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Speeches

J. Montville: The Roots of Religious Extremism

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East


This paper examines the potential for Jewish theologically-based peace on the commandments of God. It starts with a brief historical contextual setting to establish the reasons for the elusiveness of peace as a concept for European Jewry. In so doing it discusses the impact of centuries of Christian violence against Jews and the mystification in Jewish and Israeli minds of Gentile hatred and the struggle to understand God’s meaning in the Holocaust. Finally, it explores the political ideological effects of traumatic history in the passions of radical religious Zionism and the settler movement, and a significant intra-Jewish attempt to make peace a central definition of God.

Jews under Christian Rule

This can only be a notional and symbolic scene setting for the discussion to follow. We can start with the impact of anti-Judaic dogma found in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is quoted as saying to the Jews, “I know you are Abraham’s descendents. Yet you are ready to kill me because you have no room for my word…. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:33-42) These words put in Jesus’ mouth by the author of the Fourth Gospel laid the foundation for a disastrous relationship between Jewish minorities and Christians in the Byzantine lands and Europe.

The power of these words endured through the centuries and the heartbreaking and ultimately unspeakable tragedy of the Jews in Christian Europe. There is an unambiguous link of this heritage to death and destruction in the Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim conflicts with the implicit and persistent threat of nuclear Holocaust in the Middle East. Christians were also hostile to Muslims and Islam.

Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in November 1095 C.E. in Clermont, France, at a Peace Council. He reportedly was trying to stop the internecine fighting and incessant competition among regional political leaders in an essentially unstable European environment. In an open field, Urban pronounced a pan-Christian truce to the assembled nobles, laymen, bishops and priests. He then urged the crowd to turn the attention to “the bastard Turks,” who had shed Christian “blood like a river that runs around Jerusalem.” Among the charges Urban made to the crowd, he said:

Christians were being forcibly circumcised…and the resulting blood was spread on altars or poured into baptismal fonts; the Turks cut open the navels of those women they choose to torment with a loathsome death…tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them; they tied some to posts and used them for archery practice; others they attacked with drawn swords to see whether they can cut off their heads with a single stroke.

If these words were not enough of an incentive, Urban offered an almost irresistible holy contract. Whoever went on the journey to free Jerusalem would win penance for all his sins: a plenary indulgence. War thus became a religious activity. And the First Crusade got underway but with the most bitter of ironic overtures.

Peter the Hermit was chief recruiter of fighters for the Crusade. In the spring of 1096 C.E., Peter preached on Good Friday in the Cathedral of Cologne. As is well-known, the Good Friday Passion liturgy put special emphasis on the “perfidious Jews,” the murderers of Christ.

The first large-scale anti-Jewish pogrom in Europe began that May. The Christian soldiers, crosses sewn onto their tunics, worked their way down the Rhine stopping in the cities of Speyer, Trier, Metz, Regensburg, Cologne, Worms, Mainz and seven other cities. The crusaders killed some ten thousand Jews, about one-third the Jewish population in Europe. Albert of Aachen wrote of the attack on Mainz of May 25:

Breaking the bolts and doors, they killed the Jews, about 700 in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women, also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex….Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands.

Another witness to the massacre in Mainz recounted the words of the Christians as they sought out Jews to kill:

You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration [Jesus Christ], hanging him on a tree; and he himself had said: ‘‘There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.” We are his children and it is…therefore obligatory for us to avenge him since you are the ones who rebel and disbelieve him.

One might ask what the point is in resurrecting these gory details of almost a millennium ago. Surely very few Ashkenazi Jews can cite this story in detail. And no doubt far fewer Christians. The point is that we are taking a psychological history of a pathological relationship, and we need to know its traumas. Our Jewish brothers and sisters “know” the story of Mainz in the sense that it is an integral part of the collective memory of European Jews passed down from generation to generation. It has become an essential part of the inability to fully trust Christians and other Gentiles. It affects Jewish communities in America and Europe. It is central to the inability of Israel today to make peace with the Palestinians on its own.[1]

What Did God Mean by the Pogroms and the Holocaust?

In a workshop on Jewish fundamentalism at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in 2006, Gershon Greenberg, a professor of philosophy and religion at American University, considered the ways that different Jewish communities sought to interpret the historical events that befell European Jewry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a variety of scriptural lenses. Moreover, he suggested that these varying mythological interpretations were so many ways of coming to terms with the massive communal trauma and victimhood thrust upon Jewish communities in the wake of the escalating European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoah. If we understand contemporary Jewish mythologizing in therapeutic terms like these, then the critical question becomes how successful various religious narratives are in moving their communities through trauma towards life.

