Posts Tagged 'Israel'

Betzalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism, and Fundementalism

Betzalel SmotrichAt a gathering of religious Zionist public figures two weeks ago, Deputy Knesset Speaker Betzalel Smotrich talked about his diplomatic plan, which he dubbed “The subjugation plan.” The purpose of the plan, he said, was “to erase all Palestinian national hope.”

Under the plan, the Palestinians will be given three choices – to leave the country; to live in Israel with the status of “resident alien,” because, as Smotrich made sure to note, “according to Jewish law there must always be some inferiority,” or to resist, “and then the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do.” When the deputy Knesset speaker was asked if he intended to wipe out whole families, including women and children, Smotrich replied, “In war, as in war.”

Smotrich presented the Book of Joshua as the source for his remarks. According to the Midrash, Joshua sent the residents of the land of Canaan three letters in which he set out the three aforementioned conditions. Maimonides explains that if the non-Jews do not flee, they must have limitations imposed on them “so they should be despised and lowly, and not raise their heads in Israel.” If they resist, he says, “not a soul must be left among them” – in other words, kill them all.

How many of those who sat and listened to these horrible things – learned men and women, Torah scholars and community leaders – agreed with him? It’s impossible to know. There were protests raised during the question period, in which some of those in attendance expressed shock. But not everyone was shocked.

I thought back to the op-ed by Yossi Klein last month that raised such a storm. Does “religious Zionism” want to “seize control of the state and cleanse it of Arabs,” as he wrote? No, definitely not. Are there people in that community who indeed want to do this? Yes, absolutely. The question is how numerous they are, or, in other words, where to place Smotrich. Is he on the margins, part of an extremist, fundamentalist and zealous minority, who isn’t taken too seriously – or in the center, a future leader of a large public?

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist religiosity is the reduction of religious tradition into a rigid and simplistic framework of principles. It’s generally joined by a monolithic perception of history, as if all eras are identical and what was true 2,000 years ago is still valid today, and a strong desire to renew our days as of old, i.e., to bring the past into the present. All these together create a one-dimensional surrender to the authority of Scripture. This is generally done in a very untraditional manner, since fundamentalist obedience hews closely to the literal meaning of the text, while traditional religiosity recognizes that religious truth is complex (“There are 70 faces to the Torah”), provides interpretations of Scripture, and integrates other considerations into its approach to faith.

Religious Zionism is not fundamentalist. Most of the community leads a traditional religious life of interpretation and flexibility. Most live in the center of the country, in Jerusalem and Petah Tikva, Kfar Sava and Ra’anana. We’re talking about a middle-class, solid, bourgeois, satisfied community. Judaism for them is a deep identity and a way of life, but they don’t dream at night about rebuilding the Temple and they are pleased to live in a democracy.

But Smotrich understood something when he spoke with this community’s representatives. Because he was speaking to a totally observant audience, he allowed himself to expose the religious-mythic underpinnings of his ideas. He hoped that speaking about Jewish law and the Book of Joshua would lead to an automatic identification with his remarks that would be reinforced by the dormant foundations of a deeply rooted tradition. He hoped that his religious language would make his ideas much harder to oppose. Unfortunately, that hope is not unfounded.

Democracy, like liberalism, is an ethos. Religious tradition, like nationalism, is the foundation of identity and narrative perception. In a contest between them, it’s very difficult for the former to triumph. If during the 20th century Western nationalism substantively included democracy and liberalism (and thus also moderated religion), in recent decades there’s been a gap emerging between them. As we can see from the refugee crisis in Europe and the Brexit vote, when the masses feel that liberalism is undermining the foundations of nationalism, the response is to boost nationalism at the expense of liberalism. Narrative and identity trump ethos.

Certain people in the religious-Zionist camp, Smotrich among them, turn to Jewish identity and use a mythic narrative to enlist support for anti-liberal ideas. In a situation in which liberalism is perceived as opposing identity, or in a situation in which there is no answer defending liberalism that’s based on identity, they will succeed in drawing many after them, first and foremost those who are deeply connected to tradition. Only a position that emerges from one’s identity toward liberalism, that reunites nationalism and liberalism (and even religion and democracy), can prevent many religious Zionists and others from being drawn to the insane ideas of Smotrich and his ilk.

