Zionism: Messianic colonialism

Moshé Machover

Recently I was watching live news from Jerusalem, which exemplified in a frightening way the subject of this article[1]This article is based on the talk given by Moshé Machover to the May 29 Online Communist Forum There was a huge demonstration of hate led by messianic thugs, streaming through the gates of the old city of Jerusalem, taunting and attacking the Palestinian inhabitants and celebrating the conquest of 1967.

This brings me to the topic of ideology. I am going to address not Zionist colonisation as such, but the very unique role of the special kind of ideology used to inflame, justify and fuel the conflict on the Israeli side. This comes as a sequel to a previous article, published five years ago: namely ‘Israel and the Messiah’s ass’.[2]Weekly Worker June 1 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1157/israel-and-the-messiahs-as The ‘ass’ in question is not used in the anatomical American sense of the word, but simply means ‘donkey’. (A slightly different version of the article was later published in Monthly Review[3]monthlyreview.org/2020/02/01/messianic-zionism.).

This refers to the old testament book of Zechariah (9:9), which may be read as a prophesy that the messiah will arrive victorious – riding not on a horse, but an ass. In other words, he will be both victorious and humble like ordinary people. This is relevant to what I shall discuss below.

What I am going to discuss first is the dangerous incendiary role of the fusion and mutual adaptation of two components. The first is a strand within Zionism – a religious mutation of it, if you like – which brought out into the open something which was in fact immanent within Zionism from the beginning. This is now playing a leading role in pulling the cart of Zionism in its direction: in other words, into a religious evolution.

The second component of this fusion is a strand within Judaism, the Jewish religion (Judaism is, of course, a conglomeration of many different strands). This particular one promotes two things: the tribalism of that religion, and the focus on a sacred territory. While this is not common to all religions, it is certainly part of this ancient layer of Judaism, which was focused primarily on a given territory.

Judaism evolved from its very ancient form dating from around the 10th century BCE, when Yahweh (Jehovah) arrived in the Land of Canaan from Edom, across the river Jordan, according to some verses of the Hebrew bible. He was the god of a particular tribe (the ancient religion did not deny the existence of other gods) and he was attached to a particular territory, which was the only place where he was worshipped. This rather archaic strand remained among the ‘supermarket of ideas’ that developed later on.

This fusion between a religious component of Zionism and the tribal-territorial strand within the Jewish religion constitutes an incendiary combination we are witnessing in its current aggressive form, symbolised by the hexagonal star (sometimes called the Star of David), which is a traditional religious logo, as well as the logo of both the Zionist movement and Israel. It appears in synagogues, where it has no Zionist connotation, as well as on the flag of the Israeli state, of course. This is what is being waved by the thousands of thugs who were streaming through the old gates of Jerusalem.

This kind of ideological fusion has hardly been universal in colonial and communal conflicts around the world. Take, for example, Northern Ireland, where the conflict is supposedly between two religious groups: Protestant and Catholic. But in reality it is a political conflict – and so it is in the case of Palestine. The difference, however, is that, whereas in Northern Ireland there is no theological issue dividing the unionists and republicans, theology plays a very important role in Israel.

There have been cases around the world which were similar: eg, India. No doubt an expert on that subject would confirm that such theological ideas have played a role in the intercommunal conflict there.

It is very likely that the next major confrontation, playing a devastating role in local, regional and global politics (which could happen at any time), will be detonated by events in al-Haram al-Sharif, aka Temple Mount. It, along with other holy sites, has been a recurrent focal point of trouble.


Let me mention some events that started there. In 1929, a massacre that took place in Hebron – another holy city to the south of Jerusalem – started as a result of rumours that were not entirely invented that Jews were trying to infiltrate the compound and take over the Temple Mount mosque in Jerusalem. Hillel Cohen wrote a book, published in 2015, entitled Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli conflict: 1929, which describes what happened. The rumours – spread by people arriving in Hebron – provoked the massacre of Jews by incensed Muslims.

Hebron also saw the massacre of Muslims perpetrated by a member of the extremist religious Kach group, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994. He went into the main mosque – believed by Muslims and Jews alike to be the tomb of Abraham – and machine-gunned Muslims at prayer in what became known as the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre (unarmed worshippers managed to stop him and actually beat him to death). Despite that, he became a hero for fanatic religious Zionists. His supporters are very prominent today in events that are unfolding right now.

In the year 2000, Ariel Sharon became leader of Likud, the Israeli opposition. He made a visit to the Haram al-Sharif shrine on the West Bank, accompanied by armed police. This was a major provocation, intended to challenge the government of Ehud Barak, and led to the outbreak of the second intifada, which lasted for five years, causing the death of more than 6,000 people, most of them Palestinians.

