The Distinguished Rennert Lecture for 2002 delivered by Dr. Charles
Krauthammer upon the awarding to Dr. Krauthammer of Bar-Ilan University's
Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies Guardian of Zion Award June
10, 2002, King David Hotel, Jerusalem
© Bar-Ilan University
Permission is granted to circulate and republish this lecture on the
condition that it is clearly labeled as follows:
"He Tarries: Jewish Messianism and the Oslo Peace. The Distinguished Rennert
Lecture for 2002, delivered upon the awarding to Dr. Charles Krauthammer of
Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
'Guardian of Zion' Award, in Jerusalem, June 10, 2002. The address can be
heard (audio) via the Internet at www.biu.ac.il"
Further inquiries to email@example.com
"He Tarries: Jewish Messianism and the Oslo Peace"
by Charles Krauthammer
The Distinguished Rennert Lecture for 2002, delivered upon the awarding to
Dr. Charles Krauthammer of Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for
Jerusalem Studies 'Guardian of Zion' Award, in Jerusalem, June 10, 2002. The
address can be heard (audio) via the Internet at www.biu.ac.il
Thank you, Rabbi Rackman, for that very kind introduction. It is truly an
honor to be introduced by Rabbi Rackman. It is an honor to be honored by
Bar-Ilan University, which is such an important institution in the life of
the Jewish people, and to be honored by the Ingeborg Rennert Center, which
has been such an important element in bringing the sacredness, the
importance, and the permanence of Jerusalem, to the consciousness of Jews
everywhere in the world. I can't think of a more important enterprise, and I
commend Inge and Ira for their extraordinary work as real defenders and
guardians of Zion.
Some of you may know that I used to be a psychiatrist, but I want to assure
you tonight that I am a psychiatrist in remission. I haven't had a relapse
in twenty years, I have been doing very well. I am sometimes asked what is
the difference between my career today as a legal observer of governments
and politicians in Washington and a psychiatrist. And I tell people that in
both professions, in Washington where I observe political actors, and in
psychiatry where I used to work in an asylum, I see people every day who
suffer from delusions of grander and paranoia, with the exception that today
those people have access to nuclear weapons, so it makes it a little bit of
a more interesting game.
I want to talk to you tonight about an important, and I think neglected,
aspect of Jewish consciousness, namely Jewish Messianism. Thirty-five years
ago today the Six-Day war ended. It seemed like a new era, and I remember
some months afterward my rabbi questioned whether we should continue to
celebrate Tisha Be'av. Jerusalem had been reunited, the Temple Mount was
ours, Israel. The land had been retaken, perhaps we had entered a new age.
The cruel lesson of the last thirty-five years is that we will always have
Tisha Be'av and we will always need to have Tisha Be'av.
It is true that according to Maimonides, one of the fundamental beliefs of
Judaism is belief in the coming of the Messiah, but that does not mean that
we have to believe in the imminent coming of the Messiah. In fact, the
rabbis long discouraged the belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah as
almost a form of impiety. Messianic speculation has not been good for the
My thesis tonight is that many of our troubles today, as a people and as a
Jewish state, are rooted precisely in this new Messianic enthusiasm.
The Jewish experience with Messianic speculation is long and sad. We have
not had very good luck with Messiahs, and I am not referring here to the
most famous claim to the title. I am thinking not of Jesus of Nazareth, but
of two subsequent episodes in Jewish history.
The first of Bar Kochva, rebellion of the 2nd century. It was not just a
rebellion against Rome, it was a rebellion against history. It is well known
that the greatest rabbinic authority of the time, Rabbi Akiva, proclaimed
Bar Kochva the Messiah, and we know the rest of the story. We know how that
Messianic adventure ended in catastrophe, the destruction of the Jewish
State and exile for eighteen centuries.
A millennium and a half later we had an even more remarkable eruption of
Messianic speculation - Shabtai Zvi. He acquired hundreds of thousands of
followers in the Jewish world, promising return, redemption, and the
imminent end of days. This episode ended, I would argue, even more
tragically than Bar Kochva. Shabtai Zvi was captured by the Turks, became a
convert to Islam, not only destroying but humiliating the movement that had
believed in him. And yet, so deep was the belief and the need for the
Messiah, that his portrayal was somehow seen by some of his followers as
part of an even greater, more mystical, more mysterious Messianic plan, and
Shabatiism lasted for centuries after his death.
