Posts Tagged 'democracy'

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.

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.

Untying the knot: Rethinking the Israeli Rabbinate’s Laws on Marriage

"Safa Ahat Udvarim Ahadim: Iyyunim Bemishpat Vehevra" ("One Language and One Set of Words – Studies in Law, Halachah and Society"), by Pinhas Shifman. Shalom Hartman Institute, Bar-Ilan University and Keter Publishing House, 336 pages

book coverAt the beginning of his (failed) campaign for the position of the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi David Stav published a large paid advertisement in the national-religious daily Makor Rishon. In it, he cited some "shocking facts," as he put it: In recent years, about one-third of all secular couples got married abroad so as not to come in contact with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Among them are people who do not accept or do not like the rabbinate’s marriage procedures, and also members of quite a large group of citizens (about 400,000 ) who are not allowed by law to marry in this country, as the Jewish bona fides of at least one member of the couple are questionable in the eyes of the rabbinate.

Forcing certain procedures based on Halakha (traditional Jewish law ) upon the citizens of Israel is therefore ineffective in two respects: It distances Jews who for various reasons are interested in a civil or different type of religious ceremony, and it is not available to citizens whom the rabbinate does not recognize as Jews. On the other hand, there is concern among the religious authorities that various types of civil marriage agreements will lead to a split among the Jewish population, as the religiously observant will not be prepared to enter into marriages with nonobservant Jews or their descendants.

In his new book, Pinhas Shifman attempts to suggest solutions to this complex situation. Shifman, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University faculty of law, has written numerous books and articles about family law in Israel. A special report he prepared (together with Avishalom Westreich ) for the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought on the issue of the possibility of civil marriage in the country was, for example, published (in Hebrew ) in March. He is, therefore, exactly the right person to confront this subject.

In the second part of the book in question, Shifman goes into what could be called the "intra-religious" issue because, in his opinion, it is necessary to deal with the difficult problems created vis-a-vis the wedding ceremony due to Orthodox Halakha. Even if secular Israeli Jews are given the opportunity to marry as they see fit, the religiously observant will still have a problem because they have no other options because of their beliefs. Shifman fears that enabling civil marriage would in fact encourage rabbis and rabbinical court judges to ignore the moral difficulties inherent in the halakhic wedding ceremony as it stands today – that is, "anyone who doesn’t want to [get married this way] doesn’t have to and anyone who sees himself as obligated [to do so] can suffer in silence."

Not Just a Civic Matter

Specifically, Shifman is worried about this tendency because it leaves in place certain injustices that exist in Halakha. Issues like agunot (wives whose husbands will not grant them a get, or bill of divorce ), extortion on the part of husbands in delaying the get, and in general the inequity in traditional Jewish marriage rituals which are being ignored and remain unresolved. Even among poskim (rabbinical arbiters ) who are actually concerned about agunot and other women who suffer ill treatment by their husbands – dealing with such problems for the most part boils down to attempts to circumvent them by finding flaws in the particular ceremony from the halakhic perspective and nullifying it retrospectively.

Such ploys demonstrate the problematic nature of the Orthodox marriage ceremony, which turns out to be a stumbling block for the Jewish woman. This is a terrible reality, in the author’s opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that "the more people refrain from behaving in accordance with Halakha, the better off they will be and the less they will suffer." When Shifman moves on to various suggestions for changing nuptial arrangements for couples, he tries to take into account not only the suffering of secular Jews who are subjected to religious laws in which they have no interest, but also the pain of men and women who are religiously observant and are subjected to a rabbinical law in which they are interested, but which is also characterized by a cruel and insulting lack of justice.

The Possible Solutions

He brings up various possibilities for altering the existing situation, each with its own inherent problems. In addition to the most meager of the possibilities, which would in general permit marriages only between two people who are not presently allowed to marry each other under Halakha – Shifman examines the possibility of allowing civil marriage alongside marriage as per religious law, so that each couple would be able to decide in which manner, via which establishment, they want to seal their marital covenant. The disadvantage would be open competition between these two establishments, which is liable to lead to alienation on the part of the religious public. Moreover, this approach would exacerbate the problem of agunot and women whose receipt of a get is being delayed, since religiously observant couples who marry under the auspices of the rabbinate would be subject to Halakha and thus not be able to seek help from the civil court.

