Yes it is, at least in its orthodox form. Certainly not reform Judaism, but then it is much les influential in Israel. And critics of reform point out that it is all so full of universal values that is hardly Judaism at all. Conservative Judaism has no theology, so is perhaps less relevant.
When the first female rabbis were invested by the conservatives, the orthodox rabbis, or at least a third of them, refused to have anything to do with conservatives, even talk to them, so if thatís the situation internally, ecumenicalism is a long way off. The arguments over which organs can be transplanted also displays the problem; much of the discussion is over the value of non-Jewish organs, given the limited value of non-Jewish souls. And this is called bio-ethics.
NR: And are the internal divisions schismatic?
NM: Not yet. Presently they are theological, in the sense that the orthodox rabbis have monopoly on theology; they are simply better at it, better educated. Go to an orthodox synagogue and you will hear real theology, whether you agree with it or not. Go to a reform sermon, and you will hear about contemporary events and Zionism.
In the first case, you can see where the expertise is. In the second, the rabbi is talking about something that many of his audience know more about than he does. Iíd rather listen to a narrow orthodox sermon, theologically sound, than a sub-standard political treatise; and I think a lot of people feel the same. At least youíre learning something about the religion.
NR: So the fundamentalists have control of the scriptural facts. This seems analogous to Islam, and more so if you consider the Sunna, the praxis of the religion; presumably the orthodox rabbis have a monopoly there too.
NM: Thatís right.
NR: Let me ask you about Christian Zionism. How do you think the Christian fundamentalists manage to suppress their innate, and historically attested, anti-Semitism? Where does it go; what do they do with it?
NM: I donít think they necessarily have to put it away. Itís more a matter of emphasis. As you know, the idea is that the Jews have to have control of Israel before the second coming of Christ. God says so. So, given that God moves in mysterious ways, one can quietly infer his teleological anti-Semitism from the supposed order of events. This allows a superficial and dissembling version of respect for the present.
You talk to members of either fundamentalism about their relationship with the other and theyíll say similar things. Theyíll say: we know the others think our theology is nonsense, but we donít take our orders from them, we take them from God. Machiavellian responses are justified given the teleology, and everyone secretly knows that everyone else is wrong.
NR: In Christian fundamentalism, and not necessarily in the Zionist version of it, one of the tactics for permitting anti-Semitism is perhaps the claim by the Christians that they are the true Israelites. So the pseudo-distinction between Jews and Israelites is elaborated into vindication for an attitude.
NM: Maybe so. Certainly there is a minority of Christian fundamentalists who certainly are not Zionists, like Tony Compolo (a former spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton) for instance.
NR: And can you imagine a situation in which Christian Zionism understand anti-Semitism well enough to react to it, even if vicariously?
NM: Well, they will react in some ways that fit in with their own version of Zionism. They will attack certain anti-Semites, or people they perceive to be so.
NR: Do you think they have a different definition of it than the Anti-Defamation League?
NM: No, I think these days they are very similar. Both ADL and the Christians attack people who are critical of the state of Israel or its government. They do so for different eschatological reasons, it goes without saying; but the visible effects are the same but the Christians are not as bad as ADL in this respect.
NR: How do you combat such tactics?
NM: Invite them to debate in the open. The way they operate is to intimidate people on the quiet; get them out in the open and they are far more reluctant to engage. Name names.
NR: Letís talk a little about the avowedly non-religious people behind certain political movements, and their relationship to self-evidently religious people who co-incidentally the same candidates and manifestos. Like the Leo Strauss influence on the neo-cons, and their relationship with the religious right. Is this analogous to the situation in Israel?
NM: Well, the first point is that theology is invulnerable to non-theological corruption, so the neo-cons, or their equivalents elsewhere, canít corrupt the core beliefs of the religious right.
NR: What about fundamentalist preachers who are also government apologists?
NM: Think of someone like Falwell, who has been feted not just by the neo-cons, but by the Israeli gevernment. He changed from the position that Jews are not saved and cannot be, to a position where he would consider the possibility of the Jews being saved (at least more than the 144,000 allowed by the conventional Armageddon script). It is more than tempting to think he did this because it fitted better with a political project; but I think ultimately his theology, as he would see it, has managed to encompass the political argument.
The religious right in the States are convinced that they are closer to power now than they have ever been. So even though the politicians are slow in delivering (the abortion reform has been promised since Reagan, and still hasnít happened) the religious right will continue to support them unless their rhetoric turns away from the moralistic tone of the present.
NR: A last question. Was the assassination of Rabin critical for, or merely symptomatic of, Jewish fundamentalism?
NM: I think it was symptomatic. I think some of the fundamentalists realised that it was not a wise idea politically, but also realised that some zealot was likely to do it. Since they didnít adjust their rhetoric or behaviour to prevent this state of affairs, and didnít present a consistent critique of Rabin, you would have to say it was symptomatic. No one came out and said donít shoot him, after all.
1 John Derby was a Church of Ireland minister who developed a revisionist reading of scripture based on epochal divisions called Dispensations. His teachings included the first reference to the notion of rapture, and were extremely influential in the formation of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, both historically and in the present day[Back]