Archive for the 'All' Category

Israel: Divided into City-states

After the public transportation system began operating on the weekend in a number of cities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, we began to hear the word “revolution” being uttered more and more. Nonetheless, it is possible that even the people who have used this word may not have internalized just how dramatic a change is taking place.

It is obvious that the ability to be mobile on Shabbat in an urban space without a car is a refreshing change in its own right, and certainly as far as the underprivileged are concerned. The bite taken out of the obsolete “status quo” on matters of religion and state, which has been outdated for a long time, can provide a bit of comfort – but the story is much bigger than this.

Shifting the focus campaign for Shabbat transportation from the national to the municipal level has the potential to change the character of the entire country. This is multi-stage process – and public transportation is just one link – in which the issues of religion and state are privatized locally. It points up how Israel is gradually being divided into two separate countries with diverging public spheres.

The cities have entered the stepped into the fray over providing public transportation on Shabbat after having success in other fights in the religion-state realm. In July 2017, Givatayim banned Religious-Zionist nonprofit organizations from entering nonreligious state schools, and by so doing the city put an end in its midst to the creeping growth of religious influence in the schools that was being encouraged by the education ministry. In addition, the city of Herzliya instituted regulations in September 2017, which increased oversight of those same nonprofit organizations in its schools. At the same time, Tel Aviv city hall decided to stop supporting projects said to be aimed at reinforcing Jewish identity.

In December 2017, before the passage of the “convenience stores” law in the Knesset, cities such as Rishon Letzion, Givatayim, Modi’in, Holon and Herzliya passed bylaws aimed at keeping those stores open on Shabbat. This initiative was a result of a determined civil campaign – a city-by-city battle that brought thousands into the streets to demonstrate against plans to shut convenience stores on Shabbat. Mayors, who unlike prime ministers are elected directly to their jobs, responded to the public pressure. They were influenced by the protests to an extent rarely experience – or indeed desired to be experienced – by cabinet ministers or lawmakers.

In June 2018, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, announced that based on a legal opinion of the attorney general – which stated that the municipality had the jurisdiction to ban gender separation at city events – it would not allow any more separation between men and women at events being held in any of the city’s public spaces. And last week, the city council in Ramat Hasharon adopted a government report and totally banned the exclusion of women from any public spaces.

The trend is clear, and stems from a real need: The status quo on religion and state has not been updated for decades – though Israeli society has undergone enormous changes. Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist political parties have stepped up their attempts to wield greater religious influence in recent years.

Examples of the latter can be seen in the “convenience stores” law and other efforts to assert religious influence in the public sphere, amid rejection of the Western Wall compromise, and the explicit threats made to outlaw holding professional soccer games on the Sabbath. There has also been an increase in never-ending struggles over the issue of work on Shabbat – whether for the railways or for the Eurovision song contest to be able to be held normally.

Attempts to cancel the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly have been blocked, and one can only dream about a day that civil or same sex marriage will be permitted. This is why local governments have become the default choice, and the cities where the population is homogenous with regard to a tendency not to abide by religious observance, are the ones leading the change.

The Down Side

But alongside the benefits for the secular, this trend also has negative dimensions. For one thing it divides Israeliness along tribal lines. Instead of a nation with a singular character, more or less, two different Israeli public spheres are taking shape. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area has become very nonreligious, as well as the north, with Haifa is in the lead. We must remember that Carmiel has sanctioned and paid for public transportation on the Sabbath since 2017.

It’s possible that Haredi and religious Zionist local government will shift to the other extreme in response to this trend. In other words, it is possible that they will insist on gender separation, and even the exclusion of women, and seek to justify it by citing a need to uphold multi-culturalism and even because the “secular cities” are setting a precedent, and if they have taken the law into their own hands and broke down the dam, why should they be the only ones to change the rules?

Moreover, we might witness a situation in which cities compete over attempting to offer nonreligious residents the largest basket of services possible. The average socio-economic level of the secular Israeli is of course much higher than that of the average Haredi. Cities that want to attract young, nonreligious people could take pride in the large number of businesses open on Shabbat, public transportation on Shabbat, schools lacking any overt religious influence – and maybe even in the future – municipal registration of common-law marriages, additional school hours for science classes and promises to build non-denominational cemeteries.

