Temple Mount. Photo: NY Times
Many are wondering what lies behind Arab rage against Israel. Compared to the millions of Muslims slaughtered by other Muslims in Sudan, Syria, Iraq and other countries, Palestinian deaths in Israel are relatively few. Yet the millions massacred and millions more repressed does not evoke Arab outrage as do the events in Israel. Why the double standard? In the New York Times Nicholas Kristoff argues that this double standard in the Middle East is due to the fact that Arab countries are shame-based societies, and Israeli repression of Arabs is seen not just as brutal, but also as humiliating.
He cites Arabs telling him that, “Israel is a colonial outpost and that as a result while Israeli Arabs may have ballots and free speech, they have no dignity. The Israeli occupation represents a total humiliation of all the Arab regimes. It's a continuous reminder of the weakness of the Arabs as people, of their society and political system, as well as an indication of the impotence and corruption of their regimes."
Arab humiliation seems to have become a mainstay since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab world can simply not get over their lost pride as a people who once ruled and represented the epitome of civilization, and now are relegated to Third World status. Israel and America represent for the Arab world the source of this humiliation – so the argument goes.
Many other speculations are offered to explain Arab rage and frenzy against Israel and the West.
Understanding the underlying causes for Arab sentiments is not academic; it is the only way to get to the bottom of the issues. Understanding their mentality is the true key to help provide us with a meaningful strategy. We can never devise a workable plan as long as we focus on the superficial causes, and do not understand the driving force of our adversary. Does the Arab world just want justice for the Palestinians? Equal rights (rights they do not have under any Arab ruler)? Some land to live peacefully? Or perhaps they want something more that they simply are not telling us?
I submit that the true reason and core root of Arab anger is religious and not political.
The Arab world’s opposition to Israel is not due to any Israeli actions, but rather to the very existence of the Land of Israel and Jewish control over the land. This control is a perpetual thorn in their side, and the root cause for their “shame” and humiliation.
Why? Because Muslims fundamentally believe that Israel’s existence – and Jewish control over Israel – in what they consider to be their ‘conquered land,’ is a desecration of their religious vision.
This is the reason why Muslims have always built mosques on the sacred land of Jews and Christians (e.g. the Temple Mount, Bethlehem) to demonstrate their absolute belief that Muslim control over these lands fulfills and realizes the Divine will.
This religious belief is the true cause for the rage of the Arab/Muslim world against Israel. It is not about human rights, Palestinian sovereignty, Arab dignity, oil, money, harems, or any other issue. No amount of land return, no concessions will satisfy them – other than the elimination of Jewish control in Israel.
As uncomfortable as it may be, we will never be able to resolve the issues until we realize that this is a religious war not a political one.
Many of us would like to conveniently believe that the issues are political ones, because that would make the situation a lot more manageable and the problem a lot simpler. We know how to deal with political challenges. But if this is a religious war, we simply do not have the tools, experience or interest to fight such a war.
Our existing modalities are secular ones. Our political systems and governmental institutions have been built with secular goals in mind, without much consideration to spiritual and religious values, which we have relegated to the private sector. We therefore do not see the world in context of religious and spiritual vision. That’s why we cannot fathom or understand the rage of the Arab world today.
And this is why a Palestinian state is not possible, and for that matter not doable. A state will never satisfy the Arab world. They will simply see it as a step in the direction of their re-conquest of Israel. They do not want a state for political reasons, but for religious ones. That is the key to the underlying issues. As much as we wish to make the arab of the world our “partners in peace,” we must realize that our secular notions of peace are not part of their agenda at all.
But what lies beneath and behind – what fuels – this Arab rage and passion? To understand this we need to enter into the secret world of religious passion. This week’s Torah portion can help enlighten us
Balance between the sacred and the mundane is the theme of this week’s Torah portion, Achrei-Kedoshim (actually two portions that are joined as one). In Achrei we read about the aftermath of the death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron who were consumed by Divine fire when, in their passionate ecstasy they entered the Holy of Holies inappropriately. Kedoshim commands us to “be holy, because I, your G-d, am holy.”
Sanctifying yourself in the material world is no simple feat. Spirit and matter are dichotomous. Our physical existence consumes us so that it leaves little room (space and time) for spirituality. Our struggle for survival – eating, sleeping, work, shelter – hampers our search for transcendence, the pursuit of our calling and higher purpose. Material life lends itself to corruption, which explains why the scouts sent by Moses to Israel returned with a negative report, arguing that Israel is a “land that consumes its inhabitants.” Who among us does not have the struggle between our own personal higher standards and the temptation to conform to society’s standards, between home and career, between focusing on our transcendental needs when we are so preoccupied with our material ones?
The challenge of creating harmony between body and soul is twofold. When we are immersed in our daily needs it is increasingly difficult to access our souls. When we are inspired by a transcendental experience, we find it difficult to reenter regular life. It seems as if the extraordinary and the ordinary are mutually exclusive, like two different worlds that can never entirely converge.
