MIDDLE EAST CRISIS
Messianism and madness: An intimate hell ride through end times in the Holy Land
It’s a crazy reality to admit, but the ascendant ideologies on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war have become a very literal acting out of the ancient holy texts. And, on both sides, with each attack and counterattack, with each atrocity that takes the lives of children, health workers and civilians, the ascendant ideologies risk becoming the dominant ideologies. The Torah and the Quran, as the zealots on both sides have always hoped, risk fulfilling their deepest prophecies about the war at the End of Days.
City of Peace, July 1992
“Two rows,” the commanding officer ordered.
It was July of 1992, less than a week before my nineteenth birthday, and I was in the olive-green uniform of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), an M16 assault rifle in the grip of my willing hands. The plan, as articulated by the officer, was simple: when he opened the padlock on the steel blue door — an IDF-controlled back entrance to the Muslim Quarter of old Jerusalem — we were to keep pace behind him, maintain our order in the rows, and shout.
What was the reason for this show of force?
To us, the question was moot. Jerusalem, the ancient city of King David and King Solomon, the city of the First Temple and the Second Temple, the city of our prophets and our priests, was the heart that pumped the Jewish blood through our veins. For three thousand years, our ancestors had tended to the dream of this undying heart: through the conquests and slaughters delivered by Babylon, Greece and Rome; through the religious degradations of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate and the Christian Crusades; through the indignities of Mamluk rule, Ottoman rule and the British Mandate. Our collective trauma, as passed down to us through countless generations, had taught us the lesson that every victim of ethnic violence was compelled in the end to learn.
It had taken us a while, we told ourselves, but we had learnt. Because after all those millenniums of exile and defeat, after the post-independence wars of ’48, ’56, ’67 and ’73 — when our enemies, in their own words, wanted nothing less than to drive us into the sea — we were back in our golden capital.
And if you weren’t with us, so the logic went, that was too bad.
Also, the day before, in our olive-green uniforms with our M16s, we had paid a visit to Yad Vashem. For most of us in this international volunteer corps, which offered three months of basic training at the level received by regular conscripts in the tank units, it wasn’t our first visit. The world’s pre-eminent Holocaust museum and memorial centre, perched atop Jerusalem’s Mount of Remembrance, had long been the focal point of almost every pilgrimage to Israel by schools in the Jewish diaspora. But there was something very different about a visit to Yad Vashem in the uniform of the IDF.
Somehow, magically, as if we were soldiers in the army of King David himself, the images of the Nazi genocide had been cleansed of the element of shame. The smoke from the industrial crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka; the mass graves for the 33,000 that were killed in less than two days at Babyn Yar; the mothers and children, shivering and naked before the firing squads in the cold forests — in our uniforms, with our IDF commanders in charge instead of our high school teachers, there was no question that we had emerged victorious from our legacy of humiliation and despair.
So, at the back entrance to the Muslim Quarter of old Jerusalem, when our commanding officer ordered us to run, we held our weapons and we ran.
And while running, we shouted.
I was at the front of the left row. Which meant, as we ran through the winding alleyways, that I could see and hear the doors of the Palestinian shops, as they were shut like clanging dominoes before our righteous advance. I could also see the eyes of the Palestinian shopkeepers, staring at us through the cracks. They were, of course, the eyes of hatred and fear.
At the time, I didn’t care. At the time, it was too bad for them.
Eight months later, my uncaring would trigger a series of mental health crises that — from the vantage point of hindsight — was the product of my irreconcilable worlds.
I had wanted to enlist in a fighting unit, preferably the paratroopers, which was the entire point of the volunteer corps — to introduce diaspora Jews to the IDF; if they were a good fit, to encourage them to enlist. As it turned out, while I was certainly a good fit, my father had other plans. Perhaps because he sensed I would end up patrolling the occupied territories, an overequipped young idealist up against the rock-throwing kids of the First Intifada, he insisted that I come back home.
For some reason, I listened. In 1993, when South Africa was on the brink of its own civil war, I found myself at Wits University. There, while dustbins were being thrown around campus in a final display of impatience with the apartheid regime, my idealism encountered a new avenue for growth. I became friends with the popular crew in my political science class, young men who ran the ANC Youth League branch for the Naledi district of Soweto.
We smoked cigarettes, we talked politics, we drank crate after crate of Zamalek. I cheered when they threw dustbins. They cheered when I agreed, in a drunken epiphany, that the Palestinian cause was justifiably aligned to the cause of the ANC. But the Jewish trauma, the IDF pride, remained.
I drank more. I moved on to harder stuff. The details of the mental collapse were gory, like a bomb that explodes inside a mind full of incompatible facts. In April of 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa, it was a rare bright spot in the dark fog of my suicidal ideations. In November of 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a messianic Israeli zealot, I was too far gone to realise that with him had died any hope for lasting peace.
Cape Town, October 2023
“Seriously?” the WhatsApp message asked. “Reads like the weather report. Biggest massacre of innocent Jews since WW2. I thought Daily Maverick was better than that.”