This led the rabbis to discourage Messianic speculation, and as we know,
there is rabbinic injunction against hastening the end, lo lidchok et
haketz, presuming by human agency to bring about what only God can. And yet,
the Messianic hunger never dies, but it often goes unnoticed.
There are today at least three of these strains worth noticing. The first,
and the one that has received the most attention, is the religious
Messianism of the more extreme and radical elements of the Gush Emunim, and
the purist culture of which, which is the Temple Mount faithful, who spend
their waking hours learning Leviticus so that they will be ready to offer
sacrifices in the new temple.
The settler movement is often caricatured as a Messianic, I believe this is
unfair. There is only a small minority that believe that settling the
territories is not for reasons of security, not for reasons of national
glory and power, not even to fulfill biblical injunctions. Only a small
minority of the settlers believe that their settling of the land is the
necessary instrument to a kind of apocalyptic Messianic restoration.
Now, some might argue that the entire Zionist enterprise is Messianic, that
the entire religious Zionist enterprise is. And indeed, the prayer for the
Jewish State that we recite every Sabbath refers to Israel as "reishit
tzmichat geulateinu". But note the qualifiers and the distancing here, it
refers to Israel as "the beginning of the flower of the redemption". Twice
removed from redemption. A promise, but hardly a promise of imminence.
There is a second instance of religious Judaism that has dabbled in
Messianic speculation, a more bizarre and even more interesting one. It
erupted with scandalous intensity a few years ago with the death of the
Lubavitch Rabbi. During his lifetime, as you know, and particularly towards
the end, Rabbi Shneurson was surrounded by a Messianic aura. It was
whispered among the faithful that he was the Messiah and he would declare
himself. And although he never did declare himself, he never discouraged
speculation that he might be.
And then of course disaster struck. The rabbi died. And that is a disaster,
because in the Jewish tradition the Messiah must be a living person.
Nonetheless, so powerful was the feeling, that many of his followers
remained undaunted. Some even danced at his funeral procession, believing
that he was not really dead, but would immensely arise and proclaim his
kingdom. Sound familiar?
It was a rather astonishing, and I would say even scandalous event, that one
of the most Orthodox and successful Jewish sects in modern history should
have adopted an essentially Christilogical interpretation of the end of
days. Of course most Jews, and in fact most of the Lubavitch Movement, were
aghast of this development. And yet the very fact that it occurred even in a
minority testifies to the power of the Messianic idea.
Now, these two forms in Messianism, the religious Zionism of the extreme
Gush Emunim and the Lubavitch, while worlds apart and different in content,
still fit the tradition or notion of Messianism as being particularly and
peculiarly expressions of extreme eschatological religiosity.
But I would argue that you don't have to be religious to be a Messianist,
you don't have to believe in God to believe in the end of days. And indeed,
I would argue that the secularist temptation is the strongest of all; and is
surely exerting an influence far more important and powerful than its
religious counterparts in shaping contemporary Jewish history and bringing
us to the terrible crossroads at which Israel finds itself today.
Consider the following quotations: "The hunting season in history is over",
"War as a method of conducting human affairs is in its death road", "The
conflict shaping up, as our century nears its close, will be over the
content of civilization, not of territory", and finally, "The Trojan Horse
of war is obsolete."
These worries were not uttered by a religious fanatic under the spell of
prophetic visions, nor were they uttered by an inhabitant of a lunatic
asylum -- although as a former psychiatrist it wouldn't have surprised me to
hear this coming from one of my former patients.
Many of you will recognize these words, the words said and written by the
current Foreign Minister of Israel, Shimon Peres.
There is no way to characterize the vision he enunciated of the New Middle
East, a vision which underlay, powered, and indeed beguiled the entire Oslo
Peace Process as indeed Messianic.
He (Peres) was talking about a radical break in history, occurring not in
the future, but occurring now. He was talking about a new era in human
At the Sharem-A-Sheik Summit he said, "We are at a watershed. Our region is
going through a period of transition. The dark days are at an end, the
shadows of its path are lengthening. The twilight of wars is still red with
blood, yet its sunset is inevitable and imminent."
They are words of Isaiah -- they could have been the words of Isaiah --
which were a prophecy about the far future. This was a man speaking about
what he saw happening before his eyes. And I must say, to reread these words
is to experience real heartbreak.
Many statesmen speak in grandiose terms about changes in history and the
dawn of new ages, but these are usually meant as rhetoric, and they are
always presented as a possible future. What is so astonishing about the
words I read to you is the secular messianism it represents. He was speaking
not about the future but of the present as imminent and inevitable, whose
reality was upon us and could not be denied.