In May 2021, there was another major incident during Ramadan. In eastern Jerusalem, outside the old city, Palestinian families were evicted from Sheikh Jarrah to make room for Israeli settlers. There was a provocation triggered by a march of religious Zionist settlers, leading to a reaction from Hamas and other Muslim factions in Gaza, setting off the confrontation that ended in the destruction of a large part of the Gaza Strip. That included the bombing and destruction of the building that housed the headquarters of the Al Jazeera news agency in Gaza. By the way, an echo of this more recent event was the assassination by an Israeli sniper of the Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh – also triggered by the events at the holy site in Jerusalem.

I must point out that part of the heightened sensitivity of this location is that Israel is trying to change the status quo that was agreed soon after the occupation of east Jerusalem in 1967. This status quo aimed to preserve a very fine balance. This includes the agreement that grants custodianship to Jordan of the third holiest site of Islam, al-Haram al-Sharif. An arrangement that dates back to when Palestine was under Turkish rule, and was preserved under the British mandate, gave the Muslim waqf (endowment) owners of this site the right to manage it and prevent non-Muslims from entering the compound around the mosque of al-Aqsa.

In 1967, Moshe Dayan, who was then the Israeli minister of defence, made an agreement with the Hashemite king of Jordan, Hussein bin Talal, that only Muslims would be permitted to pray in this compound. People of other religions would be allowed to visit the site, but not allowed to engage in prayer. The Jordanian government is still recognised by Israel as the custodian of this holy site.

Why did Dayan make this agreement, which forbids Jews from praying at this site? Simply because he knew that orthodox rabbis forbid Jews to go to this holy site – to do so was regarded as sacrilege. So why are Jews doing so now? That is where ideology comes in.

Ideology is very flexible and can be modified to suit material conditions and ambitions. Let me describe what is happening. This neo-messianic strand within Judaism has developed, as it were, in contrast to the traditional stance of orthodox Judaism. The author of this mutation was a rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, who founded in the early 1920s a yeshiva (higher Jewish religious educational institution), in which he promoted what was then a very unusual ideology. Standard rabbinical orthodox Judaism forbade Jews to try to dominate Palestine, and certainly to go onto the Holy Mount, which was supposed to be left for the coming of the messiah (not the ‘second coming’ – Jesus, after all was one of a number of imposters …). One day the real messiah would come, riding in on his prophetic ass, and would gather together the Jews in the Holy Land.

However, rabbi Kook developed a theology according to which the messiah is actually about to come and Zionism is his herald. Although the hand of god must not be forced before the arrival of the messiah, he is now on his way!

It could be pointed out that Zionism was then a largely secular movement, so how could it be the messiah’s herald? Kook’s answer was that Zionism was the equivalent of the messiah’s ass; a mere vehicle. That is where the title of my article, which I referred to at the beginning, originates. Kook’s yeshiva was where the messianic Zionists fanatics were hatched.


Let me now describe the spectrum of today’s fanatics. What is the arrowhead of this religious Zionism – the fusion of Judaism and Zionism? First of all, there are the ‘grown-ups’ – the political leaders, if you like – and I would like to mention two of these nationalist messianic politicians, who are amongst the best known.

(By the way, for the most part these people are not part of the ultra-orthodox strand of Judaism; not the kind of people you will find in some areas of New York or east London who are the strict haredim or ‘fearful’ – they fear god. They strictly follow the traditional views of ‘medieval Judaism’ which is opposed to various political shifts. The movement of religious Zionism comes from the less orthodox, the less extreme strands of Judaism in religious terms.)

First, there is Bezalel Smotrich, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, who has openly called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and whose model is the book of Joshua, which describes the ethnic cleansing of the land of Canaan by the Israelites who emerged out of Egypt. (This is, of course, a myth, but Smotrich is a believer …)

But, if anything, Smotrich has been overtaken on the right by a violent racist, Itamar Ben-Gvir. In the 1980s he was a young member of an organisation that was declared a ‘Jewish terrorist group’ by the Israeli authorities and was imprisoned for a short time. He did not serve in the Israeli army because he was regarded as too dangerous amongst its ranks. He is like a man running with a flaming torch looking for gunpowder – a dangerous rabble-rouser who can be seen amongst those shouting provocative slogans at the demonstrations in the vicinity of the holy site that have just been taking place.

So these two are among the ‘grown-ups’, but they have many followers among young people – typically teenagers and those in their early 20s. The arrowhead of this younger generation is made up by fanatics who populate settlements in the West Bank, some of which are regarded as illegal even by the Israeli authorities. They act as a kind of bridgehead near Palestinian towns and villages, and engage in harassing the inhabitants, attacking them and their property. They damage their houses, set fire to their cars, harm their livestock, uproot their olive trees and destroy their crops. They have taken over pastures, cultivated fields and water resources, but are actually protected by the Israeli armed forces, despite the fact that their actions are illegal under Israeli law.