The date was 9 October 2023, two days after the Hamas operation that would reset the terms in the Middle East, and like much of the rest of the world I had been grappling with the horrors that were coming at me non-stop through my phone.
The message was from an Israeli number, and it took less than a minute to figure out that it was from an old school friend with whom I had not been in contact for more than 20 years. In the late ’90s, I remembered, when I was just starting to find my equilibrium, he had left South Africa for the Promised Land.
“Long time,” I responded, “I hope you and your family are safe and strong.”
“Thanks,” he wrote back. “Biggest massacre of Jews since WW2. Perhaps that should be your headline.”
My friend’s issue was that Daily Maverick, aware of the flammability of the situation, had chosen to flatly report on the number of the dead. I let it slide, knowing that, like my own close family in Israel, he was on the front lines of this brand-new collective trauma. I returned to the doom scrolling, where the dominant message — from both sides — was one of retaliation and revenge. Then I clicked on the homepage of Haaretz, the newspaper of the Israeli left, where there was an editorial that, to me at least, was remarkable under the circumstances.
In Haaretz’s view, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to bear the full blame for what had suddenly become the “Israel-Gaza War”. The newspaper, true to its line despite the call for national unity, declared that Netanyahu “completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians”.
I was dumbfounded at the editorial’s bravery but, more than that, I was astounded that my own deepest fears had come to pass.
For most of 2023, with a mixture of fascination and foreboding, I had read everything I could lay my hands on about Ben-Gvir. Just a few years younger than me and born into a secular family, he had become radicalised by the First Intifada, joining the youth branch of the right-wing party Moledet, which advocated the transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza and the West Bank into other Arab countries. Moledet, however, turned out to be too soft for Ben-Gvir — by 1992, when I was running through the Muslim Quarter with my M16, he had risen to the position of youth coordinator of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach, which stood for the idea that Israel had been divinely staked out for the Jewish people by the Jewish God alone, and that its messianic and redemptive promise excluded any form of co-existence with Arabs.
What scared and fascinated me most about Ben-Gvir, though, was how his trajectory mirrored the general political trajectory of Israel in the years after I had returned to South Africa. In 1995, a few short weeks before Rabin was assassinated by the Jewish zealot Yigal Amir, Ben-Gvir appeared on Israeli television for the first time, brandishing a Cadillac hood ornament that had been ripped off Prime Minister Rabin’s car.
“We got to his car,” Ben-Gvir smiled into the camera, “and we’ll get to him too.”
Netanyahu, I’d also discovered, had been as opposed to the Oslo Accords as the young Ben-Gvir himself. In October of 1995, as the head of the opposition Likud Party at a famous anti-peace rally in Jerusalem, he had further incited the volatile crowd by declaring Jerusalem the “eternal capital” of the Jewish people, and pronouncing Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organisation — Rabin’s co-signatory to the accords — a “murderer”.
The background history to this seminal event had been expertly put together in 2015 by the “Frontline” programme of the US network PBS, with the Jewish editor of The New Yorker magazine, David Remnick, as well as a number of veteran Israeli journalists offering their views on Netanyahu’s penchant for warmongering. According to these respected Jewish commentators, it was obvious at the time — and it had been borne out by history — that Netanyahu’s political success had its genesis in the incitement of the Israeli right.
Because, indisputably, the upshot of Netanyahu’s opposition to a peace deal was his election as Prime Minister of Israel in 1996, a position he has held, with a few minor short-term breaks, for almost 17 of the last 27 years.
In this context, the appointment of Ben-Gvir as Netanyahu’s national security minister, in November of 2022, was all but inevitable. In fact, in 2019, three years before Ben-Gvir would spearhead a violent and unprecedented Jewish settler incursion into the West Bank, the influential Jewish magazine Tablet had run an in-depth piece under the headline, “Kahane Won: How the radical rabbi’s ideas and disciples took over Israeli politics, and why it’s dangerous”.
So, to get back to the point, all of these facts were running through my head on the morning of 9 October 2023, when my old friend sent a WhatsApp message calling out Daily Maverick for its coverage of the horrendous Hamas massacre.
I couldn’t help myself. “Haaretz appears to have it covered,” I eventually wrote back, with a link to the newspaper’s editorial.
“Haaretz makes me vomit too,” he instantly responded.
Somewhere on Planet Earth, 2053
Like a lithograph by the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, filled with impossible objects and stairways that defy the laws of physics, it was becoming obvious that there was nowhere for the rational mind to go. The political party that Ben-Gvir had risen to lead in Rabbi Kahane’s image, Otzma Yehudit (literally, “Jewish Power”), had returned Netanyahu to the hot seat in a coalition government that was truly biblical in its menace.
At its spiritual core, it appeared, Otzma Yehudit evoked nothing so much as the war against “Gog of the land of Magog” from Chapter 38 of the Book of Ezekiel, where, at the prophesied “End of Days”, invaders from the north would attack the restored land of Israel. The promise, in Chapter 39, was that the God of the Hebrews would ultimately destroy Israel’s enemies, so that the long-awaited Messiah could preside over the Third Temple in Jerusalem.