The fact that Smotrich is a dangerous fundamentalist who seeks to give the Palestinians a choice between transfer, apartheid or genocide is horrifying. It’s hard to complain to the Palestinian Authority about their encouragement of terror when the deputy Knesset speaker of the State of Israel supports this type of “subjugation plan.” He should be removed from his post and thrown out of the Knesset.

But even if this were to happen, the important question is what kind of response we, the religious and secular Zionists, proffer to his ideas. Until there is such an answer, he will continue to move from the margins to the center.

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Published today in Haaretz

Liberty for All

Perhaps the most wonderful mystery of human nature is also one of its most banal characteristics. It is the peculiar but considerably gladdening fact that people wish to be good. The desire to be just, to do well, to prove oneself morally worthy, is an obviously common fact, but nevertheless an immense marvel. Why indeed should it be so? But it is so, and while conceptions of “the good” vary wildly, the wish to align with these conceptions is prevalent.

Enter slavery. A commonplace phenomenon in ancient times, slavery had to be justified. Since it was clear that subjugated people were not happy about it, the social institution of slavery was in need of legitimization. People wanted to know that they were doing the right thing when buying, selling, and shackling others.

Thus we read in Theognis, the Greek poet of the 6th century BCE, that “A slave’s head is never upright, but always bent, and he has a slanting neck” (translation by Bernard Williams). Here inborn, physical difference is used to explain and justify slavery.

In the Bible (Genesis 9), we find Noah angry at his sons after they have seen him naked, and cursing, of all people, his yet-unborn grandson, Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan! the lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers!” Here an ancient curse is inserted into a holy text in an obvious ploy to explain future enslavement by the Israelites. Even the mighty Pharaoh, when conspiring to enslave the Children of Israel, had to justify himself and explain that it would only be wise to subdue the Israelites or else “they become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, join our enemies” (Exodus 1).

As generations passed, it was not only the forms of slavery that changed, but also the explanations used to justify them. In a word, both became more elaborate. Modern ethical sensitivities will not permit outright chattel slavery, but we are all aware of the existence of sweatshops, child labor, and prostitution. We use complicated ways to circumvent and explain these and other forms of exploitation around us, as well as the benefit we derive from exploitation taking place at a distance. We do wish to be good.

It is an immense tribute to the Jewish tradition that the fight against slavery in modern times has been waged under the inspiration of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, the biblical narrative of the liberation of the People of Israel has inspired freedom movements and ideologies of liberation throughout history and all over the world. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Israel’s exodus from Egypt will remain forever the spring of the entire world.”

It is indeed hard to imagine our civilization without that specific myth and the ethos all of us inherited from it. The magnitude of our cultural debt to the story of the Exodus undoubtedly explains the immense popularity of Passover among all Jews, non-religious as much as religious.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and as such demands a reckoning. We can no longer pretend that the occupation of the Palestinian people, which began 50 years ago, is an inadvertent accident in the history of the State of Israel. Indeed, even Israel’s formal description of the occupation as “temporary” lacks genuine force of conviction.

The State of Israel has been subjugating millions of non-citizens for more than two-and-a-half times the number of years that it hasn’t. It is a bitter, vicious tragedy that the people who bequeathed humanity with the ultimate story of liberation are the last people on earth who control a population without allowing it either equal legal rights or the political independence to determine its own destiny.

We do, of course, have our reasons. Good ones. There are always explanations. We will find elaborate ways of giving the current situation legitimation. After all, we do wish to be good. But the brutal fact remains, and after all excuses and explanations, the fact remains brutal. Its perpetuation will mean that Jewish history will be forever stained by the occupation, and it will retroactively color the Jewish tradition. Passover, our celebration of liberty, will acquire an ironic, rancorous twist.

On this, the fiftieth year of the occupation, we at SISO created The Jubilee Haggadah, which conjoins the Jubilee commandment – "Sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants" – with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty. Thirty authors, artists and thinkers from throughout the Jewish world have joined together — in commentary, song, and moral outcry — and proposed contemporary interpretations to the Haggadah. We can no longer celebrate our liberty while deigning the liberty of others. Our freedom will not be complete, until their freedom will be complete.