Some religious Jews sought to revive the specter of Amalek, the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people. In the Hebrew scriptures, Amalek is said to have attacked the Israelites without provocation, indeed without any reason at all. (See 1 Samuel 15:1-10; Numbers 13:29; Numbers 14:45.) Thus, typologically, Amalek came to stand for the unwarranted, absurd and yet, nevertheless, very real and often deadly aggression that periodically befell the Jewish people. Amalek was remembered as provocative and brutal, striking the traveling Israelites without warning, “smiting the hindmost, all that were feeble behind.” (1 Samuel 15:2) This vivid typology made it easy for the Jewish community to see the visage of their old enemy, Amalek, in the brutal and absurd actions of Nazi Germany.

Jewish history can be understood as the history of the absurd hatred of the Jews. The Jewish calling is, therefore, to suffer; history is the history of the suffering of the Jews. Why? Because through this suffering God is at work; the suffering of the Jews will yet yield the Messiah. Amalek thus became a tool in the hands of God, a painful goad to the Jewish nation, a pawn in salvation history. Greenberg recounted the rather harrowing way that the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv expressed this view by calling the Nuremberg Laws a good thing. For we Jews, the rabbi said, had our own Nuremberg Laws received from Sinai. Jews are, he declared, a “sacred seed,” “set apart”; Jews are Geza, their own nation. One of Amalek’s purposes is to keep that Geza pure.[2]

An Israeli-American political psychologist, Ofira Seliktar, has written of the Holocaust as a mystical event:

The Holocaust presents the Jews in Israel a problem--the inability of cognitively understanding the tragedy. The problem of anti-Semitism has always been a puzzling cognitive phenomenon for Jews. The Holocaust, more than any other violence committed against the Jews is even less explicable. The Israelis do not view the Holocaust as only a German atrocity committed against the Jews, but rather a culmination of centuries-long persecution of the Jews. Since the Holocaust is perceived as being outside the normal syntax of human relations which cannot be explained in rational terms, it is regarded as a mystical event. This view contributed to the current phenomenon in Israel of mystification of the persecution urge of the Gentile world against the Jews.

Accordingly, the Holocaust is the crucial but not the only indicator of the mystical and congenital spiritual deformation of Gentile society. Totally unrelated to what the Jews are or do, they are singled out to stay apart, condemned to an eternity of almost cosmic loneliness by an unaccepting Gentile world.[3]

During World War II, those who mythologized Germany as a type of Amalek initially saw Amalek as an instrument of God. The reason Jews were suffering so was because of their assimilation or their failure to return to the Land of Israel, and the German nation was merely being used as God’s tool to push His chosen people back to Torah observance, to communal purity, to the homeland, etc. However, as the war progressed and the awful brutality of the Nazi regime became increasingly clear, the Jewish community began to alter this story.

Instead of speaking about Amalek as a tool in God’s hands they began to talk about a cosmic battle between the Jews and Amalek and they anticipated a real victory that would wipe Amalek from the earth. Such Amalek tales are not simply mythology but rather the mythological expression of a despairing hope that real Germans in the 1940s or real Arabs today might be actually destroyed. The battle between the people of God and Amalek may be cosmic, but its consequences are written in flesh and blood.

At the Esalen workshop referred to above, an Israeli sociologist, Dr. Shlomo Fisher of Hebrew University, explained that in Israel politics and religion are nothing if not local affairs. He said we cannot understand radical religious Zionism without paying close attention to the peculiarities of small, sometimes disparate subgroups that nevertheless exert a political and religious influence beyond their numbers. To understand radical religious Zionism requires that they be taken on their own terms, which means especially to take their ideologies and theologies seriously.

The theological and ideological leader of religious Zionism was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864 - 1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine (a territory that encompassed modern Jordan and Israel with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Along with Franz Rosenzweig, Rabbi Kook is widely considered one of the two most important rabbis of the twentieth century, and it is hard to overstate his importance to the Zionist movement.

As Kook saw, while the forces of secularism, economic expansion, modern nationalism, and so forth, may seem to threaten religious identity, they are in fact part of the divine plan for the restoration of all things. Indeed, the religiously challenging aspects of secularism are part of the divine plan—they force God’s people to move out into the world and to prepare the ground for the eventual restoration of the world. Only by creatively and forcefully engaging the secular world on its own terms, can the entire world of manifestation be liberated. Redemption will occur once secular life is entirely ordered to divine ideals, the profane world overcome with divine life.

