Archive Page 2

The "war on BDS" misses the point

Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper Yedioth Ahoronoth and its website, Ynet, launched a special project on Monday. Under the banner, “Fighting the Boycott” the newspaper entered “trench warfare” against the boycott Israel movement. Star right-wing columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote a long article claiming that the boycott movement is borne of a desire to de-legitimize the entire State of Israel, and not just the settlements and the occupation.

There are some serious problems with that line of argument, and not just the fact that it is a gross generalization. True, significant parts of the BDS movement challenge the State of Israel’s right to exist as a nation state for the Jewish people. True, there are some in the radical Israeli left who see the 1948 war as Zionism’s original sin, the source of its unraveling. But the entire movement is certainly not convinced that the Israel has no right to exist. BDS is a coalition of organizations, intellectuals and activists that represent a wide range of positions.

And the BDS movement is not the premier international threat facing Israel. It is secondary to steps and processes being undertaken by the European Union, individual European states, and in various UN bodies. None of those threats challenge Israel’s right to exist. We need only to think back to the FIFA crisis this past week, where the attempt to boycott Israel pivoted on the occupation and not Israel’s very existence; if Israel was the problem it wouldn’t have been accepted into FIFA in the first place. Indeed, the international community is not in the habit of challenging the existence of states that have been recognized by the UN, and whose right to exist the UN has reaffirmed time and again.

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What is taking place in Israel these days is reminiscent of what took place in South Africa in the 1980s and in Yugoslavia in the 1990s: international pressure that is focused on a specific problem is understood by those states’ citizens as an assault against the entire country, evidenced by the world’s irrational loathing and hatred of it. As a result, nationalism grows, internal dissent is silenced, and various democratic characteristics become weaker, or are weakened.

Take for example, in South Africa, the activist movement Black Sash, a group of white women who opposed apartheid. The activists organized protests and published reports that highlighted the injustices of apartheid. For that work they were ostracized, labeled as traitors, and even suffered physical violence. As apartheid became more repressive and international pressure increased, opposition to Black Sash intensified: its members were repeatedly arrested, their protests were banned, and the violence directed toward them got worse.

In Serbia it was a similar story. The Serbs saw themselves as the victims of the international media, which, they alleged, did not fairly portray their positions. In the period when Serbia was subjected to international criticism, support for Slobodan Milosevic only increased; hatred toward Albanians became stronger, democracy was weakened, and opposition activists were seen as traitors.

It is a dynamic that is as predictable as it is depressing: a country suffering from negative international treatment entrenches itself in self-righteousness and sees any criticism as illegitimate. National unity coalesces against external threats, but because there is no desire to resolve the problem causing the external pressure, anger and frustration are eventually directed toward the internal opposition, toward the media, or toward problematic but marginal actors — like Yedioth’s special project against BDS. This process is not a Jewish invention, as we can learn form what happened in South Africa and Yugoslavia.

That is not to say that there exists no anti-Semitism or unfair criticism of Israel. Both exist — but they always did. Today, the problem is only consolidating: the occupation, which is approaching its 50th year, does not allow Israel to present itself as having clean hands. Until we reach an agreement with the Palestinian people, criticism of Israel will be considered legitimate and deserved, along with the sanctions that will be placed on the country.

Of course we are still far from the type of sanctions that were imposed on South Africa, and certainly from the military intervention that took place in Serbia — and I hope – and believe – we will never get there. But we can learn from those examples that the international community’s harsh, negative treatment suffered by those two countries was not meant to destroy or wipe them off the map. Nobody today questions the existence of South Africa or the countries that emerged from Yugoslavia, which were recognized by the UN. That is because the moment the central problem was resolved, the entire affair was over as far as the international community was concerned. And the central problem facing Israel is the occupation.

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Published in 972

The Idea of a Jewish Tyranny

Five weeks after the election, we can declare the advent of a new genre among those who write about Israel in the international media: the lamentation. It’s hard to find a media outlet, certainly in the Western democracies, that hasn’t given a platform to a writer who will explain, whether with sentimentality or cold didacticism, that in the wake of the shelving of the two-state-for-two-peoples vision, Israel will not be able to continue being both Jewish and democratic.

Examples include Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor and columnist in The Guardian; David Blair in The Telegraph; Bettina Marx on the Deutsche Welle website; Michael Cohen in The Boston Globe; Dana Milbank in The Washington Post; and of course Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. All of them point out in plain language why the demographics between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean will leave two options, and two only, in the future: either Jewish tyranny or binational democracy. The word “apartheid” is also increasingly coming into use in connection with Israel.

On April 13, Vox.com published a long article by Max Fisher whose headline summed up the matter clearly: “Israel’s dark future: Democracy in the Jewish state is doomed.”

Let’s leave to one side the question of how likely it is that these nightmare scenarios will be realized, and concentrate on the present. The approach that is gaining ground right now, which pits Israel’s Judaism against its democracy, is genuine cause for concern. The current situation, in which important voices are eulogizing Israeli democracy and viewing Judaism as little more than a fading ethnic phenomenon, in the best case, and as a license to apartheid, in the worst case, betokens the crisis that has already struck us: the ugly distortion of Jewish culture in the early 21st century.

When our best friends, the countries with which we like to boast that we “share values,” increasingly perceive Israel’s Judaism as an antithesis to the state’s democratic character and a threat to the liberal approach and equality of rights to which Israel committed itself in its Declaration of Independence – it appears that we are closer than ever to having the Jewish tradition relegated to the abhorrent status of communism in the past and of Salafi Islam in the present. We are witnessing Judaism being tarred-and-feathered, and the charges will stick to it more than any anti-Semitic calumny in the past, simply because this time no blood libel will be involved.

In November 1975, when Israeli President Chaim Herzog tore up United Nations Resolution 3379, he was protesting the equation of Zionism with racism. Forty years later, and after an election campaign in which Herzog’s son was defeated in his bid to become prime minister, the Western world is becoming used to thinking that Judaism is tyranny.

Most tragic of all, perhaps, is that not only internationally but in Israel itself the distinction between the state’s Jewish character and its democratic regime is growing more acute. According to data of the Israel Democracy Institute, in the past five years there has been a consistent decline in the proportion of Israel’s Jewish citizens who consider the fusion of democracy and Judaism important. If in 2010, 48.1 percent of Jewish citizens replied that the two elements are equally important to them, in 2012 this fell to 41.9 percent, and in 2014, it was 24.5 percent. At the same time, the proportion of Israeli Jews for whom the Jewish element is the most important rose to as high as 38.9 percent; 33.5 percent of the respondents opted for democracy as most important.

Data and figure from the Israel Democracy Institute. click on picture for source

The story here is not only the fact that for so many, Judaism “outranks” democracy in importance, though that is a disturbing situation in itself. The crux of the matter is that for the majority of Israel’s citizens the belief that the two of them can exist simultaneously is becoming increasingly impossible. The tragedy, then, is that, as in the Western world, in Israel, too, more and more people consider “Judaism” and “democracy” to be mutually exclusive entities.

The debacle here is above all cultural: It concerns the failure of Israeli society to forge a Judaism that is substantively democratic, a Judaism that self-evidently does not contradict democracy but, on the contrary, buttresses it. Instead, Judaism is being shaped as a violent ethnic identity, a Spartan religion of a nation of masters, an atavistic, nationalist entity, which instead of conducting a dialogue with modernity is choosing to divest itself of liberal traits it had already internalized, including some that were always ingrained in it.

This cultural debacle will become a historical disaster if, heaven forbid, Israel truly becomes exclusively “Jewish” in the future. Democracy will obviously suffer in that case, and along with it the population between the Jordan and the sea. A terrible period will ensue, but as with every past tyranny, this one, too, will collapse. When that happens, the true tragedy will be revealed: It will emerge that for the whole world, Judaism has become synonymous with apartheid and occupation, violence and oppression, despotism and subjugation.

Judaism has survived many disasters. This is one disaster it will not survive.

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Published today in Haaretz

About The Indiana Law Allowing Business Owners to Refuse to Aid A Gay Wedding

A new law scheduled to go into effect in the state of Indiana in July, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, is supposedly intended to protect the freedom of religious faith of the people of the state. However, it has met with harsh criticism as it is seen as a license to discriminate against LGBT people. The law is not intended to allow discrimination against gay people simply for being gay, but will apparently allow business owners to refuse to serve gay couples seeking to marry – for instance wedding hall owners opposed to such an event held on their property.

According to the New York Times’ analysis, the law allows companies and individuals to refuse to provide service that will place a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs. Should their refusal land them in court, the judge would have to balance the burden upon their religious beliefs and the state’s desire to prevent discrimination. CNN’s legal analyst believes that the law will not allow people to decline to serve individual gay persons, but will probably enable people to refuse to aid in any way the celebration of a gay wedding. The issue has already drawn furious protests by the gay community, and condemnations from various activists and politicians (such as Hilary Clinton). The Governor of Connecticut has promised to sign an order banning trips subsidized by his stte to Indiana, as has the Mayor of Seattle. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an article decrying the bill, and Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus are tweeting with the hashtag #boycottindiana.

