September 14, 2010
Fear of God
Twenty-one years ago, Francis Fukuyama, a Japanese American professor at Harvard University, published his famous essay “The End of History.” His thesis was brilliant. Fukuyama argued that the fall of the communist bloc was not just another event in human history but signaled a major turning point. Liberal democracy had won. From now on, it would spread unchallenged by other ideologies. Conflicts between nations would no longer be cloaked in ideology. They would be local and, therefore, solvable. Armed struggles would become a thing of the past, yesterday’s news. We had entered a new age, boring in the positive sense. History as we knew it, with its bloodbaths, had come to an end.
Fukuyama’s idea was compelling. It sounded so logical and so right.
It’s just a shame that the real world has not read Fukuyama’s essay.
Even a cursory examination of what has happened in the last 20 years shows us just how wrong Fukuyama was: George Bush and Saddam Hussein; Osama bin Laden and 9/11; North Korea and South Korea; Nasrallah and Hezbollah; Iran’s nuclear program in addition to Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey; the election of Chavez in Venezuela and the victory of Hamas in elections in Gaza.
The end of ideology? The end of history? Not quite.
But let’s take a closer look. What most of these events have in common can be summed up in one word: religion.
Fukuyama, it appears, is not the only one who was mistaken. Nietzsche, too, seems to have made a misjudgment some hundred years earlier, when he declared that “God is dead.” God is not dead. Now, in the 21st century, God is more alive than ever, and not as a minor character in this reality show.
One may argue about whether this is a positive development or not, or whether religious faith has a place in the postmodern world. But such debates cannot alter the basic fact that more and more people today, all over the world, in every culture, in every language, are finding their way back to God.
This pursuit is, in some ways, frightening. Not because religion cannot be a wonderful thing, but because this search often ends up not in a place where religion is a source of comfort or spiritual uplift, but as a first step toward fundamentalism. Herein lies the grave and very real danger.
In its more benign manifestation, in the United States, Christian fundamentalism is on the rise. And we need no introduction to Islamic fundamentalism. But we need not go so far afield to learn about fundamentalism in Israel. Unfortunately, Jewish fundamentalism is advancing right here in Israeli society.
Examples abound: Women are forced to ride in the back of the bus; girls from different ethnic communities are compelled to study in separate classrooms; youngsters in the Modern Orthodox youth movement B’nai Akiba are instructed to leave a concert where men and women perform together; and in order to avoid conflicting with fundamentalist religious beliefs, guides in the Stalactite Cave refrain from stating that these natural formations are hundreds of thousands of years old. This is the face of Jewish fundamentalism.
It could engulf and even sink the Zionist enterprise. It has happened to the Jewish people before in our history. This fundamentalist threat is sufficient grounds for the urgent — not ideological, but practical — need to strengthen the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. Not because all Orthodoxy has to be fundamentalist — it isn’t and does not have to be. But if the worldwide trend continues, and if religion becomes a more and more central element in Israel as well as elsewhere, Israel cannot enter this struggle with only one Jewish-religious alternative. Non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, both Masorti/Conservative and Reform, is the life preserver Israel needs if it wishes to remain afloat as a Jewish and democratic country.
Yizhar Hess is the executive director and CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel.