A New Consensus in Israel about What Being Jewish Really Means

Two general elections within a span of five months are a treasure for any researcher, because they bring to light the issues that are most important to each group of voters.

Between the April and September elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not change, the security threats from Iran and the Gaza Strip neither grew nor shrank, and Israel’s population remained almost the same. But a new agenda that was placed at the center of the second election took five Knesset seats from the bloc comprising Likud and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The agenda was the relationship between religion and state, and the person who put it center stage also coined the slogan that most accurately summarizes Israel’s social and political center of gravity: “A Jewish state, not a halakha [Jewish religious law] state.”

One could say that this is the amorphous consensus on Jewish identity in Israel as it has emerged and come together in recent decades. In general terms, beginning in the 1990s Israeli Jewish society underwent two deep processes relating to its identity. On the one hand, Jewish Israelis learned to challenge the authority of Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic representative of historic Judaism. An increasing number of Jews are shaping their Jewish identity through a wide range of alternative avenues, from pluralistic study forums, through Reform Judaism to New Age-y doctrines like the Yemima Method to the various Bratslav Hasidic courts. This is privatized Judaism, shaped by the individual to meet their cultural, social or spiritual needs. This is also a Judaism that fears for its liberty and the possibility of realizing itself in whatever way it chooses.

On the other hand, we also see in Israel the rise of an ethnic-national Jewish identity, which is based on a sense of tribal belonging and whose meaning is derived from the mission of preserving the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. This Jewish identity is ostensibly collectivist and its center is the national-ethnic (not civic) community. But the demands this identity makes on the individual are minimal, and as such it can be integrated — in a manner that is complementary, not contradictory — into the privatization process. This identity is more strongly tied to Orthodox Judaism, which it considers more authentic and “faithful,” but in the end it also undermines it.

Jewish expressions in Israel

Both social trends stem from the same source: rising individualization in the Western world. The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.

But what happens when the individual is in fact expected to change his behavior? What happens when the government allows and even encourages increased religious influence in the state secular schools, separation between men and women in the public sphere or the closure of grocery stores on the Sabbath? What happens when it threatens to prohibit soccer games on Shabbat or the Eurovision Song Contest? Many who affiliate with ethnic-national Judaism will accept this, and some might even see it as an authentic expression of the heritage with which they identify. But many others will respond to this threat to their autonomy and their lifestyle by turning their backs on the parties that promote it.

Religious antagonism

The fault line between religious and secular is one of the most fundamental in Israel. The socialist Zionism that established the state rejected halakha and saw religion as a relic of the galut, the Jewish Diaspora, which was not only superfluous after the Jewish people returned to the land of its ancestors but was a constant threat to the establishment of a progressive, properly run state. Socialism as a mass progressive vision disintegrated, along with the decades-long rule of Labor Party forerunner Mapai and its ethos, but a fundamental antagonism toward “the religious” is part of Israel’s DNA. Add to this the perceived threat to civil liberties, and this antagonism turns into an electoral force.

The combination of this old antagonism and the insistence on personal freedoms brought Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s Shinui party 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election and his son Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid 19 seats in 2013. In September’s election it destroyed Netanyahu’s chance of obtaining a coalition of 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. In my opinion, it also prevented Kahol Lavan from weakening any more than it did. The bottom line is clear: In every election campaign in which the issue of religion and state becomes central, several Knesset seats move from the right-wing bloc to the left or, more accurately, from the right-traditional religious bloc to the central-civic bloc. These seats go not to Meretz, but to parties that offer a clear Jewish identity while also promising to preserve a secular civic space. Both Lapids offered exactly this. Now it was being offered by Lieberman and the four leaders of Kahol Lavan.

Lieberman’s slogan, “A Jewish state, not a halakha state,” precisely expresses this new, all-Israeli combination; on the one hand it emphasizes Jewish identity, while on the other hand it promises to preserve individual liberties. Moshe Feiglin had actually discovered this secret formula earlier, and during the campaign for the April election he used it very successfully with his libertarian party Zehut before he was brought down by campaign errors and Netanyahu’s skill in cannibalizing the bloc. Hayamin Hehadash, whose platform had remarkably similar messages, was hurt as a result of overly cautious wording (for example, party chairman Naftali Bennett stuttered over LGBTQ rights) and  suffered the same cannibalization. Looking forward, we can expect to see this winning combination in every party seeking the votes of mainstream Israelis.

The Haredi parties, in contrast, have maintained their strength, which is based on Orthodox and traditional Jewish voters, for whom personal autonomy and the secular  civic space is less important. The religious Zionist movement is caught in between: Its Haredi minority completed its takeover of the now-defunct National Religious Party (after obtaining similar, if less complete, control of the community’s educational institutions). In the process it alienated a majority of Israelis and even a majority of religious Zionists, who fear for their autonomy no less than secular Israelis do. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who in September ran together with Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz as Yamina, did not gain additional Knesset seats, suggesting that voters recognized that the alliance with the Haredi Zionists would stifle their relatively liberal voice.

Privatized traditionalism

Both election seasons shattered the religious-Zionist dream that secular Israelis wanted a knitted-kippa leadership. It turns out that secular Jews prefer — surprise! — to vote for secular politicians, whether Likud or Kahol Lavan. Beyond that, we are seeing the end of a process that began in the 1990s, with the National Religious Party’s unequivocal affiliation with the right. That move turned religious Zionism, which had always prided itself on being the “hyphen” that brought together Haredim and secular Jews, Torah and science, past and future — into just another right-wing party.

For religious Zionism, the movement toward individualism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other undermined the halakhic dimension. Along with turning the settlement enterprise into a central tenet of faith, identifying with the political right replaced halakha as the fundamental basis of religious-Zionist identity. Bennett and Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party accepted secular right-wingers, but would never have accepted religious leftists.

The two components of Yamina represent two opposing responses to this process. Bennett and Shaked are nothing more Likudniks with a twist, and the platform of their party was not materially different from that of Likud on matters of religion or foreign policy. This model won them around a dozen Knesset seats in 2013, and presumably that was their peak. Politicians such as Smotrich, Peretz and Moti Yogev, however, seek to return the topic of religious law to the fore. But in an age when civil liberties and even liberal causes such as feminism and LGBTQ rights are becoming part of the Israeli consensus, such a move will confirm the party’s place as a small Likud satellite.

The combination of Jewish ethnic nationalism and individualistic liberalism has thus become the main intersection of the range of circles making up Israeli society. Likud, which was founded on a blend of nationalism and liberalism, could have been the primary beneficiary of this situation, had Netanyahu not become completely dependent on his alliance with his “natural partners,” which repels his voters. Kahol Lavan gained from Likud’s loss but it now faces a dilemma since in the absence of a unity government it, too, is dependent on the Haredi parties.

But the importance of the current situation goes well beyond the political arena. The evolving Jewish identity represents a sort of privatized traditionalism, grasping on to a heritage that is dependent upon the will of the individual and custom-made to fit. It is a dynamic, creative Judaism, but it’s also egocentric, and the liberalism it demonstrates toward the Jewish direction (from weddings outside of the rabbinate to LGBTQ rights) does not generally extend into the non-Jewish space. This is Judaism in Israel in the early 21st century, and it shows us that most Israeli Jews will not relinquish their Jewish identity, but at the same time they will rise up against religious coercion and insist on individual liberties, at least for themselves.