This process will fuel itself, and Israel will eventually subdivide into a northern and and Tel Aviv metropolitan area for the secular and rich, and a southern and Jerusalem area for the more traditional-minded and poor. Needless to say, such a situation would have a negative influence on the health of society, its unity and harmony – the battles in the Knesset among the various blocs will grow even more fierce, and public solidarity will decline.

In such a scenario those with fewer resources at their disposal will not receive all the services they require, or a good enough education to break free of a cycle of poverty. Meanwhile the upper classes will be fighting a long-term battle against the power of the government, whose leaders will very likely be populists looking to profit from the incitement of the “Second Israel” against the “First Israel. “

We are still far from being such a state, and there are many factors that can counter this trend. But because we cannot rely on miracles, it is already worth observing the trend and to try and nip it in the bud. We must reach broader agreements concerning the issues of religion and state, such as the Sabbath, Kashrut and marriage and divorce – and create a new consensus-based Israeli approach that will prevent the coercion of certain lifestyles on the individual and preserve gender and sexual equality, while building a public sphere with a clear Jewish-Israeli character.

Similar attempts in the past, such as the Gavison-Medan Covenant and the Kinneret Covenant, were rejected out of hand by the Haredi community, which was unwilling to compromise. Now too, the chances to achieve a broad agreement are not great, but it may be possible that in light of the separatist process that has been taking place in the past few months, the leaders of the Haredi community will rethink – and maybe a willingness for compromise will come about. Israel is too small and fragile to split into a collection of city-states.

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Published as a Haaretz op-ed

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.


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

Trump’s Pro-Muslim Dog Whistle

Whoever crafted President Trump’s Jerusalem address was well-informed. Trump’s speech aimed to sooth hurt Palestinian feelings and to assure them that even though he is diverging from previous U.S. policy, he would care for what was most important to them.

While recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump took care to mention that the final borders of Israeli sovereignty in the city are at the moment disputed and should be determined by both parties.

However, what was most significant for Palestinian and Muslim ears was the president’s emphasis, twice, on the current status of Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested site. Trump directly called for maintaining the “status quo” at “the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.” Moreover, addressing the future, he noted that “Jerusalem is today and must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall … and where Muslims worship at al-Aqsa Mosque.”

For the Western audience, these words seem like a banal affirmation of the obvious. For the Muslim world, and especially for Palestinians, they are of immense importance.

Trump’s words imply that as far as the United States is concerned, Jews will not be able to pray on the Temple Mount. In signaling that the current arrangement on the holy mountain will continue, Trump actually used, perhaps for the first time, a pro-Muslim dog whistle.

Trump’s gesture seems aimed to minimize the chances of a violent outburst from the Palestinian population. The president’s team knows that the core interests of Palestinians are connected directly to the holy site, quite above and beyond Jerusalem as a whole. The White House knows that the threat of change to the status quo on the site — which allows Jews to visit the mountain but not to engage in any religious activity there — served as a significant motivation for the violent cycles Israel experienced in the summers of 2014 and 2015. This July, another outburst was barely evaded only after Israel removed metal detectors it had placed at the entrances to the site.

The point is this: Concerning Jerusalem (and often the Middle East in general), it’s not about politics, but about identity. The Palestinian national identity is linked fundamentally to Haram al-Sharif. Its origins are rooted in the Ayyubid period (12th to 13th centuries), when the land’s Muslim rulers encouraged Islamic migration to Jerusalem, while providing a binding ethos: The city’s Muslim populace, veteran and recent, will become its holy site’s protectors. Since then, the Arabs around the holy city have conceived of themselves as defenders of the faith’s sacred site.

Furthermore, with Israel neutralizing the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem — closing its institutions, dismissing its leaders — the Palestinian population in and around the city has become depoliticized, underscoring Palestinians’ religious identity instead and further emphasizing their connection to the great mosque. Thus, whenever the impression arises that al-Aqsa is threatened, they react. The president’s words, therefore, aim to assure them that there is no such threat.