Israeli readers might recall a similar case to come before the Israeli bench. In 2012 Judge Dorit Finestein imposed a 60,000 ILS fine on the guesthouse at Moshav Yad HaShmona, which has refused to hold the wedding of Tal Yaacobovitch and Yael Biran due to their sexual orientation. “The Judge noted that the object of the fine was not only to compensate the couple, but also to educate the public at large in values of equality and human dignity” (from an article by Ilan Lior in Haaretz.) This case had to do with a wedding hall belonging to Messianic Jews, whose faith stood in opposition to the nuptials in question.

Would we accept a wedding hall owner unwilling to rent his hall to a wedding of Blacks/Mizrachis/Jews? Of course not, and in Israel, like in many democracies around the world, there are many laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race. What about a wedding hall owner who won’t rent his hall to an interracial wedding? Of course, those same laws will prohibit that as well. And what of a hall owner who won’t rent his hall to religious people? Or secular ones? I think we would not accept such a reality.

So ostensibly, we are unwilling to countenance discrimination against service seekers. But the matter is not so simple. I think none of us will insist that a private service provider (not a public official or public service) has no right, under any circumstance, to refuse service to a customer. Thus, for example, there have been several cases in which clergymen (not business owners) have been sued for their refusal to marry gay couple – which is completely absurd in my opinion. Must a lawyer accept any client, even those he believes to be immoral criminals? Must a plastic surgeon provide breast enlargement to any woman who shows up at his clinic? How can we force a private person to take on a client whom he or she not only doesn’t want to serve, but ones they believe they must not serve?

But let’s focus on halls and weddings. Consider the following example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an ultra-orthodox Jew. You have a religious problem with renting the hall to Jews on Friday nights and Saturdays, because you believe that Jews are obligated to keep the Sabbath, and you are unwilling to aid in what to you is a transgression. Likewise, you won’t rent the hall to Jews who want non-kosher food catered. You have no problem renting the hall to non-Jews on the weekends or having non-Jews have non-kosher food catered, and of course you have no problem renting to Jews in general.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an atheist and a feminist. You have an ideological problem with renting your hall to religious folks who practice gender separation. You don’t want your hall to feature men sitting apart from women, or only male waiters to serve men and only female waiters to serve women. You have no problem with renting the hall to religious people, but not if they practice such separation. The same goes for religious weddings of minors, age 17, let alone 14. That will not happen in your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re vegetarians, or maybe vegans. You don’t offer catering service in your hall, and you allow your clients to hire outside catering services. Although you strenuously object to eating meat, you realize that most people are meat eaters, and are willing to have couples marry in your hall with catering that includes meat. One day a couple comes in wishing to rent the hall. While talking with them you realize that they intend to have catering that serves lobsters. In order for the lobsters to be fresh (and for the added spectacle), they intend to place a giant aquarium in the hall in which the living lobsters will swim, until taken out and thrown live into vats of boiling water. This is too much for you, and you inform the couple that they cannot rent your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. For political and moral reasons, you strenuously object to Israel’s control of the West Bank. You boycott products from the settlements, and won’t rent your hall to people who live in settlements.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You strenuously object to marriage between Jews and non-Jews. For you it’s really not a racial matter, but one of religion and tradition. It is important to you to prevent what you view as a destructive process of diluting and even destroying the Jewish people. You won’t rent your hall for weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Not all of these examples are matching, and we should distinguish them from one another. There is a difference between discriminating against customers on the basis of their race/ethnicity/religion and discriminating against customers on the basis of their actions. The difference stems from the fact that a person’s origin or religion are a deep and essential part of their identity, whereas their actions are not usually a part of their identity. A large part of the human rights discourse is based on what we perceive as sources of identity and deep meaning in our lives. The freedom of expression, for instance, is important not only for the existence of a healthy society with a plurality of opinions and a capacity for self-criticism, but also because one’s ability to express one’s opinions is a central part of one’s self-perception, and one’s dignity. Likewise the freedom of religion and conscience, or most simply put the physical wholeness of our body.

Therefore refusing to rent a hall to someone who boils lobsters alive is not tantamount to refusing to rent a hall to Jews. Likewise, one’s desire to keep one’s hall from hosting a violation of the Sabbath, or the serving of non-kosher food, is not an unfair discrimination, but a protection of one’s religious faith.

And what of a boycott against settlers? Here the matter is more complex. There are people for whom living in Judea and Samaria is a deep part of their identity. They’re not just located in the occupied territories – they are settlers. This is how they perceive themselves; it is a central part of their identity. They view it as a high value and take pride in it. On the other hand, it seems to me that the settler identity is weaker than a Jewish or LGBT one. This is an intermediate case. Is it permissible to discriminate against settlers and refuse to do business with them? When the Boycott Law was passed in Israel, banning calls for boycott based on place of residence, many (myself included) saw it as a base and undemocratic attempt to legitimately oppose the occupation. It seems that many people believe that a private business owner (or consumer) should be allowed to boycott settlers just for being settlers.

Now undoubtedly, homosexuality is a matter of identity, and not of sexual activity. Sexual orientation is considered nowadays as a deep element of a person’s identity, and therefore a central dimension of one’s self-perception and basic dignity. This is why we take such offense at discrimination against LGBT’s – because the logic at the foundation of the human rights discourse leads us to the conclusion that they have equal rights exactly for who they are.

Is it therefore wrong for a private person to refuse to provide a service for gays wishing to get married? Let’s say that person is willing to rent his or her hall for a gay or lesbian person’s birthday party. They have no problem with homosexuality in and of itself – they are not homophobes. They question is must we force such a person to rent their hall specifically for a same-sex marriage, which is to say for the performance of an act they hold to be immoral/contrary to the commandments of God.

Let us compare it to a person unwilling to rent their hall for a wedding with gender separation. By so doing he is basically banning from his business all ultra-orthodox people and most national-religious ones. Is this permissible? We may think it isn’t, and that we should force him. Perhaps we also think same-sex weddings shouldn’t be refused, and that we should force individuals for whom this is against their world-view to rent their hall.

On the other hand, perhaps we think one must not refuse a LGBT wedding but may refuse an ultra-orthodox one. I think that is a legitimate stance, but we must understand that it stems from a particular liberal conception and carries a particular liberal agenda. This is about furthering an agenda based upon the growing discourse of rights, with the position being that the point the discourse of rights has reached in our times is the point to which the law must move. One may refuse to host an ultra-orthodox wedding because they harm the rights of women, and one must not refuse to host a LGBT wedding because their right to marry must not be abridged.

From another perspective one may say that what we have in the last example is an agenda of secularizing the public sphere, like the law forbidding covering one’s face with a burqa in France or the law banning the construction of mosque turrets in Switzerland, that is, a law that consciously overrides a certain religious obligation (in this case the prohibition on same-sex marriage) in order to promote a more secular public sphere.

This is not my position, but as mentioned above I believe it’s a legitimate position. What I’d like to stress is that it is a position. Meaning that there is ideological baggage (let’s say, one promoting liberal democracy and/or secularism). Therefore to the same extent we must recognize that there is nothing obviously true here, and that there can – and should – be public debate between this position and opposing ones.

Rejecting religious or LGBT customers because the nature of the weddings they hold is immoral in the opinion of the hall owner will most likely be perceived by the rejected as a rejection of their identity, and is therefore a very harsh act. However, it can definitely be argued that the rejection is not of religious or LGBT people, but only of the specific act they commit in marriage. Of course this act too reaches far deeper into their identity than eating live-boiled lobsters does into the identity of the diner. This is a far more essential expression of “who they are.” And yet, it can be argued that this still doesn’t turn the rejection of their wedding into a rejection of them. The wedding hall owner can claim to have no problem with observant people or gays, but only with the way they marry.

The context also matters here. If the group discriminated against is a small, weak one which is ostracized by most of society, there is cause for the law to protect it. For instance, if LGBT people were rejected by 90% of wedding halls, and had no reasonable option of holding their weddings, there would be reason for a law to protect them and force hall owners to rent them their halls. I believe the reality is opposite. Hall owners unwilling to rent their halls to same-sex weddings are a minority, and the moral-religious position they hold is becoming less and less accepted in the Western society of our time. See above for a very partial list of those protesting the new law in Indiana to get a picture of the forces that are up against its defenders.