A very common occurrence is that, when a Palestinian farmer, for example, complains to the Israeli police, it is the complainant who is detained for questioning. Rather than arresting the religious thugs, it is the elderly shepherd or agriculturalist who is held.

What lies behind this fusion of Zionism and religious extremism? Let me quote from an exchange that took place in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz in April between two writers who are very critical of what is going on. One is Gideon Levy, whom I regard as a very good reporter of atrocities committed by Israeli settlers, although I do not think much of his political analysis. The other is the columnist, Michael Brizon (using the pen-name B Michael), who is a brilliant satirist.

Levy states:

Everything is immersed in religion and fundamentalism – the Temple Mount, Joseph’s Tomb [another focus of trouble on the West Bank], the yeshiva at Homesh, the pilgrims, the worshippers, Ramadan, the sacrificial lamb, the Temple. A religious war taken straight out of the biblical stories.

Despite this, make no mistake: religion is only a theatrical prop. The motive driving the settlers and their supporters remains ultra-nationalist, fuelled by real estate considerations, including the attendant evil, violence and sadism employed by settlers and the authorities behind them.[4]www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-how-israel-uses-radical-islam-to-justify-the-occupation-1.10758331.

This is the reply from B Michael, the satirist, in his article entitled ‘Religion, not nationalism or real estate, is to blame in Israel’:

No, it’s really about religion. It’s almost all about religion. And religion is absolutely not “just scenery”, as you wrote in your op-ed. I wish it was. But this is a religious drama, in which faith is the playwright, the director, the producer, the cast and even the cashier selling tickets.

You wanted to make things look worse than they seem by casting messianic settlers as imposters, cynics and pseudo-believers who in real life are greedy realists pursuing real estate. But that’s not who they are: they are authentic religious lunatics. They really want to ‘remove the abomination’ from the land and to purify it. They really do dream of the day when the blood of the sacrifices will be sprinkled on the altar. Likewise, they are true zealots, in the fullest historic and bloody sense of the word. And zealots, history teaches us over and over, are much more dangerous than cynics.[5]www.haaretz.com/opinion/2022-04-26/ty-article-opinion/religion-not-nationalism-or-real-estate-is-to-blame-in-israel/00000180-66ae-d030-a3cc-7eaf4a310000.

Let me comment that, whereas Levy has no religious background, B Michael went to a religious school and so he knows quite a bit about Judaism.


So who is right? They both are, in a way. That is the thing about ideology, which works best only when people really believe in it. But they believe in a particular ideology when it serves their purpose or fulfils their need, so a Freudian analogy is needed here. People believe very passionately, but they are not always cognisant of the motive for their beliefs. That is how ideology works – and it would not work at all if it was just a theatrical prop.

Of all ideologies, the most effective – the one that works most potently – is religion, and the second most potent is nationalism. While I am no expert on these things, it seems to me that religion is so potent because it is felt to be ordained by forces above us – as a result people sacrifice their lives in the cause of religion; religious martyrdom is widespread. Nationalism too has claimed a large number of martyrs. That is because its demands seem to emanate not from individuals, but from the ‘community to which we all belong’.

(When Benedict Anderson talked about the nation as an “imagined community”, this has been misinterpreted by many to mean that nations are imaginary. What he meant is that the idea that the nation constitutes a community is imagined. You cannot know personally all members of your nation, as you can within your real local community.)

Leaving that aside, religion and nationalism can be combined to form a very potent ideology. The people who uphold this ideology – religious-fanatic nationalists – do not constitute a majority of the Israeli population by any means. Let me give you some estimates. Firstly those who self-describe as Jews make up 75% of the population, while Arabs make up 20% (the rest are made up of people of various other self-descriptions).

Amongst Jews 43.1% describe themselves as ‘secular’: ie, they do not follow any religious practice. A further 33.4% say they are ‘traditional’ (they may follow certain religious practices, but not in any consistent way). 10.1% are haredim, who do not adhere to Zionism (many are opposed to it). That leaves just 11.3% of the Jewish population who are religious Zionists.

However, this small percentage extracts a very high political price – sometimes a relatively small group can exercise a very marked influence and be very significant in setting the agenda. An example of this is the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. The DUP and its supporters do not account for a huge proportion of the population – certainly not in the United Kingdom as a whole. But look at the influence it exerts over UK politics

But it is not just a matter of the considerable ability of the religious Zionist minority to play political games. It has been said that settler colonialism is like a gas: it expands to fill all available spaces. This applied to north America and Australia, and today it applies to the colonisation of Palestine, as we speak. It keeps expanding for various reasons. Firstly, there is a feeling of power: we can do it, so why don’t we and thus become stronger? Then there is the question of ‘security’. As settler colonialism expands, it encounters at the margin resistance from those who are being excluded, which results in settlers seeing themselves as ‘under attack’ – from their victims! This is the dialectic of the need to subdue those described in the American Declaration of Independence as “merciless Indian savages”: ie, the dispossessed turning against those innocent settlers. Then there is the right to access coveted land and natural resources.