On the Jewish side, things are a bit more complicated. For most of the Zionist movement leaders in the past, the Temple Mount carried no specific appeal. Even after Israel’s conquest of the ancient city in the 1967 war, 50 years ago, what interested Israel’s leaders and Jewish populace was the Wailing Wall, not the mountain above it. Over the past two decades, however, the situation has dramatically changed, with the Temple Mount becoming for the secular right and the religious Zionists a focal point of nationalistic feelings and identity. The shift is correlated to the looming threat, from their point of view, of political compromise in Jerusalem as part of a peace initiative, and is parallel to a growing disappointment concerning the settlement project as a secure, reliable way to execute control over the land. For many, the Temple Mount has substituted the settlements as the central project and primary symbol of Israel’s sovereignty.

Accordingly, growing numbers of Israeli Jews ascend the Temple Mount, in a clearly stated attempt to exert domination on the site. The status quo, agreed upon since 1967, forbids Jewish worship at the site. But this point has become the focus of contention, with Temple Mount activists attempting to undermine it. These attempts contributed to violent escalations in the past. Indeed, in October 2015, after a wave of Palestinian terrorism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to state clearly, “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims will visit there.” That was the first time an Israeli prime minister had voiced a clear vocal agreement to the discriminatory conditions, as far as Jews are concerned, of the site’s status quo.

Trump’s words are the first such spoken from the president of the United States. They promise the Muslim world, and especially the Palestinians, that what is most important for them will be protected. For Israel, they represent a blow to any attempt to open the conditions of the arrangement on the Temple Mount. It seems that in exchange for a symbolic declaration concerning Israel’s capital, Trump has given the Palestinians actual achievement on al-Aqsa.

Capture

Published in the Washington Post

The Rise and Fall of Gush-Emunim, or The Last Jewish Attempt to Annul the Secularization Process.

There is one primary, general thing: the state. It is all holiness and without flaw. It is a supreme heavenly manifestation of ‘he who returns the divine presence to Zion.’ – Zvi Yehuda Kook

Holiness is to religion what blood is to the human body. It impels the religious organism. It is the soul’s desire and the heart’s reverence. It was not by chance that when religion officially became a field of academic research, at the end of the 19th century, the fathers of the field, distinguished scholars like Emil Durkheim and Rudolf Otto, sought to define “holiness.” Is it the restricted, the forbidden, or perhaps the moving and the awe-inspiring? Is it the inaccessible, the remote, or precisely the innermost and intimate? Or perhaps both the one and the other are emanations of the holy of holies? Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook honed it down to one: The holy is the political. The state is holiness. Being holy, it is perfect. Being holy and perfect, it is the divine chariot to which the horsemen of the redemption are harnessed.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookTo treat these ideas dismissively, or fearfully, is to miss their depth. The process undertaken by Zvi Yehuda Kook, who himself functioned as the interpreter of the thought propounded by his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, was not only daring but brilliant in its revolutionary character. The perception of the State of Israel – the political, bureaucratic, legal, secular corpus – as an entity that is “entirely holiness,” posed a tremendous challenge not only to the intentions and wishes of the state’s founders, and not only to the self-perception of its citizens. It was a direct assault on the very secularization of the Jewish people. Accordingly, Gush Emunim (or, Bloc of the Faithful), the operational arm of these ideas, functioned as a spearhead with which Zvi Yehuda assailed secularization itself. The failure and crumbling of Gush Emunim thus sounds the knell of defeat for the last Jewish attempt to overcome the secularization process.

This fundamental defeat did not come about without there being vast achievements along the way. In the course of its existence, Gush Emunim, which was one of the largest and most important messianic movements in Jewish history, succeeded in changing completely, perhaps for many years to come, the life of all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The movement revitalized the religious-Zionist community, which until then had been little more than a religiously observant annex of Labor-based Zionism. It put forward a riveting vision that integrated divine promise and human sovereignty, while the attempt to implement it engendered far-reaching political, geographical and demographic changes. Testimony to its importance can be found in the withering conceptual-social void that remained after its collapse.

Nothing better signifies the death of the Kookist vision – the driving ideological force behind Gush Emunim – than the tenure of Naftali Bennett as the head of the national-religious party. Kookism (to use the term coined by sociologist-anthropologist Gideon Aran, who has studied the movement) purported to provide an overall narrative framework that reinterprets reality and explains how it is precisely the elements that seem to directly contradict halakha, Jewish law, that actually carry the message of redemption and realize its most exalted vision.