I believe that LGBT people have the right to get married, that is to say, that this is a basic right, and therefore I thing the state should be required to allow same-sex marriage by law (I hope to write about the underlying principles of this sometime). On the other hand, I think that under current conditions, where there is no shortage of halls and officiators who would be glad to host or conduct a same-sex wedding, private business owners should be allowed to retain their beliefs and refuse to hold same-sex weddings in their businesses. This is because society has an interest and an obligation to allow individuals to freely preserve and express their religious and/or moral convictions.

This issue isn’t simple. It involves religion and politics, private morals and legal ruling. It also mixes a certain social perception with a certain political culture, and also a contextual analysis of the facts on the ground. The law in Indiana which allows private people to refuse to take part, as business owners, in a same-sex wedding, defends their private notion of what is good, and this is important. It does not relieve them of the need to justify it, if required, in a court of law. It also does not prevent protests, and even boycotts, by the general public against them. I find this to be a proper balance.

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(I Thank Yael Peled for her enlightening comments on a draft of this article. Of course, all opinions and errors are mine.)

Post-Election Post: The Key to Understanding Netanyahu’s Ascent in the Last Few Days of the Campaign

The key to understanding what happened here in the last few days, mainly the last one, before the Israely elections last week, is identity. That’s the word, that’s what counts. In these elections, questions of identity took on additional meaning, and they are what in the end decided the matter, in a dramatic way. Personally, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t see it coming, and I was also wrong in thinking that the aversion and weariness of a major section of the public with Netanyahu (on the right as well as the left) offered a real chance of changing the government. I was wrong, because I didn’t understand the depth to which the politics of identity penetrates Israel today.

For a start, let’s take the obvious example: Mizrachi (Sephardic) thinkers, artists and political activists who voted for Shas did so only out of identity awareness. The slogan “Mizrachi votes for Mizrachi” says it all. Even if they wanted to promote a socialist worldview, it was subordinate to the most important thing, which is tribal empowerment. That’s how we got secular Israelis, bohemians, and feminist activists who voted for a party that’s resolutely religious, populist, and patriarchal. In general, it was not the values of the party that appealed to them, but the promise to represent/preserve/promote a certain identity.

Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), which claimed to represent a new pan-Israeliness, also based its campaign on the identity element. The excellent slogan “No apologies” that they chose played on two levels of identity: the ethnocentric right in general, fed up with the seeming hegemony of the cosmopolitan left (“the old elites,” etc.), and the religious-Zionist public, which bears decades-old feelings of inferiority toward the secular public. Naftali Bennet promised these sectors a strong stance and empowerment of their identity (religious/Jewish), and he succeeded in attracting many. His campaign hit a reef with the Ohana affair, and began to sink when his party failed to adapt its approach – you can’t keep screaming “No apologies” when in fact, you’re apologizing. All the air went out of the balloon.

Ethnocentric Wave

These two examples are just individual instances of a much larger trend. Although it wasn’t imperceptible, pollsters and analysts failed to identify its influence, particularly in the last few days of the campaign. At the center of this trend stands neither Mizrachi identity nor religious-Zionist identity, but Jewish identity, plain and simple. This isn’t Judaism as a religion or as a culture, but Judaism as an ethnicity, or ethnic nationalism.

Netanyahu won this election not because he is beloved by the majority of the nation, and not because the ideology that his party upholds (without the courtesy of a written platform) is preferred by the majority of the nation – at least not in any comprehensive, rational manner. Netanyahu won because he promised his voters that he would protect them from the forces threatening not just their existence, but their Judaism.

This is an old story, and there’s no point in expanding on it. Let’s just say that Netanyahu, from the beginning of his career, identified a weak point in the Israeli left, and that is the connection to Jewish identity – more complex in the best of cases, weaker in the worst case. His whispered comment in 1999 to Rabbi Kadouri that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish” is a verbal expression of the perception that the Israeli left is less connected to its religious and national roots, not to mention its geographical ones. Thus the left is prepared to relinquish such elements, while the right grasps onto them firmly.

This view has a robust basis. The left has significantly and historically served as the bastion of universal values, and while a nationalist left certainly does exist, identification with particularist values (national, religious, and ethnic) is the beating heart of the right. As the desire for particularist identity is strengthened, this electoral weak point of the left is revealed.

I have already written in various articles that since the nineties, Israel has been experiencing a growing wave of ethnocentrism. This is hardly a sensational revelation, but relies on studies and conclusions that my betters have reached in the past. Here is a comprehensive article of mine on this issue that was published recently. This ethnocentric wave satisfies the demand for identity that has arisen with the spread of cultural colonialism accompanying American capitalism (although the desire for distinct identity needs no real reason to awaken).

Until a short time ago, Naftali Bennet rode this wave of Jewish-ethnocentric identity with great success, and it is what enabled him to reach 17 mandates in the polls early on in the campaign, and even to dream of the prime minister’s post. Netanyahu also rode this wave of Jewish-ethnocentric identity, but in his case, it was not enough to overcome the aversion felt toward him by very large sections of the people.

The Turning Point in the Elections

That was the situation until the week before the elections. When the final polls were released, beginning that Tuesday, they showed that not only was the Likud trailing the Zionist Union, but that the Joint (Arab) List has become the third-largest party. Then the recognition began to spread that change was a real possibility, and that the left had a good chance of winning. The statement by Yair Garbuz about a “small minotiry” involved in “kissing mezuzahs and visiting holy grave sites”, and particularly the effect of a large Arab party on public awareness, aroused fear for the safety of the Jewish identity of “Israel.” Ron Gerlitz wrote in the past that paradoxically, the violence this summer against Arab-Israelis stemmed from their increasingly successful integration into Israeli public affairs. The same happened here: the sudden visibility of Israeli Arabs, the awareness that they were actually playing the democratic game, and successfully, was conceived as a threat to the Jewish identity of the state (Uri Waltman defined the issue in a short Facebook status).

Netanyahu correctly identified this fear, and transformed it into momentum for his campaign. He repeatedly threatened that in the current situation, the Likud would lose its majority to “the left and the Arabs.” Likud headquarters spread word of a left-bloc government supported by the Joint List. The image of Ahmed Tibi began to appear in between Herzog and Livni in Likud adverts. Netanyahu repeated the message with religious fervor, and for an overwhelming public, the smoke-signals in the sky spelled out danger to the Jewish identity of the state. The climax was reached on the afternoon of election day, when he made the announcement (on video, in writing, and he also wanted to broadcast it at a press conference) that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”

That was enough to change the picture from one end to another. Within a short time, the Likud added ten mandates of Jewish Israelis who feared for the Jewish identity of Israel, who were convinced that only Netanyahu and only a strong Likud could protect it.

In these elections, Netanyahu had a big problem, and from this aspect, the journalists and pollsters who identified it were right. The reason he visited Mahane Yehuda without the media was not because he expected to be greeted with cheers of enthusiasm. The reason he put on an interview blitz of pleading and threats was not because he was sure of victory. The reason he told people around him that he had a serious problem was not just because he felt like pressuring them. Mainly, the reason he was forced to turn to the right, all the way to the right, to Kahane’s right, was because victory was not in the bag. Netanyahu achieved this victory only in the last hundred yards of the race, and in that sense, the polls reflected reality. He succeeded in turning the trend around by 180 degrees when he used the threat against the Jewish identity of the state in order to attract voters.

What the Left Can Do

As said, the left suffers from a structural weakness when approaching questions of identity. Yesterday Ofer Zalzberg published an excellent post on his view of the reasons for the Zionist Union’s failure. Writes Zalzberg:

Its strategy also failed because the Zionist Union didn’t succeed – nor did it even try – to present a vision for confronting the issues of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. It focused on Israeliness and Zionism, but it didn’t pay enough attention to Judaism. There are many voters in the Israel of 2015 for whom this is the main issue. Those who supported the socio-economic agenda that Herzog proposed could not switch to the Zionist Union, as they lacked a clear sense that they could trust it with educating their children to be Jews – that they could trust him with the historical challenge of ensuring Jewish continuity in Israel.

Actually, Herzog’s family roots could have served as excellent raw material to create such a feeling, but his party didn’t even make an attempt in that direction. The fact that the Zionist Union includes not one representative of knitted-kipa (national religious) public also doesn’t help, to put it mildly. Until true attention, out of true willingness, is paid to the issue of Jewish identity, the Zionist left will always start from a position of weakness. Until the left is able to supply identity – Jewish, Israeli – with distinct emotional baggage, it will not be able to attract the majority of Israelis who want such an identity, who demand it.

When the Mapai was around, the Labor movement of the past was able to present a solid Jewish identity. Ben Gurion with his love for the Tanach, raising the banner of Jewish history and Jewish nationalism, the republican-collectivist understanding of “the nation” and state – all these, despite their very negative aspects, enabled a significant number to identify with the party. Possibly, Labor’s ongoing correction of the failures of these positions has led to an overly sharp retreat from identification with their positive values.

