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Apocalypse Soonest

Muslim and Jewish extremists who yearn for the End of Days may get their wish—but not as they envision it

Todd Gitlin
November 11, 2014
(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 29, in Jerusalem, a member of Islamic Jihad fired four shots into the chest of the American-born Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a prominent campaigner for Jews’ right to pray on what they call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif). Glick had just given a speech to a conference called “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount.” As he was speaking, his mobile phone rang, whereupon he told his audience (“lightly,” in one account): “I always keep my mobile phone on, in case I get the message that permission has been granted to build the Temple and I have to run.” I admire his sense of humor, if that is what it is.

The program of one of the leading groups that aims to revise the rules governing the Haram al-Sharif, Temple Mount Faithful, goes well beyond the right to pray to an even more provocative call “to build the Third Holy Temple without our lifetime with no delay … and to bring to pass all of His end-time prophetic plans for Israel and the entire world.” Though by many accounts Rabbi Glick himself is a friendly fellow, no hater, and he couches his prayer demand as “civil rights for Jews,” Temple Mount Faithful’s talk is riddled with Manichaeism, paranoia, demonization, and incitement to the thrill of expulsion. According to Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz, the group’s founder, Gershon Salomon, likes to say that “we are seeing the end of the Arab period in Eretz Yisrael.” Their ally, Likud hardliner MK Moshe Feiglin, declares: “Even saying that Jewish return to the Temple Mount provokes violence encourages Arab violence.” His campaign platform says: “We must expel the Moslem wakf [endowment] from the Temple Mount and restore exclusive Israeli sovereignty over this most holy site.”

According to Roy (Chicky) Arad, a reporter from Haaretz, the speaker who followed Rabbi Glick on Oct. 29 was Likud MK Miri Regev, who “attacked Muslim women who weep on the Temple Mount. ‘They weep because they are paid,’ she said. ‘The Islamic movement pays them to sow dissent.’ ” Arad adds that “most members of the audience supported the whole package, including replacing the Al-Aqsa Mosque with the Third Temple.”

There is no shortage of apocalyptic scenarios in the Middle East. Islamic Jihad, which claimed the would-be assassin as a member and is widely believed to be supported by Iran and Hezbollah, brandishes its own—the dissolution of “the Zionist entity.” When it comes to ethnic cleansing, Hamas is no slacker. And this is not even to speak of ISIS.

But these are by no means the first manifestations of the apocalyptic spirit on this all too promised land. Liel Leibovitz and I showed, in The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, that the history of Zionism, a ostensibly secular movement, is streaked with apocalyptic expectation and, often enough, a fatal linkage of messianic hope to the idolatry of land, as noted and deplored by the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Starting in 1967, Israel’s Orthodox fringe launched settlements on the Occupied West Bank with messianic zeal. Relentlessly secular Labor governments accommodated them, perhaps because these cities upon hills reminded them of their heroic Zionist days in kibbutzim. Many later settlements are little more than bedroom suburbs, but the colonization of the historic land of Judea and Samaria was before anything else a stake in an end-time saga. “The State of Israel is divine,” proclaimed the colonists’ prime teacher, Rev. Zvi Yehuda Kook, in 1967. “Not only can/must there be no retreat from [a single] kilometer of the Land of Israel, God forbid, but on the contrary, we shall conquer and liberate more and more.” The End of Days was beginning. “We are not hastening the end,” he said, “but the end is hastening us.”

Apocalypse Then

Flash forward to the present, when the spirit of apocalypse shows no sign of settling down. Brutalities of war are the seedbed. There’s nothing new about the spillover from war into the longing for absolute confrontation—which, in a Möbius strip of time, can bring about what it does not know whether to herald, fear, or welcome. In a compelling new book, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, James Carroll argues that the Jew-hatred that runs through the Gospels was a product of the desperate period when they were written. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John composed their accounts during the last 30 years of the first century C.E., when 60,000 Roman legionnaires killed and enslaved some 100,000 Jews in the Galilee before moving on to lay siege to Jerusalem and tear down the Second Temple. There they left hundreds of thousands dead and 10,000 crucified. (Close your eyes and picture 10,000 crucifixions. No wonder Carroll calls this the First Holocaust.) In all, the Jewish War, which began with a Jewish revolt in 66 C.E., ended up with the Romans killing more than 1.1 million Jews, according to Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian.