Capture

Published in Haaretz

The Jubilee Haggadah can be seen here in English, purchased through Amazon or downloaded (in the Hebrew version) here.

The Jewish Duty to Take In Refugees

It was hard not to feel a pang upon learning that Germany and Austria would take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in addition to the thousands they have already welcomed. While our prime minister says there’s no “demographic depth” that would allow even a symbolic humanitarian step, it seems others have learned the lesson from World War II – especially those who were so concerned about demographics at the time.

Netanyahu can always be expected to choose inaction over action, and his refusal to take in refugees is not surprising. What’s strange is the silence of the rabbis and leaders of the religious world. Strange, because Jewish tradition clearly speaks of sheltering and aiding refugees. It does so not only in the repeated reminders that “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” and, therefore, the Israeli people are forever duty-bound to take care of foreigners, but also in explicit commandments.

The Torah says,

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best. (Deuteronomy, 23:16-17)

It is easy to see the Torah’s emphasis on the slave’s freedom to settle wherever he chooses – "with thee", "in the midst of thee", "he shall choose", "where it liketh him". Biblical commentators link these verses to the preceding ones dealing with war, and conclude that it’s a commandment, a virtue, to take in refugees as well.

Maimonides says the commandment

contains a great utility – namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled (Guide to the Perplexed, 3, 39).

He understands the commandment regarding the slaves as the minimal duty, and it is certainly our duty to help those who aren’t slaves but are fleeing danger.

And that’s not all. The prophet Isaiah implores the Moabites to adopt this virtue of taking in refugees: “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee; as for Moab, be thou a covert to him from the face of the spoiler” (Isaiah 16:4).

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, explained,

When the time of Moab’s destruction came, Isaiah describes the reason for the holocaust. All the nations dwelling on Moab’s border used to cry out over the Moabites’ iniquities … there’s only one way to overcome the hardship – Moab must return to ways of mercy and when he still stands at the peak of his power and his light shines like noon, he will treat wretched refugees with compassion.

It seems that according to Isaiah the kingdom of Moab crumbled because it refused to house refugees.

So where are all those concerned for Israel’s Jewish character? Why don’t they cry out when Israel undermines Jewish tradition like this? Where are they hiding, these deeply religious people who speak so loftily of “Jewish morals” and seeking to strengthen “Jewish identity?” How come their voice isn’t heard loud and clear, crying over our mother Rachel’s sons who are denying their ancestors’ legacy?

I am not naive. It’s clear to me that, like all of us, those who see themselves as loyal to tradition choose which parts of it to observe. That’s fine; we all do that. But it’s important to raise two points.

First, they should understand that their commitment to tradition has clear boundaries – in other words, they choose how to express their Jewishness.

This recognition is important not only because it add some integrity to the world, but also because makes clear that anyone who cites halakha (Jewish religious law) to justify his objection to equal rights for Arabs, gays or women is simply using halakha, not obeying it. It’s not "halakha"; it’s him. He is a racist or a sexist, and because of that he chooses halakhic decrees that fit his views. Anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein attributes to Maimonides his view that churches in Israel must be burned down, but of course we won’t hear a word from him about Maimonides’ command to take in refugees.

The second point is also associated with commitment – not to halakha, but to moral decisions. Because the interesting thing with such decisions is that they require us to make an effort.

Morality is linked to our relations with the other, and the other usually challenges us, doesn’t give us a free aromatic massage.

We should note well which halakhic choices challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone and require us to make an effort, and which choices flatter us, gratify our worldview and give us that indulging massage.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re a chosen people, and therefore we’re allowed to discriminate against others. We need voices calling on Jews to take responsibility, to give of themselves, to do the difficult, inconvenient thing.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, 1929 Riots. Image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID matpc.15716.

