Motti Inbari on Messianic Religious Zionism and other Fundamentalists

In the 1990’s the University of Chicago published a multi-volume set on the rise of Fundamentalist religion in the contemporary world. For those who remember the series, Gush Emunim, Merkaz Harav, and Centrist Orthodoxy were included in its survey. Most historians and sociologist reacted by distinguishing between the Fundamentalists, the true believers who lived with a complete sectarian zeal and the Evangelicals who were willing go out and engage the contemporary world through outreach, professional achievement, and social integration.

Motti Inbari has a Ph.D., from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. His first book, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (SUNY, 2009) won the AICE best publication award in Israel Studies. His second book is Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (Cambridge, 2012).is making a career of studying the Fundamentalists starting with Gush Emunim and moving his research now to Munkatch, Neturei Karta and Satmar.

Here is his work in interview form. He still uses the Fundamentalist category and analyzes the events using the famous 1956 book by Festinger, When Prophecy Fails to explain their behaviors. I found most interesting his discussion of how the Munkatcher traveled in 1930 to Jerusalem in order to crown Rabbi Eliezer Alfandri as king messiah, but the latter died in front of him.

Inbari’s virtue is writing in English and writing classroom ready overviews. In 1987, Gideon Aran wrote a Ph.D dissertation on the origins of Gush Emunim which he recently released as Kookism – The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Sub-Culture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism, Jerusalem: Carmel, 2013. Journalist Gershom Gornberg published a study on the political aspect of the emergence of the settlement project: The Accidental Empire – Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books, 2006). His book focuses only on the first years post ‘67. Another book considered by many to be biased against the settlers is: Lords of the Land: the War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007(New York: Nation Books, 2007), by Idith Zertal, and journalist Akiva Eldar. This book attempts to psychoanalyze and explain the aberrations of the settlers.

Michael Feige published an anthropological study in English on the Gush Emunim movement, Settling in the Hearts: Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Inbari thinks that Feige limited his analysis on field research limiting the role of texts and the theology of the rabbis. Inbari wants to correct this and deal with their messianic theology. He places the responses to the actions of the secular state at the center of discussion contributed to changing religious ideology.

Comments should be on the analysis of religion in the contemporary world, not politics. As stated before, the blog takes as a given that you read academic works.

1) What is your thesis in your book?

The Six Day War in 1967 profoundly influenced how an increasing number of religious Zionists saw Israeli victory as the manifestation of God’s desire to redeem God’s people. Thousands of religious Israelis joined the Gush Emunim movement in 1974 to create settlements in territories occupied in the war. They also sanctified the State of Israel as part of the redemption process. Over time, however, the Israeli government decided to return territory to Palestinian or Arab control. This was perceived among religious Zionist circles as a violation of God’s order. The peak of this process came with the Disengagement Plan in 2005, in which Israel demolished all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank. This process raised difficult theological questions among religious Zionists: What supreme religious significance could be attributed to these events? Was the State of Israel no longer to be considered a divine tool for the redemption of the Jewish people? This book explores the internal mechanism applied by a group of religious Zionist rabbis in response to their profound disillusionment with the behavior of the state, reflected in an increase in religious radicalization because of the need to cope with the feelings of religious and messianic failure.

The book starts with a discussion over Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s theology and the creation of Gush Emunim. It then continues with an examination of Rabbi Kook’s followers’ responses to territorial compromises at crucial points: the withdrawal from Sinai as part of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty (1982), the Oslo Accords (1993-5) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, and eventually with the Disengagement Plan (2005).

Since the book is studying the correlation between the growing strength of the settlers’ movement and the paradox that the actual situation on the ground has grown worse from their perspective, I decided to examine the relevance of the psychological model of cognitive dissonance in the context of the behavior of the movement.

2) Why do you use the categories of Festinger’s cognitive dissonance?