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Published in Haaretz, Oct. 29

Of White Supremacy and Chosen Peoples – The Turner Diaries and their legacy

from The Great Gatsby“Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’?” Tom Buchanan, Gatsby’s rival, asks in “The Great Gatsby.” “The idea,” Buchanan explains, “is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the 1925 masterpiece, knew well why he had his antagonist speak those words. The crux of the tension between Jay Gatsby and Buchanan is the question of truth and authenticity. On the one hand, the source of Gatsby’s wealth is dubious: He’s charming and charismatic, but his life is founded on a lie. On the other hand, Buchanan is a nasty piece of work, arrogant and boastful, but he’s a faithful son of the American upper class of the tumultuous 1920s. For a large slice of American society, the racist calumnies he spews out were the unvarnished truth.

The title of the book Buchanan mentions is a distortion of a real work: “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” published in 1920, which attracted interest in the United States. The author, Lothrop Stoddard, a prolific American thinker, writes of his concern that ineluctable demographic trends will transform the world’s whites into an oppressed minority. As someone who espoused a detailed race theory, Stoddard maintained that the “Nordic race” is superior to all other races and that, for the common good, it should continue to rule the world.

Stoddard’s book is just one link in a long chain, beginning in the early 19th century, all of whose parts are obsessed with the white person’s fear of becoming a minority. By ascribing these views to Buchanan, Fitzgerald marked him as being flesh-of-the-white-flesh of the particular social circle that’s caught in the grip of this anxiety and drawn to such works.

from The Great GatsbyStoddard has long since been forgotten, and the views he advocated – which, in certain versions, were accepted at the time even by people who considered themselves to be progressive – became the object of condemnation and excoriation. The concrete results that these race theories engendered in the 1930s and ‘40s made the subject taboo; in our time only fringe groups espouse such ideas. However, with the aid of the internet, what was for decades the preserve of the rejected and the ostracized has become the subject of a lively dialogue today. The web connects oddballs and fundamentalists, and it gives extremists the feeling that they are part of a broad movement. A rising, seething wave of toxicity is being ridden by unscrupulous politicians who are aggrandizing the feeling of white victimhood. Those who consider themselves the spearhead in the struggle against the “colored surge” are acting accordingly.

The footprints of these ideas are obvious in acts of mass murder perpetrated in recent years. Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 murdered more than 70 people, most of them teenagers, in and around Oslo, left a 1,500-page manifesto in which he warned against “white genocide” (the preferred term by those in the grip of the anxiety) and against the “Islamization of Europe.” In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, shouting, “You’re taking over our country!” In an essay attributed to him, Roof expressed concern at developments in Europe, “the homeland of White people.”

Brenton Tarrat, who last March murdered 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was fearful of “the great replacement” – a conspiracy theory revolving around the alleged replacement of whites by nonwhites. And Patrick Crusius, who in August opened fire in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, slaying 22 people, purported to be defending his country against a “Hispanic invasion.”

The massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year was also carried out by a white supremacist who used slogans such as “Diversity means chasing down the last white person” and accused the local Jewish community of assisting “invaders.” A year earlier, Jason Kessler, speaking at an alt-right gathering in Charlottesville that he helped organize, warned against “white genocide” and “the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically.” “Jews will not replace us,” the torch-bearing marchers there chanted.

Return of the scarecrow

But how are the Jews actually connected to all of this? According to the widespread version of this white anxiety, Jews are the planners and orchestrators of the takeover by “inferior races” that is leading to the extinction of the white race. The Jews’ status as “whites” is provisional, as everyone knows, and depends on the good will of white Christians. For most of those who fear white genocide (though not all), Jews are themselves an inferior race, and the migration of nonwhites to Western Europe and the United States is a Jewish plot aimed at eradicating the superior race.

Fitting neatly into the picture here is the tendency of Jewish Americans to be on the progressive side of the map and, similarly, the tendency of Jewish organizations and philanthropists to support progressive causes. It turns out that Jews who are fighting racism and working for tolerance are in reality advocating miscegenation and scheming to liquidate the whites. The Jews’ support for minority groups stems not from a moral commandment to love the stranger; it’s a plot against the light-skinned majority. Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros features prominently in right-wing conspiracy theories, but he also occupies a central place among those who play up white anxiety and even on morning talk shows. Middle East-affairs commentator Dr. Guy Bechor enthusiastically echoed the “replacement theory” in his regular slot on Israel’s Channel 13, and in another context said, “The Jewish progressives will inflict a terrible disaster on American Jewry; and that is exactly what happened in Europe.”

This anti-Semitic narrative is far from marginal. The blood libel according to which Jews are working toward the eradication of the “white man” is in the background of most of the murderous violence perpetrated by white supremacists in our time. As Eric K. Ward, a social activist who has been researching these groups for three decades, writes, anti-Semitism is the “theoretical core” in the conspiratorial schema of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements. According to Ward, anti-Semitism became a central element in white racism in the United States after the successful civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. The racist groups couldn’t fathom how “inferior races” had succeeded in getting the state to eliminate segregation, promote equality for women and gays, and above all also stirred public opinion in favor of those groups. Their conclusion: There must be a secret network of crafty, manipulative agents who pulled the strings and brought about this result. Inevitably, the “Elders of Zion” entered the familiar niche.

For white supremacist groups, Jews thus fulfill their classic conspiratorial role. But this time, the plot does not involve accumulating money or power, or undermining Christendom, the economic order or the nation-state. Now the eternal Jew wants to mongrelize the different races so as to cause the pure whites to disappear. As always, anti-Semites use the Jews as a scarecrow that embodies the threat that they feel to their identity.

‘Shabbos Goyim’

To grasp the narrative framework that renders this conceptual approach accessible, it’s worth delving into the book that Ward calls “the bible of generations of white supremacist groups,” and what the Anti-Defamation League describes as “one of the most widely read and cited books on the far-right” in the United States. They are referring to “The Turner Diaries,” by William Luther Pierce, writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The book, which was written, not by chance, in the 1970s – following recognition of the victory of the civil rights movement – is probably the most widely disseminated and influential anti-Semitic work since “Mein Kampf.”

“The Turner Diaries” is neither a manifesto nor a philosophical tract. It’s a novel. It tells the story of Earl Turner, who is part of an underground organization that is waging a battle against the federal government in the United States. Originally published in 1978, the book is set in the future, the 1990s, when the government, which is controlled by liberals and Jews, is adamantly pursuing racial intermingling and integration, is encouraging mixed marriages and is battling racism and segregation. In fact, it’s apparently doing everything in its power to bring about the disappearance of the white race.

This is not by chance: It’s the Jews who are pulling the strings here. The Christian liberals and progressives are the useful idiots who are helping them (in the book, they’re dubbed “Shabbos Goyim”), while the blacks and Hispanics provide the muscle and the cannon fodder. If the Jews achieve their goal, the white race will be eliminated and they will rule the world.