Printed in Haaretz

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions – On Michael Walzer’s New Book

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, by Michael Walzer, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $26

“[They] saw that the cherished ideals of their race – their thrones and their families and the very Gods that they worshipped – were trampled underfoot, the holy land of their love devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians, so inferior to them in language, religion, philosophy…” Thus wrote the Indian nationalist and fighter for independence V.D. Savarkar in 1923, but if he had written “God” instead of “Gods,” his anti-colonialist thoughts could easily be attributed to the Zionist Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or to ideologue Israel Eldad. Like them, Savarkar was secular, and like them he too enlisted symbols and conceptual structures from religion in his struggle against the foreigners who ruled his country.

Something else the three had in common is that, although they were in the political minority during the struggle for national liberation in their countries, their ideas still resonated decades after independence was attained. Now, however, their ideas were invoked by religious leaders, who viewed their words not only as metaphorical banners that could spur unity, but as dogmatic and comprehensive frameworks for life. It is this process – the rise of the shunned and silenced religious element in nation-states that were founded as secular – that Michael Walzer addresses in his new book.

An expert in ethics and political science, and one of the leading public intellectuals of our time, Walzer examines three cases: Israel, India and Algeria. All three gained independence after fighting a colonial ruler – Britain, in the cases of Israel and India; France, in that of Algeria. All three countries made an attempt, with varying degrees of success, to introduce democracy, and all three have experienced a significant awakening of religion that is undermining that democracy. Walzer wants to understand why.

Europien Elites

His starting point is the differences in worldviews. Walzer notes that even though the three liberation movements struggled against European forces, those who waged the struggle were also European, if not in origin then in outlook. In other words, they were secular nationalists who set out to forge democratic regimes. As such they were very different from large parts, if not the overwhelming majority, of the oppressed population on behalf of whose independence they fought.

Like Moses in the house of Pharaoh, the leaders of the liberation movements grew up differently from most of those they were fighting for, and they were also educated differently. In fact, they were educated in the culture of those who subjugated their nations.

For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spent no less than eight years studying in Western institutions. India’s first minister of justice, B.R. Ambedkar, who was also instrumental in formulating his country’s constitution, held doctoral degrees from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics. For their part, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann were European in origin and education. Frantz Fanon studied psychiatry in France, and Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, served for many years in the French army and was even awarded its highest honor.

In contrast, the society being liberated was non-European and traditional (even to an extent in Israel). Thus, the leaders of the national-liberation movements were very different from those they were bent on liberating. Decades later, that same population – this time, as citizens of democratic nation-states – would vote for religious or traditionalist forces that would undercut the ideological descendants of the state’s founders.

The Paradox of Liberation

However, it was not only separation but also overbearing arrogance that characterized the relations between liberators and liberated. The former demanded that the latter shed their traditional ways. They believed that only a total transformation in the character of those who had been oppressed would allow them to escape their downtrodden condition.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, talked about “the worker in the Land of Israel” as a new offshoot unconnected to the ancient tree of Diaspora Jewry. Fanon wrote about a “new Algerian” who underwent a “mutation” that made possible the struggle for national liberation. In India, the complaint about the submissive, kowtowing character of the masses was a regular refrain in the battle of the aspirants to independence, at least from the start of the 20th century.

Thus, not only were the leaders of the national independence movements a different breed – they also demanded that the masses who were to be liberated transform themselves. They perceived them as inferior and lorded it over them as a superior elite, intellectually as well as in terms of character and willpower. Zionism’s “negation of the exile,” Walzer reminds us, was more than an admonition to put an end to the Diaspora: It constituted an aggressive denial of everything the Diaspora stood for, of the whole Jewish manner of being that it cultivated and supported. The creation of the new Jew (and the new Indian, and the new Algerian) entailed putting an end to the existence of the old.

However, the old Jew, like his Indian and Algerian counterparts, was dear to the hearts of multitudes. They delighted in the fruits of liberation, but were disinclined to part with their past, their culture, their way of life. The liberators’ condescending demand that they do just that, and their pride and their silencing of the voices of the masses – these brought about disparities between the groups, but also tension and antagonism. That, Walzer writes, is the “paradox of liberation” (hence also the book’s title). The subsequent religious revival sprang from that very disparity and antagonism.

