When Pvt. Noam Friedman fired his Israeli army assault rifle at Palestinians in a Hebron market, he made clear a painful truth. He showed how dangerous the mixture of religion and nationalism in Israel has become.
Friedman was evidently an unbalanced young man; a psychiatrist had recommended against his being taken into the army. But whatever his mental state, he acted in an atmosphere of fanatical religious nationalism, and he uttered the slogans of the movement.
Asked why he had fired into the crowd, he claimed a religious justification. “Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs for 400 shekels of silver,” he said. “No one will return it.” That is the Biblical episode cited by religious leaders who are trying to prevent the redeployment of Israeli forces from most of Hebron, as required by the Oslo agreements.
A group of nationalist rabbis had called on soldiers to disobey orders to withdraw from Hebron. Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, who heads a yeshiva in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, said: “Soldiers must not follow an order that is against a commandment of the Torah.”
Thus the shooting in Hebron showed again what many in Israel’s secular majority now consider the greatest menace to their society. That is the apparent fact that some ultra-Orthodox Israelis do not accept the authority of the democratic state, believing instead that they can enforce what they view as divine command.
Israel has lost a prime minister to fanaticism. Yigal Amir said after assassinating Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 that he had fulfilled a religious duty. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, like Friedman a settler, shot 29 Palestinians to death as they prayed in Hebron.
Nor is it possible to dismiss those killings as the acts of isolated loners. A number of young Israeli women have declared themselves admirers of Yigal Amir. Extremists have made Baruch Goldstein’s grave a place of pilgrimage.
The sincerity of ultra-Orthodox believers who see divine authority for territorial claims is not in doubt. Nor can anyone question the emotional attachment of some Jews to places such as Hebron, where Jews lived for many generations until they were massacred in 1929.
But the principle of deciding territorial claims on the basis of ancient religious texts is a recipe for insecurity. The planting of 400 extremist Jewish settlers amid 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron has put a heavy burden on the Israel Defense Force. Think what the world would be like if every tribe and sect pressed its claims on that basis.
Moreover, the idea is in conflict with the historical basis of Zionism. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the movement, wanted a Jewish national homeland not for religious reasons but to enable Jews to live a normal life.
Those who created modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion and the rest, did not seek to found its legitimacy on biblical text. They sought that legitimacy in international politics and diplomacy: United Nations resolutions, President Harry Truman’s crucial support at the founding in 1948, and so on.
Most Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism until after World War II, and some still do. It is only in recent years that ultra-Orthodox elements in Israel have acted to enlist the state’s military force on behalf of their religious visions while nationalists have used religious groups to legitimize their maximalist territorial aims.
That is the mixture that is so dangerous for Israel. It has entangled and complicated the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The hope of peace can no longer be considered apart from the issue of religion and state in Israel.
There was a moment after Friedman’s rampage that dramatized the real demands of peace. The chief of Israel’s security service, Ami Ayalon, met the Palestinian head of security in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, in public view in the town square of Hebron. They worked out ways to calm the immediate tension.
It was a momentous symbol of a reality that Israelis responsible for security have come to understand.
In the long run, security will not work on a unilateral basis. It will come from a relationship between the two peoples based not on absolutes but on the accommodations of politics: a relationship of mutual respect.