And so, as articulated in Otzma Yehudit’s manifesto, when it came to the clauses regarding the “enemies of Israel”, there was zero room for manoeuvre:
“War against the enemies of Israel will be total, without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises.”
The question was: How much sway would Ben-Gvir hold over Netanyahu in actual wartime, when the “invaders from the north” could very possibly turn out to be Hezbollah and Iran?
This was something I wanted to discuss with my old friend in Israel, who, on the morning of 12 October 2023 — while a huge Jewish army was amassing on the Gazan border — agreed to a conversation.
It was clear, from the first few seconds of the conversation, that my friend was gripped by an existential dread. His breathing was fast and shallow, and he was doing his best to moderate his tone. The reason for this, I soon discovered, was that his son was a conscript in the paratroopers — the same fighting unit that I had intended to join in 1992— and had seen action the previous weekend, in response to the Hamas attack.
“Three members of his platoon got killed,” my friend told me. “His commander got shot in the face.”
There was nothing to say to that, except to offer my condolences, and my hope that my friend’s son would be okay in the coming weeks and months. But as for the journalistic substance of the conversation, which lasted half an hour, while my friend did not deny that Israel had been let down by its leaders, he implored me to focus on the policies of Hamas.
The dark heart of it all, he insisted, was Hamas’ charter — or, officially, its “covenant”— which he had already sent to me the day before, with references to the relevant “articles”.
In translation from the Arabic by the Yale Law School, the covenant, dated 1988, was indeed a call for genocide against world Jewry. “Article Seven,” as my friend instructed, was where it was all spelt out:
“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.”
These words, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, were echoed — with reference to Palestine — in “Article Eleven”:
“The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [Holy Possession] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day.”
And again, in “Article Fifteen”:
“In face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised.”
To reiterate, an Escher lithograph, with nowhere for the rational mind to go. Still, during our conversation, my friend appealed to my reason, stating that in the face of Hamas’ objectives — which had been brutally actualised on 7 October, with acts of despicable terror that would forever be imprinted on the minds of countless millions — there was no option but to obliterate the organisation.
“It’s not just imperative for us,” he said, “for our right to defend ourselves and to continue to exist as a nation, it would also be good for the Palestinians.”
Here, he had an inarguable point. On 13 October, the day after we spoke, The New Yorker magazine (still under the editorship of Remnick) ran an interview with Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior leader of the Hamas political wing, who claimed to have not been informed by the military wing that the attack was about to occur. This was eminently plausible, given that the secret had also been kept safe from the supposed omniscience of Israeli intelligence. But while the attack may have been a military success, as Abu Marzouk stated, politically it was a failure.
After defending the “bloody assault” by insisting that Israel’s government had become unforgivably right wing, with its expansionist agenda at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the West Bank, he conceded that in the long-term “the new conflict would do little to stop Arab states from continuing to cultivate ties with Israel, the strongest power in the region, leaving the Palestinians even more isolated.”
It was an astonishing admission for someone like Abu Marzouk to make, and it was backed up by another interviewee in the piece, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist based in Gaza City, who told The New Yorker reporter:
“The Palestinian people in Gaza have a lot to lose. Most Palestinians don’t want to die, and they don’t want to die in this ugly way, under rubble. But an ideological organisation like Hamas believes that to die for a just cause is much better than living this meaningless life.”
So, there it was; Hamas, apparently, had bitten off a lot more than it could chew. And Abu Marzouk, in his frustration at being forced into the admission, had hit back at the reporter with a simple and emotive question:
“What would you do if you were forced to live in a cage?”
It was the same question that my friend had asked me a number of times, when referring to Hamas’s covenant and the tortures, rapes and executions that had been visited on hundreds of Israeli civilians.
“What would you do?”
I didn’t have an answer, and given that I didn’t live in Israel it would have been presumptuous to even try, but what I did know was that if Hamas had to go — and I fully agreed that it did — so too did Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir.
Because, as crazy as it was to even mention, the ascendant ideologies on both sides had become a very literal acting out of the ancient holy texts. And, on both sides, with each attack and counterattack, with each atrocity that took the lives of children, health workers and civilians, the ascendant ideologies risked becoming the dominant ideologies. The Torah and the Quran, as the zealots on both sides had always hoped, risked fulfilling their deepest prophecies about the war at the End of Days.
Were we really here? That, as I saw it, was the better question.
As I write, the IDF is champing at the bit, eager to expel the trauma and rage by launching a ground invasion.
If that happens, as Iran and Hezbollah have warned, the war will become regional, releasing “Yājūj and Mājūj,” the Islamic counterparts to Gog and Magog. Meanwhile, the US has sent two aircraft carriers, in a game of chicken that’s meant to prevent the war from becoming global. But in the US, as President Joe Biden well knows, is a large voting bloc of Christian evangelicals, who believe literally in the Revelation to John, where Gog and Magog will join the forces of Satan in the battle to end all battles.
Perhaps 30 years from now, in the year 2053, the whole world will know how it all played out. Given what’s happened in the last 30 years, it would probably take that long for true peace to prevail. The worst-case alternative, horrifically, is that there will be nothing left in the Holy Land but rubble, heartbreak and trauma. DM
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