“The Organization” – the whites’ underground – uses guerrilla warfare and terrorism against the federal government, which is referred to as “The System.” Organization cells carry out terrorist attacks on American soil with the intention of destabilizing the social order. The aim is to awaken public opinion and induce whites to snap out of their pro-equality, pro-pluralism, pro-tolerance indoctrination and ultimately convince them to understand that they, the whites, are superior to all the rest.

The turning point in the book occurs when the government embarks on a campaign to confiscate all the firearms in the public’s possession. Police units, consisting largely of nonwhites, go house to house collecting the weapons, in a scenario that undoubtedly constitutes the worst nightmare of the National Rifle Association. The protagonist, Turner, understands that the time has come to act and he goes into the underground with his associates. They stay in contact with other terror cells, of which there are apparently many.

Turner’s first major act is to blow up FBI headquarters in Washington. The members of the squad park a commercial van packed with explosives below the building and topple it with its personnel inside. If that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, murdering 168 people, drew his inspiration for the act from the book. Pages from “The Turner Diaries” were found in his getaway car.

Indeed, “The Turner Diaries” is not only a novel, it’s also a form of do-it-yourself manual. It teaches readers how to manage an underground cell, manufacture a homemade bomb, and rob and slaughter Jewish businesspeople in order to underwrite the underground’s activity. In its battle against “Jewish brainwashing,” the underground attacks the offices of a newspaper, fires mortars at a gathering attended by the U.S. president, and murders Jews and liberal activists.

Finally, its members seize control of a military base and fire nuclear missiles at New York and Tel Aviv – which have the largest concentrations of Jews in the world.

The Turner Legacy

A reading of the book, aside from inducing a physical feeling of nausea, shows how deeply its ideas have influenced the new right (the alt-right and other variations of the radical right in their American and Israeli versions).

The book inveighs against liberalism (more precisely, “the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague”) but also castigates classic conservatives. The latter are depicted as nerds who don’t understand when it is necessary to dispense with the law and take up arms. (The contempt for conservatives is echoed in the alt-right’s term for them – “cuckservatives” – where “cuck” is short for “cuckold.”)

Feminism, too, is the object of virulent hatred in the book, parallel to the misogyny that prevails today in new-right circles. Women’s lib is a “mass psychosis” that descended on the world before the triumph of the whites, and women who fell prey to it were persuaded “that they were ‘people,’ not ‘women.’” Feminism was actually a plot by The System to turn the white race against itself.

There is a lot of penny-ante Nietzscheanism in “The Turner Diaries,” from the ridiculing of liberalism as a “feminine” ideology to notions of social Darwinism holding that every person and every race must look after itself, and the strongest survive. People who seek equality and pluralism are either cheats (i.e., the Jews) or brainwashed (white liberals). A “healthy” and “sane” society is one of racial purity; it is masculine, militant, patriarchal and heterosexual. That, according to author Pierce, is what a normal people in its land looks like.

Liberals are idealistic but blind. They ignore the crimes of the minorities (blacks, mainly) and always take their side, even when they are clearly guilty. A girl who complains to her mother that African-American children are harassing her at school gets a slap in the face and is accused of being racist. Other liberals allow members of minority groups to rape their wives before their eyes, unopposed, then cover up for them to the police. The parallel to present-day accusations of liberals covering up for crimes committed by minorities – such as the allegation made by the Israeli television personality Avri Gilad that Notre Dame Cathedral was torched by Islamists and that the French police were lying about the cause of the blaze – is clear.

The book was also ahead of its time in the hatred of Muslims it expresses. The narrator, as early as the late 1970s, knows that there are too many “dark, kinky-haired Middle Easterners” in the country, and when he and his associates take control of Southern California, they set about murdering them systematically. In later years, fear of so-called Middle Easterners would morph into an outcry that they are “taking control of Europe” – a libelous declaration the new right is disseminating in both the United States and Israel.

Surging anti-Semitism

A typical antisemitic caricature based on the current white-supremacy worldviewAs J.M. Berger, an expert on extremist movements, found, “The Turner Diaries” is only one text – albeit a very successful one – among a quite a few centering on a “colored” threat to the white man. In the 1920s, publications like “The Rising Tide of Color” earned fame, and were accompanied by a call for “racial hygiene.” However, Berger actually found the genesis of the genre in the 1830s, against the background of the controversy over slavery and ahead of the American Civil War. The anxiety that gripped the white people of the South over the possibility that their slaves would be freed produced at least four dystopian (from their viewpoint) novels, which depict the United States as a place of indiscriminate mongrelization, to the horror of the light-skinned folk. Some of the works portray a war to restore the “natural order.”

The genre’s rise can be tracked through the history of liberals’ achievements. The struggle to free the slaves was the catalyst for the emergence and initial popularity of such literature. The second wave surfaced in the first decades of the 20th century, coinciding with the surge in the number of immigrants entering the United States. Analogously, this period also saw the appearance of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which perceived that a threat was posed not only by blacks but also by Catholics, Jews and the intellectual elite. That wave receded in the wake of the defeat of Nazism in World War II. The next surge did not appear until the late 1960s, with the legal prohibition of segregation and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the Jews played a central role in the conspiratorial structure. Those who chanted “Jews will not replace us” meant to say that they would fight so that Jews would not replace them with Hispanics and Muslims.

It is against this background that one can understand the complexity of the present upsurge in anti-Semitism. President Donald Trump is manifestly fanning the flames of xenophobia. His attitude toward migrants, his warning against an “invasion” of Hispanics and his refusal to dissociate himself from avowed white supremacists such as David Duke are fodder for the extreme right. Steve Bannon, former Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, referred to The Camp of the Saints a few times, hinting to the extreme right that he knows and approves of yet another white-supremacist novel (published 1973). On the other hand, advocates of the “replacement theory” cannot accept Trump’s positive approach to Israel, which is evidence, they feel, that the grip of the “Zionist Occupation Government” – as anti-Semitic, right-wing groups refer to the U.S. administration – is stronger than ever.

The facts, in any event, are clear. A special report issued a year ago by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry found that “supporters of white supremacy in the United States are experiencing a resurgence” in recent years. An FBI report published in 2018 also found a consistent rise in the number of hate crimes since 2015, including a considerable uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes. The reality is that murderous violence against Jews in the United States has reached unprecedented levels. It’s been a long time since every type of racist, homophobic and misogynist lowlife, as well as populists, demagogues and purveyors of conspiracy theories have felt as comfy-cozy as they do now. Anti-Semites drink from the same sources.

The Jewish Religious-Nationalist connection

All countries are different, but the radical right in all of them tends to think along the same lines. Racism is racism, but that is not the end of the resemblance. The story of a Jewish conspiracy operating behind the scenes to persuade good white people to become liberals and pluralists is very much like the “irresponsible attempt to reprogram the human society […] which is being done by ‘white collar’ people who operate behind the scenes.” That quotation is from a pamphlet titled “The Courage for Independence,” published last May by Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Thau, a leader of the yeshivas affiliated with the so-called Hardali community (whose members combine ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, and national-religious beliefs). It’s aimed at those who are inducing the Jewish people to think that, heaven help us, women are equal to men or that gays deserve equal rights.