So what now? It’s not enough to visit the Western Wall minutes before the elections. First, the Zionist Union has to change its perception, to understand that Jewish identity is important (really important, not just tactically – see below). In addition, they must work to add representatives of the kipa-wearing sector to the party. Yair Lapid was well aware of this, and added Shai Peron as his second-in-command and Ruth Calderon as representative of another form of Jewish identity, for which he is still reaping rewards today. The Zionist Union has to talk about “Judaism”. Of course, “Judaism” can be very liberal and very democratic, in terms of the biblical concepts of “love the stranger,” “you shall have one law for yourselves, what applies to the stranger applies to the citizen,” “you shall not follow many to pervert justice.” But they have to talk about it. The party chairman must be a figure with a visible connection to the issue. As mentioned, this could have been quite easy with Herzog, but it didn’t happen. And voters have a clear preference for a leader of Mizrachi origin, for obvious reasons.

Left-wingers who believe that the solution to their camp’s predicament is to join ranks with the Arab citizens of Israel are wrong. Not from an ethical point of view, because of course an emphasis on equal citizenship, on cooperation among all citizens and on rejection of discrimination based on ethnicity, is logical and appropriate from a liberal democratic point of view. But unless there is a change of consciousness of Marxist proportions among the Israeli people, the majority of the public will continue to think along ethnic, not class lines. To be clear: for most of the Jewish public in Israel, Jewish identity – theirs, their children’s, and that of the State of Israel – is a fundamental, central, and irreplaceable component in any worldview or aspiration for the future. It is a mistake to continue to deny this.

Meretz’s Problem

I’ve written about adding to the list representatives of the kipa-wearing public, but we have to realize that this is not really an issue of representation, but rather of image. So the talk about Meretz, for example, as unable to reach broad sectors because it has no representative of that population is pure nonsense. First of all, Meretz is the party with the most variety of ethnicity and gender in its first ten slots. Second, voters aren’t looking for representation. They’re looking for identity – and so the complaints about Meretz will never cease. This is something Meretz isn’t giving them, and maybe can’t give them.

In this regard, Meretz has a serious problem. This party, to which I gave my own vote, has promoted the values of preserving and advancing individual and civil rights. They have a clear platform of promoting universal rights. Not national, and not ethnic. In other words, it’s not only that Meretz doesn’t promote distinct identity, it dismantles distinct identity, in favor of an ethical system that supersedes these identities. It is universalist, cosmopolitan, post-particularist. It offers a discourse of civil rights that crosses boundaries of nationhood and culture, not a discourse of nationality or ethnicity that distinguishes itself from others’ rights and other cultures.

Thus the more Meretz becomes universal, the more they present a broader(!) range of identities and ethnicities within the Israeli public, the less they become attractive for a public that is looking not for the universal, but the particular. So if Meretz supported (heaven forbid) the purity of the Ashkenazi ethnicity, they might be betraying their claim for inclusiveness and equality, but they would attract voters whose Ashkenazi identity is important to them. From another angle, when Meretz were anti-ultra-Orthodox, they had more success, because they aroused and attracted the secular-atheist identity. When they avoided below-the-belt attacks on the ultra-Orthodox public, as they did (justifiably) in this election campaign, they lost voters from the public that emphasizes its secular-atheist identity.

Meretz’s problem is worse than that of the Labor Party, because Meretz’s raison d’etre is universal rights. It’s not that we don’t have a large enough public that’s interested in promoting these rights. The problem is that before the vote, other considerations arise, and large portions of that public usually prefer to give their votes to a party that emphasizes particular identity as well. It’s just as important to them, and perhaps more important. There is also a deep emotional component that acts at the moment of casting the vote. Here as well, those same liberal secular Israelis who voted for Shas are an extreme example of a much broader trend.

Preserving Particular Culture Isn’t a Disgrace. It’s a Value

For many on the left, talk of Jewish identity provokes discomfort. Particular identity arouses images of nationalist chauvinism, racist ethnocentrism, separatism, the ugly arrogance of supremacy. Of course, all these can follow, and often do follow, the adoption of a particularist identity. Still, we must understand three points. First, there is no unavoidable reason for these to follow. Second, canceling a particularist identity is not the way to prevent these negative phenomena. Third, particularist identity has many advantages.

I’ll make this short. It seems obvious that not every unique culture is violent and arrogant, not every attempt to preserve unique culture is oppressive toward someone or something. Just as we are shocked by the destruction of Tibetan culture and its replacement with the unique communist-capitalist formula of the current Chinese regime, just as during our trips to India we search for the places where local culture is preserved and has not yet been distorted into another branch of McGlobal, just as we weep over the loss of the primitive culture of the Australian aborigines, the assimilation of the native Latin American tribes, the elimination of the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazons – so should we mourn when Jewish culture is eroded and becomes just another American franchise.

Particularist culture is a human treasure that must be preserved, but it is also much more than that. It is a fundamental psychological need for most of humanity. It is the human and very simple need for a “home” identity and culture, for a feeling of the known and loved. It’s also the feeling of significance that stems from being a link in a long chain, part of something bigger than ourselves. All these are fundamental human needs, and every ideology that upholds love for fellow human beings should recognize them and give them their due place.

Particularist culture is not only emotional-psychological, but also a social-communal need. Particularist culture encourages solidarity and mutual assistance. It serves as material for constructing creativity and philosophy. Particularist culture also supplies a unique ethical system, a unique worldview, which in our times can be a fresh and vital point of view in contrast to the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market, the shallowness of moral discourse in our time. Something here is worth preserving.

Again, the dangers in empowering particularist culture are clear. My argument is that what prevents these dangers is not denial of all particularist culture, but preserving it while directing it toward positive channels. The effort to ignore particularism means abandoning it to the forces that exploit it in a negative manner, that transform it into shallow nationalism and use it as a license to rob others of their rights.

Again, these are just chapter headings, signposts. But if my analysis of what took place here in the last few days of the elections is correct, it’s an indication that the Israeli left must take into consideration if it wants a solid chance at winnig an election campaign. I’m convinced it’s possible.

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Translated by Academic Language Experts from my Hebrew blog, here.

Changing the World One Bit at a Time – an Interview with Micha Odenheimer

If anyone crying out "charity begins at home" (From the Talmudic עניי עירך קודמים) would actually try to take care those in need around him, we would probably not have so much misery in the world. Unfortunately this is not the case. I am not denying the simple logic of this sentence – we are indeed immediately responsible and committed to those close to us. The sad fact is this sentence is often used not as an imperative to take responsibility, but as an indictment of what we don’t like in others.

But maybe all this is irrelevant regarding Micah Odenheimer, as he has already shown his care and assistance both near and far. I met him a few months ago as part of a talk I gave to the Tevel b’Tzedek organization, which Odenheimer founded and heads. When I spoke to him about the wonderful institute he set up I understood how sensitive and deep is the thinking behind it. It is not a simple mission of helping the weak overseas, which often is not only patronizing, but simply ineffective. Tevel b’Tzedek, devote their time and energy to help the underprivileged independent. As the cliché goes, they do not hand out fish but teach how to build fishing rods. That they do in the name of Judaism and of the values of the Jewish tradition. I asked him to be interviewed for this blog and I was glad he agreed.

Odenheimer was born in Berkeley, California and is a graduate of Yale University. In 1984 and was ordained as a rabbi, and was a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In 1988 he immigrated to Israel, and since works, writes, teaches and lectures widely on social justice. As a journalist Micah covered topics of poverty, globalization and human rights in many countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Burma, Haiti, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia. He wrote for different newspapers, among these the Washington Post, The Guardian, London Times, The Jerusalem Rapport and Ha’aretz. He founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, one of the main organizations that assist Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, and still serves as a member of the Management Board. In 2006 he founded the Tevel b’Tzedek to encourage young Jews to take an active role in the fight for social justice globally.

Why and how did you found Tevel b’Tzedek?

I founded Tevel b’Tzedek out of a desire that had been brewing in me for a long time to find a way to connect Israelis, Jews and Judaism to what I saw as the greatest ethical challenge of our time—the marginalization and impoverishment of large parts of humanity in the age of globalization. I was exposed to the “two thirds world” for the first time when I travelled to Ethiopia in 1990 as a journalist to cover the story of the Ethiopian Jewish “Aliya”. I fell in love with Ethiopia, with the immediacy and magic that was alive there, but also was shocked by the vulnerability of the poor—the vast majority—vulnerability to disease, to hunger, to oppressive regimes. One piece of bad luck—almost inevitable—and people could lose everything, could lose so much.