Another possibility Shifman mentions, which prevails in some European countries, is a uniform civil law for everyone. In this case the state is perceived as responsible for proper civic order and marriage by means of state authorities is the only valid marriage. Citizens who are interested in marrying in a special ceremony are respected and are married by, for example, their rabbi, minister, spiritual leader etc. In a situation like this, ostensibly there is no competition between civil and religious law, and divorce is also egalitarian because even religious women are in general protected by the state.

The Malicious Combination of Halakha and Bureaucracy

If a woman who has been married in a Halakhic ceremony gets divorced only via a civil procedure and then remarries – her children from her latest marriage become mamzerim (or, bastards; in Halakha, that is what a child is called who is born to a woman who is still married ac cording to religious law, and fathered by another man who is not her husband ). This possibility might precipitate the usual threat by Orthodox Jewry to construct lists (or "family trees" ) of names, in order to ensure that all those who marry by civil law and their descendants would be prohibited from marrying anyone who is religiously observant.

However, Shifman notes that even today millions of nonreligious Jews in the United States, for example, choose to marry according to civil law and, of course, also divorce that way, and no one is talking about shunning all American Jews – i.e., not marrying them. In the author’s opinion, this problem, like others, requires "broad emendation of regulations in Halakha that will provide a universal and principled solution." And once again he criticizes the lack of interest on the part of today’s halakhic arbiters in investigating thoroughly and eventually changing what needs to be changed in traditional Jewish law.

The matter of bastardy demonstrates a problem unique to our times, which has not been accorded a solution by that law. In the past, a Jew suspected of bastardy, or an aguna or a woman whose bill of divorcement is being delayed, could possibly, in their distress, move to another Jewish community where nobody knew them and build a new life. But our era, in which when everything is registered, documented and computerized, does not allow for reasonable doubt as to an individual’s identity, doubt that in other periods sufficed to qualify a person for marriage (from "a family that has been accepted … is accepted," Tractate Kiddushin 70-A ).

Rabbi Joseph di Trani (1538-1639 ), known as the Maharit, also ruled to the effect that, "Anyone who knows of a flaw [vis-a-vis] someone’s marital eligability is not permitted to reveal it, but will leave it as if it were kosher." This points to the malicious combination of Halakha and bureaucracy that is unique to the modern era.

Nor does Shifman spare criticism when it comes to secular Israeli Jews who seek to institutionalize civil marriage. His treatment of court rulings that equate single-sex couple relationships to marriage is fascinating, and dwells on the question of the secular insistence on using the term "marriage," which he says expresses a definite religious and traditional institution, while attempting to foment a radical change – via the courts – in its original meaning.

Morality, Religious and Natural

Finally, Shifman examines local rulings that have led to equating the rights of common-law partners to those of married people. He discusses in detail three rulings by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who, in a sophisticated way helped to wage a quiet revolution with respect to personal status in Israeli law. Thanks to his efforts, the court recognized and legitimized marriages undertaken by Israeli citizens abroad – initially with respect to couples who in any case could have married in the country, and subsequently with respect to couples who could not have married here legally (one case involved a Jewish man who married a Christian woman ) – and finally marriages involving single-sex couples. In this way marriage abroad finally became the semi-official (if expensive ) way of entering into a civil marriage in Israel.

The first part of Shifman’s book deals with an artificial distinction between Halakha and morality, based on the idea that God’s commandments should be the sole basis for understanding what is good and what is evil, and any consideration external to Halakha constitutes a surrender to the liberal fashions of our times. The clinging to a specific religious precept, even if it may be illogical or in direct contradiction to one’s conscience, is considered by the believer to be a courageous effort to abide by the word of God and creates the desired experience of "authenticity." But Shifman shows that such a perception itself quite a new phenomenon and its primary framer in Israel was none other than the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (and in the United States, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik ). He reminds readers that without an independent sense of morality, which is not connected to Halakha per se, lofty concepts of the sages like lifnim meshurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law ), derekh eretz (common courtesy ) and darkei shalom ([toward] a peaceful way ) become meaningless.

The same holds for the concept of naval bereshut hatorah (roughly, "a Torah pedant but a scoundrel" ), attributed to Nachmanides in the 13th century, and comments by Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (1817-1893 ) condemning "righteous men and hasids" who are not "honest in the ways of the world." The halakhic tradition itself is full of examples of the influence of natural morality on the law.