Hanan Porat at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

In the view of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), known universally as Rav Kook, and in complete contrast to other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis, secular Zionism bore in its national backpack the harbinger of the messiah. The Zionists might desecrate the Sabbath and irreverently ignore halakhic sexual codes, but according to the historical dialectic envisioned by Rav Kook, after returning from exile and establishing a Jewish state, the “sons of the insolent ones” will return to the tradition and cling anew to the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people. At that point, the aberrant subversion of the tradition’s tenets will metamorphose into a synthesis in which the vision of the redemption will be wholly realized in the form of a state that manifests perfectly the Jewish messianic ideal. Simply put, though the Zionists think they are establishing a secular nation-state, the cunning quality of divine wisdom guides them to actualize the prophecy of the end of days.

The Birth of Religion and State

It’s important to understand that Rav Kook reinterpreted not only secular Zionists, but also secularism itself. To fully grasp the revolutionary depth of his theology, we need to look at the development of the secularization process and the inner logic it embodies. In contrast to the popular assumption, the crux of the secularization process is not the loss of faith and the abandonment of religious ritual, though they are of course significant features. What underlies secularization is a redistribution of the public space, and a differentiation between diverse dimensions of human activity.

Until the modern age, religion cast its net over a wide range of human activity (for example, education, art, policy, knowledge and morality). However, during the past few centuries, initially in Europe, these realms were expropriated from religion and placed in the hands of distinct systems – the state, scientific research and the human conscience – that specialize in applying them, each in its own way.

Moreover, religion itself was narrowed, and became a defined and confined area of our life. We can be members of a particular nationality, part of a specific social class or group, engage in one or another profession, jog or play chess as a hobby – and also be religious. Or not religious. From its status as the cornerstone of our identity, the foundation of our worldview and of our self-perception, without which we are lost and for which we will be prepared to lay down our lives, religion became a category, one issue among many in our lives. We have the option to add it as another thread in the fabric of our identity – or not. That is the deep meaning of secularization.

The distinction between the “religious” realm and the realm devoid of religious significance is not self-evident. In fact, it is nonexistent in the world of many religious traditions. Judaism and Islam, for example, do not distinguish between a space that is saliently under the control of religion, with its institutions and its principles, and other realms that are unconnected to religion. These two traditions were historically all-encompassing social frameworks that sought to embrace every aspect of life: from the form of the regime to the social classes, from agriculture to an individual’s breakfast.

It’s in Christianity that we find a clear-cut differentiation between the different spheres. Beginning with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), a clear distinction is put forward between the religious realm and the political realm, which is considered secular. That distinction accompanied the Western world in its development, with the tension between the religious authority (the pope) and the secular authority (the various emperors of Europe) often constituting fertile ground for struggle.

This differentiation laid the foundation for the secularization process. Beginning in the 17th century, together with the consolidation of Protestant Christianity, a confluence of developments increasingly diminish the religious sphere, with the aim of confining it to the individual’s psyche. The public sphere is defined as “secular,” that is, void of religion. Furthermore, the perception of religion as one’s personal affair develops in tandem with the perception of the social space as the public affair of the populace.

The more religion is compartmentalized into the depths of the individual’s psyche, the more the individual becomes part of a collectivity that is not religious but national. Hence the birth of the citizen – the autonomous individual who is above all a human being, who decides his religious beliefs for himself and chooses his form of government together with his fellow citizens. The nation-state, and subsequently the democratic state, spring up as part of the secularization process, and are defined parallel to and dependent on the modern definition of religion.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

For Judaism, therefore, secularization constituted a challenge not only because it brought about the Jews’ mass abandonment of the observance of the commandments, but because it utterly undermined the structure of Jewish identity. If until the 18th century, the Jews perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, as a separate ethno-religious community (like the Druze today, for example), the emancipation – the Jews’ transformation into citizens – obliged them to redefine their Judaism.

As Jewish studies professor Leora Batnitzky notes in her book “How Judaism Became a Religion” (2011), the Jews, the absolute majority of whom lived in Europe before World War II, responded to these developments in diverse and contradictory ways. Whereas modern Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism defined Judaism as a religion, Zionism perceived it as a nationality.