It reminds me of the story that they tell about the secret chapter in Henry
Kissinger's life. Henry Kissinger, the most un-messianic political leader of
our time. Unknown to most of you, he spent his lost years in the political
wilderness as the Head of the Biblical Zoo. As with everything, Henry had
turned out to be a fantastic success. A newspaper editor in America heard
about this, so he sent a young reporter to find out why thousands of people
were streaming to Kissinger's zoo. The young man arrived, he walked up to
the gate, and he saw thousands of people all struck before the main exhibit,
a lion and a lamb lying down together. The young reporter was astonished, he
burst into tears, he burst into Kissinger's office and said, "Dr. Kissinger,
for 2000 years people have dreamt, they have prayed, they have wept for the
lion to lie down with the lamb, and you have done it. How did you do it?"
And Kissinger said, "Every day, a new lamb."
Here we are today in the midst of the worst bloodletting in Israeli history.
Every day, a new lamb.
Most poignant to me was the observation that Peres made: "The Trojan Horse
of war is obsolete." The turn of phrase is particularly ironic and painful,
because 'Trojan Horse' is precisely the term used by Faisel Husseini to
describe the PLO's objective in signing the Oslo Peace Process. Shortly
before his death, Husseini said explicitly that the intent in the signing of
Oslo was not peace, but to establish a Palestinian entity from the river to
the sea. Oslo was the 'Trojan Horse' that would give the Palestinian the
foothold from which to carry on the struggle. And like the Trojan Horse, the
catastrophe would erupt upon the Israelis the same way it erupted upon the
Trojans, in a reverie of self-satisfied and ultimately self-delusional
I remember when I first heard about the Oslo peace accords, when the news
first broke. I immediately called an Israeli friend, whom I won't mention,
who was editor of a prominent publication. And I said to him, "What
happened?" And he said to me, "We won, we finally won. They have accepted
I was shocked by his response. And yet, that was the view not only of him,
but of many Israelis and of many Americans.
Now, it is important to understand that this view of the end of days, this
view of the imminence of a new history, is not unique to the Israeli left.
In fact, it is not unique to Israel; it was something that swept the West in
In the early 1990's, the idea that history had turned became a very current
and very prevalent one. When the Berlin Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama
wrote a most famous article at the time called "The End of History". It was
a sensation. I would note, by the way, that in the manuscript it appeared in
National Interest with a question mark at the end. That question mark was
added by the editor, who was a prudent man. But Fukuyama had no question
mark in his original title.
Fukuyama did not of course mean that history itself had ended, but what he
meant was that political and ideological history had indeed ended. A century
that began with the great battle against Nazism, Fascism, Communism, and
ended with the triumph of liberal democracy, and that this triumph was
irreversible and it was a permanent change in the human condition. We had
reached, he argued, the end of the ideological evolution of mankind. The
history that occurred from now on would be different. It would be more
narrow, more constrained, more purely commercial and economic, and more
boring. Hallevai - how I wish this would be true.
Now, some people would say, "Well, it was just intellectuals who went for
this." That is not so. The idea of the end of history was prevalent in the
West and in the United States, in particular among the people and among the
government. It is very interesting that in the three elections of the 1990's
in the United States - in '92, in '96, and 2000 - these were the three
elections that in all of American history had less discussion of foreign
affairs than any other election, and that is because we had a feeling that
we had a achieved a kind of county and permanent peace.
And among the government, the Clinton Administration for eight years made
the '90s a holiday from history. It made the work of foreign policy the work
of accumulating and signing treaties -- on buying weapons and chemical
weapons, on disarm of it, on nonproliferation, on landmines, on
everything -- with absolutely no effect on the real world. And yet, it
treated the attack on the World Trade Center, the Attack on the Khobar
Towers, the attack on the embassies in Tanzania and Uganda -- as a form of
crime and not as a form of war.
In the 1990's, America slept and Israel dreamed.
The United States awoke on September 2001. Israel awoke in September 2000.
Like the left and like the reverie that we had in the United States, the
secular Messianism was intoxicated with the idea that history had changed
from a history based on military and political conflict to one in which the
ground rules were set by markets and technology. This was the infatuation
with globalization as the great leveler and the abolisher of things like
politics, war, and international conflict. This kind of geo-economics was
widely accepted in the early post-cold era.