Shifman criticizes Leibowitz’s approach, which aims to protect the primacy of Halakha by disengaging its precepts from the daily, transient world, that also disconnects it from reason and the heart. According to Shifman, this approach has trickled down, in fact, into the ranks of Gush Emunim (the religious movement for settlement in the territories ), Leibowitz’s major ideological rivals: Shifman quotes remarks by settler Rabbi Shlomo Aviner that purport to be based on the views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935 ), but are really very similar to those of Leibowitz. In fact, it was Kook who said fear of heaven that ignores natural morality "is no longer pure fear of heaven."

Shifman’s criticism is also rooted in principle since it holds that "the existing richness of a plethora of sources and opinions in Halakha sharpens even further the conclusion that it is impossible to imagine a ruling in which the arbiter discounts the personal element – that is, a ruling that is not affected by the arbiter’s own value judgment."

In other words, there is no rabbinical law that is not born out of a certain moral position. From within this insight Shifman attacks the imperviousness of many rabbis toward women who are unable to receive a get, people who are deemed bastards and other individuals whose "credentials" as Jews are in question. He accuses such authorities of doing nothing, and writes: "A claim that a rabbinical sage is unable to be of help because it is not within his reach is very often a political decision in disguise that allows him to avoid dealing with the difficult questions of values underlying that decision."

Shifman’s book is a sharp indictment of the dissembling sanctimony of the Orthodox rabbis of our day and the fact that they cling to so-called Halakha as an excuse for standing still and stagnating. It’s not that they can’t do anything, they simply don’t want to. It’s not a matter of impotence, but rather a values-based stance. In a reality in which many couples shun the offices of the rabbinate, Shifman’s book is timely. His treatment of issues in family law in Israel is learned and profound, and his criticism of the situation of rabbinical rulings in our day, criticism that comes from within the world of Torah and Halakha, is sharp and precise. The associates of the new chief rabbi who will be selected in a few months’ time would do well to bring Shifman’s book as a gift on the occasion of his appointment.

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Published in Haaretz on 29.3.13

A TRULY Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

Moshe FeiglinThe last elections in Israel introduced many new faces to the Knesset, among them Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin heads a group called ‘Jewish Leadership’ and has for the past dozen years attempted, unsuccessfully up untill now, to be elected in the Likud Party’s primary elections in a high enough spot in order to become an MK (Jewish Leadership, however, was able to assist the candidacies of some of the Likud’s most hawkish members of Knesset, among them Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely). Now he has succeeded.

Feiglin is by any judgment one of the most methodical and principled thinkers in Israel’s right wing camp, and an effort to comprehend his thought is in order. Below I will attempt an examination of Moshe Feiglin’s concept of the democratic regime. I stress this is an attempt, as Feiglin did not write about it at length, and on the other hand  there are writings of Feiglin’s I haven’t read yet. What makes it easier for me to position Feiglin’s political-civic stance is the fact that he has referred to the issue specifically.

For instance, in the chapter (containing several articles) titled “The Jewish State – Democracy and regime” in his 2005 book, “The War of Dreams” (Milkhemet Ha’Khalomot) Feiglin writes about democracy that:

As I see it, democracy is but a method for changing government without violence. Several other values are attached: The freedom of expression, for instance, the equality before the law, and the separation of powers. But all is fluid, all is flexible, all is under whim of those who shape the term “democracy” to fill their needs. (“Democracy or Greater Israel,” 26.1.1998, p.464)

Feiglin is of course correct about the flexibility of the term “democracy.” Different states have used it in very different ways, and I hope it’s needless to point out that the Poplar Democracy of [North] Korea bears little resemblance to the liberal-constitutional democracy of the U.S. On the other hand, obviously, a democracy based on basic rights of its citizens, such as the freedom of expression and the separation of powers, is not truly subject to the whims of its rulers. That, after all, alongside other principled differences between versions of democracy which I’ll point out, is the crux of the issue.

Feiglin continues to explain his position:

If the land of Israel was truly a supreme national value for you, you’d understand that democracy has to fit the country, not the country democracy […] The State of Israel was created for the Jewish people, and its democracy is supposed to serve the Jewish people. If this state acts against the interests of the Jewish people, there is no longer any point in its existence, be it democratic or not. […] They [the Arabs] will never, never be fully equal citizens, in the national sense of the word. (Ibid., p. 465)

The picture becomes clearer: according to Feiglin, democracy has to fit the country, or rather the people living in it. When it comes to the State of Israel, this is the Jewish people, and hence democracy has to serve “the interests of the Jewish people.” That is why, for instance, the Arabs residing in the country have no chance at equal status, since they are not a part of the people that the democracy is supposed to serve.