But continuous expansion, which is a feature of settler colonialism, cannot work well without ideological justification: those needs alone, outlined above, are not sufficient to provide such justification. There is also a need for support from a ‘higher power’ to justify such expansion. This role is played by the messianic Zionists in Israel: they are the highly motivated commando units of Zionist expansion.

This is not only because of their political influence DUP-style, but also because the mainstream Zionists have no real ideological counter-force. Mainstream Zionism had a secular beginning – but even then it had an underground religious root: it started as a secularised version of a religious ideology.

Zionism claims that the Jews are ‘a nation’, but they certainly do not constitute a nation in the modern sense. It is compatible with only one religion: Judaism. A convert to Judaism is considered a member of the ‘Jewish nation’, whereas a convert from Judaism is no longer such a member. So ‘secular Zionism’ never severed its religious roots.

Zionists were inspired not by the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinical Judaism, but by the Hebrew bible – Judaism’s archaic layer. Like most religions, Judaism is highly adaptable – it has many layers and many components. It has undergone many changes and transformations over time.

The most influential part of the Talmud was composed not in the Holy Land, but in Mesopotamia – today’s Iraq. Because the centre of Judaism had shifted from the Holy Land, there was a desire to refocus it away from Palestine. They had adapted to the fact that Judaism was no longer a religion based on the original Holy Land.

A much later evolution – an analogous one – took place in the Jewish community in the United States. There it adapted itself to the fact that they had become a major focus of the Jewish religion and this is exemplified by the biggest denomination in American Judaism, known as Reform Judaism.

The founding document of this movement, which dates from 1885, reacts to Zionism very negatively. Although the Zionist movement was yet to be founded officially, Zionism was already in the air in certain parts of Europe. This is from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885:

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.[6]people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/PittsburgPlatform.html.

This is, if you like, an analogue of what the authors of the Babylonian Talmud laid down: ie, Judaism is no longer focused on Palestine; we are not a political nation, but purely a religion.

Messianic Zionists have taken the very opposite route. They ardently strive to revive sacrificial worship in a Jewish temple built on the ruins of the present Muslim shrines. They are able to play their dangerous provocative game because they believe passionately in what they are doing, while other strands of Zionism have nothing with which to counter them.

Arab nationalism

Let me make a few remarks about the relation between nationalism and religion on the Arab side. The situation here is quite different.

True, Arabisation and Islamisation came together in Palestine, which became predominantly Muslim at the same time as it became predominantly Arab – around 700AD. However, there is no lasting essential connection between the two: the biggest Islamic countries in the modern world are not Arab. Conversely, there are many non-Muslim Arab minorities – Christian and others – in Arab countries. In fact Arab nationalism acted as a counter to pan-Islamism. Typically, modern Arab nationalism was pioneered by non-Muslims. It was an alternative to pan-Islamism. One of those pioneers was George Antonius – a non-Muslim, as you might gather from his name, and a native of Lebanon. Another was Michel Aflaq, a Syrian.

Similarly among Palestinian leaders there have been many non-Muslims. George Habash was leader of the Popular Front, while Nayef Hawatmeh heads the Popular Democratic Front. And, of course, the latest heroic figure is Shireen Abu Akleh, who was a staunch supporter of Palestinian identity and a reporter for Al Jazeera. Typically, at her Catholic funeral, which was viciously attacked by the Israeli police, both a Catholic priest and a leading Muslim cleric said prayers. Not something you would expect on the Israeli side!

It is true that Islamism has recently featured within Palestinian nationalism, as well as within the Arab world more generally. But that is because of the political failings of secular Arab nationalism. That has created a vacuum into which Islamic ideology has attempted to step.

Nevertheless, the situation is not at all parallel to that on the Israeli side. Let me mention the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount. But it is not only a religious symbol: it became nationally symbolic from early times. Under the British mandate the Dome of the Rock was seen a symbol of Palestine – it featured on the Palestinian pound note and on postage stamps at that time. It has become a focus of Palestinian nationalism for people who were not Muslims at all.

This is an explanation as to why events that started last year around al-Haram al-Sharif featured not only Muslims, but Palestinians of all descriptions.

Moshé Machover is a mathematician, philosopher, and radical socialist activist, noted for his writings against Zionism. Born to a Jewish family in Tel Aviv, then part of the British Mandate of Palestine, Machover moved to Britain in 1968. He was a founder of Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organization, in 1962. He is author of numerous articles, including, with Akiva Orr, the groundbreaking 1969 analysis, “The Class Character of Israeli Society,” which was republished in ISR 23.

Published in Weekly Worker June 9, 2022

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