It was September 11th that abolished that illusion. It taught us in America
there are enemies, they are ideological, they care nothing for economics,
and they will use whatever military power they have as a means to achieve
their ideological ends. This is the old history, perhaps the oldest history
of all, the war of one god against another. No new history, no break in
history, no redemption from history.
The other source of this secular Messianism in the Israeli context was the
success of the European Union, which was seen as a model for peace in the
Middle East. There was talk of the Israel, Palestinian, and Jordan becoming
a new Benelux, with common markets, open borders, friendship, and harmony.
Indeed, if you look at the Oslo, of course there is page upon page of all of
these ideas of cooperation on economics, on technology, on environment, all
which in retrospect appear absurd. And indeed, this entire idea of the
Benelux on the Jordan looks insane in retrospect, but I believe that it was
insane from the very beginning, when it was first proposed ten years ago.
There are such obvious differences between the European situation and the
Middle Eastern one. First is that the period of harmony, integration, and
commodity among the Europeans happened only after the utter and total defeat
of one party. It did not come from long negotiations between France and
Germany at Camp David, compromising their differences over the 20th century.
It came from the utter destruction of Germany and the rebuilding of a new
Europe after that surrender and accommodation.
These conditions do not apply in the Middle East. The only way that that
kind of peace will come definitely is the peace not of the brave but of the
grave, and that means a peace that would be established with the defeat of
Israel and its eradication. There is no way that Israel can utterly defeat
the Arabs the way the allies defeated Germany and Japan in the 2nd World
War. So that the idea of some kind of harmonious Middle Eastern Union
drawing on the European mantle is drawn from a totally false historical
analogy, one that is based on surrender and accommodation that could not
happen in this Middle Eastern context, unless we are looking at the world
through the eyes of Hamas and Hizballah.
Secondly, the Middle East is still a collagen of religious fanaticism,
economic backwards, and political tyranny. It is nothing more than a mirage
to transpose the situation in Europe with the harmony that came after half a
millennium of conflict and in conditions of modernity to transpose those
conditions to the Middle East, with a conflict as much younger and the
political culture infinitely less mature. In this context, to look at the
savage religious and secular conflicts going on throughout the Middle East
and to believe that the most virulent of these, the conflict with Israel,
can find the kind of harmonious coexistence that exists in Europe, can only
be called Messianic.
Now, this is not to say that the only impulse underlying Oslo was Messianic.
There was a Messianic left and there was a realistic left, if you like. The
realists saw Oslo as a pragmatic way out of Israel dilemma. I believe in
retrospect, as I believed at the time, that they were utterly mistaken, but
at least they were not dreaming.
I think Rabin had a fairly coherent logic behind Oslo. He saw three basic
changes in the world having occurred in the '90s, and he thought they would
give Israel an opportunity to quickly settle the Palestinian dispute and to
concentrate on the larger disputes coming in the longer run from periphery,
from the missiles and the weapons of mass destruction that would soon be in
the hands of Iran, Iraq, Libya, and others.
And the three events he saw were: First, the collapse of the Soviet Union,
which deprived the rejectionist Arabs of the great superpower sponsor and
source of economic, military, and diplomatic assistance. Second, was the
victory of the United States in the Gulf War and the establishment of
American hegemony in the region. Third, was the terminal condition of the
PLO. Arafat had again, as always, chosen the wrong side in war, was cut off
by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, ostracized by the United States, lost all of his
financial and diplomatic support. The PLO was on at last legs.
Rabin thought he was cleverly exploiting the weakness of the PLO by reviving
it, he imagined, just enough so it could make peace with him. With the
Soviets gone, with Iraq defeated, with the US ascended, with the PLO
weakened, he thought he could make a deal on this basis. He turned out to be
hopelessly mistaken, both on the intentions and on the recuperative powers
of the PLO once Israel had helped it out of its abyss.
It was one of the great miscalculations in diplomatic history.
Indeed, I believe Oslo will stand as perhaps the most catastrophic,
self-inflicted wound by any state in modern history.
But at least in Rabin's mind, as I understood it, it was a calculation. For
Peres and his counterpart on the Israeli left, it was a leap of faith. And I
mean the word literally, faith.
Chesterton once said that when a man stops believing in God he doesn't
believe in nothing, he believes in anything. In the ideologically fevered
20th century, this belief in anything often turned out to be a belief in
history, history with a capital H. For the messianic left, Oslo was more
than a deal. It was a realization, a ratification of a new era in history.