Religious Zionism has been radicalized, often with dangerous political and religious consequences. It is too easy to say that when religious people do terrible things—plotting to blow up a sacred site, for example, or engaging in acts of suicidal violence—they are not behaving religiously. To the contrary, acts of systematic intolerance and violence are often propagated by people who are genuinely religious (or have real “religious experiences.”) As we will see below, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who signed a peace agreement with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, falls entirely into this category—with devastating effect on Israeli political culture.

Politically, radical religious Zionism lends a supposedly divine justification to what are otherwise secular projects and so tends to inculcate a dangerous political extremism. Religiously, this alliance is also suspect, for it too often ends by making an idol of the individual or community’s will. In modern Israel, this is most clearly seen in the way that the “will of the people” is regularly taken to express a sort of divine sanction. Here, especially, we can see the extent to which these supposedly conservative religious groups are in fact very modern. Radical religious Zionists should not be understood as regressive defenders of an idealized past but as peculiarly modern religio-political movements. The absolutizing of the general will is an expression of secular nationalism more than of traditional religion. In modern Israel, the equation of national will with religious witness has given rise to the slogan: the voice of the people is the voice of God revealed to the prophets.

This attention to the vox populi explains why radical religious Zionists are eager to dialogue with their Israeli counterparts (secular or religious, liberal or conservative) but see little need to dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs. Both Statists and populists see the Israeli people as somehow organically expressing the will of God and so, even if they fiercely disagree, they have to pay attention to each other. Arabs, however, are excluded from this organic conception of the nation and are little more than bit players in a drama that centers on the relationship between God and the people/nation of Israel.

The Search for Peace as the Central Meaning of God in Judaism

This segment draws on and is inspired by a remarkable book by a remarkable young Israeli, Alick Isaacs, who co-directs the Talking Peace project in Jerusalem and teaches Jewish studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The book is A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics.[4] It is analytical and prescriptive but also deeply personal. Isaacs explains how he was drawn into Zionism and the issues of violence and war in the defense of his Jewish identity and Israel as a fourteen year old in Birmingham, England. He was set upon by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads who spotted his kippah (skull cap) as he was walking out of a Talmud class. He was knocked down and kicked in the face. Lying in his own blood he prayed:

‘‘Israel, Israel.” There on the ground I made three promises. I vowed to settle in the land of Israel and to enlist and serve in an Israeli military combat unit….my four remaining teenage years in Birmingham were years of fear…and I comforted myself with the dream of a life in Israel, where I would feel permanently safe. I dreamed of the kind of peace that follows a triumph—the peace of the daring. That dream of peace led me to war in Lebanon [2006] and in Lebanon I parted with it. In Lebanon I discovered a new peace—the peace of the timid.[5]

Isaacs’ experience with the harshness of war led him to see how religion was used as a justification of violence and war. He recalls sharing his moral misgivings at the killing of civilians and the trashing of villages with an officer who he said was stupefied with his position. He said:

I’m amazed at you! How do you think the walls came tumbling down at Jericho? How did David beat Goliath? How were the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars won? Where is your faith? Of course we will win. God is on our side. Our enemies are his enemies. God has no alternative. He has already made his choice. He will help us kill them all. He is always with us. He hates them as much as we do. What’s the matter with you?

It became clear to Isaacs that the tradition of diplomatic negotiation and deal-making, the hopes for compromise on fundamental issues in the Israeli-Arab or Palestinian conflict had no chance of success. He cites the failure of the Camp David negotiation in 2000 where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton vastly underestimated the resistance of religious parties and activists to the idea of compromise on the division of Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat realized he had no authority to negotiate on Jerusalem without the political support of the Muslim world.

The author writes:

Since the founding of the state of Israel, public political discourse in the Middle East has been dominated by one narrow, secular understanding of peace. The result is that ‘‘peace” is a dirty word among many religious people and—conversely—religion is generally perceived as an obstacle to peace. But shalom and salam—in the vast and deep historical cultures of Judaism and Islam—are crucial concepts that stand for much more than a ceasefire achieved through the exchange of land….I will present a notion of Jewish monotheistic theology that is geared toward the acquisition of humility, the radical acceptance of diversity, and, ultimately, peace.[6]

Isaacs acknowledges that since many Jewish texts speak positively about war, a method of complex analysis of biblical and rabbinic texts is necessary to extract the essential focus of peace in Judaism.