When Prophecy Fails (Festinger, Reiken & Schachter 1956) studied Mrs. Keech’s small UFO cult that believed in an imminent apocalypse and later developed cognitive mechanism to explain why the event did not occur. Festinger’s team came out with two conclusions: 1. beliefs that are clearly falsified will be held even more intensely after falsification; 2. and the group will increase active proselytization. The team used the term “Cognitive dissonance” to refer to the distress caused when two contradictory ideas, or cognitions, are held simultaneously. In the case of a messianic or millennial individual or group, cognitive dissonance is said to occur when a fervently held belief appears to be contradicted by empirical evidence. Since then, the cognitive dissonance theory became very dominant. However, the study of prophetic movements had much developed since Festinger et al. published their book, and today there is a much more comprehensive and multi-dimensional analysis of the topic.

Lorne Dawson showed three survival methods to cognitive dissonance: intensified proselytization, various rationalizations and acts of reaffirmation. Whereas Festinger and his team argued that proselytization is a key component for the movement’s survival, many newer case studies proved that proselytization seldom happens. However, in the messianic religious Zionist case I had noticed proselytization as an important mechanism for easing dissonance (“Settling in the Hearts” campaigns).

Rationalizing is the key tool for dealing with failure, and there are a few ways where it can develop. The use of mysticism to spiritualize prophecy is a major one: mystical interpretations can deny the failure and argue that prophecy has been maintained on divine or ethereal levels. Thus, mystical interpretation enables the rejection of reality as it appears externally, and acceptance instead as covert spiritual fulfillment. Another method of rationalization can claim that the prophecy was a test of faith, and that God is putting the believers in miseries in order to examine their strength. These reasoning were used by prominent settler rabbis, as Shlomo Aviner and Zvi Tau that argued that redemption continues in heaven, or that God is testing his followers. A third way or rationalization can be with blaming failure on human errors like miss interpretation, or blaming others for misunderstanding or interfering with the fulfillment of prophecy. Blaming the State of Israel or blaming “the left” is a common excuse by the more radical rabbis.

I argue that the messianic Religious Zionist’s response to failure of faith due to territorial compromises in certain circumstances may go in one of these ways: There may be a logical explanation to an acknowledged failure of prophecy, in which they admit that a religious mistake had been made, and thus they retreat from their expectant messianic perspective (like the case with Rabbis Yehuda Amital and Shmuel Tal); Alternately, they may have the opposite reaction in which followers reject the idea that the prophecy failed, instead arguing that messianic realization is indeed taking place, but in the unseen sphere. Therefore, they may argue that since messianic failure is definitely not certain, nothing should be changed in their theology and practice (Zvi Tau and Shlomo Aviner); Finally, they may acknowledge the failure of their original messianic prophecy, and yet still be strengthened in their religious zeal in order to prevent complete collapse. Since the end vision is political, with the establishment of a theocratic regime, they may be involved in political action, in order to fulfill prophecy (The Jewish Leadership Movement).

My book discusses the messianic stream of religious Zionism. I do not argue that all religious Zionists are messianic. Actually, for those who follow Israeli affairs, it is becoming very evident that the rift between the modernists and the conservatives is growing bigger, up to a point that it is doubtful if we can call them all “religious Zionists.”

3) Why do you still use the category of fundamentalism when even Martin Marty has abandoned it?

Fundamentalism is a useful term that comes to describe a trend of religious militancy that emerges as a response to the rise and dominance of secularity in society and politics. The term was used first in an American Christian context, but it was borrowed also to describe other movements in other faiths. This is a common term in research, but there are many critics against the use of it. I don’t think there is a better term for us to use. However, I can tell you that in my new research on radical ultra-Orthodoxy I am making a much more in-depth research into patterns of Jewish zealotry, and “zeal” is replacing “fundamentalism” in my analysis of religious radicals.

4) What is the topic of your next book?

The book I am currently working on is: Neturei Karta and Satmar: Radical Ultra-Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality. This book reviews the history, ideology and gender relations of two leaders: Amram Blau, founder of the Jerusalem based anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, and Yoel Teitelbaum, leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect in New York.

I started this research in 2009 when I got tipped that Amram Blau’s personal archive was delivered to the US, and it located at the Boston University Archives. I discovered a very rich archive with fascinating and even amazing information about Neturei Karta: its formation, its modesty patrols, the campaigns against the State of Israel, and some information on Amram Blau’s personal life. After I wrote two articles based on the materials, I had found very interesting information regarding his biography, his dynamic relationship with Zionist activist, and more.