Rabin's Oslo was pessimistic, peace with fences, separation, divorce wearing
its tenuousness. Peres' Oslo was eschatological: Benelux, geo-economics, the
abolition of power politics.
Interestingly, this kind of Messianic mistiness often occurs to otherwise
reasonable people, who are caught deep in the weariness of war. In 1943,
upon returning from the Moscow Conference, Cordell Hull, Franklin Roosevelt'
s Secretary of State, was similarly rhapsodic when he said, quote, "There
will no longer be the need for spheres of influence, reliances on balances
of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which in the
unhappy past the nation throve to safeguard their security." Roosevelt
himself was caught up with this vision of the UN as a kind of super session
of the very idea of power politics and of the advent of a new era of the
regulation of international conflict by norms and by committee.
The irony is that the United States took only a couple of years to
understand the fallacy of the vision and to awake to reality. By 1947,
President Truman summoned America back to the dirty, unpleasant, seemingly
endless existential struggle with the new enemy, Soviet Communism.
Israel, on the other hand, labored under its illusion, did not awake to its
reality for seven long years, until reality declared itself in the summer of
2000 at Camp David, when Barak's astonishingly conciliatory peace offer
elicited a Palestinian counter offer of terrorism and suicide bombing.
This is not to say that peace is impossible, it is only to say that peace
will always be contingent. And even that contingent peace will require the
demonstration by the Arab side of its willingness, its genuine willingness,
to live in acceptance of a Jewish state.
Again, that is not impossible. That is what Sadat offered, and he meant it.
It is not clear that post-Sadat Egypt means it, although it has lived within
the Sadatian parameters at least for reasons of prudence ever since.
But there has never been a Sadat among the Palestinians. And the idea that
one can strike a real peace deal with Arafat, in the absence of a Sadat-like
acceptance of the Jewish State, is indeed delusional. Until there is a
genuine Arab, a genuine Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state within
whatever borders, there will be no end to history, there will only be more
and more history.
Bismarck once said of the Balkans that they produce more history than they
can consume, and that will be the fate of the Middle East for the
Let me conclude by dealing with one objection to my characterization of the
secular Messianism of the Israeli, and I might say American, left. One might
ask, "Was not the original Zionist dream itself Messianic?" After all, a
hundred years ago Zionism itself appeared to be a crazy dream. The idea of
the ingathering of the exiles, the reestablishment of the Hebrew language,
of Hebrew culture, the settling of the land, the achievement of political
independence, appeared all to be, well, Messianic.
I would argue precisely the opposite. Zionism is the antithesis of
Messianism. Zionism argued against waiting in the Diaspora with prayer and
fervency for some Deus Ex Machina to come and to rescue the Jews. Zionism
rejected the idea of waiting for an outside agent, for a Shabtai Zvi and a
Bar Kochva. Zionism is supremely an ideology of self-reliance, of
self-realization. It refuses to depend on others, it postulates no sudden
change in the psychology of enemies, it postulates no change in human
nature, it postulates no discontinuity in history.
Zionism accepted the world precisely as it was, and decided that precisely
because the world was as it was, the Jews had no future in the Diaspora and
would have to build their future in Zion. Most of all, they understood that
the building of Zion would depend on Jewish action, Jewish initiative,
Jewish courage. They had to go out and to build a state themselves, and they
Oslo, on the other hand, a supreme expression of post-Zionist Messianism,
was entirely contrary to that spirit. Why? Because of its passivity, its
reliance on an almost quasi-religious change of heart among Israel's
enemies. It is an acceptance of Israel by people who daily in their
propaganda, in their sermons, in their pedagogies, anatomize the very idea
of the Jewish State. It expected a renunciation of terrorism by people who
practice, support, and fund and glorify it, and who had been doing that for
twenty years, thirty years. It believed in entrusting the security, the
safety, perhaps even the very existence of the Jewish state into the hands
of sworn enemies.
We have now learned, to our sadness and horror, that one cannot contract out
the safety of the Zionist experiment to others, most especially to Arafat
and the PLO. That was the premise of Oslo and it has proven to be
I repeat, in the 1990's America slept, and Israel dreamt.
The only good news is that Israel has awoken from that reverie, the most
disastrous Messianic seduction since Shabtai Zvi. Shabatianism survived
nonetheless for centuries; Osloism still has its cultic adherence. But the
body of the Jewish people have awoken, let us hope not too late, and once
and for all determined never again to succumb to the Messianic temptation.
Thank you very much.