No possibility of choice

What sort of a democracy serves a specific people, not universal principles? Of course, this is a popular democracy, known in its more mild versions as communal democracy. This version of democracy is principally different from liberal democracy. Feiglin, who is certainly well-read and learned, knows this well, and expressly differentiates between liberal democracy and communal democracy, only the latter of which he supports:

There are several views on democracy, out of which I’ll examine two: one liberal and the other communal. The liberal tradition supports a position based on one measure. It considers it to be a universal position, which is not biased towards other cultures, other values, other traditions. It believes in the values of equality and freedom of the individual, while the state is intended to serve the individual alone. The state in itself has no purpose, and it does not exemplify the values of its society.

The other view is communal. According to it, the person requires social-consciousness in order to reach self-knowledge, and only through this process does he come to know his views on morals and values. The community, therefore, is of the highest importance, and through it the person identifies with his country. The community and the state have an important role in the development of the values and the identities of the citizens. By this view, democracy is a form of government which allows the basic values of society to be expressed. Every society whose core values are freedom values can and should be democratic, but it must “fit the lid to the pot”– fit its democracy to its unique character and values.

A communal democracy sees the individual as an organic part of the community, to the point that, on its own, she or he cannot fully express themselves, regarding both their full potential and their freedom. Only by recognizing the reciprocal ties between themselves and the society around them, and – of no lesser importance – by becoming a living part of the surrounding society with its unique values and cultural characteristics, can the individual reach self-knowledge and thereby live a life worth living. Contrary to the liberal basic assumption, which discerns a tension between the demands of the community and individual rights, this concept sees in accepting communal values the only way to realize true individual autonomy.

The goal of communal democracy is the betterment of man. This is a goal liberal democracy doesn’t dare to actively promote, as it is obviously an act toward a specific ethical direction, and as such one in the course of which it will have to determine decree between conflicting values (such as freedom and equality) and cancel others (such as the freedom of religion). Communal democracy directs the individual towards a certain direction, reached allegedly through the common values of the community or even the whole nation; thereby it perfectly expresses the “will of the people.” According to this concept, every political system which will express the will of a community or a people is, by definition, democratic towards that community or people, no matter how totalitarian, illiberal or draconian its laws may be.

“The rule of the people” reaches its summit here, not because the regime allows each individual to make its own choices, but because the regime expresses the essential will of the people, with no possibility of choice. To a large degree, this democracy lacks representation, because the rulers do not represent the will of the people, but express it, or even become it and actualize it (in the same way the Fuhrer was the will of the German people, and each of his actions was the action of the Aryan nation). We are not dealing with the total sum of the wishes of the individuals of a nation, but with the essential will of the people as an organic entity, with the inner and deep expression of the people as a personality. On the other hand, liberal democracy is a representative democracy, which does not try to pave a certain ethical road, but only to maintain basic moral principles. Liberal democracy tries to create the conditions in which the citizens would be free to try and better themselves, to the best of their own knowledge, every little community in its own way.

A truly Jewish identity

According to its principles, a communal democracy has no place for different communities in the same state, since the state is wholly formed according to the values of one community. For this reason, “the Arabs” have no voting rights in Feiglin’s Jewish state (“Israeli citizenship to Jews only […] the immediate expulsion of any person of another people who claims any sort of sovereignty in the Land of Israel” – Ibid., p. 436).  This state acts on the collective values of Judaism which I imagine Feliglin derives from his own interpretation of Judaism. These values express in the most perfect way the will of the nation, and of course direct each of its sons and daughters towards their own fulfillment. It is possible Feiglin thinks only such a realization will promise true freedom to the individual, and hence to the community as well. As the title of the article quotes above notes, the Israeli democracy can be democratic only because it is Jewish.

