The Cults of the Jealous God
November 2, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour * * * * * * * *"God is on your side!" Zbigniew Brzezinski exhorting anti-Soviet Mujahideen on the border of Afghanistan, 1979 * * * * * * *
On the 87th anniversary of the Balfour declaration [11/2/04], the time has come to talk about the elephant in the living room. The ceiling plaster in the basement is cracked and sifting down a choking dust. A good deal of crockery has been shattered. And I don't know if we'll ever get the carpeting clean. More than three years have passed since September 11, 2001 and the media, both mainstream and alternative, have scarcely mentioned the elephant. If the subject was broached at all, the tones were qualified, hushed. Of late, the subject is starting to appear with more frequency, yet still with the approach oblique. But speak we must about that elephant, and its name is Religion.
Marx famously wrote in 1844 that religion is the opiate of the masses. How quaint that statement now seems conjuring up, as it does, sepia-toned scenes of slaves in the old South, barefoot and hookworm-infested, caroling that, beyond the grave at least, footwear would be available to all God's chillun. Or perhaps the scene described by numerous 19th century European travelers to Palestine of devout Russian peasants inching on their knees, along miles of rough, unpaved road from Jaffa to Jerusalem, bleeding and in pain, sustained in their self-flagellating pilgrimage by visions of heavenly reward in the next life.
More than 100 years has passed since these images were registered. No longer does Marx's maxim seem even remotely apposite: Religion has ceased to be the opiate of the masses. Retaining the pharmaceutical metaphor, it would seem rather that religion has morphed into an amphetamine for masses, a sort of political speed, if you will. No longer does religion sedate, inuring people to poverty and oppression, making them malleable and resigned to worldly misery. Instead religion now functions as a political-cum-psychotropic drug, hopping believers up, inciting them to crash jets into buildings, mow down latter-day Amalekites with an Uzi, swathe women behind impenetrable drapery, justify land theft and civilian murder based on a toxic combination of ancient texts and genetics, drown small children in bathtubs or smash their skulls with bricks to wash away their "sins". And the religion behind such ghastly acts is almost always monotheism. Tawhid and Jihad indeed.
So, what exactly is going on here? It seems a fair question to ask. Why then is no one asking the question direct? No real probing of the ever-strengthening link between monotheistic religion and right wing political ideology seems to be taking place among progressives. Given the current dire state of affairs, it seems to me critical that the light of frank discussion be brought to bear on the subject with all due speed. I invite all progressives, religious or otherwise, to join the debate.
For my part, I would submit that in the several hundred years since the much-ballyhooed and highly overrated Enlightenment, any advances that had been taken towards secularism and freethinking have been steadily and brutally rolled back, deliberately and with malice aforethought. And a prime non-military bludgeon used in this process has been the three monotheistic religions or, as I prefer to call them, the three Cults of the Jealous God. The chief executors of this rollback have been the western capitalist elites and lately the American branch thereof, whose manipulation of monotheism has been unexcelled.[See Samir Amin's brilliant dissection
of the origins and continued strength of the monotheistic imperative in American political culture published in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram weekly.]
Monotheism by its very nature lends itself particularly well to this template of political control, exclusivism and fear. A single bullying God who trumpets his jealous nature, institutes a myriad of regulating laws threatening followers for any misbehavior or unfaithfulness and sits glowering atop a hierarchy like a violent husband in need of a restraining order, demanding utter obedience from believers with an impunity rivaling any totalitarian regime. Transferring that religious fear and obedience to a temporal ruler is a natural segue. "Thou shalt have no other God before me" is but hairsbreadth away from images of The Leader proliferating on walls and TV screens everywhere. Being warned that criticism of The Leader is "unpatriotic" is directly related to having no other leaders before The Leader. It is no accident that the Hasidim, whose very name is related to the verb "to envy, to be jealous" are the prime cultic bulwark of the Likud and the violent and rapacious settler movement. Likewise, the rapture-besotted Christian religious right provides the very bedrock of support for Bush and his murderous policies.