I was there a lot during the course of the year 90-91, and had a kind of epiphany during Operation Solomon. The rebels had surrounded Addis Ababa, were waiting to enter. I had to decide whether to leave on the last plane of Operation Solomon or stay to cover the rebel entry, I was scared but felt I cared about Ethiopia, not just the Jews, so I stayed. So I started covering all kinds of stories after that—Somalia, Haiti, Burma, India, Nepal, even Iraq. It was at a time when globalization was in its fast track, after the end of communism, so everywhere I was seeing the results of neo-liberal economic globalization on the poor—the majority.

Micha being blessdI thought a lot about what Judaism’s social justice message was, and it pained me that Israel and Jews as Jews were not very involved with questions of social and economic justice on a global level, even though we were at the center of the global economy. It seemed to me that economic and social justice were at the center of Judaism’s concern, but were being largely ignored. In 2005 I went on a trip to India for 2 and a ½ months with my family; I witnessed the “humus trail”—all the Israelis in India and Nepal—and thought wow, maybe the love of Israelis for travel in the developing world could be leveraged in to something deeper. That’s when I began to think about creating something like Tevel b’Tzedek.

Who are the volunteers? Can you describe the typical Tevel volunteer?

Now we have three volunteer tracks. Our classic is a four month program, one month study and preparation, three months in the field. We do this twice a year. We carefully vet the candidates for this program—we always have many more than we can take. About 2/3’s of the 22 people we accept each cohort are post army, ages 20 to 25, and one third are post BA or MA, and in their late 20’s or early 30’s. ¼ to 1/3 are Orthodox Jews, although there are less of these now than there were earlier, and we want to get those numbers up again.

Many have backgrounds in youth movements, but it’s hard to stereotype. Many of the participants are from the left, but we also have settlers and people from the right. I would say that the profile for the four monthers is that they are idealistic, adventurous, and determined. We now also have one month programs, mostly for backpackers on their post army trip, and a ten month program, in both Nepal and Burundi, mostly but not exclusively for people post-BA. In this program, which we call the Fellowship, we have an equal number of "internationals"—Israelis and others—and locals, meaning Nepalese and Burundians, of equivalent education and experience to the internationals.

Where are the volunteers sent? And what do they actually do?

During the first few cohorts of 4 month volunteers, we provided the orientation period, which I a one month period of study, including study of Nepali language, Nepali culture, Judaism and Social Justice, globalization, economics and poverty, as well as some limited guidance in how to work in various fields. Now we have far more extensive preparation in what we are actually going to do. Then the volunteers were placed as interns in different local NGO’s, mostly in Kathmandu.

As our experience in Nepal grew, we began to develop our own model of work. We realized that we could do much more if, as an organization with boots on the ground, we could work towards long term goals. We saw that the poverty in the big city mostly emanated from the crisis of the villages—that many villages in Nepal and across the developing world were no longer capable of growing enough food to feed themselves for an entire year, because of population growth, degradation of the soil because of erosion and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, loss of traditional knowledge etc. People in the villages also knew that there were health and educational services in the city to which they had no access. But the basic issue is food. People started to get drawn out of the rural villages to the city, often to really bad situations. Food was something might be able to do something about.

We hired Dr. Bishnu Chapagain, an agronomist with a PhD in Plant Science from Ben Gurion University—he spent 11 years in Israel. He became the head of a growing Nepali staff, now about 35 in number, along with 6 Israeli staff. And we began to work in rural village areas, with an integrated, participatory approach—working in agriculture, education, with youth and with women. We base our work on agriculture, but are ultimate goal is to build up and strengthen the community and its leadership, because without strong, committed community groups, any resources we bring in to the area may be coopted by the strong families.

When we go to a village area, we stay there for 3 to 5 years, until we feel we have really had a transformational effect. We build youth groups—we actually have a youth movement that is active in all the areas we have worked in, and a women’s movement as well. All this is introduction to what the Tevel volunteers do. According to their experience, expertise, and desire they are assigned to work in agriculture, youth, education or women. They basically work together with the Nepali staff, planning strategy, activities, workshops, campaigns, building capacity, using their knowledge and experience together with the staff, which knows the language and culture of course, much better than the volunteers.

But the volunteers bring valuable knowledge—some are graduates of agriculture, education or social work programs, others have experience with youth movement, others bring experience in arts, photography, computers, engineering, etc. It’s a real balancing act, drawing out their contribution and their desire to innovate but at the same time making sure that our long term plans are the basic road map. The volunteers, for example, may teach teachers new educational methodologies, but we don’t have them standing in front of a classroom, unless it’s a demonstration or an after-school activity—we want to build the capacity and strength of the local teachers, not replace them.

In agriculture they work together with our agriculture staff—we now have six agronomists in addition to Bishnu—to create teaching farms and, together with the staff, to teach effective agricultural techniques. We also have a project in the city slums, working from the other end—with migrants from the village, helping them build community. We have a day care center, a youth center working with the youth movement, work with several schools, and with women’s group on health and microsavings.

I think we have developed a cutting edge methodology for development of communities. Its intensive and long term, and avoids many of what I see as the deadly mistakes of development—the idea that there is a quick fix, the notion that the business model, ignoring community, will do the trick, the giving of material resources without really deep understanding of context.

With our one year program, which takes people after BA or MA in a relevant field, creates a team of ten Israelis and other Jews, along with ten Nepalese or Burundians (we have just started working in a rural village area in Burundi, Africa). So each international has a national partner and they work together on the long term goals we have set.

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Judaism? Why is it being done in the name of Jewish tradition?  And wouldn’t the local population prefer it if what was being done was not in the name of Judaism?

Tevel was founded out of the belief that the vision of creating a just society is at the very spine of Judaism, and that we have a responsibility to be part of making this vision a reality in the world as a whole. In this we are following figures such as the Baal Shem Tov, who said that we have “arvut” with the nations of the world in the seven mitzvoth of Noach—which include justice—Rav Kook, Rav Ashlag, who speaks of Jewish global responsibility in the age of globalization, Heschel, Buber and others. To me if Jews and Israel are global in every other respect—in terms of what we eat and consume, how we invest our money, what companies we own, who tends to the needs of our aged and demented, who we sell arms to, and so forth, and in just one area—ethics—we are only “local”, עניי עירך, we are in the process of losing our soul.

Also, a lot of young Jews are turned off to Judaism because they see Judaism as turned inwards, unconcerned with the future of humanity, even though there are so many clear and urgent issues humanity has to address. Judaism contains this universal vision within it; to maintain its integrity, it must find expression within contemporary reality. I think that as a tradition, our desire to integrate the physical and the spiritual, not to devalue this world, is the mainstream. Of course, with much humility and the knowledge that many other groups, religions, peoples, also have much to contribute. As my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said: “We are building a house for humanity. We are building one wall, the Tibetans are building a wall, the Indians are building a wall, everyone is doing their own unique part.”

In terms of the villagers themselves, they learn that we are Jews, and Israelis but for them we are also just westerners, most of them have not even heard of Judaism, and we don’t preach Judaism to them, of course. But I have seen that our involvement in our own identity resonates deeply with the Nepali staff and perhaps with the villagers as well. Nepal, like nearly everywhere in the 2/3rds world, is a mosaic of tribes and ethnic groups. All of them, to varying extents, wish to still draw strength from a feeling of rootedness in their own tribe and heritage and also feel an overwhelming need to connect with the knowledge and power of the larger global context. They see our double commitment, to our own heritage and to shared issues of poverty and environment as an inspiration.

Continuing on this theme, how do connect "Tevel" to developments in Judaism today? Is this a new path in Judaism? A continuation of the Prophetic vision? An alternative to keeping the mitzvoth? Or what?

I think I have already said that at a time when the Jewish people are so empowered economically and culturally, are really in many ways at the center of globalization, if Judaism puts its head in the sand and evades the huge ethical challenges humankind faces, we are in danger of losing our soul. I see a deep need for young Jews to integrate their Jewish and global identities and to feel that these are not in conflict. I also see a need to revive the Jewish vision of social and economic justice that is at the very heart of the Torah and the prophets and which is also present in the Talmud, in the great sensitivity with which it understands human interrelations, social and economic.

As I have already said, I see Tevel as reclaiming the stance of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, Hillel Zeitlin, Shimon Federbush as well as Heschel, Buber and many others who were both deeply Jewish and also believed that the ultimate mission of Judaism was connected to promoting the wellbeing and redemption of humanity and the world as a whole. As Yirmiyahu said (in the name of G-d) about Tzedek u’Mishpat “Ki zeh ladaat oti”.

I come from an Orthodox background and my teachers were Orthodox, and I identify very strongly with the mastery of tradition, the commitment and the spirituality that I encountered among the great Orthodox teachers I have known. At the same time, I don’t entirely identity with Orthodoxy because I see Orthodoxy today as the notion that Judaism means Halacha. Thus meta-Halachic questions, especially questions that do not have to do with personal status or ritual observance, get ignored as if they are beyond the purview of contemporary Halacha.