The similarity between the modes of thought (not of action) between the conspiracy theories espoused by the Euro-American anti-Semites and those of the Hardali yeshivas stems from the premise that the superior person (the white man or Jew) cannot be bad but is at most confused. If he’s liberal, feminist and gay-friendly, it’s not because that’s what he really thinks but because he underwent indoctrination by a small, manipulative group of miscreants. The latter disseminated an “unnatural ideology” (Pierce), but “that is not the nature of the people of Israel” (Thau). Deep down, the Jew or the white is perfectly all right: loyal to himself, his origins and his purpose. He’s an “authentic” white or Jew – in the same way that Tom Buchanan, the antagonist in “The Great Gatsby,” is an authentic Roaring Twenties wealthy American.

The heroes of “The Turner Diaries” try to awaken whites people from their progressive slumber, and in the same way Israeli homophobic groups such as the right-wing Orthodox Noam party or other Hardali movements appeal to the good-hearted but bewildered Jew. Because both movements depend on a far broader public than them, which they consider exalted but which doesn’t think like them – they are compelled to assume that this wider public has been brainwashed and to deny that its members truly think what they say they are thinking. The white supremacists want the whites to open their eyes and understand that they actually hate blacks and Jews; the followers of Thau are asking Jews to open their eyes and understand that they are actually revolted by gays and are superior to Arabs. When these things happen, the world will return to its “natural,” “true” order.

It’s precisely here that the Achilles’ heel of every racist project lies. Simply put: Racism is not compatible with the truth. In “The Turner Diaries,” the author presupposes that people of color are naturally dumb and violent, an assumption that’s a key cog in the plot mechanism.

Liberalism, he maintains, is a lie that’s easily refuted, because nonwhites are “truly” violent and “truly” untalented, and mixed neighborhoods “truly” suffer from crime, despite liberal efforts to cover all that up. Because the government systems, security agencies and military units are “racially mixed,” their operation is faulty, according to Pierce. For this reason it’s easy for the white underground to outsmart them. If the nonwhites were as smart as the whites, the underground would not triumph in the struggle. The book, then, is not only dystopian; it verges on science fiction.

From this perspective, the war on facts that Trump, Thau and certain media figures are waging is understandable. The facts simply are not consistent with the racist theories they’re promoting. “It’s all scientific stuff,” Tom Buchanan says about “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” but that “science” is a ludicrous cocktail of prejudices, anxiety and self-victimization. And even if we ignore the reality on the ground, the one thing that refutes these racist conspiracy theories is the very fact that anti-Semites and Jews, white supremacists and Jewish supremacists, those who believe the Jews are subhuman and those who believe that the Jews are superhuman – ultimately believe in the same clichés.

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Published in Haaretz

You are not Your Brain – on Yochai Ataria’s new book

Not long ago, I awoke to a sunny morning in a B&B in Daliyat al-Karmel. It was the beginning of a family vacation, and I had forgotten my tefillin. There was no shortage of tefillin around, since I was on vacation with my wife’s extended (and religiously observant) family, and I was quickly lent a replacement pair. However, when I picked up the tefillin, I found them to be very different to my own. The straps were a different width, the boxes were a different size, and so on. I tried to lay them, but I simply could not. I did not remember exactly how. A few days later, I prayed again with my own tefillin without any problem – because with mine I remembered how.

That is, it wasn’t precisely “me” who remembered, but rather my body. I, as a self-aware consciousness, was not involved at all. My body simply moved quickly between the chapters of prayer without any intervention on my behalf. Nor did I need to “retrieve from memory” the best way to go about it, or to imagine an internal flowchart detailing the steps of the ritual. Everything was simply done – and done well.

So where is my memory? Is it in my brain? If so, why did changing the tefillin disrupt it? The fact that activating my memory required me to use my hands and also grasp a certain object suggests that recalling a memory is more than an intra-brain search.

Ataria'a bookIn his new book, Yochai Ataria makes precisely this claim. “Not by the Brain alone” (Hebrew) – the title of the book – is it that we are formed, Ataria claims. According to Ataria (a senior lecturer at Tel-Hai College and a scholar of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science), our subjective experience cannot be reduced the movement of neurons, i.e., to a particular form of activity in the brain. We are more than our brains, and to understand our subjective lives, meaning our internal lives and self-perception, our bodies and activity in the world must be examined.

The World is not Projected Inside Us

Ataria challenges the view that has taken hold in the modern world, and which has also been adopted in the field of scientific inquiry, whereby a person is equivalent to their brain, so that if we were to understand every detail of the brain’s workings, we could also understand who and what a person is. According to Ataria, this view is rooted in error. A person’s sense of self and subjective experience are not located among the neurons within the brain, but rather in the system of interaction between a person – brain and body – and their environment.

Ataria begins with a critique of contemporary studies of the brain, and claims, together with experts whom he cites, that despite collecting an impressive array of data, research of the brain has not led to any significant theoretical breakthroughs. Impressive machines such as the fMRI can only reveal a certain increase in the blood flow to a certain area of the brain, often without allowing for any conclusions pertaining to the meaning of such occurrences. Citing the philosopher Michael Hagner, he claims that an apt analogy would be an attempt to evaluate the functioning of a computer according to the level of its power consumption as it executes various functions.

He continues by debunking the view that experiences or sensory perception are based on the brain processing data collected and inputted by the senses. The “representation” view, the little Cinema screen inside the head, the idea that the brain projects what it receives from the senses to an internal viewer who analyzes and acts on the information that reaches him or her (imagine the representation of internal life within the robot in the Terminator movies), is completely wrong and based on a dichotomous distinction between internal and external, i.e., on the assumption that our consciousness is located somewhere inside our head, and the world is located outside of it.

There is no such distinction, claims Ataria. Building on the philosophy of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, he describes consciousness as part of the world. When we assemble a puzzle, explains Ataria, we do not turn each piece around in our head, our spirit, or our mind, before placing it in its place; we try turning it with our hands in order to make it fit in the real world, until we position it correctly. Our consciousness is not in our head and does not act on representations. It is located in our hands and in the world surrounding us.

This is not the way we work

Similarly, explains Ataria,

I do not remember him [my son] abstractly, but rather in a certain way, at a certain event. I have no objective and detached representation, but always a memory from a certain point in time […] Memory is an activity that requires a basic level of physical activity. The body, I wish to make the case, is the backdrop for all our activity in the world – including the various cognitive activities.

Memory, like consciousness, is not detached from the world. It is not abstract, nor is it “representational.” It is connected with a specific time and place, to a body and to activity. It is, like our mind, grounded. The notion of a mind that is detached from the world, that represents the world to itself in a distant and dichotomous way, is theoretically misconceived and based on an illusion – an illusion that we live.