5) Can you say a few words about the Munkatcher’s attempt to appoint a messiah?

One of the chapters of this new research discusses messianic tension that developed in the Munkacz court in Hungary, under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira. The First World War caused considerable psychological shock to the rabbi. For Shapira, the war proved that the era was indeed one of the “pangs of messiah.” In 1930, Shapira traveled to Jerusalem in order to crown Rabbi Eliezer Alfandri as king messiah. Alfandri, known also by the title of “The holy grandfather,” was perceived by some of the mystics of the Old Yeshuv in Jerusalem as the “founding Tzadik of the world,” therefore a candidate for the title. The visit ended in a fiasco: Alfandri died in front of Shapira’s eyes. After his death, Shapira continued with additional activities to force the end.

6) How does Gush Emunim compare to contemporary movements?

In my book I did make a comparison of messianic religious Zionism with other religious movements in the spectrum, namely the American evangelical movement, and I studied the Christian response to Israeli territorial compromises, as a comparative case study.

Whereas Judaism and Islam share many similarities, Gush Emunim and the Muslim Brotherhood do not share much in common. Most of the radical Islamist movements are anti-secular and antigovernment. They propose a religious alternative to the secular state. Indeed, Gush Emunim has a religious ideal for a Jewish government, which is theocratic, like the Islamists; however, Gush Emunim is not an anti-statist movement, and this is a big difference. Islamic movements are revolutionary and violent, even if sometimes they will tactically moderate themselves. Gush Emunim, by contrast, sanctified the state, which is viewed as a holy institution. It is important to mention that the growing tension between the state and the movement over territorial compromises does push some activists into a radical response which is post-statist or even anti-statist, which is more inline with the Islamist response.

Both American fundamentalism and Gush Emunim share an admiration to the state (the US and Israel simultaneously), and they both see themselves as patriotic movements. They both try to forward their political agenda through the political institutions, while accepting the legitimacy of these institutions (unlike the Islamists). However, their messianic perspectives are different: Religious Zionism developed a natural messianic ideology, in which God is bringing the redemption through human effort in a mundane process. Therefore the State of Israel is viewed as a step toward redemption, but many more steps are required in order to achieve the final goal. Evangelical Christianity, in contrast, believes in the Dispensational theory, by which mankind is moving toward the last dispensation, but we still did not get to that point, and the events of the End of Days would be miraculous and supernatural.

This position also influences views on the question of land for peace. For messianic religious Zionism, messianic time has already begun, and accordingly no territorial compromises are possible. Christian Zionism believes that Jerusalem must be held by the State of Israel as a precondition for the eruption of the End of Days events. For Christian Zionism, Jerusalem constitutes a red line; on other issues, it is more flexible.

7) You treat Rav Amital as just a political reaction, what about his theology?

Rabbi Amital’s case is very interesting, because he had gone a long way from his original opinions. When Yoel Bib-Nun and Hanan Porat were looking for a leader for the newly established Gush Emunim, they approached Amital, because he was well know for his messianic beliefs. However, Amital’s views were different than those articulated in Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, headed by Zvi Yehuda Kook. For Amital, the sanctity of human life was more important than the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Therefore, when it came to the prospects of peace, he supported peace over territory. At a later stage he also rejected the linkage between the State and redemption. In the book, I explain the transformation of his views, which led him to publicly support the Oslo Accords.

8) What is the role of theology or piety in their thought? You seem to make everything cognitive dissonance without any internal theological development.

My book is focused on two questions: how did the settlers’ rabbis respond to territorial compromises, and to what extent it changed their theology. These are major questions that are being debated even today. The rabbis had to respond to a pressing issue that threatened to destroy not just their homes in case of the eviction of settlements but also their entire theological infrastructure. Territorial retreats were viewed as messianic retreats. Therefore I disagree with your statement that my research seems to make everything about cognitive dissonance without any internal theological development. I think that the urgent situation from their part forced them to respond, and you cannot ignore effects of the surrounding conditions on their decisions.