I don’t think this is something totally new in Judaism, and certainly don’t see it in place of ritual practices or spirituality, or Torah study. But I do think Tevel and what it represents opens up a new horizon, and allows us to see the potency of the Biblical and Prophetic vision, of the Jewish vision. To take on the challenge of hunger and poverty in the global world makes Judaism more real, brings it down to earth—which I think also may have the capacity to pull more love and light down from heaven into our orbit as well.

Rav Kook (the father) says in Orot HaTechiya that Mashiach ben Yosef is the ingathering of the exiles, and Mashiach ben David is universalism, the next stage. Perhaps Tevel is a part of that next stage. Where it is going to go in the end? I am not really sure yet!

What is the connection between Tevel’s activities and the powers that be that are facing globalization, or at least the connection to understanding these powers?

I started travelling in the two thirds world just as globalization started to really speed up, with the fall of the Soviet Union. To me, the fact that the whole world is connected through this one economic system, that a bunch of commodities speculators in Chicago can make the price of food go up for struggling families in Kathmandu means that we all have responsibility for each other in a clearer way than ever before. I also think that it is has spiritual implications—to grasp human society—and nature as well, as we affect it through our economic activity—as a single whole, a single system, which we are constantly influencing and being influenced by.

We study globalization in Tevel, and we also have to think hard about our role in light of globalization. What does it mean for us to intervene in a village, even with the best intentions? What is our vision for rural villages? Is it legitimate for us to have a vision for rural villages? How do we assign power to our Nepali partners, to the villagers themselves? How does that meaning change when the village itself is in the process of breaking apart through migration to the cities or to the Gulf States in any case? What is the meaning of ethnicity in the age of globalization? All these are questions that come up all the time for Tevel. For me it is of great importance that volunteers come out of Tevel not just with the experience of having done something good and having a great experience, and not even just with having learned to bridge seemingly immense cultural gaps, but also with a new perspective that can penetrate the smoke and mirrors that makes the world seem as if it is just “happening” naturally rather than being shaped by political and economic forces which we can affect and change.

You were a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Is there a connection between the influence he had on you and Tevel b’Tzedek?

I would hope that yes, there is some connection, and that he would be proud of what I am doing. Shlomo said many times that Judaism and the Jewish world need to fix three things in this era: the relationship between men and women, between parents and children and between Jews and non-Jews. Even though he was a huge advocate of Judaism, a true believer in the greatness of the tradition, a witness for the huge power and spiritual achievements of both Hasidic and Litvish figures. it was a given for him that there were also holy people in other religions.

I would like to think that the same thing that attracted me to Shlomo also attracted me to the work I do now—that there is a special hashra’at hechina among the poorest populations living on the “margins” of modernity, in the “afar”. Shlomo also used to say “When human beings want a bridge to be built, they look for the person who knows the most about building bridges. When G-d wants a bridge built, s/he looks for the person who really really wants to build the bridge.” Shlomo gave me a lot of confidence in the power of desire, of the spirit, and I think that has given me the inspiration to do things I might not normally have done. Shlomo was also kind of anarchic, he did what he believed in. I hope I have learned that from him at least to some extent.

If we are already talking about Shlomo, do you think his legacy is being preserved properly today? What do you think would be good to "add on" in order to better walk the path he set out?

For me the biggest pull of Shlomo (besides his presence) was not his music, although I loved singing and davening with him, but his Torah. He was, in my opinion, an amazing interpreter of Hasidism. They say that the difference between the Ari and the Baal Shem Tov was that the Ari revealed the dynamic that was happening in the heavens, the process of the unfolding of the sefirot within the higher worlds and so on. The Baal Shem Tov showed how all this was happening within the soul of a person through his or her avodat hashem, prayer, meditation, etc. Shlomo, to me, added another dimension: he showed that even in the mundaneness of everyday life, in the midst of the “secular”, a depth dimension with a life of its own could be located, identified, could break our hearts.

Shlomo was a huge Talmid chacham and a hadshan who was able to explain profound concepts with seemingly simple metaphorical stories from all of our daily lives. His Torah, despite all kinds of books that lift quotes from his much longer talks and organize them around themes like the holidays or parshat hashavua, has not yet seen the light of day. Tens of thousands of hours of video and audio tape are being preserved, which is wonderful. But it’s crucial that the full transcripts be made available. I hope that in the end, his Torah will be received with the appreciation that his music is received today.

What is your vision for Tevel b’Tzedek? Where would you like to be in another 10 or 20 years?

There are a few directions in which I hope Tevel b’Tzedek will continue to develop over the next cade or two. I would hope that we would continue to develop and perfect our methodology for transforming rural villages into places of food, hope, knowledge and community—and that we also continue to work on building community in urban areas as well. Secondly, I hope we also begin to work as advocates, using our alumni and others, or a better world—not just showing an example but also pushing for macro level changes. And thirdly, I hope we manage to get some of the most creative Jewish minds, including rabbis, philosophers, writers, artists—involved in the struggle for a more just and beautiful world, involved in understanding how the depth of the Jewish tradition can light our way towards a new future for humanity.

Gandhi, Sartre, the Depths of Violence

Between the years 1893 and 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul”), was living in South Africa, and it is then he formed his personality and his political and spiritual path, becoming a social and spiritual leader. Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha In South Africa, recently published in Hebrew (Babel Press, tr. Matan Kaminer) was written about the struggles he led as a local labor leader of the Indian migrant worker community there. It was through these activities that Gandhi consolidated his non-violent struggle principles, which he called Satyagraha. Decades later he would use this path in the fight for Indian independence from British rule. In South Africa he uses Satyagraha to force the British imperialist machine to acquiesce to the demands of the local Indian laborers for fair treatment.

Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore

Satyagraha means “Holding on to truth”, and is a principle rooted in ancient Indian culture, and to which Gandhi gave a modern rendering. The idea is that the truth – which here is not just the facts as they are, but the proper deed, action according to one’s karma, preordained role and ego-less work – has a power of its own, and those who hold on to it steadfastly, even at the cost of personal suffering, are assured of victory. In fact, the suffering which the holder-on-to-truth is willing to accept is an integral part of this path: By internalizing pain and sorrow the individual gathers inner power which is translated into effective force with which to change the world. This is a force that derives not only from the righteousness of the individual’s moral position and not only from his or her ability to bring their interlocutor to recognize this righteousness. In the end it is also a super-natural power employed upon the world by one who is at once within it and outside of it, concurrently in the conditional field and the absolute field, charged with the fire of justice and endowed with the lever of absolute truth.

According to Gandhi:

Satyagraha is soul-force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul-force. […] not only has hatred no place in satyagraha, but it is a positive breach of its ruling principle. […] In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.

Gandhi led the Indian laborers in South Africa on various campaigns and time after time managed to force the British rulers to capitulate to his demands – without, as mentioned above, resorting to any violence whatsoever. Gandhi’s critics would claim that his method is only successful against an opponent capable of appreciating courage, nobility and fairness, an opponent like British colonialism and unlike one founded upon totalitarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. This is probably true, although one should keep in mind that Gandhi was perfectly willing to die for the truth he held, and to him this would not have proved that he had lost the struggle, but rather that he had upheld the truth to his death – a priceless achievement according to him.

Sartre with Che Guevara

In the preface to Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched Of The Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre brings a completely different approach to the struggle against oppression. Sartre states that the duty of the oppressed is but one: “to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power.” According to Sartre the irrepressible violence of the oppressed is “neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” For Sartre:

…no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom […] The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.

Like the pod of a thorny thistle about to burst, this text holds within it the seeds for several fertile post-colonial vectors currently eating away at the moral and ethical spine of various Western intellectual circles. Sartre not only shows tolerance for anti-colonial violence, but puts it on a pedestal, seeing its deployment as the personal realization of the occupied person, his final release. Sartre’s existentialism-is-humanism gives a license to kill anyone by any means, provided that the killer be in the midst of a struggle for political liberation. According to Sartre, en route to achieving political freedom the violent person will also achieve his or her own personal liberation, for he or she is fulfilling their duty and obligation toward themselves, indeed recreating themselves.

It is important to see that while Gandhi’s path is different, opposite in fact from that of Sartre, it aims at the same outcomes. Not only does Gandhi, like Sartre, wish to remove the yoke of the oppressor from the neck of the oppressed – that goes without saying – but like Sartre, Gandhi also sees the consolidation and liberation of the oppressed individual the essence of his struggle. The struggling individual, with his duties towards himself as well as towards the surrounding society, are at the heart of the liberation journeys depicted by these two thinkers, and they both forge an ethical framework within which the individual is supposed to act in order to realize his goal – which is to say, his self-realization.