“The point of departure,” claims Ataria, “is not the thinking self but rather the acting self.” We are bodily beings in a physical world, not ethereal souls in a psychological world. As I once wrote,

We are beings that are situated within a body and can understand who we are and what the world is only by means of our body. This is the reason we use our hands when we speak, even on the phone. This is the reason we think better when we are walking. This is the reason our language is filled with metaphors of space and time whose purpose is understanding spirit and soul.

Indeed, we have no other (cognitive) way to understand the spirit and soul.

Ataria tries to support his claims by providing evidence across several chapters in which he cites interviews with people who experienced extreme situations vis-à-vis their consciousness: prisoners of war who underwent torture and isolation, and veteran vipassana meditators who experienced spiritual episodes of the Buddhist genre. Based on their testimonies, he develops a detailed, elaborate map of how human consciousness is developed by interacting with the world, emphasizing the emotional plane, rather than thoughts. (I will not provide in-depth descriptions here because the necessary background explanations are too extensive, but the discussion is fascinating.)

According to Ataria, there is no “flow of consciousness” that establishes our sense of self. There is no continuous consciousness at all, but rather flashes of mind. The internal sense of continuity, with which we are as familiar as we are with the palm of our hand, is based on the experience of our bodily encounter with the world. Without any interaction with the world (as Ataria concludes from POW and meditative experiences), our sense of self dissolves.

We are not Brains in a Vat

The notion of a “brain in a vat” – a well-known thought experiment in philosophy of mind describing a “Matrix”-like situation in which our brain is detached from the body and attached to wires that transmit information to it – is incorrect, at least if we think that such a brain would be capable of understanding itself or the world. The reality portrayed in the film, “the Matrix,” could not transpire. I explicitly asked Ataria to address this. Here is what he wrote in an informal email in response:

According to “the Matrix,” the notion of a “brain in a vat” is possible; in this way, for instance, Neo learns martial arts by “uploading” software to his brain. [However,] I do not think that our brain is a computer, nor do I think that all it does is execute functions (this, as noted, is the approach in “the Matrix” as well as in the cognitive sciences). In this sense, martial arts are not a [cognitive] function, they are a particular bodily activity that allow me to be present in a certain way in the world (I am absorbed into the world, which also contains me). This is a form of knowing how rather than knowing that. I am not saying (of course!) that the brain is not involved in learning processes, but not only the brain is involved. Moreover, I am not at all certain what people mean when they say that martial arts are a type of information.

But it does not end here. According to “the Matrix,” we understand that the brain is closed to the world, that we do not experience the world itself but rather a representation of the world (as brain researchers have told me more than once in the context of friendly conversation… “Do you really think that you see with your eyes?”). I maintain that even if there are representations, and to be more precise, even if we are capable of representing the world sometimes (I do not deny that we sometimes dream and imagine), ultimately the brain is open to the world – and I might even say that it is entirely open to the world, thus diffusing the border between the brain and the world.

Speaking of movies, what really comes across in the movie “Inside Out” is the idea that the “self” (not a sense of self, but a real Cartesian self) is located in the brain. Like some kind of central control unit. This is also the assumption underlying “The Matrix.” I do not think that there is a Cartesian self that is located in the brain. In fact, right now, while I am totally focused on this answer, I “forget myself” in favor of real-world activity.

“The Matrix,” in short, is just a movie, and there are no movies playing inside the head.

We will not Be Able to Upload Ourselves into The Cloud

These cinematic representations, in “the Matrix,” “the Terminator,” and many other science-fiction stories, suggest just how intuitive these depictions – of a brain inside a body, a “self” within a brain, an immaterial Cartesian consciousness, a homunculus (a “small man”) sitting inside our head watching events and controlling our body – have become, how accustomed we’ve grown to think of ourselves in this way, as beings that reside within the body, within the head, as a brain (or for those who believe, a soul).

The transhumanist fantasy that envisions “uploading” consciousness to a digital cloud or downloading one’s character as data that is saved on a hard disk belongs to the same mode of thought, as do all sorts of supposed points of “singularity” after which we will reside in digital space. Conversely, so do all kinds of horrifying predictions about artificial intelligence coming to life and controlling, from a station within a computerized control center, an army of robots sent to subjugate or destroy mankind.

These dreams and nightmares build on our Western point of view, but of course this is not the only way to perceive ourselves. This is one very particular way, which developed in the West as part of the Hellenistic culture, and from there was appropriated by Christianity. The sages of the Talmud, for instance, did not think that a person is a soul, but rather that he or she is primarily a body (powered, like with a battery, by a divine spirit given by God, and also taken away by Him, whereby a person, being the body, “returns his soul to the creator”). The Western-Christian mode of self-perception is taken for granted in the West, including also by Jews of course, but there is no reason to think that one cannot reach a different form of self-understanding.

What would a self-perception that sees the self as distributed across a broad interactive space, rather than something that is located within the brain, look like? I think that this is an extremely significant question. Would such a person be less egocentric? Would he or she be less self-centered – not as someone who possesses information, but as someone who lives an existential form of knowledge – in that he or she is not just a brain nor merely a body, but a body as well as everything that surrounds it? Would such a person be less anxious, at least inasmuch as anxiety stems from a limited and egocentric perception of our place within the world? Would such a person know how to traverse space more elegantly, like a dancer who moves spontaneously and naturally, rather than someone who tries to consciously control how they dance?

Even if we answer these questions in the affirmative, all of these wonderful advantages are overshadowed by the true accomplishment that a change to our self-perception entails: Ataria holds (and I think that he is right) that the notion whereby we are not merely a brain but rather a system that comprises consciousness, body and environment is also, ultimately, the truth. Meaning that altering our self-perception will allow us, supposedly, to live as we truly are. Imagine that.

Ataria’s book is impressive and fascinating. Nonetheless, I must say: it is not an easy read. It is replete with information, uses technical language, and aims somewhat higher than the average well-educated reader. Had I not possessed some background in Philosophy of Mind, it would have been even harder for me to follow and understand. At the same time, the investment is well worth it: Ataria achieves no less than a new way to understand who we are.


The Ultra-Orthodoxy’s Inherent Preference of the Right

With members of the ultra-Orthodox parties constantly saying they’ll support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, one would expect the notion of them as the ones who can tip the scales would fade, yet it stubbornly persists. It’s not clear, for example, how anyone can seriously argue that all Benny Gantz’s party needs to do to win the ultra-Orthodox seal of approval is to part ways with Yair Lapid, or that Ehud Barak is someone with whom the ultra-Orthodox could tango.

These vain hopes are based on the assumption that the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, hold no firm ideological position regarding the occupied territories that would rule out a withdrawal, therefore they could countenance being part of a left-wing government aspiring to a two-state solution. Alas, what we have here is a case of drawing faulty conclusions from true facts. Yes, rabbis Elazar Shach and Ovadia Yosef ruled that it is permissible to return land and evacuate settlements in return for peace, but this doesn’t mean they had any special affection for the Israeli left. Quite the opposite.

On the one hand, Shach, the great rabbi who shaped the worldview of Haredi society today, ruled that “according to Jewish law, there is nothing that would prevent ceding part of the Land of Israel for the sake of peace”, and indeed was so dovish that he opposed the Golan annexation law and the Basic Law that declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel (1980).

