Nationalism and Religious Fundamentalism in the Secularized Modern Society

The relationship between nationhood and religion is central to the world outlook of the Hebrew Bible. The focus of covenantal history is the relationship between God and a people, the goal of which is the religio-ethical enlightenment of all peoples - all humankind.



Nationalism and Religious Fundamentalism in the Secularized Modern Society


David Rosen


The relationship between nationhood and religion is of course central to the world   outlook of the Hebrew Bible. Not only are national identities taken as a given of the   natural human order, but the national context and experience are viewed as the principle   vehicle through which the Divine Presence is encountered in human history. Thus the focus of   covenantal history is the relationship between God and a people, the goal of which is the   religio-ethical enlightenment of all peoples – all humankind.


Nevertheless the relationship between national identity and religion often appears a   perplexing one and sometimes even an embarrassing one – especially when nationalist   violence is perpetrated in the name of religion. To our bewilderment and shame, even if   religion is not the actual source of conflict, it often seems to make the situation worse   rather than better. I understand that in being asked to address this title, I have been   asked to shed some light on this phenomenon in general. So I will devote the first half of   my presentation to the question at large in its broadest socio-cultural context before   addressing its expression in the Jewish national context in a spirit of autocritique.


Because religion seeks to give meaning and direction to the place and purpose of our   existence in the world, it is thus bound up with all the circles of human interaction from   the most minimal, such as family, to the broadest – humanity, and even Creation as a   whole. These circles make up our identity, not only as individuals but also as social   beings. From family though congregations, communities, ethnic groups, nations, to   international frameworks, these are the building blocks of our multi-faceted identities and   we ignore these components at our peril. Indeed modem ethologists and popular social   anthropologists have attributed much of modern disorientation and alienation to the   breakdown of traditional society and those building blocks of identity, especially family   and community. Alvin Toffler, for example, in his book Future Shock highlighted the   problem of mass deracination in modern society and the serious destabilizing consequences of   such rootlessness. While the phenomenon of contemporary counter-culture has substantially   been a reaction against modern secular vacuity, obsessive materialism and the rat race of   contemporary life; Toffler and others like Robert Ardrey have explained the proliferation of   sects and cults аs well as the drug culture and other such phenomena in modern   society, not only in these terms but also as reflecting the search for meaning and identity,   amidst a void resulting from the breakdown of traditional societies and the concomitant   disorientation and loss of identity.


In the inextricable relationship between identity and religion, religion gives meaning   and purpose to our understanding of who we are, as part of smaller units or circles, that   broaden to make up the wider circles and greatest whole. However, in affirming who we are as   part of those smaller circles, identity at the same time declares who we are not.   Accordingly, the components of our corporate identities may be used not only for positive   affirmation, but also for negative division and conflict, whether between families,   communities, ethnic or national groups. Because religion is so inextricably bound up with   the different components of our identities, where these are used negatively, religion is   caught up all too often as part and parcel of such conflicts, exacerbating hostility instead   of combating it, as we still see in so many parts of our world today.


In his work The Territorial Imperative, drawing on zoological parallels, Robert   Ardrey points out that paradoxically, a degree of absence of security, i.e., a threat to   one"s security, is itself the most effective stimulus of particular identity, e.g.,   societies in times of conflict. Accordingly, sociologically, religion acquires far greater   prominence in times of insecurity, precisely as a vehicle for nurturing the particular   identity that is threatened or undermined. In such conditions of threat and insecurity, Rene   Girard points out in Violence and the Sacred, societies develop the need to identify   an object of blame – a scapegoat, which religion facilitates In its own most special way.   Moreover, in a situation of direct conflict, the opponent is usually demonized in order to   strengthen a sense of justification of one"s identity, position and claim. Sometimes such   needs even breed an astounding obsessive compulsion to present the scapegoat or perceived   threat, or even real threat, as the totality of evil, in what the historian Richard   Hafstader describes as the image of "a perfect model of malice". In such context, religion   аs a vehicle of comfort and security in the face of a real or perceived threat to the   particular identity concerned, is likely to be so caught up in this role that its function   becomes totally and overwhelmingly introspective, reflecting the insecurity of the   particular group involved. All too often in such a context, it becomes a vehicle for the   pursuit of xenophobia and bigotry and betrays its ultimate metier, alienating itself from   the wider circles of our universal human identity.