In addition, note that for both violence is the axis around which one must align throughout his or her journey. For Gandhi violence is the weapon of the weak, the oppressor, and the ability of the oppressed to make him employ it unopposed, the ability of the oppressed to persevere in non-violence and the willingness of the oppressed to endure the oppressor’s brutality, are supposed to bring about a transformation on both sides: The oppressor will realize the immorality of his actions, whereas the oppressed, through his holding on to the truth, will enhance his moral image and gather power (political, and as mentioned above, super-natural as well). For Sartre it is incumbent upon the oppressed, in response to the oppressor’s violence, to retaliate in violence and destroy him. For Sartre, as well, a transformation occurs on both sides: “There remain a dead man, and a free man.”

The different directions to which the two thinkers point the violence – Gandhi inwardly, Sartre towards the other – are replications in miniature of divergent cultural directions in East and West (speaking in a schematic and simplified manner). Major schools of Eastern religions provide their adherents with a path of spiritual progression based on looking inward to the soul. The individual is required to direct his actions – or his refraining for various actions – towards a transformation that is mostly internal. On the other hand, the Western religions turn away from man, to a divinity that is inherently different from him. Here the individual is required to direct his actions towards the “complete Other”, the source of truth and good as far as he is concerned, to refrain from that which this supreme source forbids and to try to get closer to it, or become more like it, inasmuch as he can. While India and China will give us different kinds of “spiritual paths”, Rome and Israel will give birth to different ways to stand before heaven, to pray.

These two paths translate into a relationship with the violent element in life. While the West will use violence as part of the dialogue with the divinity – sacrifices, crusades, jihad – the East will teach itself to internalize violence, use it upon itself in various forms of asceticism and self-denial. As said, this division is highly schematic, and there are more than two ways to address violence in both hemispheres. But I think this division is well illustrated in the cases before us, of Sartre and Gandhi. Sartre turns outward to deal with the problem he encounters. Gandhi turns inward. Sartre is in a dialogue – that turns into a monologue. Gandhi is in a monologue, which is intended to produce a dialogue.

Gandhi’s and Sartre’s thinking, with the central place they accord to violence in the individual’s spiritual/existential journey, raises the centrality of violence in man’s search for meaning. We must note how different this idea is from our typical approach to violence as modern people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out how far mankind has come since the days when violence (along with sex) was a central means of religious ritual. Killing and intercourse were means to achieve intimacy with the divine. Through the offering of sacrifice and through sacred orgies the basic urges served as steps to the Gods.

A great change took place with the rise of religions which distanced the spiritual or sacred realm from the world and from nature. Upanishadic Hinduism, Buddhism, Rabbinical Judaism and then Christianity and Islam all turned the desire for violence into a negative thing, and violence itself into a necessary evil at best. Violence ceased to be a way to worship the divine, and sometimes turned in and of itself into a taboo, something forbidden (at least in theory).

After the Protestant revolution the West underwent another phase, in which violence became something despicable, a sin. In fact, in the modern perception we have become accustomed to writing off violence as nothing more than a malfunction, something that happens when proper order is upset – a nuisance. But if we recall the roots of the human attitude to violence, perhaps we can better understand what excites so many young people about violence, from brawls over football to enlisting in wars they have nothing to do with.

In his book Humanity, philosopher Jonathan Glover brings testimonies of soldiers (mostly Russian and American) who describe taking part in war as nothing short of ecstatic. Beyond the intensive activity and the blood-ties forged between the fighting men, the encounter with death – and with killing – placed the individual face to face with the yawning chasms of his soul. He quotes a Vietnam veteran who testifies that war

is for men at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off a corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.

One may wonder whether, in the course of our diligently cultivated bourgeois respectability we haven’t lost something, some direct contact with the underbelly of things, some deep intuitions regarding the forces that drive humans. We may have forgotten that they are not only the aspiration for freedom and goodness, but a yearning for the absolute, for life and death. Of course, these very sentiments were sounded from fascist throats in the early 20th century. They also mocked bourgeois refinement and glorified violence. I have no intention of joining them. I wish only to offer another vantage point on the desire for violence – and most certainly not to approve it.

Both Gandhi and Sartre, I think, treat violence with the respect it deserves, as a deep element around which various forces are arrayed in the human soul, as an essence in reality through our relationship with which we learn about ourselves – and about the truth. It seems to me that without denying many other reasons (religious, cultural, social, economic), only through such an understanding can we properly evaluate outbreaks of mass violence, be they in the West during the world wars, or these very days, in the Iraq of the ‘Islamic State’.

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Published in Hebrew on Makor Rishon newspaper.

Myth and Modernity: The End Point of Zionism

On June 10, 1967, just three days after Col. Mordechai “Motta” Gur had famously declared, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman said that Halakha (traditional religious law) forbade Jews to visit the site. Two weeks later, a leading Sephardi authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, stated that even flying over the site was forbidden. Following a similar note, the religious affairs minister at the time, Zerah Warhaftig, noted that, according to Halakha, the Third Temple has to be built by God. “This makes me happy,” he said, “because we can avoid a conflict with the Muslim religion.” The days Israel’s religious affairs minister was made happy by avoiding conflict are over.

My previous article (The Love-Hate Relationship Between Zionism and The Temple Mount) examined the transformation in the thinking of significant segments of the religious-Zionist movement about the Temple Mount. The change, which overturns the tradition with regard to visiting the site, stems from the strengthening of the national over the halakhic element, and by the infusion of a messianic eros, which did not realize itself under the old Gush Emunim paradigm. In short, the struggle for the land shifted to the Mount.

Still, we should consider all aspects of the national aspect of the modern yearning for the Temple Mount, as this longing is interwoven with the Zionist movement and modern nationalism on a number of levels.

First, in the simplest sense, the yearning for the Temple Mount and the Great Temple is a result of the concrete possibility of reaching it. Technically, that is, it is contingent on Israel’s establishment in the Land of Israel and on the conquest of Jerusalem. Thus, the practical possibility exists to change the physical reality to enable a new temple to be built.

Second, and more important, the desire to build the Temple is related to the desire – which also became a realistic possibility upon the modern ingathering of the exiles and Israel’s creation – to unite the whole Jewish people under one national-religious leadership. While during the ancient temple’s time the Jewish people were never united, never committed to the same place or form of worship, it is the imagined community of the modern nation state that ironically makes this presumably possible.

Ultimately, however, yearning for the Temple Mount and the Temple is intertwined with Jewish nationalism because it is the end point of Zionism – the point at which Zionism self-destructs. For Zionism, which proposed the secularization of Judaism and its conversion from religion to nationality, built itself on the ancient messianic scaffolding of the hope for the ingathering of the exiles. The ultimate goal of the Jewish messianic tradition was always to establish a kingdom, and the independent Jewish state definitely meets the initial conditions to that end.

However, the messianic myth also has as-yet unrealized conditions: Temple and king. The question, then, is whether secular Zionism could decide to halt its headlong dash on the messianic track at a particular point only because it would be less convenient to continue further.

This is not a question of government decisions or military capabilities, but about the internal logic of a particular ideology: whether the ideology can develop critical reflexivity and demarcate an internal boundary that entails a halt or change. Aditionaly, it is a question about the encounter between modern consciousness and the religious and mythical elements that are churning in its depths, between the modern, secular subject and the primeval religiosity that is embedded in its psyche and interwoven into its culture.

Dormant mythic seeds

This last issue, reflecting the explosive encounter between rationalism and mysticism, between secularity and religion, is almost taboo in the world of modern research. Nevertheless, it needs to be asked. In fact, if we believe that we do not possess a pure and immortal soul, and that our inner life reflects only a complex, integrated crystallization of genetic and cultural conditions, the question of their design is doubly important. For if we are in our essence not separate from this world and its material conditions, it follows that those conditions are what our psyche consists of, and, as such, determine its mode of existence and guide its path.

If we add the supposition that not only present-day culture, but also the entire course of history and development exert influence in shaping us, we can conclude that ancient cultural forces continue to reside within us, and that even if they have undergone various transformations and sublimations, they continue to guide our behavior in covert ways.

ScholemWas this not what the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, was referring to in his famous letter, in 1926, to the theologian Franz Rosenzweig? That was the gist of this “declaration of allegiance to our language,” as the letter became known, and that was its warning: that in the long term, it would not be possible to evade ancient residues latent within our culture.

According to Scholem, the renewed encounter with Hebrew and its innate sanctities was a “threat [that] confronts us [as] a necessary consequence of the Zionist undertaking … Will its submerged religious power not erupt one day?” He went on:

Each word that is not newly created but taken from the ‘good old’ treasure is full to bursting with explosiveness. A generation that inherited the most fruitful of all our sacred traditions – our language – cannot, however mightily it could wish, live without tradition … God will not stay silent in a language in which he is invoked a thousandfold back into our life … The revivers of the [Hebrew] language did not believe in the Day of Judgment, to which they destined us by their acts. May the recklessness which has set us on this apocalyptic path not bring about our perdition. [Based on published translations of the text by Gil Anidjar, Jonathon Chipman and Alexander Gelley.]