The religious movements held that Judaism is a ritual belief system that is limited to the individual realm, and endeavored to show that no contradiction is involved in a person’s being “a German of the Mosaic faith,” namely a German by nationality, and a Jew by religion. The Zionists, in contrast, rejected the religious-belief dimension of Judaism as an anachronistic excess to be discarded, and viewed Judaism primarily as a nationality. As such, it was up to the Jews to establish a state of their own, and it was only natural that the state the Zionist movement had in mind would be secular and democratic. In such a state, Jews, if they insisted, could be “religious,” though they would restrict their occupation with that archaic matter to their home and congregation. The public space would be based on the national disposition: It would be secular.

Undermining Secularism’s Essence

Back to religious Zionism. It began with the Mizrachi movement of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915), but without challenging the modern division of Judaism into religion and nationality. Reines allied himself with Herzlian Zionism, with the aim of providing the Jews a safe haven in the Land of Israel. In terms of his attitude toward secularization, there is no difference in principle between Hamizrachi and modern Orthodoxy in Germany, France or the United States. Reines, we can say, simply dreamed of Israelis of the Mosaic faith.

Rav Kook’s doctrine presents an essentially different approach: He intended explicitly to overcome the disparity between religion and nationality by uniting them in messianic matrimony. Kook envisioned a “state that is in its essence ideal”: meaning, a state that exists as a divine representation, implementing God’s will on earth. There is no place for secular individuals in such a state, because the connection between upper and lower is the basis of its existence, the source of its vitality and efflorescence and, no less, of its political platform. Amid attempts (that failed) to establish Degel Yerushalayim, a religious political movement, Rabbi Kook wrote, “with a supreme show of shining, free holiness, we shall illuminate all regime-based paths.” Politics will be nourished by holiness; holiness will become political.

Rav Kook’s intention was to annul every vestige of the secularization process. He was fiercely critical of the Orthodox Jewry of his time, which he perceived as occupied with a “religious idea,” by which he meant that it viewed Judaism as mere religion. For Kook, however, Judaism was a “divine idea” that encompasses the universe in its totality and views the Jewish people as a uniform organism that functions as an expression of the supreme will. It was Judaism’s division into a religion, on the one hand, and a nationality, on the other, that he rejected outright: “It is a great error on the part of those who do not feel the immanent unity of Israel … from this derives the desire to dichotomize the national matter and the religious matter into two parts.” Judaism is “one indivisible unit,” and the state that will be established is wholly sanctified unto God. The whole earth is filled with his glory.

Rav Kook did not live to see the sovereign State of Israel, and if he had, it’s difficult to know what he would have thought of it. In its first decades of existence, Israel was blatantly national and vigorously secular. Its leaders did not regard themselves as the receptacle of the divine inspiration and did not ground its regime in “shining holiness.” Rav Kook’s doctrine was updated and adapted to the Israeli situation by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, and his pupils. They would lead Gush Emunim after the conquest of Judea and Samaria and would implement with a mighty hand what they learned under the tutelage of their mentor.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

The Roots of Gush Emunim

The heart and core of Kookism is the desire to unite two holy entities: the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The holiness of the land derives from the Torah and tradition. The holiness of the state is gleaned from Rav Kook’s assertion that the present configuration of Jews in Israel augurs the advent of the redemption. The messianic, as usual, serves as an alchemical transformer that turns everyday brass into redemptive gold. In practice, the State of Israel rules in the Land of Israel and imprints the will of the Jews on it. The popular will – an important Kookist principle – is an expression of God’s will. Thus, for Kookism, sovereignty, as the political expression of the popular will over the land, is of special importance. “Redemption is but sovereignty: the people’s government across the whole span of its land,” stated Zvi Yehuda. The Land of Israel, under the people of Israel, according to the will of Israel, which advances (even unconsciously) the Torah of Israel.

And, as it happened, Israeli sovereignty over the “whole span” of the land came to pass after the Six-Day War. Only then were the holiness of the state and the holiness of the land fused together perfectly. As the poet Natan Alterman put it, “This victory … effectively erased the difference between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.” For the disciples of Zvi Yehuda, this territorial expansion was not only an expression of God’s will but the realization of his father’s political theology.

