03/15/2011 05:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Messianic Theology is an Obstacle to Middle Eastern Peace

Israel is facing a showdown with the national-religious messianic movement as international recognition of a Palestinian state moves closer.

In the Middle East's chaotic reality it is difficult to gain wider historical perspectives, but it is necessary to do so in order to understand our ongoing reality. Netanyahu, very belatedly, has decided to confront the settlers on a limited scale, by dismantling a number of illegal settlements in the West-Bank. The settlers reacted violently. At some point an open conflict with the national-religious movement will be inevitable, because Israel will end the occupation either on its own initiative or through growing international pressure. For many years Israeli decision makers have been worried about how this conflict will be played out.

To predict the course of this confrontation we should look at the extremes of the national-religious movement in a wider historical perspective. Active Messianism is, an incarnation of the much wider historical phenomenon of Millenarian movements in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These were fuelled by the belief that the end of time was near, that the messianic period was close, and needed to be brought about actively. This was one of the theological foundations of the crusades; it plays an important role in Shiite theology, and it has of course played itself out in Judaism a number of times, most famously in the messianic frenzy around Shabbetai Zvi in the seventeenth century.

The Messianic Movement of the national-religious right has been a crucial factor in Israeli politics since 1967. It originated in the Mercas Harav Yeshiva founded in 1924 by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook. His son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who headed the Yeshiva since the 1950s, was instrumental in turning the messianic thinking about Israel into a political movement.

The belief that the founding of the State of Israel was the onset of redemption had been around before 1967, but it did no major damage. After that it was the main engine behind the founding of ever more settlements in the West Bank; and today it is one of the deepest obstacles to peace in the Middle East.

The fascinating and unsettling question is: why has the Messianic fever that swept over Israel after the Six-Day War not subsided? Why, in fact, is there an increase in the extremity of the Messianic strand in national-religious Judaism that often feeds into mainstream circles of Israeli society? And why is this belief so impervious to any rational argumentation?

The founder of the modern study of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, claimed that the Sabbatean movement of the seventeenth century never fully disappeared. It continued a subterranean existence ranging from Frankist movement to some of the more revolutionary strands of the secular Haskalah. Professor of Jewish philosophy Aviezer Ravitzky's research has shown that the national religious movement is a further incarnation of the Sabbatean phenomenon.

Messianic movements of this sort are fed by a deep human yearning for redemption; the feeling that the earthly existence we live is incomplete; that history as we know it will come to an end, and that paradise will reign on earth either through supernatural intervention by the Messiah, or by a cataclysmic event like the communist revolution. In both its religious and secular versions it has only led to horrible suffering and historical catastrophe.

Messianic politics refuses to acknowledge that human existence is finite; that there is no total state of harmony and peacefulness; that politics, economics and culture are, at best, piecemeal solutions to ever new problems. As political philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote in an important essay, the belief that there is a final solution to all human problems is the source of the most horrible human-made suffering.

What happens to Millenarian movements? Their prophecies are at some point falsified by history: the second coming of Christ does not occur when predicted; no Mahdi re-establishes the Caliphate. Israel's national-religious movement will at some point have to face the failure of its prophecy that the founding of the state of Israel and the conquest of the West-Bank is the onset of the Messianic period. It will have to realize that Israel is part of an international system that has standards of legitimacy that can and must not be disregarded.

The problem is that national-religious Messianism will not go quietly. Most of my conversations with national-religious rabbis give little ground for solace: they are deeply convinced of the utter truth of their vision and completely devoid of any understanding of international relations and they hope that Israel will ultimately become a theocracy. In this they are no different from all their millenarian predecessors and equivalents, Jewish or non-Jewish.

Like its Christian and Islamic counterparts, the extreme of Political Messianism has an apocalyptic tinge: in some of its versions it shares the belief of Evangelical sects in the U.S. that the fate of the Middle East will be sealed in the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog. Hence neither Israel's political isolation nor the threat on Israeli democracy matter to the radicals in this movement: the opposite is true: like all extremist sects, it reacts to looming danger by intensifying its beliefs.

The question is what price Israel will have to pay until Israel's citizens realize that four decades of messianic politics are threatening to destroy the down-to-earth, realistic vision of being free people in our own country. Messianic politics has already done immense damage to Israel, and its impact is now coming to a climax: Even mainstream politicians from the Likud and Kadima often join anti-democratic legislation, and a wave of ugly racism is sweeping the country.

Worse: ever more Israelis are infected by the symptoms of Messianic thinking: 'We are right, and the whole world is wrong; hence we must no longer listen to anybody.' Messianic politics has been instrumental in driving Israel into unprecedented isolation. Unfortunately many Israelis as yet prefer disregarding the reality that international pressure will soon exact a heavy price that we all want to prevent.

Whether through its own initiative or as a result of international pressure, Israel's sane majority that wants peace and democracy rather than war and theocracy will wake up and break the destructive stranglehold of messianic politics. The occupation will end and the radical version of national-religious Zionism will take the course of all Messianic movements. It will transform itself into a de-politicized, variation of Judaism for whom the Messiah becomes an abstract ideal and not a concrete, political goal -- as it was throughout most of Jewish history.

There are examples for such developments in contemporary national-religious circles as in the thought of Rabbis Yuval Sherlo and David Stav, but they are, at this point, a minority. The question is whether these moderating forces in national-religious Zionism will gain in strength in time to avoid the violent confrontation we all want to prevent.