On the other hand, he also often expressed his unequivocal unhappiness with the left. In 1990 he said that among the left are “despisers of the Torah and despisers of mitzvoth,” and that Likud is the party of “those of simple faith.” In 1992 he said: “No one should connect with the leftists, who are totally treif” because “the leftists openly say that they don’t believe, that they deny everything,” while on the right “there are individuals who violate tradition but in public show respect to religion.”

This sort of gross generalization actually contains a speck of truth. The late Rabbi Shach is gazing down on the right and left throughout the generations. He knows that the left around the world arose out of the spirit of the Enlightenment and its anti-religious and anti-traditional tendencies. The right is the more conservative and more religious side. Regardless of the parties’ positions on security issues, the left’s attitude toward tradition is complicated at best, while on the right it’s much more straightforward.

As Rabbi Shach wrote, “There have always been many transgressors of the commandments”, however, “this was done in a private way, not as a method” – that is, neither the left nor the right observes the prohibition against mixing milk and meat, but for parts of the left, it’s a matter of ideology. There’s a difference between one who does so to satisfy his appetite and one who does so to make others angry.

Thus, the Haredi parties are Likud’s “natural partners” not because of their attitude toward the Land of Israel, but because of a shared fondness for tradition (and also, these days, a tendency toward anti-liberalism). It’s not a dispute between hawks and doves, but between conservatives and progressives. The Haredi leaders may be capable of being as dovish as new Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, but they will forever view the left as the flag bearer of secularism. Once it’s understood that this is the starting point for the Haredi world’s approach to politics, it’s clear that the Haredi parties’ first choice will always be the right. This is the basic situation, and no amount of flattery and groveling will change that.

At the same time, attacks from the center-left on the Haredim won’t hurt or “ruin” anything, because if the Haredi parties ever end up in a left-wing government, it will only be for lack of any other choice. When important interests lie in the balance, all hostility and insults are forgotten. We saw how even Bezalel Smotrich, when he wanted badly enough to be transportation minister, was able to tolerate Jews working on railway repairs on Shabbat.

The left-wing parties could do themselves a favor by recognizing this reality. Lapid has left behind the chapter in his political career in which he groveled to the Haredim, having seen that it had no effect on their positions. This certainly isn’t a call for incitement against the ultra-Orthodox, and it would certainly be best for the left not to promote an anti-religious stance and thereby fulfill the Haredim’s fears.

However, the government’s relations with the Haredi community must be restored to proper proportion. With Netanyahu, the Haredim had a blank check, and it was cashed at the taxpayers’ expense on the economic front, at the expense of relations with American Jewry on the diplomatic front, and on the social front at the expense of women who were discriminated against in academia, the army and the public space in general. The time has come to return to the principles of liberal democracy.

Published in the Haaretz op-ed page.

Daniel Boyarin on Judaism and “Judaism”

If you ask a member of the Hopi tribe, “What is your Hopism?” you won’t get an answer. You can also ask a Romany (Gypsy), “What, actually, is Romanism?” And then meet a Druze and ask, “Excuse me, what is Druzism?” In each case you will have to suffice with the perplexed look of your interlocutor, as though there’s something very basic that you don’t seem to understand. That something has to do with the form and type of the entities about which you’re seeking clarification. Simply put, they are not ideological or religious constructs, but ethnic groups possessing a particular social-cultural heritage.

It’s hard for us to discern this, because our worldview – deriving from the modern Western approach – makes every effort to deny their existence. We are accustomed to subsume every large human group under two primary categories: nation and religion. The two categories are connected at their point of birth: The modern era introduced the nation-state, a political entity in which a particular people acquires self-determination; and religion, which is separate from the state, and with which people are free to form relations privately. Religion, in the sense of being a conception, a totality of the beliefs that an individual chooses to adopt, was born together with the nation-state, and completed from the private angle what the state provided from the public – which is to say, it conferred affiliation and meaning. But the one has nothing to do with the other. As Jesus proposed, unto Caesar is rendered that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

Like the Hopi or the Druze, it’s also difficult to associate the Jews with one of the two alternatives. They are not only a nation and not only a religion, nor are they simply a nation that practices a religion. In recent years a number of books have been reexamining the modern (that is, Western-Protestant) perception of Judaism. Leora Batnitzky wrote a brilliant introduction to modern Judaism, titled “How Judaism Became a Religion”; in his book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg discussed the construction of Judaism out of the Christian need for an eternal antagonist; Yaacov Yadgar dwelt on the Jewish anomaly that is expressed in Israeli nationalism in his book “Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism”; and last year saw the publication of Daniel Boyarin’s “Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion” (Rutgers University Press), to which the following comments are addressed.

It is almost superfluous to introduce Boyarin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the greatest living scholars of the Talmud. For the past 30 years he has been a central signpost of contemporary directions in Jewish studies. From the outset of his career he interwove philology with techniques of literary criticism in order to understand the Talmudic text, and beyond that in order to introduce the Talmud into contemporary academic literary discourse. Boyarin possesses the ability of looking at the seminal texts from the scholarly angle and from the traditional angle alike, and with a combination of an astute analytical capability and a sly tendency toward provocation, almost every book he’s published has left a concrete imprint on the research in the field.

If one can distinguish a recurring motif in his work, it is the tension and cross-fertilization between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (with a probing glance at the Hellenistic world as well), both in the Second Temple period and today. He has devoted considerable attention to the point at which these two traditions were born, in the same place and at the same time, amid brotherly rivalry beneath which lay a common biblical origin. In the course of examining the relations between the conjoined traditions, Boyarin devotes requisite space also to an examination of their approaches to gender and sexuality, weaving critical elements from feminist discourse into the fray. The critical gaze at the tension between Judaism and Christianity enables Boyarin repeatedly to dismantle frameworks of modern categorization, such as, in our case, “Judaism” and “religion.”

His latest book thus joins a series of studies that call into question the popular-naive conception of Judaism. Starkly put, Boyarin asserts that until a few hundred years ago, there was no such thing as “Judaism,” in the sense of an abstract category of thought and thus of life. Indeed, the term is not found in the Torah, Prophets or Writings, the Mishna or Talmud, the works of the early medieval Geonim, of Rabbi Judah Halevi or of Maimonides. None of them knew of the existence of such a thing as “Judaism.” The term’s first appearances date from the 12th century (for example, in the “Midrash Sekhel Tov,” by Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo), and even then it denotes not a particular culture or a particular religion but a condition – that is, the condition of being a Jewish person.

In his book, Boyarin traces the origin of the term, naturally not confining himself to Hebrew but also investigating the Greek loudaismos, Yiddishkayt in Yiddish, Judentum in German and “Judaism” in English. The author arrives at the conclusion that “Judaism” is not a Jewish term. Jews talk about the people of Israel, about Hebrews, about the Israelites and the Sons of the Covenant and several other collective attributes, but not about any sort of faith-based or theological structure. This notion of religion originates in Christianity, which began as a voluntary framework (after all, one wasn’t born Christian in the first century) and emphasizes correct faith.