Which is why the Jewish democracy may not retreat from the occupied territories:

The debate over the Land of Israel is not a territorial or a security one. The question of national identity is expressed today through the Land of Israel. Those who wish to get rid of territories are actually asking to disengage from Jewish identity. ‘The Jews have defeated the Israelis’, said Shimon Peres to Haaretz in an interview after losing [the 1996 elections] to Netanyahu. The debate between those who hold and those who wish to let go is the debate between those who hold to their Jewish identity and those who wish to disengage from it and replace it with a new Israeli identity. The process of the Disengagement [from the Gaza Strip – T.P.] is a process of forcing the new identity on the majority of the people. Hence, essentially, it must lead to a dictatorial reality, as indeed happens. Only an Israeli state living in harmony with its Jewish identity, a state intended to serve this identity instead of fighting it, only such an Israel can also be truly democratic. (Ibid., emphasis in the original).

According Feiglin’s model, maintaining hold of territories is not a question of security but a question of identity. A truly Jewish identity can be realized only through the holding of any occupied territories in the Land of Israel. Those, on the other hand, who wish to return such territories are trying to sabotage Jewish identity and replace it with “a new Israeli identity.” These are people like Shimon Peres and apparently also Arik Sharon, who carried out the “disengagement” from Gaza. We are speaking, of course, of leftists. That explains why in Feiglin’s view “the deep aspect of [the] Oslo [process] is a trend of assimilation, of ‘becoming integrated in the [middle east] region’” (Ibid., p. 454). And, indeed, according to Feiglin, the strategic goal of the left is to obfuscate and make us forget our Jewish identity (Ibid., p. 504).” Oh, well, perhaps this is related to the fact Feiglin thinksthe left is not a movement of life and emancipation. It is an ideology based on the aspiration of death” (Ibid., p. 29).

Note the principled basis behind those harsh statements: A communal democracy represents the essential will of the people. Hence, any person objecting to the actions of the state is ipso facto not truly of the people. Actually, it is almost impossible to criticize government in a communal democracy, because such criticism automatically excludes the critic from the community of citizens the government represents, and therefore also from the community of citizens entitled to its protection and to civil rights. For, how can a loyal citizen criticize the actions of a government representing his will? If his will is different from that of the government, he is certainly not a loyal citizen.

Such disloyal citizens are either foreigners, i.e. not members of the people; or they are members of the people, but ones needing re-education. One may recall the fate of such citizens from “popular” regimes in the past. In the Israeli case, even today left-winged people are sometimes reffered to as Erev Rav or Amalek, derogatory religious terms signifying traitors within or simply entities who are pure evil. This kind of people undermine the expression of the will of the people, the same will which can be assumed is known to Feiglin.  This is why, in Feligin’s “One Hundred Days Plan” (Hebrew) the Ministry of External and Internal Security will “be in charge of all the issues of security, acting against the enemies of Israel, foreign and domestic. An enemy of Israel is one who wishes to destroy it, either physically or essentially, as a Jewish State.” Anyone who supports a return of the occupied territories endeavors, as we’ve seen, to essentially destroy the Jewish State, first and foremost “essentially”. In Moshe Feiglin’s regime such dissidents will be dealt with by the Ministry of External and Internal Security.

Roots of the  popular democracy

It is not my intention to defame the communitarian idea; I am, in many ways, a communitarian myself, and as such I am a student of such great scholars as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre and others. It is clear, however, that these thinkers do not dream of erecting a regime remotely similar to what Feiglin plans. There are several forms of communal democracies, some more totalitarian, some less. I don’t know where precisely Feiglin stands on this scale, even though the quotes above cloak his vision of a communal democracy with a very distinct odor. As previously mentioned, on the extreme scale of the communal democracy we speak of the same model under which all those “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc acted.

The French National Assembly. Click for source and enlarged view.As is well known, the origins of the concept that the regime acts under the “will of the people” derives from Rousseau, and from him it reached the Jacobins during the French Revolution and many of dictatorships of the 20th century. The idea is that the regime, though tyrannical, is not immoral, since it is perfectly expresses the will of the people. We can see this clearly from the decisions of the National Assembly under the revolutionary regime in France. Article Six of the constitution written by the Assembly in 1791 says that “the law is an expression of the common will,” and Article Five says that the natural rights of man by be abrogated by law. To wit, if the common will of the people is to limit the rights of the individual, there’s no principle problem here.

When the Assembly wrote the constitution, its members were thinking of the American Declaration of Independence, which stated that the rights of people are “unalienable” (which today means “inalienable.”). The United States created, by a long and painful process, a liberal democracy, where human rights cannot be ignored even if the majority desperately wants to, and even if someone thinks this is the “common will” of the people. France saw the creation of a Jacobin democracy, under which the rights of the individual can be cast aside in the name of the popular will, and its murderousness is notorious to this day. As soon as the popular will can abolish human rights, we have nothing more than a tyranny of the majority, or, in most cases, the tyranny of an individual who claims to understand the will of the majority.

