The massacre in Hebron on February 25, 1994 is yet another indication that we are in the midst of a process that might turn the protracted political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians into a religious conflict. The murderer, Goldstein, saw himself as a religious Jew and his supporters are motivated among other reasons by what they see as a fundamentalist reading of Jewish tradition. This development is paralleled by a growing terror performed by the Hamas on the Palestinian side, an opposition also informed by a religious Islamic ideology. The slow movement towards political reconciliation is faced on both sides by a growing religious opposition. If indeed the political conflict will turn into an apocalyptic war between Judaism and Islam, a perverse religious mentality of "all or nothing at all" will dominate the relations between the two peoples, and the Middle East will be doomed - God forbid - to an everlasting religious war.
This threatening scenario is another reason why a political resolution is more urgent now than ever before. The leadership of both the Israelis and Palestinians must remember that every void created by the political impasse is immediately exploited by the fundamentalist ideology. Thus, both Rabin and Arafat ought to be aware that the usual delays and maneuvers that are part and parcel of regular political negotiations, are a dangerous luxury in this situation. We have to keep the peace momentum going before fundamentalism makes new gains. But politics is not the solution to a religious conflict, and shifting the responsibility towards the political leadership is only a partial cure to a dangerous situation. The answer must come from the religious communities themselves. What is needed today is an alternative religious interpretation of Islam and Judaism that will undermine from within the ultra-nationalistic interpretation of these traditions. Such a reading will channel the religious energy into a force of reconciliation and will help to validate religiously both peace and the sacredness of human life. Besides my conviction that the development of a religious vocabulary and sensibility is necessary for any solution, as a religious Jew what is at stake for me is not only the future of Israel as a democratic state, but the future of Judaism. I will attempt to demarcate two areas where an alternative religious vision to that of Gush Emunim ought to be focused. The first is sacredness of land and sanctity of life, and the second is particularism and the consciousness of shared humanity.
According to Jewish tradition there are only three Mitzvot (commandments) that a person must not transgress on pain of death: idolatry, incest and murder. Or, to put it in contemporary terms, there are three and only three, commandments that supercede considerations of physical security. As for the rest of the commandments, a person is not obligated to sacrifice his life in order to fulfill them. For example, according to Jewish law a Jew is obligated to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save someone else. In light of this view of sanctity of life, the majority of rabbinical authorities see the new religious ideology developed by Gush Emunim as a distortion of values. According to Gush Emunim's religious ideology, the commandment to settle the land precedes even peace. Thus the religious right claims that territorial compromise is prohibited by Jewish law. The counter-religious ideology has to stress the sanctity of life over and above the sacredness of land. If territorial compromise will save human life of both Israelis and Palestinians, a Jewish government is not only permitted to give back territories but it is obligated to do so. Thus, Gush Emunim's ideology that absolutizes the land as the primary value preceding even human life is a form of idolatry in itself. This ruling that a land-for-peace compromise is prohibited by Jewish law is hardly an instance of fundamentalism. It is, instead, a new ideology that carries the traditional rabbinical ideas about the sacredness of the land to the absurd conclusion that land is more sacred than life. Territorial compromise is therefore not only prohibited: it is obligated. One of the most common distortions of religion in modernity is the recruitment of religious ideology for ultra-nationalistic use. The greatest challenge of the religious community is to maintain religion autonomously and to battle the desecration and instrumentalization of God as "the guardian of the national interests." As part of the instrumentalization of religion for national politics, the radical right reinterpretation of tradition extends also to the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and not only to the relationship between Jews and the land of Israel. Meir Kahane used to quote the biblical account of Joshua's conquest of the land of Canaan as the Jewish paradigm for treating indigenous enemies: just as Joshua expelled the Canaanites from the land, so should the Palestinians be expelled. This may look a lot like fundamentalism, but it is more properly described as a sloppy reading of the text. In the Bible, the harsh treatment of the Canaanites was justified by the desire to eradicate paganism from the land. The biblical war was not a national conflict over possession of the land; it was a war between monotheists and pagans. I do not know whether Israeli secularists in Tel Aviv are more or less pagan than Palestinian monotheists in Nablus, but one thing is clear: their conflict has very little to do with the Bible, and the view to the contrary not only poisons the political atmosphere, it also represents a really diabolical deformation of Judaism for political purposes. Maimonides, the greatest codifier of Jewish law, defined Muslims as monotheists, claiming that both Muslims and Jews worship the same God. To murder God's worshippers in a sacred place while praying is both a perversion of Jewish tradition and a desecration of God's name.
The task of the alternative religious ideology countering the right is to establish a religious stance which denies the absolutism of land as idolatrous. It also has to carve a religious domain of a shared humanity which transcends any kind of heightened particularism. The Mishnah - an authoritative text of Jewish law from the second century - asks the following question: Why did God at the beginning create the world with one person alone? The first answer in the Mishnah is that creation of one Adam teaches us that if someone sheds the blood of an individual, it is as if he destroyed a whole universe. The second answer is that Adam was created alone so that no one can say "my father is greater than your father." Humanity as defined in the biblical creation narrative has one father, and racism is defeated by the foundational story of the creation in the Bible. In each of us - Jew and Muslim, Christian and Hindu - there is the human created in the image of God ad dignified as God's creature. Thus the sacred and the human in us is unexhausted by our particularistic religious or national history and loyalty. If we lose sight that God is in His deepest form the principle that transcends particularism, we are doomed to worship the fist rather than the God of Abraham. The task of the religious leadership of Jews and Muslims is to remind us all that God, Whom we worship together, transcends national boundaries, and that to use God as a divisive factor is to make Him the idol of the tribe rather than God of the universe.