Islam, although somewhat of a latecomer to modern fundamentalism, has made up for lost time with a vengeance. The earliest appearance of regressive Islam in the Arabian peninsula, the Wahhabi movement, was soundly defeated by the modernizing pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali in 1818 and it remained circumscribed until brought out of retirement and revitalized by partnering first with the British in expelling the Ottomans and then with the Americans in exploiting oil. In 1969 I sat in an introductory class on the history of the Arab East at the American University of Beirut, where the Muslim professor dismissed the Hanbali school of Islamic law with a sneer, comparing its adherents to American Puritans, intolerant and intolerable, and announced with some satisfaction that at least they had been restricted in influence to the Arabian Peninsula. Look now, 35 years later, what the Wahhabis and their patrons have wrought.
So how did monotheism become an instrument of public policy, and such an effective one at that? How did the distinction between church/synagogue/mosque and state become blurred? It is my contention that the most effective shot fired across the bow of modern secularism was the Balfour Declaration, promulgated 87 years ago this election day. The significance of this declaration has long been obfuscated by historians, either deliberately or subconsciously, who tend to view it as an interesting but minor historical footnote. However, the importance of the declaration in underpinning the current bloody times in which we live should not be underestimated.
An obscure essay published in Arabic in 1970 by I.N. Saad posited that the main impulse behind the Balfour Declaration was not to win Russian/European/Jewish support for allied war efforts as is commonly held, but rather was a calculated attempt by the British ruling class who, recognizing that many of the supporters and leaders of the October revolution were Jewish, sought to undermine Bolshevism by luring Jewish supporters away from the alarming ideology of communism with a heady mix of religion, racially-based nationalism, free real estate in a pleasant climate and a chance to kick around the native population. The publication of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, just days before success of the revolution in Russia, was no coincidence.
Lord Balfour, aristocratic and eccentric, rejoiced in the nickname of "Miss Nancy" derived from his affectation of continually taking his own temperature during lengthy parliamentary sittings. But during the days of empire, this trademark British eccentricity often came paired with a mean streak. Arthur's other nickname "Bloody Balfour" (in honor of his brutal application of the repressive Irish Crimes Act) is perhaps the more revealing moniker of the two. Faced with the Red Menace, the Bloody Lord intuitively grasped the efficacy of monotheism to manage people and events. In authoring the infamous declaration, Miss Nancy succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Repercussions from the Balfour Declaration have echoed down over these hundred years, leaving a trail of blood and misery in its wake, snowballing into increasing fanaticism on all sides which culminated in the spectacular events of 9/11 and beyond. The concept behind the Balfour Declaration – active enlistment of monotheism to combat socialism - became clarified and refined as the century progressed and its insidious application morphed into a malignant force which has brought little else to mankind but hatred, injustice and destruction.
Examples of the applied concept are legion. Meir Kahane successfully incubated the Judeo-Taliban concept as early as the 1960s, and the Gush Emunim followed suit, manifesting the militant Jewish fundamentalism thus released by Bloody Balfour's promise. "Save Soviet Jewry" signs sprouted on American synagogue lawns throughout the 1980's, in bold consonance with the US project to undermine the Evil Empire, an effective religious contribution to the cold war effort. Christianity likewise performed yeoman service for the anti-communist crusade since the end of WWII. From pledges of allegiance and opposition to abortion to the sudden election of a Polish pope and the felicitous subsequent appearance of Solidarinosc, all contributed mightily to weakening socialism's grip and appeal.
The most recent application of the Balfour principle is the diabolical American-Wahhabi axis, pioneered by the unrepentant and strutting Brzezinski, which created the mujahideen and enabled their campaign against socialism in Central Asia and elsewhere, with what results we have seen. Sincerely flattering the U.S., Israel generated an imitative spin-off by strengthening Hamas against the secular PLO. The fall of communism accelerated the whole process while the relentless American monotheistic campaign continued internally throughout: Media derision of "secular humanism", promotion of school vouchers, school prayer and faith-based initiatives, abortion doctor harassment and murder, a sitting president who acknowledges in public (with nary a murmur of protest) that he consults and receives instructions from a Higher Father. The list is endless, and the trend is clear: Monotheism has been a spectacularly successful tool in combating the specter that once haunted Europe.