Mao representing the will of the people. Click for source and enlarged view.As noted, that same idea served as inspiration to the “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc. In a famous speech in 1949, Mao Zedong contrasted “bourgeois democracy,” Western democracy, with China’s popular democracy (which he calls The People’s democratic dictatorship, since he recognizes the tyranny of the people towards the reactionary elements standing in its way). Mao thanks Marx and Lenin for formulating the theory which allowed China to move from a bourgeois democracy to a popular democracy, which brought “socialism and communism” and “a world of Great Harmony.” According to Mao, the true will of the masses is equal to the will of the proletariat, and it expresses the perfect society. He states that:

All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people’s democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right. […] The right to vote belongs only to the people, not to the reactionaries. […]The foreign reactionaries who accuse us of practicing “dictatorship” or “totalitarianism” are the very persons who practice it. They practice the dictatorship or totalitarianism of one class, the bourgeoisie, over the proletariat and the rest of the people. […]The people’s democratic dictatorship needs the leadership of the working class. For it is only the working class that is most farsighted, most selfless and most thoroughly revolutionary.

Replace “reactionaries” by Arabs or Leftists, replace “the working class” by Jews, and suddenly, there isn’t much of a difference between the leftist Marxist-Leninist tyranny and the right-wing nationalistic-Judaistic tyranny. It’s clear, anyway, that a popular democracy is not a traditional Jewish idea, but rather a modern Western one.

When safeguards become obstacles

As Feiglin himself noted, the failure of liberal democracy comes from insisting on the protection of principles it considers universal – precisely those human and civil rights, those difference freedoms and equality before the law. In a liberal democracy they must be guarded above all. In a popular democracy they are considered to be foreign principles of Western bourgeoisie, “Christian morality” or liberal soft-heartedness, and ignoring them is not only possible, but is necessary. This point cannot be overstated: In every democratic regime, there will be a conflict between the will of the majority and the rights of the individual or minority. In such cases, popular democracy will always prefer the will of the majority, and a liberal one – the rights of the individual.

For instance, if we think the right of a person over his body is absolute, then even if the majority decrees otherwise, he may not be raped. If we think a person’s right over her property is total, even if the majority says it should be taken from her, there is no permission to do so. These are the human rights embedded by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, following the lessons learned from the horrors of fascism. These are the same rights invoked by the opponents of the Gaza Disengagement, when they argued even a government decision cannot, in a democratic country, evict people from their homes.

Lord Acton, the same one who taught to us that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote that in a popular democracy:

The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people.

A final word. I have no doubt that Feiglin is sure that the communal-to-popular democracy he wishes to found not only will not be tyrannical, but would create a model society. I believe he is certain the Jewish people will express its will in a much more decent and better way than the failed experiments of the French or Chinese people; that he believes with all his heart that, unlike these (and other) disastrous experiments, a perfect and wondrous popular democracy is possible in Israel, since while the others had only a half-baked revolutionary thrust or a Marxist ideology woefully bereft of inspiration, the Israeli nation has the Book of Books to guide it and the Hand of God to support it.

And who knows, maybe this time the Lord will redeem us from our troubles, and make our path right where others have stumbled so terribly. As someone who would probably be taken care of by the Ministry of External and Internal Security in the early days of the new regime, I am not likely to live to see this miracle.

Some more leaders representing the true and only will of the people

First published in my Hebrew blog on 13.12.12, then tyranslated by Yossi Gurvitz and published on 972 on 17.12.13. Here adapted a bit.

Moshe Feiglin’s response:

As a rule, I stand by what I write and say. Of course every period has its own special emphasis. Words written while facing a demolished house and burned bus are not as words written on mundane days. The sentence you chose to quote [about the left’s ideology being based on the aspiration of death – T.P.] is an excellent example of the fine distinction between serious research and demagoguery. This is a sentence I fully support, but quoting it requires long explanations, otherwise it sounds as nothing more than a swearword. In order to seriously complete the mission you undertook, you should organize a proper meeting, in the view of your readers, which I’ll be happy to attend and answer all questions.


Tomer Persico

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

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

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