Posts Tagged 'Antisemitism'

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

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The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past

Earlier this month the Council of Europe (an international human rights organisation consisting of EU 47 countries whose decisions are of declarative force only) published an announcement regarding “children’s right to physical integrity”. In the announcement the Council came out against various form of intentional bodily harm to children, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, sex reassignment surgeries in inter-sexed children (something that deserves an article in itself), female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”), and male circumcision.

Of course, the last item on the list gave the signal for typical Jewish hysteria. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, declared (Heb) that this is a “new antisemitism”; the Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar, also thinks (Heb) it’s “antisemitism”; Dr. Eli Schussheim, Head of the Circumcision committee at the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Health, cried out (Heb) that it is “a plot to spiritually annihilate the Jewish People,” while Foireign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor ruled (Heb) that this is “Horrid ignorance, at best, or libel and religious hatred at worst”. Great job.

The debate concerning circumcision is rich with meaning and constitutes a rare intersection of diverse world-views and value-maps. This is why I find it fascinating not only due to its pragmatical angle (will the Jews of Europe be able to circumcise their sons or not, etc,), but because it teaches us about far-reaching social, ethnic and ideological processes underway in Western society. I have written before (Heb) about the post-humanist aspect of banning circumcision. Now I’d like to touch upon its political and ideological aspects.

To start, a few clarifications: Does circumcision inflict permanent damage to the male sexual organ? I believe so. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, incidentally, says otherwise, and that there is “no scientific criteria” according to which damage can be proved. I don’t understand him. It is clear to me that removal of the foreskin changes the way the male has sex, and not for the better. On the other hand, is the damage significant? I believe not. I happen to be a circumcised male myself and can attest that everything, thank god, works perfectly fine. So: Does this negligible damage justify banning it? I believe not.

But the damage is not the story. The damage caused to the baby (or the man he will be) is not at the heart of the decision by the European Council. Proof of this can be found in the fact that all those people seeking to ban infant circumcision will stand, vehemently even, on the right of any adult to circumcise himself (or acquire a sex change operation, or plastic surgery, etc,). So the cutting of the genitalia and the damage to the body are not, in themselves, the problem. What is? The problem is that the circumcision is done without the consent and free choice of the baby.

And this is definitely a problem. On the other hand, circumcision is done without the consent of the baby just as many things are done without his or her consent: He or she receives certain food and no other, lives in a certain place and no other, learns a certain language but not another, is sent to a certain kindergarten and school and no other, where he receives a certain education and no other. In addition, parents raise their children to believe in the existence of God / his only begotten crucified son / his special chosen people / the holy virgin / dialectical materialism / the hidden hand / an endless, meaningless universe.

All of the above, done without the consent of the baby and child, shape his life more significantly than the foreskin present or missing from his penis. Even if one believes that the removal of the foreskin causes not slight but severe damage to the sex organ (and this really is unsupported by science), the damage of a bad education is greater. Education is irreversible, just as learning a language, or having a childhood in general. What our parents gave us will accompany us for the rest of our days. Therefore, there is no sense in legally banning circumcision, unless we intend to also ban raising children according to beliefs we don’t like.

Circumsision in ancient Egypt

Human Dignity

But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s say we have shown that focusing on circumcision and ignoring education, beliefs and so on is somewhat inconsistent, perhaps even dishonestly so. I wouldn’t want to defend circumcision just by showing its opponents to be hypocritical. I would like to positively explain why it is important to allow those interested to maintain the ceremony, through an ethical argument stemming from the matter itself. In order to do so I would like to more closely examine the matter of free choice. In other words, why is it a problem that the baby cannot choose to be circumcised? Why are consent and free choice so important to us? A worthy question, is it not?

So. why does free choice attain an almost sanctified position in our eyes, to the point where liberals and libertarians will insist on the rights of perfect strangers to do drugs or sell themselves as prostitutes as long as they truly chose to do so? I think it is so important to us because free choice, our autonomy, our use of will, our freedom to decide one way or the other – all these are essential things that define us, that ground our identity and our dignity, our self regard.

In other words, one of the sources of our own identity nowadays is our free will, and this is why it is considered almost sacred. So much so that we are willing to give up values we care about, and feel unpleasant, just so others can express their free will (up to a point, of course).

Now, here’s something interesting: for many people, even today, religious beliefs, religious traditions and the right to chose them and act upon them are also among the things that define them, their identity and their self-regard. One’s religious faith is among the essential parts of his or her inner life. Therefore, he or she greatly desires to be allowed to live by it and express it. This is also why he or she will sometimes be willing to die for it.