The image of a spiral may be useful to clarify this concept. The essential smaller   particular components of our identity spiral out to enrich the wider circles of our human   identity as they open up into them. But they will only do so if they feel secure in their   particular identity in relation to the wider context. If the particular component Is   insecure, its alienation will cut it off from the wider circle, denying and defying the   outward spiral The source of that alienation may be historical or contemporary; it may be   racial, economic, political or whatever, but the reactions share a perception of severe   isolation from other groups and/or the wider society. Isolationism, extreme nationalism and   what we call today fundamentalism, are expressions of such alienation.


Of course, precisely because Religion addresses not only the smallest components of   identity, but also the broadest; it is Religion that has precisely the very capacity to   counteract conflict and negative exploitation of our differences, through emphasizing those   dimensions of human identity and commonality that should bind people together in human   solidarity, above and beyond the particular different components of our identities. Yet as   indicated, to do so requires a strong sense of security and stability of one"s identity   within the wider context.


Evidently, the solution definitely does not lie in eliminating the particularistic   aspects of our identity as some would advocate. As mentioned before, particular components   of our identities are so fundamental to our inner being and psycho-spiritual welfare that in   fact, only a universalism that emerges out of our particularisms, has any hope of   contributing to peaceful co-existence. In truth, a universalism that does not respect these   particularisms is, if not of morally dubious motivation, certainly of dubious moral   consequence, inevitably manifested in cultural imperialism and triumphalism. But ultimately   it is unsustainable and evanescent, for it is without real roots and stability.


Thus the challenge that we face is how to facilitate the greater expression of the   universal values on the part of particular religious communities in our modern world,   without devaluing those positive national or ethnic characteristics. To this end, I believe   we must give due attention to the aforementioned sociological insights regarding religion   and identity, to what Ardrey describes as "the most basic human need of security"; to the   role religion plays in the quest for such; and of how, when security is most threatened,   religion invariably embraces this need, all too often at the expense of its most universal   values and aspirations.


Accordingly, we may comprehend the regrettable reality that while from time to time there   are individuals of remarkable stature who rise above the rest; as a rule, the   representatives of institutional religion – reflecting rather than leading their   communities – are unlikely to apply themselves to relationships beyond their communities   if the latter feel threatened, whether by political, economic or socio-psychological   conditions. In fact, precisely for these reasons, religious institutions and hierarchies can   often serve as obstacles, rather than impetuses for reconciliation.


While it cannot be a panacea, I do believe that interreligious dialogue and cooperation   based on respect for the identity and autonomy of the other, can provide for greater   confidence and security of communities in a wider context. It can also serve to provide both   guidance and testimony of maintaining the particular while striving for the universal.


As mentioned, all religion is bound up with different components of identity in which   nationhood plays a significant role. However, with some religious Traditions, the   relationship between religion and peoplehood is inextricable. This is the case with Judaism   which is a faith and religious way of life, born out of the historic religious experiences   of aparticular people and thus expressed through their memory. As a result, Judaism   is inextricably bound up not only with peoplehood, but also with the people"s historical   geography. This is understood as the context in which the national religious paradigm,   designed to serve as testimony of the Divine Presence in the world (to be seen in History   аs well аs in the Creation) is ideally to take place. Indeed the foundation text   of Judaism – which of course, is traditionally viewed as the direct word of God   communicated via Moses to the Children of Israel – the Pentateuch, not only reiterates   that its Divinely revealed religious way of life is to be lived by the People in the Land,   but that the ability for the Nation to live securely in the Land depends upon the People"s   observance of this way of life and its central values of justice and righteousness. Of   course, Judaism recognizes and teaches that we can and must relate to the Omnipresent   wherever we may be in the world. Yet the categorical ideal is to live this religious way of   life as part of the People in the Land; and that the light of this paradigm may inspire the   nations of the world to embrace Judaism"s universal truths, each within the cultural context   of its own national historical experience.


Until the modem era, the very idea that religion and nationhood could be separated from   one another would have been unintelligible, let alone feasible for any Jew. Modernity, not   only with its scientific spirit, but also in making the individual the ultimate arbiter,   weakened many traditional bonds and assumptions that had been previously taken for granted.   This led to new forms of Jewish religious understanding and interpretation, which in its   most liberal and progressive form sought to divest Judaism of its national character. This   was the position of Reform Judaism in its Pittsburgh Platform issued at the end of the last   century. However in terms of continuity, that position may be deemed a failure and Reform   Judaism changed its direction in this regard. Today, like all streams of Judaism, it is   inextricably linked up with Israel.