The inability of progressives to uncritically face and identify the political component of religious fundamentalism sometimes beggars belief. A recent article, published on Counterpunch is but one example. In a "reflective" piece on 9/20/04,
peace activist Uri Avnery lays blame for the extremist "mutation" in Judaism squarely on its "connection with the territory [of Palestine], the soil". This barefaced apologetic attempts to absolve both the people and the religion of any wrongdoing and, instead, lays the blame on the land, nay, the very soil of Palestine! Bizarrely anthropomorphizing a piece of territory, Avnery would have readers believe that some kind of mystical and perhaps cancerous vapors arise from Palestinian earth that cause normal people to go quite mad and decent religion to corrode. Prof. Michael Neumann, took another approach recently on this same venue, proposing the "scholarly" view that fundamentalism is a symptom, not a cause. These pronouncements by otherwise intelligent, progressive thinkers, if left unchallenged, have the effect of deflecting critical examination away from the active role of monotheism as a tool wielded by oppressive governments to maintain and strengthen their grip. Until progressives, both atheists and believers alike, can squarely face the capacity of monotheism and its followers to function as a prime emotional "enforcer" of an imperial status quo against secularist and social justice movements and work to strip religion of its public policy role, more death and destruction will ensue.
In addition calling for debate about the regressive role of monotheism, I hereby propose that the single most important blow that can be struck against the advancing tide of monotheistic fundamentalism that threatens us all is to boldly and without qualification support the creation of a single secular, democratic state in Israel/Palestine. The Green Party of the United States has already made this a platform plank,
albeit in an overly timid and qualified fashion. Repudiating the racism and religious exclusivity inherent in a political entity based on some kind of genetic/religious criteria would be a splendid opening shot in a progressive effort to roll back the long assault on secularism. I contend that taking this liberating step would free progressives everywhere, but most particularly in the United States, where they have been hogtied in their activist efforts, as Jeffrey Blankfort has cogently argued, by their inability to properly address this issue.
Quite frankly, the notion of a secular democratic state in Palestine/Israel and anywhere else in the Middle East scares the pants off of the Israeli ruling class and its American co-conspirators, not to mention their faithful, silent ally, the Saudi monarchy. Few American progressives understand the critical fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been the indispensable twin theocratic pillars of American foreign policy in the Middle East for more than a half-century. If one of those pillars should become secular and democratic, the trough at which all the complicit partners have gorged all these years would be soon shuttered.
At this point of my peroration, no doubt many readers will fume and sputter, "But what about _____?" And the blank here can be filled in any one of the numerous instances of sincere, religious individuals or groups who have initiated or otherwise struggled for progressive causes, in the name of their faith. The examples such groups and individuals are legion and their efforts are indeed laudable. But this is not what is at issue. Rather, what is at issue is the importance of understanding and criticizing the ways in which monotheism has functioned as an enabler and enhancer of reactionary policy both historically and in the present moment. Any efforts that monotheists of good will make to work for progressive outcomes, (which is their right and is always welcome) are but a drop in the bucket towards repairing the damage wrought over the years by monotheism rampant. The close connection between theology and public policy can and must be effectively severed.
Progressives everywhere must fight back against the endarkenment which has gradually but inexorably crept upon us. To do this effectively, they must understand and accept the role that monotheism has played in this deadly process. Further, they must face and publish unapologetically the bitter truth that Zionism has been a constant motif in the whole sordid process from its very inception. To deny this reality is to be complicit. It is time to openly call for the disengagement of religion from public policy, to disconnect religion from state. It is high time to prize the elephant out of the living room and shove it out into the back yard, nay, the back forty, where it can graze harmlessly and in peace.
We must begin to roll back the assault on secularism now and the first order of business, on this the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, is a vigorous, unambiguous advocacy by progressives everywhere of the Palestinian right of return and creation of a single, secular and democratic state in Israel/Palestine. This is where the process started in 1917 and this is where it will be stopped.This article originally appeared in the Weekend Edition of Counterpunch for November 6-7, 2004.