And the territorial expansion itself became a ritual for them. What occurred, in the words of Gideon Aran, was “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, making it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” The act of settlement becomes a ritual, and messianic belief allows settlement of the land and Israeli sovereignty over it to be seen as the force that turns the heavenly gears of the divine machine. In Aran’s incisive phrasing, it’s the metamorphosis of religious Zionism into the Zionist religion. No longer is there the religious element within Zionism; now there is the overriding religious framework, which is characterized in part by Zionism.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and Ariel Sharon laying the cornerstone of Elon Moreh, 1975 There is a controversy over the roots of Gush Emunim. Aran, who as a researcher skittered across the rocky slopes of Samaria with members of the movement, locates its gestation among the Gahelet (“ember”) group of young people (among whom were Haim Druckman, Zephaniah Drori and Zalman Melamed, all of whom became prominent rabbis). Seeking a response to Israeli secularization, they moved into the half-empty yeshiva of Rav Kook, which was then led by his son.

Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, arguably the most distinguished researchers of religious Zionism, believes that the Gahelet group simply rode the coattails of a grass-roots movement that had begun without them, to appropriate it. They find the birth of Gush Emunim as taking place among circles of well-off, middle-class, young Orthodox people who embarked on settling Judea and Samaria not for reasons of redemptive theology but as compensation for an inferiority complex they suffered vis-a-vis secular Zionism, and as the expression of a quite standard pioneer-Zionist ideology. They simply took advantage of their opportunity to become pioneers and “fulfillers.” It was only afterward that they referenced Rav Kook’s visions in order to explain to themselves and others how their actions could be reconciled with the general Jewish messianic program. Their action, however, enabled and encouraged the Gahelet rabbis and other Kookists to take over the movement and to turn it gradually into a messianic theological force.

Gush Emunim was established at the beginning of 1974, just a few months after the Yom Kippur War. Graduates of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem – among them Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Yoel Bin Nun and Hanan Porat – met in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, in the West Bank’s Etzion Bloc, which was captured in 1967, and drew up a vision for a national and religious movement of awakening. The scale of the vision was as impressive as it was all-inclusive. Its goal was nothing less than full redemption for the Jewish people and the whole world. It accommodated the increasing closeness of secular Jews to the world of religious precepts – the synthesis envisioned by Abraham Isaac Kook.

As for Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, it was irreversible, according to an unequivocal pronouncement by Zvi Yehuda Kook. “The State of Israel is a divine matter … Not only are there no withdrawals from kilometers of the Land of Israel, heaven forbid, but on the contrary, we will add conquests and liberations … In our divine structure, which is comprehensive and world-embracing, withdrawal has no reality and no grip,” he stated. Gush Emunim would be the earthly manifestation for this redemptive momentum. Or, in the words of the late Hanan Porat, “Gush Emunim is the yearning for God’s manifestation in the world.”

Gush Emunim proceeded to establish the settlements of Ofra and Kedumim, and tried repeatedly to establish Elon Moreh. In 1977, Menachem Begin assumed power, promising “many more Elon Morehs,” and was as good as his word. Beit El, Elkana and Kfar Adumim were established. The success necessarily generated institutionalization. In 1979, the Amana movement was created in order to organize the settlement project bureaucratically and economically. The following year, the Yesha Council was formed – an administrative body that amalgamated the heads of the local authorities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (for which Yesha is an acronym). Thus, by the end of the 1980s, having consolidated formally and bureaucratically, Gush Emunim had taken on institutional trappings and effectively ceased to be a living ideological movement.

Secularizing the Messiah

Gush Emunim continued to fade, but it would be a mistake to view its decline as a simple matter of “bourgeoisification.” Of course, like every movement of spiritual awakening, it too passed through a youthful stage and entered life’s more formalized paths. However, its disintegration was above all the increasing unraveling of the Kookist paradigm. Though this occurred concurrent with the turn to the bourgeois of Gush Emunim, it was not because turning bourgeois signifies institutionalization, but because its deep meaning is secularization.

