In The Name Of God

Amid the wanton slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and Jews, Christian knights "rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins," reported a witness to the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. "It was a just and splendid judgment of God." In the nine centuries since, the sword and shield have given way to belt-bombs and battle tanks, but the righteous violence remains. A 20-year-old Jewish settler praying outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron last week would understand it. "This is the center of the Jewish nation," he said, wrapped in a white prayer shawl down to his ankles. "I pray to get rid of the Arabs and return the whole of Hebron to its rightful owners." (A couple of miles away is the grave of another Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, who shared that dream. He murdered 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994 before he himself was killed.) And 19-year-old Zidan Muhammad Vazani would have understood too. His passion for God--for Allah--led him to a billiard hall on the Israeli coast last week, where he blew himself up and slaughtered 15 Jews. It was the first suicide bombing for almost a month--the 20th of the year.

There will always be Christian, Muslim and Jewish zealots who believe they hear messages of ruthless violence from their one God. ("I did it to make Jesus come back," an Australian Christian planned to tell police when he torched the holiest Muslim shrine in Jerusalem in 1969.) But why do such voices attract a following today? Are they on a mission of righteousness or madness or cold-blooded politics? Sadly, all those elements are mixed, and may be inseparable. "Control of sacred sites is a preeminent source of power," writes Meron Benvenisti in his elegant memoir about the mapping of Israel, "Sacred Landscape," "and an enemy's sacred grave is a coveted spoil of war."

The confusion and the utter cynicism of the Holy Land were obvious in the 39-day siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Dozens of not-especially-religious Muslims, wanted by Israel for murdering Jews, were holed up among Christian priests in the ostensible birthplace of the Prince of Peace. When the alleged terrorists left at last to exile, and Israel's tanks withdrew, the priests were left to clean up the mess. They talked about "the sanctity of the stones," the holy site itself that was violated by the Palestinian gunmen, and "the sanctity of life," which was violated by Israeli snipers who killed, among others, the ringer of the church's bells.

One of the most telling incidents in the siege, however, concerned the bodies of Palestinian fighters shot by the snipers. The priests refused to let them be buried inside the church compound lest the graves become part of the legendary history of the place--a Muslim shrine. In Israel and Palestine, the legend is always hard to separate from the land. That is the essence of the conflict. "It's about defining the space in all its dimensions, with its history, its identity," says Marwan Bishara, an Israeli-Arab who attended Baptist schools.

The men and women who founded Israel understood the challenge of demarcating memories. After independence in 1948, says Benvenisti, an Israeli who served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, the new rulers launched a campaign to eradicate "the signposts of memory" in what were once Arab lands. "Not since the end of the Middle Ages had the civilized world witnessed the wholesale appropriation of sacred sites of a defeated religious community by members of the victorious one," says Benvenisti. "There commenced a process of Judaization in which Muslim graves were declared to be the burial places of the Biblical patriarchs and were transformed into pilgrimage sites for huge numbers of Jews." Generations of Israelis and Arabs have grown up since with what Benvenisti calls "white patches" on the map of where they lived. The land of the other is essentially blank, or hostile terra incognita.

The Israel that emerged from the war of independence in 1948 was a largely secular state, however. It was located near "Zion" but not quite in it. The heartland of Jewish faith and culture, the old city of Jerusalem and the provinces of ancient Judea and Samaria, were under Jordanian rule. The 1967 war changed all that. The Jewish state gained control over the "real Zion," says Baruch Kimmerling of Hebrew University. "Immense religious and secular messianic sentiments took over... among Jews around the world. The Arab Muslims naturally reacted with their own militant religious movement, nourished and supported also by worldwide Islamic revivalism."

It is Arab East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria--the occupied West Bank--that Israel is being asked to trade for security and recognition. But how does Israel trade away Zion? Is peace worth it? Many true believers would say no. And many secular Israelis are worried that even if they say yes, the Palestinians may not allow them to live in peace anyway. Islamic fundamentalists, for instance, regard all of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea as an Islamic waqf, or trust.

Statesmen on both sides have struggled to keep that question of religion--indeed, to keep God--out of the peace negotiations. "There are three faiths involved. How are you going to walk through the minefield of their differences?" said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on the eve of an Arab conference in Egypt last week. "If each of us goes to the Holy Book to determine borderlines, I don't think we'll ever reach a solution." But Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister and an advocate of withdrawal from the occupied territories, believes it's only with the help of religion that the problem can be solved. "You cannot deal with the Middle East without dealing with identities and narratives, including the myths we have about each other," says Melchior. "The issue doesn't disappear because you ignore it; it blows up in your face." Yet voices like Melchior's often are drowned out by the fanatics' rant. The moderates will need a lot of help if, in this millennium, a just and splendid judgment of God is to consecrate the land with peace instead of with blood.