Concurrently, the Jewish sages underscored affiliation with the ethnic collectivity and the observance of laws and customs. It was only beginning in the 16th century that the term trickled slowly into use as denoting religious belief – as something that occurs in the individual’s heart. Not coincidentally, all this arrived together with the Reformation, which split the Church and necessitated a reorganization of theological and meta-theological concepts in Europe.

Until the 19th century, Boyarin notes, it is impossible to find “Judaism” as the subject of a sentence. There is no “Judaism” that believes in one thing or another, there is no “the essence of Judaism.” Those attributes emerged only when modern Jewish avenues were compelled to define themselves: namely, when traditional Jewish society in Europe underwent dramatic processes of modernization and when Reform and Orthodox Judaism evolved. The two denominations sought to determine the basic principles of “Judaism,” each for its own reasons.

The Jewish tradition, then, increasingly resembled the Christian tradition, for it set out to integrate itself into the (modern Western) Christian world. For Christianity, this was of course very convenient. Boyarin makes clear how, already from the first centuries of the Common Era, Christianity constructed Judaism as the fundamental “Other,” vis-a-vis which it defined itself. In other words, there is no “Judaism” other than in a Christian context. There are of course Jews, the halakha (traditional Jewish law) exists, and so forth, but there is no abstract and general term other than through the Christian eye and against the backdrop of Christendom.

With the advent of the Emancipation, “Judaism” became the “religion” of the Jews, a development that helped them exceedingly to integrate into the emerging nation-states – thus, for example, a person could be a “German of the Mosaic faith.” The Jews became equal citizens in Western Europe. That process, Boyarin writes, “destroyed Yiddishkayt as a form of life.”

Which is true: The Jews’ traditional way of life was eradicated. In places where emancipation did not occur, Jews continued to maintain “traditionalism” – so it’s not surprising that Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries had a completely different attitude toward their Jewish identity than their European brethren. The Judaism of the traditionalists, beginning in the late 18th century and today as well, is not “religion” or “nationalism,” but a comprehensive ethnocultural identity.

Of course, Boyarin understands that there is no way back. Even though he is critical of the modern configuration of Judaism, he, like all of us, derives no little benefit from it. Himself an observant Jew, Boyarin is known as a firm critic of Zionism who perceives the Diasporic Jewish existence as a more authentic and worthier form of Jewish life. His vision involves the establishment of Jewish communities in the Diaspora that would take part in a joint national project with other groups and foment communal Jewish life. But this is achievable today only within a liberal democratic framework, namely the Christian-Protestant model that renders Judaism solely as a religion.

Boyarin in his office

Liberal Jews?

In an effort to understand Boyarin better, I met with him for a conversation. I asked him about the Christian – specifically, the Pauline – idea that presupposes that we are all first and foremost individuals, and about the fact that this is not only a potent and highly attractive notion but is also, ultimately, a highly advantageous one. After all, liberalism, which is based on this idea, created a beneficent world in which we, as Jews, can also live a secure, thriving life.

Boyarin said that he is definitely not a liberal. “We, the Jews, maintain that a human being is not monadic: Humans do not exist on their own and are not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” he explained. At the same time, he noted, “The depiction of Jewishness as a non-chosen condition into which one is born does not theoretically inhibit recognition of equality by the state.”

Nonetheless, I asked, isn’t the idea that all people are equal and have inalienable rights based on the Christian perception of the individual as being endowed with universal reason and free choice, which are situated in a nonmaterial soul? In other words, our conception of human equality is rooted in an inner essence that is considered more meaningful than any external feature (such as skin color, ethnic origin or different sexual organs). It’s only on the presupposition of an inner persona, hidden and autonomous, that we legitimize ethical ideas and institutions, such as the social contract, human rights, feminism and transsexual journeys. I have my own reservations about the modern occupation with inwardness, I told Boyarin, but we are bound to recognize that it has engendered much that we cherish.

“I don’t think I share those views about inner essences,” he said. “Is shared physicality not sufficient for solidarity? We resemble others, we mate with them, even when we don’t pretend we don’t, and we use language like them. They are us.”

Well, I replied, we know that historically, shared physicality was insufficient. We do not look exactly alike, and therefore we can treat others as being inferior to us – or, in rare cases, like the Incas’ encounter with Francisco Pizarro and his bearded white men, as superior to us.

Boyarin replied that he “still thinks that the homogenization of human beings through their supposed soul has done far more harm than good.”

But it seems to me that there is an unresolved point here. The modern, Western-Protestant world demands that Judaism change, as it demands of hundreds of other cultures to change. Given enough time, “Hopism” and “Druzism” will also come into existence. There’s something imperialist about this universalism, Boyarin is right about that, but even so, there’s a reward that comes with making the transition. We get human rights, civil rights and equality under the law, even at the moral and pragmatic level. In personal-psychological terms, the reward is still greater: We possess individuality and a sense of autonomy that are inconceivable in traditional societies. How many of us are willing to live a life that “does not exist on [its] own… not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” as Boyarin put it.

Regardless of how valid it may be, the liberal temptation captures our heart no less than it transforms our Judaism. Without doubt, the homogenization that Boyarin talks about exists, and there’s also a flattening of depths that once existed and are no longer, and there’s also social fragmentation. Our Judaism is not what it was, and what was will not return. But are we capable of giving up our Western individualism, even if we wish to? And is that in fact what we wish?

Published in Haaretz

The Absurdity and Malignancy of a Jewish Theocracy

“Israel will not be a halakhic state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Monday, and for a change he was right. Israel will not be governed by Jewish religious law, and in fact no government has ever been ruled in accordance with halakha. In the time of King David, not only was there no halakha as yet, but the Book of Deuteronomy had yet to be written.

By the time halakha came about, with the completion of the Mishna in the second century, there was no longer an independent kingdom of Israel. And in the intervening period, the Hasmonean Kingdom absorbed Hellenistic concepts (Aristobulus and Hyrcanus are not Hebrew names), and persecuted and executed Jewish sages.

So when he speaks about Israel “returning to operate as it did in King David’s time,” MK Bezalel Smotrich is denying history. No wonder: Historical ignorance is a prerequisite for any fundamentalist vision.

As with other examples of theocratic ambition, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State organization and the “Hindu nation” promoted by religious nationalists in India, the attempt to imagine a modern government based on religious law always necessitates the invention of a fictitious past and significant self-persuasion.

With just a few tweaks and minor adjustments, the story goes, we could then copy and paste ideas and institutions from the distant past into our world. This never works, and not just because such efforts are based on mythology to begin with. It doesn’t work because it completely ignores the radical changes that have taken place in the human condition.

Not that there haven’t been rabbis who have tried to sketch a vision of a modern halakhic state. In the 20th century, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli addressed this. Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan devoted four volumes to “Regime and State in Israel According to the Torah.” Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg wrote “Hilkhot Medina,” on halakhic issues in the modern state. Justice Menachem Elon wrote extensively on “Hebrew law” and, leaping forward, just last year Rabbi Ido Rechnitz published a book called “Medina KeHalakha: A Jewish Approach to the Challenges of Independence.” Still, no one has ever been able to come up with a framework that anyone but a handful of fanatics would consider realistic.