Elon Moreh, click for original

Kookism viewed Zionism as a national-religious totality that would fulfill the divine messianic plan. The act of land settlement became ritualized; redemptive significance was attributed to the application of Israeli sovereignty to more and more territory. But what happens when settlement is implemented not by a group of messianic activists but by a commercial company? And what results from the quest by the settlers themselves not for the act of settlement as such but for quality of life in spacious homes with red-tiled roofs?

During the 1980s, and with greater intensity in the 1990s (and precisely during the tenure of Prime Minister Rabin, who greatly improved the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria), the settlement enterprise became a lodestone for people in search of housing solutions and upgrades. The settler, even if he had an ideological past, ceased to be a pioneer and became, in practice and in substance, a consumer.

Settlers who solicit funding and infrastructure from the state view it as a service provider, not as a manifestation of the Shekhinah (the divine presence). Though not necessarily contradictory, these two approaches generate a different religious consciousness. The Kookist vision of a unity of religion and nationality is inherently idealistic and cannot readily accommodate an instrumental approach that is out to use the state and not to worship it. Activism gives way to routine, and routine institutionalizes a relationship underlain by an aspiration that aims at preservation, not breakthrough. The settler becomes accustomed to receive, not to create, and the settlement ritual is normalized. The unity between national land settlement and religious ethos is degraded; the two revert to being two separate facets of the quotidian.

Hence the return to the picture of the basic differentiation within the secularization process. The Zionist religion reverts to being religious Zionism – namely, an approach that identifies the state with national Judaism, and religion with halakhic Judaism. Routine vitiates Kookism. Without the messianic vector that demands movement deriving from constant tension, Kookism becomes one more form of exegetical theology that offers reassuring answers to queries about belief. Bourgeoisification secularizes Kookism and deconstructs it into standard religious Zionism.

Two elements accelerate this basic process of re-secularization. The first is the unwillingness of secular Jews to become religiously observant. The Movement for Greater Israel, established after the Six-Day War, showcased a highly impressive collection of secular Israelis (Haim Gouri, Natan Alterman, Aharon Amir, Moshe Shamir and others). Here, according to Gush Emunim, was proof of the advent of Rabbi Kook’s vision: Direct contact with the territories of the homeland had seemingly awakened the “Jewish element” within these secular figures, and they were on their way back to the Torah.

The collapse of this hope undermined Kookist optimism. It also shows the fundamental unfeasibility of Kookism (or of any totalitarian religious ideology). The modern world is too diverse and complex, and its inhabitants subscribe to a concept that is too individualistic and autonomous to be subsumed within a single dogmatic framework. Secularity is here to stay.

As if it were not enough that the people of Israel did not become penitents, since the 1980s, the State of Israel has repeatedly reduced its sovereignty over the territories of the Land of Israel. The withdrawal from Sinai, in the wake of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, was the first serious blow to Kookist theology, followed by the withdrawals from the cities of the West Bank in the Oslo Accords and from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Kookist messianism, which categorically rejected any possibility of withdrawal, had to cope with recurrent contradictions in regard to the paradigm it espoused. They undermined it and ultimately caused it to crumble.

These three intertwined factors render the backtracking from Kookism to a simple national-religious conception – like that of Hamizrachi, the inceptive religious-Zionist ideology – almost inevitable. The bourgeois thrust transformed the attitude toward the state from ritualistic to realistic, and from idealistic to pragmatic. Due to the state’s secular character, it is looked on with growing reservations, even alienation. The courts become an obstruction, the country ruled at times by a “government of malice,” and not even the IDF is as holy as it was. When the state also initiates actions that flagrantly contradict Kookism, the alienation becomes blatant.

Religious Zionism in Israel has thus withdrawn to the stance of modern Orthodoxy. It has redivided reality into a secular realm and a religious realm, with the state considered a secular matter (with which it’s necessary to have dealings, and to try and draw as close as possible to the right values); while everything that takes place in its communities (in the religious education system, the youth movements and the synagogues as well) falls under the aegis of the Shekhinah. True, unlike Europe or the United States, this is the state of the Jewish people, but like them it is also a modern nation-state, and as such is based on secular logic that confines religion to a certain enclave and excludes it from rule in the fields of power and knowledge.