While Jews had always lived in different parts of the Holy Land throughout the last   almost two millennia since the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent   exiles, the Jewish presence here had generally been a sparse one. The modem politically   organized mass movement of return, known аs Zionism, was rooted in the aforementioned   traditional relationship between religion and nationhood, but acquired its political impetus   both from eighteenth century rationalism and above all from the nineteenth century   nationalism. The result was that the political movement was led primarily by people who were   formed by and identified with the modern secular world as much and often much more than they   did with their religious heritage. While they could not divest themselves entirely (and   certainly could not divest the collective entirely) from the Jewish religious tradition   which so inextricably defines Jewish national identity, they sought nevertheless to build a   modern nation state with as minimal interference of religion as possible.


Indeed it was precisely because Zionism had as much of a secular character as it did,   that it was rejected by Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy (Haredi) which was and is the product of a   reactionary withdrawal from the perceived dangers of the modern world. This however was not   an ideological rejection of nationhood let alone of the Land, on the contrary. Until   the rise of modern Zionism, Jews who returned to the Land continuously, did so out of a   sense of the traditional religious bond with the Land. Although ultra-Orthodoxy did have   certain other theological reservations, it would have had little serious objection to the   establishment of a Jewish theocracy in the Land! It was precisely the secular democratic   character of Zionism that the ultra-Orthodox rejected, I will refer shortly to the   historical metamorphosis in their attitude towards Zionism.


While Zionism was opposed by both the extreme right and left of the religious spectrum,   there was a significant religious constituency that saw it in a very different light. For an   increasing number of religious and traditional Jews (and overwhelmingly for Jews in Islamic   lands), Zionism was simply a political vehicle for the fulfillment of a religious goal –   the reestablishment of independent Jewish national and religious life in the land in which   such was ideally meant to be lived. Throughout thrice daily prayers, grace after every meal,   annual religious celebrations and calendar commemorations for almost two millennia, the   Jewish people had not only maintained such fidelity to it, but above all anticipated the   fulfillment of Divine promise in Scripture that even if we sinned and were exiled from the   Land, we would certainly ultimately be restored as a nation to it (cf. Leviticus 26 v. 44).   Accordingly what is generally referred to as Religious Zionism, saw this political movement,   even if secular, as a vehicle of Divine activity and presence in history. Naturally for   ultra-Orthodoxy, it was the ultimate heresy to give religious legitimacy to a movement whose   secular character made it the enemy of religion in their eyes. Orthodox Judaism –   essentially within its Ashkenazi/European constituency – was thus split between those who   saw Zionism as a Divine agency and those who saw it as the very antithesis of such.


Amongst so-called Sephardic Jewry, or more correctly Jews in Islamic lands (who in the   main had not been radically affected by modernization, for better or worse) there was much   more of a uniform natural empathy and identification with the movement of national   restoration. Nevertheless the absorption of hundreds of thousands of such Jews into the   newly founded State of Israel, led and operated by a substantially modem/secular ethos,   certainly posed and generated many problems. The ascent to power within Israeli politics   over the last decade of an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, Shass, is both part of the   reaction to a perceived social and cultural disenfranchisement and at the same time the   permeation of modern Ashkenazi religious polarization into the culture of Jews from Muslim   lands.


Ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism was muted by momentous historical developments. To   begin with, the destruction of one-third of Jewry in the Nazi Holocaust, reinforced the   feeling that no matter what the Jew"s ideology may be, he or she was not safe under Gentile   rule and that however undesirable secular Jews may be, some land of Jewish national   political independence was essential. Once the establishment of the State of Israel was a   fait accompli, there was all the more reason for ultra-Orthodoxy to cooperate with the   Zionist leadership in order to protect its own interests and regenerate its centers of   religious study and leadership that had been decimated. Ultra-Orthodoxy thus increasingly   viewed the State аs what one might term "an undesirable necessity". It   nevertheless certainly maintained a hostile attitude towards its secular leadership – an   attitude which was generally reciprocated with patronizing disdain. With the ascent of   Menachem Begin to power in Israel in 1977, ultra-Orthodox representation entered government   not only because it felt more comfortable with the new regime, but above all because it   realized that it badly needed national fiscal resources. As a result, it increasingly became   an integral part of the national political structure. This however was a double edged sword,   because the more you become part of the national life, the more the society at large impacts   upon you. Moreover ultra-Orthodoxy is now so dependent upon the resources that come from the   modern Israeli taxpayer that it cannot do without secular society! Indeed the fact that   ultra-Orthodox men generally do not do military service and thus leave the economic, social   and human burden of security on the shoulders of the rest of society while demanding and   obtaining their substantial slice of the national fiscal cake, is a source of resentment   within Israeli society which continuously threatens to boomerang upon the ultra-Orthodox.


