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“Teetering on the apocalypse” by James Carroll September 20, 2010

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The Boston Globe

TURNING HISTORY INTO HOPE | JAMES CARROLL

Teetering on the apocalypse

By James Carroll  |  September 20, 2010

THE CONTOURS of the battleground between Israel and Palestine are well trod — and strewn with mines. Last week, the peace negotiations, convening in Egypt and Jerusalem, gingerly maneuvered past the settlement-freeze question, Israeli arrests of Palestinians, and Gaza-launched rockets. The talks kept going. This week at the United Nations, President Obama himself steps into the diplomatic danger zone with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet a geography touching two hemispheres is itself an indicator that the actual boundaries of the Israeli-Palestinian battleground extend far beyond the local dispute. Indeed, there are unaddressed global — and even cosmic — dimensions to the Arab-Jewish war, dimensions that are both poorly understood and rarely discussed.

This series of columns began by pointing to Western anti-Semitism and European colonialism as unindicted co-conspirators in this conflict, and we end by naming two more — the taboo realities of a transcendent weapon and a self-hypnotizing End Time theology. Neither is explicitly on the negotiators’ agenda, but each alone is enough to wreak havoc in the Middle East; together, on the world.

First theology. The humane mainstream of monotheistic religion, and therefore the civilizations that spring from it, has included an inhuman countercurrent that swirls around the idea that God wills violence. Indeed, God uses hyper-violent destruction as a mode of redemption. We call this apocalypse. In apocalyptic texts (I & II Maccabees, Daniel, Enoch are Hebrew examples; Revelation is the supreme Christian example), history is envisioned as climaxing in cosmic warfare between God and Satan. That the battle is imagined as centered in Jerusalem defines its tie to the present conflict: Jerusalem an eternal cockpit of violence.

But apocalyptic struggle, far from local, is for nothing less than cosmic order. In such a battle, no price is too high to pay, which means a destroyed earth is acceptable and individual martyrdom is glorious. The virtue of suffering embraced for the higher cause of good against evil becomes an absolute.

This vision did not come out of thin air. It was a way of coping with the savageries of actual wars, centered in Jerusalem. The bloody apogee was reached in the wars waged by Rome against the Jewish people at the beginning of the Common Era. The Jewish historian Josephus says that more than a million Jews were killed in the first Roman war, around the year 70. The Roman historian Tacitus says that more than 600,000 Jewish men, women, and children defended Jerusalem against the Roman siege. It felt like the end of the world. Jewish resistance embraced martyrdom, as typified by the saga of Masada, where the last Jewish fighters killed themselves rather than surrender.

Thus, exactly as the Passion narratives about the death of Jesus were being written down, tens of thousands of Rome-resisting Jews were crucified. The Book of Revelation, composed in the thick of the violence, portrays the Roman war in ferocious — if mainly symbolic — terms (Rome is Babylon, The emperor Nero is the beast). Yet the apocalyptic violence of God is most clearly dramatized in the Gospel notion that the God-willed death of Jesus is the transcendent destruction that saves the cosmos. Golgotha is the highpoint of martyrdom.

The Book of Revelation, also known, tellingly, as Apocalypse, locates End Time mayhem, yes, in Jerusalem. More than other texts, it planted the idea in the Western mind that the human race is ultimately doomed to a mass suicide-murder from which it can be rescued only after the fact and magically. Such holy destruction defines the rushing current of apocalyptic millennialism.

When its time came, Islam leapt into this stream with a vengeance — literally. Revenge, too, is of God. Today’s Islamic “sacrifice operatives,’’ as suicide bombers are sometimes called, embody the most malevolent mutation yet of violence in the name of God — yet it has roots in this past. (Not all suicide bombers are religiously motivated, but most are.)

Shi’ite martyrdom, in particular, has been energized by a revitalized mythology of the foundational self-sacrifice of Mohammed’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, the “martyr of martyrs.’’ As leader of one faction in a violent succession dispute after the prophet’s death, he mortally exposed himself to the enemy in a field at Karbala in the late seventh century. His beheading solidified the split between Sunni and Shi’ite factions. Husayn’s martyrdom is taken by Shi’ites as the final and full establishment of Islamic religion — bloody self-sacrifice as a note of faith. Like Golgotha and Masada, Karbala ignites the contemporary imagination, and not only on the fringe. Shi’ite Iran’s bloody war against the Sunni regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was explicitly defined as revenge for the martyrdom of Husayn. That war, raging from 1980 to 1988, took more than a million lives, plunging the region into a communal case of PTSD from which, clearly, it has yet to emerge.

The vast majority of Muslims across the world are Sunni. For most — as, indeed, for most Shi’ites — these violent strains are entirely foreign. But from the extreme edge of Sunni Islam come the fiercest opponents of Shi’ism, puritan fanatics among whom the double-barreled cult of martyrdom and God-sanctioned murder thrives. Enter Osama bin Laden, for whom the purification of Islam assumes the mass destruction not only of infidels but of deviant Muslims. Destruction is the mode of redemption. For our purposes, the point is that these deeply buried apocalyptic streams have, to one degree or another, carried along elements of every party to the present conflict in the Middle East, and remain a powerful if hidden current against which the peacemakers must now swim. Israel-Palestine is a local battle in a cosmic war zone.

And that’s not all. Around the time Palestinians were coming into national consciousness as Palestinians, and while Jews were undergoing the world-historic trauma of the Holocaust, war itself was being transformed by a means of destruction on which the apocalyptic mind could seem to have been fixated from the start. Nuclear weapons are the apocalypse-come-of-age. They are the second extraneous factor casting a shadow over the peace negotiations. That is literally true, since Iran’s nuclear ambition clouds the views of both Israel and the United States, and emboldens Iran’s anti-Israel proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel’s own “opaque’’ nuclear arsenal is all but explicitly emerging as an engine of the nightmare “cascade’’ of Middle East proliferation, which Obama identifies as an urgent reason for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

In fact, though, nuclear weapons entered the river of history at just the worst time for Jerusalem, since they are ready-made for a mystical belief in the redemptive power of destruction. It seems no surprise that the ancient city should find itself in the crosshairs of the absolute weapon. The hope of Zionists was that Israel would become a “normal’’ nation, and, in what passes for normal in the nuclear age, it has.

That malign meta-historical forces were unleashed by the splitting of the atom is evident in the United States, where the nuclear arsenal spawned a subliminally religious militarism based on the creed that saving the world may actually require its destruction. Mutual assured destruction, in the mantra of deterrence theory. Better dead than Red, in the Cold War motto. Death as end game. So far, deterrence has worked at the global level, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon successfully keeping the superpower peace, but the cost of this hair-trigger nihilism to humankind’s moral imagination has yet to be calculated.

The apocalyptic mind is alive and well — armed and dangerous. If the Israelis and Palestinians succeed in defusing their local conflict, they will also have nudged the entire human family back from an impulse that, though long regarded as holy, is profoundly wicked. The earth was not created to end in a cataclysm of violence, and neither were Israel or Palestine. Peace, therefore. Shalom. Salam.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. This is the final column in a six-part series. His new book, coming early in 2011, is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Ancient City that Ignited the Modern World.’’

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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