Archive for March, 2014

Why I Support the Demand to Recognize Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

Only on this trip, my ninth to Bangalore, did I suddenly notice the terrible ugliness of this city. I don’t mean the filth that ails any Indian city worthy of its name, but the shapelessness and lack of planning out of which this city has grown. And it has grown tremendously in recent years. After all, Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India, its IT capital, and the choice of many companies, both domestic and Western, to base their headquarters. These attract a variety of associated service providers, hence the huge leap in its population. This growth turned it into a type of a huge patched-together transition zone. Furthermore, Bangalore doesn’t have the planned city center that Delhi, Kolkata, Madras or Mumbai do, and around which the city expands. There seem to be nothing but expansions. It’s like a contraption that’s constantly growing up and out; a village on steroids.

That was two months ago, when I was in India for an academic conference I had been invited to. I sat at a Bangalorean café with A., an old friend who works at Greenpeace India, sadly nodding my head as she told me about the horrors which she had been exposed to in her work. She talked mainly about the predatory nature of enormous mining companies that are well-versed in finding ways (legal or otherwise) to force villagers and various tribal groups off their lands the moment they find precious minerals in them. The utilitarian logic of the market pushes businesses to demolish more and more of India’s natural culture and heritage in order to maximize the bottom line; and what shall illiterate villagers do in face of the most efficient machine in the world? In India, the situation is taken to the extreme because of income and education gaps, as well as the Indians’ desire to beat China in the race to become the next superpower. To achieve this end, no sacrifice is too great.

“Either India will be rationalized or industrialized out of all recognition and she will be no longer India or else she will be the leader in a new world-phase, aid by her example and cultural infiltration the new tendencies of the West, and spiritualize the human race.” This was written by Sri Aurobindo, one of the greatest spiritual and political leaders of India in the twentieth century and beyond. Nowadays, it seems India has opted for the former choice. India is losing its Indian-ness, and replacing its cultural heritage with a hyper-capitalist race towards wealth and consumerism. A. and her friends who belong to the newly risen middle class live out an Indian knock-off of the Western affluent society. English is their mother tongue and they have no connection to the traditional Indian culture. That is also why they have no external criterion against which to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of Western culture.

I bring my evidence from overseas not in order to confuse the issue, but rather to present the global dimension of the problem which we, too, are facing: the erosion of domestic culture by market forces, which are experts in convincing us that we are merely autonomous productive-consumerist molecules with no need whatsoever for a community or a system of values other than utilitarianism. I do so to present another aspect which I think makes it important for us, like the people of India, to live in a country that fosters a particular culture.

The Nation-State of the Jewish People

That is one of the reasons why I support Netanyahu’s demand of the Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. I think the notion that Israel is a Jewish nation state does not contradict the principles of liberal democracy and does not necessitate the denial of human and civil rights from minorities living in the country (although extra care must be taken in the implementation of this notion, of course). A Jewish state would allow the Jewish people self-determination as well as the full opportunity to develop its culture. In my opinion, not only are the Jewish people entitled to this, but it is in their best interest, and is of importance as a contribution to human culture as a whole.

Naturally, there are different considerations here that must be taken into account other than the social advantages. My baseline assumption is that peoples have a right to self-determination and cultural autonomy. These are not exactly equivalent to founding an independent state, but it is the most common and probably most efficient way to guarantee these rights. Specifically as far as Jews in the Land of Israel are concerned, it seems that without a state of their own it will be difficult for them to live as a thriving cultural community (or live at all). Just like the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own, so do the Jews. In these states, as said above, those people shall fashion their own identity and culture.

Now, it’s not that simple, of course. Judaism, as we know, is not only a nationality, but also a religion. Some claim it is only a religion, and therefore its people don’t have the right to political independence. In my opinion, they are ignoring the simple facts, which are that most Jews, surely most Jews in the Land of Israel, see their Jewishness as having a clear ethnic component – even a national character – which is sometimes a lot stronger than the religious one. Denying most Jews’ self-perception is equivalent to the denial of most Palestinians’ self-perceptions by those who claim that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Both are trying to impose their opinions onto reality, and are acting in an undemocratic manner, mistreating the aspirations of large groups of people.

On the other hand, the religious dimensions of Judaism are certainly clear (meaning, it is also a religion), and I don’t think that religions (as opposed to peoples) have a right to political independence. The case of Judaism is therefore unusual. Still, it is not unique. It seems to me that we wouldn’t protest if India (or Tibet, or Armenia), as a country with which a specific religious community affiliates itself, were to preserve the religious character of its primary nation within the civil framework of its independent state (official language, anthem, flag, holidays and days of rest, content of study in schools etc.) while, of course, preserving the rights of the religious minorities living in it (Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Jews etc.), and granting them cultural autonomy.

Obviously there is no intention here to establish a theocracy (God forbid), but rather to give voice in the public sphere to the religion and culture of an absolute majority of residents within a specific piece of land. In fact, the Dalai-Lama’s demand to China is exactly that: to grant his country at the very least cultural autonomy (if not independence), so that it can preserve the Buddhist characteristic of Tibet and the Tibetan-Buddhist religion and culture as a whole. Does he not deserve it?

In short, I see no flaw in the establishment of a Jewish nation state in the Land of Israel so long as the individual and community rights of the minorities in it are preserved. (They will, admittedly, have to tolerate living as a national cultural minority, and no doubt some of their interests will be compromised.) The opponents will insist that nation states must not have a particular religious character, even if it happens that this religion forms the culture and identity of the said nation. Meaning, in the name of separation of religion and state, nationalities that happen to have a defining religion (like the Tibetan, Indian, Armenian or Jewish nations) are expected to give up their culture and establish a state devoid of a particular cultural identity. Not only is this notion totally unrealistic, but in my view, as stated, also undesirable, since different cultures and different religions preserve society, enrich the world and contribute to humanity. A world without a Buddhist-Tibetan state would be a poorer one.

Finally, it seems to me that opposing the idea of the Jewish state mostly comes not out of a desire to defend the rights of different minorities, but the wish to secularize the public sphere, strip it of any religious characteristic, and maybe even turn the State of Israel into a European democracy devoid of any ethnic-religious-cultural uniqueness. This is a legitimate stance, whose advantages and disadvantages are open to discussion, and yet it should be presented as such. It is unfair to disguise this stance under the concern, valid as it may be, for protecting the rights of minorities. It is also unfair to support the rights of Indians or Tibetans to preserve their culture-religion and oppose the rights of Jews to do so.

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Originally published in my Hebrew Blog, Translated by Eyal Sherf and Dror Kamir – http://sherftranslations.com

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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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