However the fact that ultra-Orthodoxy"s relationship with the State is purely pragmatic   makes it potentially more flexible on the most urgent of political questions, namely   territorial compromise with the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular.   Religious society generally tends to be more conservative and thus less inclined to take   risks. Ultra-Orthodoxy is by its very raison d"etre the most conservative segment of   Jewish society and its very isolation (even if it has been modified somewhat) lends itself   to increased fear from and hostility towards those outside their community – in this case   the Arab world. Nevertheless, if they can be convinced that territorial accommodation serves   their social, security and economic interests, there is in the main much potential for   flexibility, as they are not subject to the religious ideological resistance that is to be   found within the National Religious camp.


For Religious Zionists who see the establishment of the State as an act of Divine   significance, not only is the return of the People to the Land part of the Celestial Agenda,   but so is the return of the Land to the People! Accordingly, the settler movement Gush   Emunim, arose out of this ideology to implement that Divine Agenda. For this Ideological   outlook, to relinquish part of the land is to try and thwart Divine Purpose. Thus, even   though Religious Zionism has a more modem world outlook and is far more positive towards   secular Israel, it has produced the most militant political elements on territorial issues.   When these elements feel that their position is in jeopardy, then there is the danger of a   resort to violence in the belief that that Is what God Himself wants. Baruch Goldstein who   massacred dozens of innocent worshippers at the Cave of Machpelah and Yigal Amir, Rabin"s   assassin, emerged from this ideological mindset.


Nevertheless there are other ideological strains of Religious Zionism which, while they   draw their inspiration from the same sources, insist that settling the land must not be made   the be-all and end-all of Judaism. To do so, they say, is in fact a defamation of Judaism   and a desecration of God"s Name. Indeed those in the Religious Peace Camp – Oz Veshalom   and Netivot Shalom – and moderate religious Zionist movements like Memad, view the   approach of such an outlook as virtually idolatrous, having made an important means for   religious life into an end in itself. The Israeli Religious Peace Camp declares that   territorial compromise is a necessity for Israel"s own survival and future. Moreover, it   emphasizes that Judaism demands moral conduct of the individual and the community toward all   people, especially towards the vulnerable and including those who are not part of one"s   national group. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the Bible teaches that only such conduct can   guarantee real lasting stability and security for those dwelling in the Land. This religious   Weltanschaung declares that violence against others and thus against the most   profound moral values of Judaism, must be the inevitable consequence of making settlement of   the land a supreme value. In other words, religious nationalist extremism is idolatry – in   this case, idolatry of Land.


It is not possible to divest Judaism of its national identity which is self-understood as   the very nature of this Divinely ordained paradigm or Covenant. However as indicated before   in a more general context, it is essential for the well-being of Judaism, the Jewish people   and all who interact with her, that the universal dimensions of this paradigm are   strengthened and developed, just as it generally essential for all humankind that the   universal dimensions of religion be emphasized. These fundamental universal teachings of   Judaism not only affirm the sanctity and dignity of every person, but also understand the   concept of Covenant to mean and require moral responsibility in relation to other   communities and in relation to the universal human fabric.


However as also mentioned, the capacity for religion to play such a role is substantially   determined by the extent to which the socio-political context facilitates a sense of   security and stability in relation to other communities and societies around one. As   indicated, security does not only refer to physical conditions, but also includes   psychological ones such as the security of recognition and respect as opposed to   marginalization and demonization. This challenge of providing a context of security is one   which we all face, especially in a region in which everyone sees themselves as someone"s   victim.


Naturally without the conditions that provide security for all parties, the ability to   overcome insular, isolationist and extreme nationalist attitudes in which religion is both   part and parcel and even the stimulus for destructive conduct will always be an uphill   battle. But аs Rabbi Tarfon declares in The Ethics of the Fathers, "Yours   is not to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist therefrom". Indeed, the   promotion of cross-cultural and above all interreligious understanding and cooperation   acquires the utmost importance, not only for creating as much of a culture of peace for when   the socio-political circumstances support such and change ensues, but also to serve as   testimony of the alternative to conflict and of the most sublime and noble values and   aspirations that are the true metier of Religion.

  Rabbi David Rosen (Jerusalem) is International Interreligious Affairs Director of the   American Jewish Committee and Past President of the International Council of Christians and   Jews.