(AB- For a more Mahshevet Yisrael perspective read the articles of Dov Schwartz, Moshe Hellinger, Yoshke Achitov, or even my article on Rav Amital but only selects elements that fit into the political theology. Personally, I would like to see a good study of the settler journal Nekudah with its diverse elements of realism, apocalypticism, piety, and political theory.)

9) Are Jews on the Temple Mount a good thing?

Jews throughout the generations yearned for the rebuilding of the Temple. Actually, it is an essential component of our daily Amidah prayer. The rebuilding the Temple became an option after Israel conquered the site in 1967. However, until recently the rabbinical authorities, across all Orthodox lines, banned Jews to go up the Mount, due to complications relating to ritual purity. The Israeli government actually made the Temple Mount a de facto Muslin worship site, where Jews can only visit as tourists. Over the last 20 years, the attitude of the messianic religious Zionist authorities has changed over the question of Jews going up the Temple Mount. They came to believe that if Jews do not go up, they might lose their ownership of the site.

So yes, they should be allowed because I believe that if they are not allowed it will lead to greater tension. If there would be a third Intifada, the Temple Mount be a clashing point. Therefore, the radicalization of the Jewish approach to the Mount, blended with the mirror like radicalization of Muslims, is not a good sign.

The fact that Jews go up the Mount can be a pressure relief for those Jews who feel that their ownership rights are being taken away from them. It is better for the State of Israel to allow them to visit the site than to let them explode and who knows what would be the results. We must remember that in the past there were attempts by radical Jews to damage the site, as in case of the Jewish Underground (1984) and the Lifta Gang (1983).

[AB- for an alternative perspective of political science that thinks Jews and Muslim cannot share any sacred space, see Ron E. Hassner War on Sacred Grounds. Here is the website.]

Readers download Inbari’s articles and published chapters at his personal website:

4 responses to “Motti Inbari on Messianic Religious Zionism and other Fundamentalists

  1. Some questions for Dr. Inbari:

    1) The messianic group in When Prophecy Fails was a small prophetic cult. The messianism of Gush Emunim grew within the established religious structures of Religious Zionism (e.g.. yeshivas, state-funding, a school system, etc.) Did that difference lead to different responses?

    2) Do you have any sense as to the impact of the failure of the prophecy on the numbers of Gush Emunim? Is increased proselytization effective? Does failure lead to a loss of faith among some adherents?

    3) Why the switch from nomenclature of fundamentalism to that of zeal? Would you now apply the zeal nomenclature to Gush Emunim?

    • Dear Larry,
      I am sorry for responding late, I saw the post only now.
      There are several differences between the messianic movement of Mrs. Keeth and Gush Emunim. One is the size another is the end expectations. The response to failure is different because in the case of Gush Emunim they can always argue that prophecy didn’t fail yet.

      The increase proselytization in the case of the Gush is directed toward outreach for the secular. There is a big wave of outreach conducted in Israel by several movements, and the settlers is only one of these. In terms of impact, there are about 30,000 people that are consider hard liners. Their numbers grow, due to high population increase. They draw more followers from the young generation of religious Zionism that is more moderate. I don’t think their impact on the secular community is very strong. Their growth comes from outreach inside moderate religious circles.
      I divide Zeal into four categories: the demand for divine dominion over mundane dominion, the question of violence; radicalization of the religious law; the relationship with eschatology and the pangs of the messiah and the connection with enclave.

  2. The discussion around whether God or politicians are responsible for the perceived negative outcome reminds me a little bit of the discussion at the end of Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust (I think it was that book) concerning whether God or people are responsible for the Holocaust.

    Ultimately unless you perceive your status in life (geopolitically or whatever) as part of a greater system it will never make sense and bogy-monsters will continue appearing out of the blue.

    Pointing to a book and saying, this is what it says in here so that’s what it’s all about so let’s go and do it – normally does not work.

  3. They draw more followers from the young generation of religious Zionism that is more moderate. I don’t think their impact on the secular community is very strong. Their growth comes from outreach inside moderate religious circles.

    Interesting, because the blatant kiruv organizations, both in Israel and the US, draw from both populations (more’s the pity).

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