God's Jewish Warriors

October 1, 2007

The Jewish segment of Christiane Amanpour's God's Warriors is doubtless the best and most refreshing comment about what's going on in Israel ever to appear on American television. The take-home message—the one that will be lurking around in the back of the minds of viewers long after watching it—is the image of fanatical Jews. There are repeated images of religious Jews referring to the West Bank and Jerusalem as promised to Jews in Genesis and advocating that Arabs either move or be expelled. There are Jewish activists bent on destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque built at the site of the ancient Jewish temple and plotting to kill Palestinian schoolchildren; Jewish settlers being hauled out of the Sinai, Gaza, and various West Bank outposts by the Israeli army; Baruch Goldstein's massacre of praying Palestinians; masses of Jews expressing hatred toward Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin because of his endorsement of the Oslo peace process; the assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir, a Jewish fanatic inspired by Goldstein; Ariel Sharon, "the Godfather of the Settlements," visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque and fomenting the Second Intifada.

There is a particularly striking segment on Jewish woman from New York who moved to Israel because "I was never fully American. I was Jewish." As a child, she learned Hebrew before she learned English, and her summers were spent at Zionist youth camps. She now recruits financial support for the settlements from Christian Zionists in America. The Christian congregation sings songs in Hebrew, and the Israeli and American flags are juxtaposed..

In America we tend to think that Jews are "just like us. After all, Israel is the "only democracy in the Middle East" and a "staunch American ally." We have been led to think of Judaism as one of the three mainstream American religions. ("Have you heard the one where a priest, a minister, and a rabbi go into a bar? ...") When most Americans think of Jews, they think of the the friendly doctor who lives in the neighborhood, the brilliant scientist at the university, or the liberal social activist on behalf of the downtrodden.

But the Jews in God's Jewish Warriors often don't look like us at all. They are often religious Jews with long braided hair, beards, and names like Dvir and Dov. (New York State Assemblyman and West Bank settler Dov Hikind is depicted contributing some of his campaign funds to the settlements.) Many of the men use tefillin and wear yarmulkes, and they rock back and forth when they pray. The women often cover their hair and wear long gowns resembling a mild version of the Muslim purdah.

Judaism's Middle Eastern roots are on display, and there is nothing Western about it at all. These people don't seem very democratic, and they seem massively ethnocentric. They live in a completely Jewish world where their every thought and perception seem colored by their Jewish identity. Theirs is an apartheid world separated by high concrete walls from their Palestinian neighbors, where even tiny settlements are necessarily protected by the Israeli army. And at a time when Americans are constantly being encouraged by Jewish organizations like the ADL to be ever more tolerant of all kinds of diversity, these people are anything but tolerant. Calls for expropriation and expulsion of the Palestinians are commonplace among them. Israel has created a classic Middle Eastern segmentary society in which different groups live in an ingroup/outgroup world, completely isolated from each other. (Click here for a discussion of contrasts between Middle Eastern and Western societies.)

Not surprisingly, pro-Israel activist groups in the U.S. are not pleased. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) calls it "CNN's Abomination." Depictions of influential Jews who are obviously "not like us" are likely to trigger feelings of estrangement and alienation in most Americans—a natural consequence of our evolved psychology. CAMERA's main complaint is that there is too much focus on extremists rather than on more typical Jews. But as Amanpour notes at the beginning, "in the last 40 years [God's Jewish warriors] have changed the history of the Middle East." The question is not how representative these Jews are of American Jews or even Israeli Jews. The question is how much influence they have had. As I have argued, the settlement movement is the vanguard of Judaism, and Jews who actively oppose this state of affairs are eventually marginalized. If Jewish history shows anything, it's that the radicals eventually come to dominate the Jewish community.

The result is a full-fledged campaign by Jewish organizations against CNN. In an article titled "CNN Comes Under Unprecedented Attack," the Forward reports that members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations "have asked CNN to avoid rerunning the show before concerns about factual errors and bias are addressed and corrected. It is also requesting that the network invest similar resources to produce a new program that would "rectify the bias and inappropriate context.” “We are aware of some advertisers that have already distanced themselves from 'God’s Jewish Warriors,'"  ... “It was recommended that all advertisers be contacted to express concern at their association with this offensive program." "

Amanpour does an excellent job showing how the organized Jewish community in America, and especially AIPAC, has rallied to the defense of the settlements in defiance of international law and every president since Jimmy Carter. Missing is a depiction of the internal politics of American Jews in which Jewish voices who oppose support for Jewish radicals are rendered powerless. But this is an incredibly brave and informed presentation of the radical vanguard of the Jewish community that is having such a huge impact on the Middle East and, via its effects on US foreign policy, the entire world.