Scholem is talking about secularized Hebrew, but secular Zionism itself, with its project of ingathering the exiles and establishing a sovereign state, is no more than the secularization of the Jewish messianic tradition. Can it be the case that not only language but a national framework, too, can revivify dormant mythic seeds and allow them to flower?

‘Water of life’

In March 1936, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung published an essay about events in neighboring Germany. Jung viewed the rise to power of the Nazi Party as a process of mass psychological enthrallment. Indeed, as a surrender to ancient mythic forces that were repressed for thousands of years and now, as he watched, terrified, were returning to seize the consciousness of the Germans.

JungThe essay’s title, “Wotan,” indicates the primal source of the resurgent myth: Wotan was the god of storm, rage and war of the ancient Germanic tribes. For Jung, Wotan is not an autonomous heavenly entity, but a collective archetype implanted within the heart of a human community, a nation.

According to this viewpoint, German culture has never freed itself of Wotan, and the god’s patterns of existence are waiting to be realized in the culture’s forms of expression. According to Jung,

An archetype is like an old watercourse, along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel, the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.

Odin, Wotan's nordic parallel, 18th centuryAn archetype is a track, a pattern of thought and action. Like a neurological path in the brain, which steers the individual toward habitual actions, an archetype steers cultures toward actions which, even if forgotten later on, in the present, are faithful to their collective psyche, more available and inviting than other paths. Observing the rise of the National Socialists to power in Germany, their political posturing and the fascist aesthetic of their symbols and parades, Jung concluded that the old pagan god had recaptured the hearts of the Germans, casually brushing aside the Christian framework they had ostensibly assumed. "We are always convinced," wrote Jung,

that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political and psychological factors … I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all three reasonable factors put together … a god has taken possession of the Germans and their house is filled with a ‘mighty rushing wind.’

Without any desire to draw a demagogic comparison between present-day Israel and 1936 Germany (a baseless and deplorable comparison, of course), and even if one doesn’t subscribe to Jung’s overall approach (I certainly don’t) – his remarks invite us to reflect on the power of the cultural archetype in our contemporary context. According to Jung, an archetype acquires access to modern consciousness when the individual becomes part of the mass, or when he encounters a situation which resists standard treatment. Have Zionism and Israel reached that point?

Israel’s most intractable internal rivals

Like Scholem, Baruch Kurzweil – the Israeli literary and cultural critic – also discerned the danger of implosion created by the Zionist state’s sovereign rule over the Temple Mount. Back in 1970 he wrote,

The year 1967 confronted pragmatic Zionism, which can be only political and state-oriented, with its most critical decision … Zionism and its offspring, the State of Israel, which reached the Western Wall by the route of military conquest, as the fulfillment of earthly messianism, will never be able to abandon the Wall and forsake the occupied sections of the Land of Israel, without denying their historiosophic [philosophy of history, a term coined by Scholem] conception of Judaism. Pragmatic Zionism is caught in the web of its achievements. Abandoning them would mean admitting its failure as the voice and executor of Judaism’s historical continuity … It is inconceivable to halt the headlong rush of a messianic apocalypse in order to allow the passengers to get out and look at the spectacular views of the Day of the Lord.

KurzweilThese words remain startlingly relevant. Is it indeed the case that, apart from obvious practical obstacles, there is another reason, internal and inherent, that explains the enormous difficulty Israel encounters whenever it tries to retract its military achievements in that fateful war? Kurzweil is talking about the conquest of Judea and Samaria as a whole, but certainly the jewel in the imperial crown is Jerusalem, and its apex is the Temple Mount. We have reached the time when the State of Israel is faces a confrontation with them, its most intractable internal rivals. Its kryptonite.

In this regard, Kurzweil would say, Zionism is laid bare, stripped of the secular covering it assumed, its naked theological core revealed. Zionism grasps that it was always only an outer shell for traditional Judaism – more precisely, for the messianic tradition. Under the force of this revelation, its self-image crumbles and is voided of content.

Oedipus discovered that he was of royal lineage at the very moment of realizing that he had killed his father and slept with his mother. Zionism discovers that it is of religious lineage at the very moment when it conquers Judea, Samaria and the Temple Mount. Its underlying driving force of messianism is revealed, even as the Western liberalism it had imagined was its foundation is shaken.

At the same time, the Temple Mount also represents deadly internal logic for halakhic Judaism. Building a temple, completing the messianic tradition, will render halakhic Judaism obsolete. Those who yearn for a new temple dream of a pre-halakhic Judaism: the period of the priesthood, when blood was splattered on the horns of the altar. In the priestly paradigm, control is in the hands of a priestly caste that is centered not around schools of Torah study but around one temple; one that does not pray but sacrifices animals, does not seek God in holy actions and at holy times, but at one special holy site.

Chief Rabbinate sign forbidding entrance  to the Temple MountIndeed, the entire Halakha can be said to be a delayed-action mechanism of the messianic myth, or a vast jigsaw puzzle that is never completely assembled. The Temple is the last piece of the puzzle, and once in place it creates a whole picture that obscures the import of each separate part, each religious injunction. The fact that once there is a temple there will no longer be a Halakha is grasped, consciously or not, by the leading rabbis who oppose visiting the Temple Mount.

It was not by chance that Zionism sanctified the Western Wall nationally, and not by chance that the rabbinate did so halakhically: Both sides found it convenient to see the Mount but not to approach it. Until now, the halakhic consensus has spared Israel the need to address the possible realization of the myth that is churning in its depths, by curbing religious passions with religious force. But as Orthodoxy grows weaker and ethnic nationalism and Temple-driven messianism gain strength, the Israeli state must resort to the use of secular-bureaucratic tools to restrain the religious-mythic thrust. This is a formidable task for the state, as the messianic forces are dislodging it from its traditional course.

House of prayer for all

For all the reasons noted above, the myth cannot be simply repressed, still less annulled. (I am indebted to Prof. Haviva Pedaya for her assistance with this insight.) Zionism’s underlying political theology must be coped with directly and creatively. Secular Zionism’s practice of ignoring this, and its exclusionary attempts in regard to the Temple Mount – and in regard to the content of traditional Judaism as such – must end. In addition to the self-denial involved, this posture is allowing fundamentalist, antidemocratic forces to appropriate Judaism and, in the absence of an alternative, to attract those seeking an answer.

If, as I believe, Zionism is a true and authentic continuation of the Jewish tradition, it must posit a valid alternative to the narrow interpretation of the Temple as an altar around which a family dynasty of priests revolved. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, spoke of a modern temple as a kind of philanthropic international institution. However, we also need to consider a religious – and interreligious – center that will be responsive to the religious elements of the messianic vision. In fact, the myth itself allows us to propose this: “for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” as Isaiah [56:7] prophesies.

Understandably, this approach obliges respectful and close cooperation with the Muslim institutions that are traditionally responsible for the Al-Aqsa compound. To begin with, Israel’s leaders must make it unequivocally clear that Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine are an integral, eternal part of every skyline and every future vision for Jerusalem, and that the Muslims’ rights of worship will be upheld fully.

In addition, all talk supposedly hinting at the building of a temple in place of the Islamic holy places must be roundly condemned – that can be done only alongside them, preferably with them. Even though a joint arrangement seems far-fetched now, there is reason to hope that when the national component of the conflict is resolved, or on the way to resolution, the way will be opened to cooperation at the religious level.

Zionism is one of the most dazzling success stories of the 20th century, both pragmatically and conceptually. However, it has not properly addressed its religious core. And within it, at its center, the Temple Mount, which can no longer be a black hole of insignificance. This is the time to talk about it, to reinterpret it. And, as explained earlier, this is also in the interest of the halakhic clergy.

Beyond this, even if it were possible to build a temple without being plunged into a religious war with the whole Muslim world, a temple in its premodern sense would simply be a disappointment. It would be the end of the myth’s existence as a fruitful conceptual framework and the onset of its existence as a limited reality; the end of its existence as an erotic, creative force, and the start of its collapse into a caricature of men in white robes – a grotesquerie of blood, sweat and guts.

“An archetype is like an old watercourse, along which the water of life has flowed for centuries,” Jung says. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like watercourses in the Negev,” the famous Psalm prophesies. Both Jung and the psalmist draw a connection between the realization of the myth and the water that flows into the dry riverbeds of the desert.

At this time, many waters are again filling the dry riverbeds of our consciousness. The question is not how to block the waters; the question is how and where to channel them.

Published in Haaretz. This is the second of two articles on the subject of the Temple Mount. the first is The Love-Hate Relationship Between Zionism and The Temple Mount.


Tomer Persico

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