That’s not a coincidence. The problem with halakha as it is today is not that its laws are bizarre or anachronistic. Yes, the punishment for theft is a fine amounting to twice the value of the stolen item, a ludicrous penalty that would permit people of means to steal to their hearts’ delight. Yes, halakha prohibits women from testifying or serving as judges — an insult to the intelligence of any rational human being. Such details can presumably be modified and updated.

The real problem is the fundamental understanding of humanity in halakha. According to halakha, human beings must obey divine law and cannot legitimately choose to do otherwise.

Simply put, halakha minimizes the significance of individual autonomy. The compulsion to observe the commandments is part of halakha, and it is also no coincidence that halakha permits both slavery and pedophilia. When there is no unequivocal recognition of the individual as an autonomous subject, then enslavement becomes acceptable, and when choice and consent are not a necessary condition for sexual relations, it’s no wonder that it is permissible to have sex with someone who cannot choose (and, on the other hand, consensual sex between people of the same sex is prohibited).

For its time, the Hebrew law was an advanced, enlightened system, and Jewish tradition brought into the world many principles that ultimately contributed greatly to modern humanism and liberalism. Yet today there is a fundamental tension between halakha and modern conceptions of humanity and liberty.

As a personal and communal commitment, a halakhic lifestyle can be deep and meaningful, but one cannot talk about a state operating in accordance with halakha without also talking about religious coercion. In fact, Waldenberg was an avowed supporter of theocracy, and Rechnitz’s book also clearly demonstrates that there can be no freedom of religion in a halakhic state.

Actually, one needn’t go so as far as picturing some future halakhic dystopia in order to understand that Smotrich’s proposal is not a good bet. It’s enough to look at what’s already happening in the Israeli systems that are in the hands of the Orthodox establishment.

The laws of marriage and divorce, over which the Chief Rabbinate holds a legal monopoly, have become a mechanism for coercion and injustice. Nonreligious couples are compelled to marry not in keeping with their beliefs, women are discriminated against under the marriage canopy as well as in the divorce laws and the rabbinical courts abuse many who come before them. Even without the blatant corruption and nepotism that is so rampant in the rabbinate, it would still be despised by the public – simply because the modern conscience rebels against coercion and discrimination.

Smotrich, whose “decision plan,” published two years ago, called for the Palestinians to either agree to live as subjects or to choose between emigration and death, has proved before that democratic principles are of no interest to him. It’s no surprise to find him leading the theocratic charge. Hardalim, or ultra-Orthodox Zionists, account for just 2 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but intoxicated with the political power given to them by Netanyahu, they mistakenly believe the time has also come for their fundamentalist ideas. Placing them in the centers of decision-making will clearly lead to religious coercion and a shrinking of civil liberty.

“There is also room for democracy in Torah law,” Smotrich hastened to reassure everyone, following the uproar over his comments touting the imminent return of the Kingdom of the House of David. But this is not correct. There is room for Torah law in democracy, but not the reverse. The relationship is always one-way, because one conception is fundamentally tolerant and insists on individual rights and freedom of religion, while the other does not. Should Smotrich and company obtain the kind of power they desire, we will all be made quite aware of this.

CapturePublished in Haaretz

How the New Israeli Judaism Was Born

From the newspaper articleWhen the image of Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, appears on the cover of a book, we know we’d better sit down. It’s a momentous event. Something in us, in our very essence, in our sheer Israeliness, isn’t what it used to be. The sabra image created by Kariel Gardosh (known as “Dosh”) has long since been transformed from the symbol of the young state into the symbol of parting from the young state – a concise representation of everything we no longer are. Usually it turns out we’re no longer young, beautiful, secular and just.

Every society undergoes change, but in Israel the transformations seem especially rapid and, in a particularly reflective culture – the Jewish self-awareness that Woody Allen made a caricature of – there will clearly be a need for an constant introspection. The freneticism accompanying these changes is also understandable: Not enough time has passed since the shtetl for us to feel that we’re comfortable in modernity. Even when what has been repressed isn’t really threatening to burst onto the surface, just the fear that it will can stir anxiety. Accordingly, self-examination and accountability are called for at all times.

Two Hebrew-language studies from the previous decade come to mind in this connection. Their very titles attest to the end of an era: “The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony” (2001) by Baruch Kimmerling and “Farewell to Srulik” (2004) by Oz Almog. Authored by sociologists, these two books marked the transition from denial to awareness, possibly even mourning. Things aren’t what they were, we’re told, and not necessarily for the better.

In his encyclopedic work, Almog summed up the transformations, as he saw them, in the realms of the media, law, women’s status, the family and psychology. The plethora of quotations he generously (at times tediously) offered the reader were intended to illustrate how the Israeli elite (“the veteran Jewish stratum, secular, educated, established”) parted ways from Srulik, who as usual embodies the Israel that is no more.

However, Almog’s explanation for the parting is flawed. In his view, along with the inertia that saps the energy of every revolution, it was the media which reshaped the Israeli consciousness. Supposedly, the media’s control of the agenda caused the Israeli elite to forsake the shared Zionist vision for “globalist consumerism.” Almog concludes by expressing his concern that no new ideological framework will coalesce, and Israelis will gradually be divested of their Jewish identity. Fifteen years on, it’s easy to see that the exact opposite has occurred.

Kimmerling undoubtedly probed deeper than Almog. He eulogized the “Ahusalim” – his acronym for the secular, socialist, nationalist Ashkenazim who founded the country and tried, based on a collectivist “statist” agenda and the social “melting pot” they forcefully forged, to shape the state in their image. The Ahusalim failed, and since the 1970s gradually disappeared from their positions of control and influence.

Kimmerling ascribed most of the responsibility for what he called “the decline of Israeliness” to the Gush Emunim settler movement – something of an Ahusali approach in itself. The messianic spearhead of the religious-Zionist movement supposedly brought to the surface the religious and ethnocentric elements implicit in secular Zionism and hurled them in every direction (though mainly toward Judea and Samaria). The universal humanism in the hearts of the Ahusalim and the civic-republican ethos of the young state were too feeble to resist. Both faded.

But Kimmerling reversed things. It wasn’t Gush Emunim that ruptured the hegemony of the Ahusalim; it was their rupture that allowed the self-confident bullying of Gush Emunim. First, the weakening of the ruling leftist Mapai party in the trauma of the Yom Kippur War – the crisis of faith that seized secular Israelies at the sight of the demigods from the Six-Day War, floundering and humiliated. Second, and more significantly, it was the erosion of socialist collectivism in favor of liberal individualism, that rewrote the Israeli ethos. Both made it possible for Religious Zionism, that admired, almost to the point of worship, not only secular generals but also the state’s leaders, to take the reins and the law into thier hands. . Likud’s rise to power in 1977 completed the process and did much more than religious Zionism to inject what Kimmerling calls “Jewish-ethnocentric categories” into the Israeli identity.

What then brought about the end of Ahusali hegemony? Why did we part from Srulik? Two recently published books reexamine the metamorphoses undergone by Israeli society…

Follow this link to read the rest of the article at the Haaretz site


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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