This is not new, but what is new is that in our era liberal democracy recognizes the importance of faith (or lack thereof) to the individual, and therefore insists on religious freedom within its boundaries, letting everyone express their belief – or disbelief – allowing no religious or ideological coercion. Because our religious – or agnostic, or atheistic – persuasions are such an important part of what defines us, what constitutes our identity and dignity, religious freedom is so important to us, and is protected by liberal democracy.

Back to circumcision. When we approach the matter, it wouldn’t be right to weigh freedom of choice against unjustified bodily harm. In such a case obviously we would uphold choice and forbid the bodily harm, even if negligible. But we need, for a moment, to enter the mind of the upholders of tradition. If we take their faith seriously, and we must, we see that there are highly important values on both sides: on the one hand, freedom of choice, denied to the baby; on the other, religious and communal identity, given to him by parents allowed to do so. This is part of the package his parents wish to bequeath unto him, to bring him up by. This is part of the elements of their identity, their self-respect. It’s an essential part of themselves, no less than their free choice. So if we see it thus, both sides of the debate carry values it is important to all of us to preserve.

And now we must decide – which of the two tips the scale? Had the harm to baby been severe, or the social/ethical context been oppressive and degrading (degrading and oppressing what? The very same human dignity we’re trying to defend; the very same human dignity for which we also defend freedom of expression!), then I would think that banning it is justified, even at the cost of denying the parents their freedom of religion.

Is this the case? I think not. I don’t think infant circumcision is problem-free. Definitely not. But I think one can say that in the end the harm done is limited, and the context non-oppressive, and therefore I don’t think that freedom of choice justifies banning the action, which represents such an important element in the lives of those believing in its religious significance. Why? Because it assaults their dignity and the essential values of their lives no less, and I believe far more, than un-chosen circumcision harms the baby’s self-regard.

One more small thing: there’s no point in yelling that there is no god. We will not decide for others what to believe. We will in fact accord them the freedom to believe as they choose, and keep whatever tradition they see fit (within certain boundaries, of course, not to be discussed here). And we require that in the name of their faith or tradition our own freedom of choice would not be limited, nor harm done to our beliefs or the values at the basis of our world-views and self respect.

Isaacs Circumcision as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany 1300

Europe

So what’s up with these Europeans? First of all, I do not believe antisemitism is involved here (the enthusiasm with which it is thrown into every discussion is pathetic). The motive is something else entirely: What we have here is high moral sensitivity (which can be observed in the spread of vegetarianism and veganism – note that the opponents of circumcision also express a worthwhile moral principle and motivation), along with an anti-clerical, anti-theistic tendency, prevalent in current-day Europe, mixed with some confusion.

The spirit of the French revolution is returning, wishing to cleanse the land of religious manifestations. It focuses on acts and attire because that is much easier than banning beliefs. The Council of Europe also spoke about piercing and so on, but we should monitor whether the places that are advancing actual legislation to ban circumcision are also moving to bar parents from piercing their children’s ears or allow them to have tattoos. If not, this is a sign that what the legislator is annoyed at is not the damage to the body, but the impetus to the damage, in our case religious belief. This is, therefore, an attempt to harm the religious freedom of Europeans.

But wait, aren’t there things we’ll ban even though banning them would harm religious freedom? Of course there are. For instance, female genital mutilation. And why? Because by and large it entails much (much) greater damage to the genitalia, and even more importantly, because the context (as I mentioned before) is utterly different: in the case of male circumcision, it is about acceptance of the boy to the community, an enhancement to his dignity and to his social importance. Female circumcision is part of an array of means to suppress woman and control her body; it reduces her dignity and her social standing.

One of the articles on the matter in Hebrew noted that “many of the delegates supported amending the motion so that it won’t include a mention of the parents’ religious rights.” I believe this is the story. The attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights. And I find this astonishing. It’s astonishing because by doing so Europe denies its roots. Not its religious roots, but its democratic ones, since the formation of European democracy was based among other things on recognition of the essential place held by religious beliefs in the individual’s life and with the intent of enabling individuals of differing religious beliefs to live together. Religious pluralism – stemming from deep recognition of the value of religion – was one of the building stones of European democracy (although less so than the American version, and not at all in revolutionary France). Therefore these testimonys (and one can add the French “Burqa Law” here) of denying this heritage mark an interesting process.

Jesus's circumsision, Master of Tucher Altarpiece, 15th century

Please note: All of the above is critique of a proposed law banning circumcision. I have nothing against people trying to persuade others not to perform the procedure, and therefore of course nothing against people, Jews included, who do not wish to perform it. I am speaking here only of the right of those who do want, out of traditional-religious considerations, to perform it.


Tomer Persico

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

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