How often do we find someone caught up in spiritual ecstasy that they cannot return intact? Being burned out by the fire of a passionate high, unable to reenter ordinary life? Case in point the famous Talmudic story of the ‘four who entered the garden,’ three unable to return unharmed. This explains why some mystics have chosen the ascetic path, separating themselves from regular life, so that they can pursue the life of the spirit.
Nadav and Avihu succumbed to this temptation. In their great passion and love for the Divine, they entered the Holy of Holies, and they… ‘burned out’ and could not return. This week’s Torah portion defines the necessary guidelines on how to enter holiness and how to internalize and integrate the experience and not self-destruct.
Of course this fear of being spiritually ‘burned out’ can lead one to argue the merit of the exact opposite position: We should just immerse ourselves in our material lives and forget about our spiritual dreams and fantasies. The argument goes: In our mundane world it is simply naïve to live a life of spiritual and ethical integrity. If we do embrace the sublime, we stand the great risk of ‘burn out’ and being unable to cope with ordinary life. Why take the risk, better to just resign ourselves to a mundane life, as close as we possible can to ‘animal bliss.’
Kedoshim tells us, no! We are obligated to sanctify our lives. And this precisely is life’s challenge: To fuse both worlds – matter and spirit, to spiritualize our material existence. This requires a delicate balance – a delicate dance – to synthesize both experiences, without one annihilating the other.
What is sanctity? Sanctity is recognizing that that every aspect of your life is not self contained but meant to become a channel for a Higher presence. Kedusha (holiness) is bittul (see Tanya chapter 6), suspension of self that allows the Divine to enter. Selfishness and narcissism does not allow anything else in. “Where is G-d?” the future Rebbe of Kotzk was once asked as a child. He replied: “Wherever you let Him in.”
The command “be holy” instructs us to sanctify all aspects of existence – time, space and human. We must sanctify our personal behavior, through kindness and love. Then we sanctify time – we realize the preciousness of each moment and fill it with meaningful and Divine activities. Shabbat and the holidays are sacred days. Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year, the Holy of Holies – is the epitome of time sanctification, serving as the source of sanctity for all days of the year.
Finally we sanctify space, the homes, land and countries in which we live. The Holy Land of Israel is the epitome of space sanctification, serving as the source of sanctity that spread to the entire globe. [This is one reason why we pray facing the East – Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount].
Jerusalem – especially the Temple Mount and specifically the Holy of Holies on the Mount – is the center and nucleus of Holiness on Earth. No wonder everyone always wanted to control Jerusalem. Not just today but throughout history. How many battles have been waged over that holy real estate?
So, Jewish control of the Holy Land and particularly of the Holy of Holies is no small matter. Arab rage against Israel may have many ostensible causes. But at its core root, it stems from the Holy of Holies – from the need and will to control that vital region. As long as Jews control it, they feel utterly weak.
The Talmud gives us a profound psychological insight. At times your unconscious – your mazal – may sense something that causes a strong physical reaction. The holiness of Israel and Jerusalem is the cause for the profound enmity of the Arab world, even if there are other perceived causes and not everyone may be conscious of the true cause.
But to devise a successful strategy requires a true diagnosis of the problem. And sometimes (more often than not) the truth is something no one wants to hear or acknowledge. The war against Israel is rooted in religious belief (albeit distorted). And this is very difficult for us to accept. Why? There are many reasons. One compelling reason is this: After all, our modern secular world still lingers in the long shadow of the war between science and religion, a war many thought was won long ago by science and secularism. Suddenly religion comes back on the scene, and is threatening not just the Middle East but New York and Washington – mighty secular America.
That is too much to absorb in one shot. That's why people are in such shock. We need to get accustomed to this new reality -- a religious global war being fought, a war that will determine what G-d really wants of us, a war that will define and crystallize once and for all what is true Islam, what is true Christianity and what is true Judaism. We need to learn to reintroduce a long forgotten G-d into our lives, to reacquaint ourselves with G-d after a long hiatus, fueled by prosperity and its inevitable complacency and spiritual lethargy.
As a Jew, I know that our role is to use every platform available to us today to advocate the universal message of Torah – what Abraham taught to all his children, how G-d wants all of us to live, Jew, Muslim, Christian and all people.
The Torah’s essential message is that we can and we must sanctify the material world. We need to integrate the sacred with the mundane. One extreme or the other is simply not acceptable: Violent passion – even in the name of G-d – is destructive and therefore un-G-dly. Too much untempered chesed (Ishmael) annihilates the universe. Conversely, overabundant gevurah (Esau) and immersion in the material, or its antithesis, radical disassociation with the physical (as in celibacy), is equally destructive.
The holiness of Eretz Yisroel is complete when it creates harmony between the physical land (Eretz) and the Divine (Yisroel, meaning “You have battled with the Divine and with man and you have prevailed”).
We are now experiencing perhaps the greatest ‘market correction’ in history – in defining the truth of the world’s religions; a reality check of the vastest proportions – the final battle – and ultimate reconciliation – between the sublime and the secular, between spirit and matter.