The Messiah’s Donkey

Tel Aviv at sunset. Image courtesy of Mikhal Dekel.
In November 2022, a far-right coalition government came to power in Israel. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, this new government began pursuing what some have described as a quasi-authoritarian political agenda, which has sparked concern among Israelis and international observers alike. The articles in our “Focus Israel” series offer a wide range of insights, commentaries, and criticisms on what many consider to be a growing threat to the preservation of democracy in Israel. The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “Focus Israel” series is being coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.

1992 was the best year. For me, for my friends and family, and for half of the population of Israel that voted for Yitzhak Rabin, a charismatic, widely respected former military general campaigning on a two-state peace solution platform. Rabin won by a decent margin, and brought with him the most liberal government in Israeli history. We cried when dovish and erudite education minister Yossi Sarid assigned the poems of Mahmoud Darwish to public school curricula, and we demonstrated in support of land for peace. In our lifetime we had known only cycles of war, terrorism, occupation, loss, and mourning. Suddenly a new dawn seemed possible.1992 was also the worst year. For half of the population of Israel that did not vote for Yitzhak Rabin. To them, the new additions to the school curricula were blasphemous; the land for peace deal, which included Jewish holy sites and possibly the holiest of all, Jerusalem, catastrophic. Their side demonstrated wildly against Rabin, rallied by the incitement of then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Rabbis delivered sermons against the government. In many prayer books, the sentence, “Shield over [Israel] your canopy of peace; send your light and your truth to its leaders, ministers and counsels” was erased from the prayer for “the Welfare of the State of Israel.” In some, the sentence, “Remove the evil government from the land” was added.We all know how it ended. Three years after Rabin came to power, a young law student from the religious university Bar-Ilan, indeed removed the so-called “evil government” from the land – with the help of a Beretta 84F pistol. He shot Rabin from close range at a peace rally in Tel Aviv and put into motion a process ending with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the head of government. With the exception of a few short intervals, Netanyahu has been in power ever since.I remember waking to the news that, contrary to predictions, Likud had won the election by a small margin. I remember the eerily quiet streets of Tel Aviv: the people walking with the downcast eyes, the bumper stickers that read, “This is the end of the world.” We were shocked that this could be the outcome after Rabin’s murder.The truth is, we shouldn’t have been. The signs had been there all along: the man who shot Rabin and the many who secretly supported him had been there all along, and the zealous ideology of religious nationalism had been there all along. But, we did not see them – the way New Yorkers did not “see” the millions who live elsewhere and voted for Trump. In my childhood, atop the Carmel Mountain in Haifa, I knew no one who frequented a synagogue daily and no one who voted anything other than Labor. They were not represented in mainstream media, music, art, culture, or the three main newspapers. They lived parallel lives in Jerusalem, in Bnei Brak, in West Bank settlements, even in Haifa itself: Ultra-Orthodox groups who studied only Jewish scriptures, lived by strict gender roles, and could care less about the liberal, modern nation state; Zionist religious groups who believed that the function of the Jewish State was to hasten the coming of the Messiah; and others for whom theocracy trumped democracy.The first time I met anyone from the other Israel was during my (mandatory) army service. At night, seated in our bunks after grueling days, we sometimes talked politics. A condensed version of those conversations went something like this:Me: “One day, this land where our base is will be split and there’ll be a Palestinian state here.”Religious Girl X: “You can talk as much as you want, but we will not give up a centimeter of our holy land.”Me: “What other choice is there?”Religious Girl Y: “We have already lost the First Temple and the Second Temple. We will not lose Israel again.”The First Temple in Jerusalem is said to have been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans the in 70 CE; we were now, according to my friends, living in the time of a third temple. Theirs wasn’t just a radically different world view than mine; it was a different temporal reality altogether.These different, opposing temporal realities have existed in Israel since its inception. On one end is a secular, technological, modern nation-state that in many ways has cut itself from the Jewish past for the purpose of radical self-invention; on the other is a pious, messianic temporality that welds together the distant past with the present and future. Stir in the immediate political aims and the nearly limitless power this side has today, and you can see how dangerous this messianic temporality has become. A formidable chunk of Netanyahu’s government embraces it.From its inception, the secular Zionist movement that willed Israel into existence represented a challenge to believers. Each of the different strands of Jewish Orthodoxy dealt with this challenge in its own way. For some, the secular Zionists building the country were a group to be ignored and even actively fought. For Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the foundational ideologue of religious Zionism, they were a conduit to a higher spiritual state. In the book, Messiah’s Donkey, whose title I borrowed for this piece, journalist Sefi Rechlevsky traces how Kook fondly embraced the early secular state, but only as a “messiah’s donkey,” on whose back the spiritual-theological messiah will arrive. After the seculars build the material nation-state, that is, the time will come for the religious to rule and to create a spiritual, messianic state. For Kook’s late followers, now, at last, is that time.Israel’s current constitutional crisis has brought to the surface its deepest political- theological divide. For some, now is the time for equality for all in Israel/ Palestine; for others, now is the time for ensuring the continuation of the Jewish faith, Jewish superiority, and in its extreme version a Jewish theological state. “The state is a vehicle, the Jewish people is the goal,” writes Bar Ilan Professor Zeev Magen, in an op ed in Ha’aretz (3.13.2003). He is not an extremist, just honest when he addresses Haaretz liberal readers: “You are human beings before you are Jews; we are Jews before we are human beings.”We don’t know how the current moment in Israel will play itself out. The opposition is strong, resolute, creative and brave. It has spirit. It has brains. It has money. It is full of people who’ve said they’re willing to die for it. It may very well succeed into forcing the government to back down from some of its radical, undemocratic overhaul of the judicial system. But, the fundamental abyss, the polar realities and temporalities that Israelis inhabit, will not disappear.

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