Louis René Beres
For Islamist and jihadist fighters around the world — ISIS, Hamas, it generally makes little actual difference — terrorism represents a sacred form of religious sacrifice. The underlying purpose of this murderous ethos is always the same: to nurture each martyr’s more-or-less open hunger for immortality with the irremediably “profane” blood of “unbelievers.”
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At its core, therefore, jihadist terror represents an obligatory “submission” to a doctrinally-mandated cruelty. Martyr-based terror is a barbarous but simultaneously holy path to personal survival and collective redemption. What could possibly be more rewarding?
The dualistic nature of terror/suicide — the sacrifice of an enemy and the reciprocal sacrifice of the “martyr” — is codified, among other places, in the Hamas charter: “The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise. … ‘I swear by that (sic) who holds in His hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.’”
World politics are generally misunderstood. In all such politics, there is no conceivably greater power than power over death. For diverse groups of jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, it is by killing Jews and subsequently being killed by Jews that a liberating freedom from personal death can be “realistically” achieved. Already, back on August 11, 2000, Yasser Arafat’s appointed clergy, then preaching on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, reaffirmed this grotesque mantra as core Palestinian orthodoxy: “Palestinians spearhead Allah’s war against the Jews. The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews.”
This starkly polarizing view of the world represents the direct opposite of classic Jewish tradition.
There are several discernible meanings to the ennobling Jewish tradition of mercy, all of which stand in profoundly stark contrast to longstanding Islamist/jihadist concepts of sacrifice.
The uncompromising Islamist/jihadist view is that expansive and violent sacrifice of non-members is the most acceptable way toward achieving personal and collective redemption. Alternatively, ancient Jewish tradition calls for more expansive empathy with all others as the most genuinely sanctified way to achieve this goal.
While it would be hard to disagree that the traditional Jewish path is to be preferred by decent people everywhere, it is also clear that any gainful realization of universalized empathy could have certain utterly unbearable consequences. In principle, to be sure, Jewish empathy is preferable to Islamist/jihadist antipathy, but even this evidently better path would face several powerful impediments or plausible obstructions.
In the Jewish tradition, there exist certain vital elements that warn against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although Jews are doctrinally obligated to feel such suffering, to learn from and also be elevated by such torment (Toras Avraham), they must also guard against too much empathy. At times, once cautioned the Brisker Rav, Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, we must all heed the bewildering warning: “He who wants to live, should act as if he were dead” (Tamid 32a).
Sometimes, truth can emerge through paradox. It may also emerge from an awareness that reason alone is sometimes incapable of revealing to us what is most important. Such a particularly keen awareness was deeply embedded in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who, in the dreadfully serious matters now before us — namely prospective ISIS conquests and Palestinian aggressions — would urge us to seek not “concepts of truth,” but “truth itself.”
We may all learn further from Rabbi Kook that empathy and justice can sometime bring forth a vast “regime” of healing, and that such feeling would “flow directly from the holy depth of the wisdom of the Divine soul.” Rabbi Kook’s thinking does not stand in any stark or self-conscious opposition to rational and scientific investigation; nor does it in any way intend to oppose natural expressions of pure feeling to raw intellect. Instead, it identifies a usefully creative tension, one between a too-abstract and too-formal intellectualism and a still- promising form of reason.
Influenced oddly but gainfully by Buddhism, Kook openly envisioned humankind displaying a natural evolutionary inclination to advance and perfect itself as an imperiled species. The course of this expansive human evolution, he surmised, must be directed toward a progressively increased spirituality. In the final analysis, therefore, he personally understood the Torah as a concrete manifestation of Divine Will here on earth.
In consequence, at some point, according to Kook, the people and state of Israel must play a manifestly cosmic and redemptive role in saving us all.
In turn, this world-mending role would have to be contingent upon first fulfilling many challenging expectations or mitzvot, fulfillments wherein the redemption of Israel could ultimately produce the redemption of all humanity. Here, Jewish nationalism was presented as much more than a highly-valued secular ideology. Rather, it was represented as a truly sacred phenomenon. Going forward, this prescribed representation is potentially worth bearing in mind by both Jews and gentiles.
We have come a long way from our initial inquiry into empathy, justice, and human survival. We have, in fact, come to the initially unanticipated idea that modern Israel occupies an honored place in a tangibly Divine scheme, and that loyalty to Israel and to Israel’s security could now represent absolutely nothing less than a broadened loyalty to all humankind.
In essence, the suggestion here would be: As goes Israel, so shall go the world.
If Israel harvests the special potential to become “the ideal essence of humanity,” it could then become an overriding human imperative to safeguard the Jewish state from further harms — now — not only for the sake of its beleaguered individual inhabitants, but also for the much broader benefit of a demonstrably singular and indissoluble human species.
In sum, for all jihadist enemies of civilization, terror-violence is an expressed form of religious sacrifice, presumptively both sacred and necessary.
For Israel and the Jewish people, on the other hand, terror-violence is always a grievously lamentable expression of a primal criminality, one that must continuously be anticipated and resolutely opposed. If merely left to strangle within its own internal theological contradictions, insufficiently challenged from the outside by Israel and America, jihadist terror could eventually escalate to more fearful levels of destruction.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Algemeiner