Using religious simbolism to inhance nationalism

Nationalism as Secularisation

But the disintegration of Gush Emunim generated additional shock waves. The tendencies that began with the collapse of the Kookist worldview intensified. In the past decade, it’s become clear that religious Zionism has reached a new phase in its relinquishment of Kookist ideals. It has entered a stage that places a strong emphasis on the distinction between religion and nationality – in other words, on the intensification of secularity. These processes are related to the greater share that accrues to the national dimension in the identity makeup of religious Zionism: that is, the ethnic element and the right-wing political posture have become far more central than they were in the past.

Beginning in the 1990s, the National Religious Party became declaredly right-wing. The party’s “historic alliance” with Mapai, forerunner of Labor, went by the boards in 1977, but its existence before that attests to the NRP’s character at the time. Its pragmatic and dovish leaders, such as Yosef Burg and Zerach Warhaftig, were replaced by declared right-wingers such as Hanan Porat, Yitzhak Levy and finally Naftali Bennett. Its current incarnation as Habayit Hayehudi has brought the process to a peak. The party’s composition shows clearly that a right-wing stance is more important than a halakhic one: The party will take in secular right-wingers but has no place for religiously observant left-wingers.

Moreover, the national-religious party is no more than the image of its voters. In a comprehensive study conducted in 2014 under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute, political scientist Tamar Hermann and her associates found that among the broad circles of this public, a “political-security right-wing” approach is a more stable and more permanent common trait than a uniform, binding religious way of life.

In her study of ex-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Poriya Gal Getz quotes a former religiously observant individual as saying, “Even after I stopped being religious, the feeling is that parents and community will be hurt far more if you become a leftist, because that’s perceived as sheer treason.” Treason, understandably, is a move against one’s reference group, which embodies our primary identity traits. When the reference group is determined more according to one’s political stance than by halakhic strictness, the relative share of those elements in one’s personal identity becomes clear.

Here’s what the increasing secularization of religious Zionism looks like: Its adherents view themselves in the first instance as members of the Jewish people and defenders of the State of Israel. True, they also observe the commandments, but that’s just their “religion,” something they pile onto nationality that expresses their personal relationship with God. Their basic identity is ethnic-Jewish and national-Israeli. What remains of the Kookist package, then, is the veneration of nationalism, but without the translation of nationalism into a theological language.

There still are religious Zionists, of course, who believe in the coming of redemption and in the settlements as the central project that is hastening it. However, they have been marginalized and now find themselves in a situation similar to that which preceded the Six-Day War. There are also religious Zionists whose halakhic identity remains very powerful and overrides the nationalist aspect. They are what’s known as “Hardalim” (acronym for national-Haredi), a group that coalesced parallel to the general disintegration of Kookism. These groups continue to abide by different versions of Kookism, but they constitute a minority in the religious-Zionist movement. For most religious Zionists, modern nationalism and the observance of the precepts constitute two separate foci of identity, and the former is becoming increasingly paramount.

From the ruins of Gush Emunim, then, religious Zionism emerges less halakhic and more nationalist. This is religious Zionism without messianic fervor and with a diluted Jewish identity, one that draws primarily on the national aspect and puts forward a simple, ethnocentric Jewish perception.

The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz was wrong when he predicted that disappointment in the messianic vision would lead Gush Emunim’s adherents to convert to Christianity. But he knew well that exalting nationalism to the status of a religious principle meant its deification: namely, its idolatrous positioning as the center of the religion. “The ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories,” he wrote in April 1968, are no more than “an expression of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism” (translation from a 1992 collection of essays by Leibowitz, edited by Eliezer Goldman). Nationalism is the core, religion is the cover. Today we see vividly the grotesque result of the process.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the current stage in the tangled and tense relations between Jewish religiosity and Jewish nationality is the final one. From the moment they were separated by the birth of modernity, each of these two elements has been attracted to its twin. The desire to bring the public space under its wing is deeply embedded in the religious system that underwent secularization, all the more so in the case of all-embracing monotheistic systems such as Judaism and Islam. Holiness is to religion as blood is to the human body. Another attempt at unification, like the consolidation of God with his Shekhinah, of religion and nationality, is only a matter of time. And time, as we know, is all that needs to be leaped over in order to arrive at the End of Days.

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Published in Haaretz today.


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.”

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