On November 4, 1995, Yigal Amir, a young Yemeni Jew, schooled by radical religious Zionist rabbis, took it upon himself to kill Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for having signed a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat. Alick Isaacs went to his synagogue the next day to pray. He was stunned by what he heard his fellow Jews say about the assassination. He was aware of the strong opposition by most religious people to the Oslo accords with the Palestinians of 1993 and 1995. But he heard people say, “He had it coming”, “Yigal Amir is God’s emissary”, “That’s what God does to you when you meddle with the Jewish hold on the land of Israel”, “Now his soul will pay for his sins.” The land of Israel to these religious Zionists had become the new idol whose compromise justified the murder of the prime minister. Peace with the Palestinians had become a crime against God.

In A Prophetic Peace… Alick Isaacs reproduces a passage from the Zohar, a work of mystical commentary on the Torah. It is on the centrality of peace in Judaism.

Conflict is a distancing of peace, and whoever is in conflict about peace is in disagreement with His holy name [God], because His holy name is called ‘‘Peace”…Come and behold: the world does not exist except through peace. When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, it could not endure until He came and made peace dwell upon them….And then the world endured. Therefore, whoever creates dissension about peace will be lost from the world. Rabbi Yossi says that it is written ‘‘great peace have they that love the Torah” (Psalm 119:165). The Torah is peace, as it is written ‘‘and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).[7]

This is Alick Isaacs’ challenge. How to restore peace to its rightful place in Jewish in religious Zionist consciousness which as we have seen above, has been battered in the extreme by the brutality of Amalek—the Gentile world.

Earlier in the book, Isaacs cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s belief that it is the experience of humility in the face of mystery that makes space for compassion. Humility is also--in the same way—the mother of tolerance and peace. Heschel wrote, “I suggest that the most significant basis for the meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition.”[8] In the Talking Peace project of continual, intra-Jewish dialogue among the range of extremely secular and radical religions Zionist settler rabbis, Isaacs and his colleagues, through the gradual process of humanization, through dialogue work toward Rabbi Heschel’s ideal of humility, the mother of tolerance and peace.

Toward the end of A Prophetic Peace…, Alick Isaacs writes:

I believe that the central ideas that I have presented resonate with the classical and canonical texts of the Jewish tradition. I trust that this tradition confirms my conviction that peace as I have described it is an ultimate value and furthermore that Jewish texts yield to a reading of Judaism’s deepest principle as the pursuit of peace. This perhaps counterintuitive idea works because it is associated with Judaism’s most obvious belief—the unity of God. As I have presented monotheism—which describes a single God, whose incomprehensible unity encompasses all the forces that span created time and space—is a peaceful idea captured in (among many other expressions of it) the divine name Adonay-Shalom [the Lord is Peace]. (Judges 6:24)[9]

Concluding Statement

Alick Isaacs has the last word:

I would like to take part in a wider conversation in which Jews and Muslims—separately and together—offer each other their versions of peace’s meaning for careful and thoughtful consideration. The outcomes of these conversations might supplement the debate about the Middle East conflict and its proposed political solutions with new alternatives. Better still, this conversation might generate organically Jewish and Muslim motivations for putting an end to hostilities. While it is commonly argued that a silent majority supports peace in the Middle East, I urge people to notice that the workings of a silent majority are inadequate to the challenge at hand. By engendering an ideological discussion about peace and its potential meanings, my ultimate hope is to create a varied and extremely vocal majority of Jews and Muslims who see peace—as they understand it—as the ultimate fulfillment of their aspirations and who are prepared to pursue peace with the same passions and convictions that currently fuel the perpetuation of hatred and violence.

As the saying goes, “From his mouth to God’s ear.”

Joseph Montville is Director of the Program on Healing Historical Memory, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. He is also director of the Abrahamic Family Reunion, the Esalen Institute project to promote Muslim-Christian-Jewish reconciliation. He is also Senior Adviser on Interfaith Relations at Washington National Cathedral and is Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University. Montville founded the preventive diplomacy program at Washington, DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1994 and is credited as having defined the concept of “Track Two,” nonofficial diplomacy.


[1] Joseph V. Montville, “Multiple Religious Belonging: Compassion, Life and Death,” BTI Magazine, Fall 2009, Number 9.1, pp. 4-10.

[2] Gershon Greenberg and Shlomo Fisher, in A Symposium on Jewish Fundamentalism, Esalen Institute, Center for Theory and Research, 2006 esalenctr.org/beyondfundamentalism.

[3] Joseph V. Montville, “Psychoanalytic Enlightenment and the Greening of Diplomacy,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 37, No. 2, 1989, pp. 297-318.

[4] Alick Isaacs, A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics, Indiana University Press, 2010.

[5] Ibid, p. 32.

[6] Ibid., p. 16.

[7] Ibid., p. 139.

[8] Ibid., p. 53.

[9] Ibid., p. 158.