“The Roman assault of 70,” Carroll writes, “could well have felt, to those who experienced it, like the end of the world.” Continuing the argument he made in the magisterial Constantine’s Sword (2001), he goes on: “The portrait of Jesus Christ given in the Gospels grows … out of the stresses of war” as much as out of the messianic invocations of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and, most of all, Daniel. “[T]he author of Mark was writing as the [Roman] legion’s phalanxes closed in on Jerusalem, setting up the ring of crucifixes around the Temple Mount and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews.” Under such conditions, the Jews understandably clamored for a messiah. And war trauma fueled a taste for the apocalypse.

Here entered the cowardly ingenuity of the cautious followers of Jesus who wrote what came to be known as the Gospels: They did not want to offend the Romans who had murdered the man-God they worshiped and were murdering again all around them. So, they pulled off an extraordinary bait-and-switch: They pinned the crime on “the Jews.”

Consequently, as Carroll’s showed in horrific detail in Constantine’s Sword, Jew-hatred became central to the theory and practice of the Catholic Church. Early on, he wrote there, “the Jews” were “dismissed by Christians as custodians of a false Israel.” The Jews were the prologue to the real story. They had been superseded. They should have melted away, content to have boosted Christianity into existence. Jesus may have lived as a Jew, but that theme was muted. Christ, as they conceived him, was certainly no Jew. And if the Jews would not agree to melt away of their own volition, they could be melted—annihilated. Eventually, Hitler’s biological racism closed the exit ramp of conversion that the Spanish Inquisition had left open.

Biblical scholarship, as I understand it, is well-nigh agreed that Jesus thrived at a time when, and in a place where, messianic hopes and miracle workers ran wild. Jesus grew up in an earlier atmosphere of Roman pillage and massacre. At the moment when the carpenter emerged from Nazareth, the prophetic incantations of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel provided the vocabulary for a shared messianism, with lots of talk about the dead awakening, of resurrection and everlasting life.

Apocalypse Where?

The current protracted wartime in the land where Jesus walked is likewise conducive to end-time fantasies and imaginings. Thus the recent revival of agitation to remove the Muslims from the Temple Mount (while preserving exclusive Jewish access to the Western Wall). But thinking about end-times isn’t crazy: It actually makes sense. All the greater shame that, for the most part, Jewish Orthodoxy averts its eyes from the real apocalypse that is coming to pass on the Earth which is the very creation of God, or so they say they believe.

The effusions of industrial civilization are in the process of undermining the civilization unleashed by the fossil fuels, and the carbon released from the remains of former life forms challenges human life in unprecedented fashion. Climate scientists agree that drastic changes are necessary. As I write, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declares (in the words of the New York Times account):

Failure to reduce emissions … could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year. “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report found. In the starkest language it has ever used [my italics], the expert panel made clear how far society remains from having any serious policy to limit global warming. Doing so would require leaving the vast majority of the world’s reserves of fossil fuels in the ground or, alternatively, developing methods to capture and bury the emissions resulting from their use, the group said.

Is that enough apocalypse for you? So, then where are the custodians of the Jewish belief in the holiness of the land? Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, told The Forward that the Sept. 21 climate march, one-10th of whose supporting organizations were Jewish, was “not something we’ve taken an opinion on.” A spokesman for the Orthodox Union, the other major center of Orthodoxy, “declined to comment on the march and on the O.U.’s work, if any, on climate change.”

Those who seek wisdom in scripture might want to meditate upon God’s covenant with Noah and his sons after an earlier massive sea level rise (Genesis 9: 11, 15): “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” If disputants wish to argue that God must have licensed human beings to keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere, because God has guaranteed that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh”—if God is, in other words, a laissez-faire God—let them make that case to a world that expects more than a slow-motion wait for catastrophe.

Can it be that the zealots of Jerusalem fail to realize that the Mediterranean waters outside Tel Aviv are the apocalypse worth attending to? Or can it be that, from the exalted heights of Jerusalem, they don’t care?


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Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.