Historic irony

And here’s another paradox or, rather a historic irony: The return of tradition and religion is taking place in an untraditional way. In fact, it’s draping itself like a robe over the national body, and coming back in the form of national-religious fundamentalism. In Israel there was Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and now its paler offspring, Habayit Hayehudi. In India there’s the RSS, a Hindu nationalist movement that wants to reconstitute the kingdom of Rama, a mythological entity in which Hinduism enjoys its zenith under the earthly dominion of the god Rama. Similarly, the nationalist Islam of the Islamic Salvation Front, which as a political party almost took power in Algeria in 1992, but was blocked by a military coup, triggering a civil war in which about 100,000 Algerians died in the 1990s.

Religion, unsilenced, has reentered our lives in recent decades, through the democratic political system, drawing a large following in its wake as it made its appeal in the name of nationhood no less than in the name of God. In the next phase, it assails other religions as well as the old elites: “‘Westernizing’ leftists, secularists, heretics, and infidels – traitors, it is said, in our midst,” Walzer writes, summing up a familiar process.

The old, diasporic Jew is replaced by the young Zionist worker. Art by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1901

Marxists ans Post-Colonialists

Walzer devotes part of his book to refuting those viewpoints that see no paradox in religious revival springing from secular nationalism. Thus, according to the Marxist or the post-colonial approach, there is no real struggle or contradiction here, but a direct continuation of two forces that deep down feed off each other. Marxists will argue that religious beliefs and identities are the products of a false consciousness that is utilized by the hegemony of big capital to rule the masses. The national liberators don’t understand this and substitute nationalism for religion as a new smokescreen for the exploitative mechanism of the market forces.

Post-colonialists will long for a pre-colonialist past, when religious tradition was supposedly moderate and nurturing, indeterminate and dialogic. In their view, the modern expressions of religion are no more than the monstrous offspring of colonialism itself. Thus, the fighters for independence were merely continuing colonialism under a different cover and are thereby encouraging the growth of fundamentalism. In both cases, a religious resurgence is not a paradox but a logical outcome.

Walzer reminds Marxists that nowhere in the world, ever, has pluralistic universalism succeeded in supplanting national identity, and that foreign rule has been experienced in every case as national – not class – oppression. In addition, he notes, all the national liberators sought to create democracies, however flawed and imperfect, but their ambition was definitely to be accepted as legitimate members of the family of nations.

Contrary to them, the agents of religious revival challenge democracy, if they don’t actually reject it. They are not interested in universal values of human rights but in particular religious laws, whether of sharia or halakha or dharma, and they always rely on a fundamentalist interpretation of those laws. They have no wish to be part of the family of nations, but rather they counterpose themselves to it, like a charming teen with special needs. It is illogical, Walzer claims, to think that religious fanaticism springs naturally from democratic nationalism, as the two are utterly different. “Labor Zionism doesn’t produce religious zealotry; we might better say that its most authentic product is the Palestinian national liberation movement,” he writes.

The writer reminds post-colonialists that religion before modernity was not so moderate and accepting, but quite oppressive – toward adherents of other religions, for example, and toward women. On the contrary, the rise of religious fundamentalism is actually a reaction to liberalism, and above all to women’s liberation. What generated fundamentalism is not national suppression but the freedom spawned by democracy.

A Need for Dialectics

In the end, Walzer argues, the secular-liberal frameworks are too weak. They are unable to create a stable identity, sources of inspiration and, by the same token, continuity. They surrender in the face of religious revival. Walzer blames the liberators for not acting to bolster ties with the religious elements. If religion were accorded a larger place from the outset, the emergence of a religious contrarian character could be avoided. “Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged,” he writes. What’s needed is a dialectical process in which the two poles are brought into contact and interact with each other to the point of creating a third entity. That did not happen, Walzer maintains, and we can see the results.

This, then, is his answer to the paradox of liberation: A total rejection of religion and a condescending attitude toward the religious public are the seeds that engender a fundamentalist religious revival. It is impossible to escape the past, and a tree cannot be made to grow without roots. Engaging tradition in a deep dialogue, Walzer writes with a measure of hope for Israel, “might still improve the odds – for the eventual success of Jewish national liberation.”

On Christianity and Other Religions

Although I agree completely with Walzer that an ignored past will return and make its presence felt sharply, and that it is of surpassing importance, even now, for secular society in Israel to enter into an intensive dialogue with Jewish tradition – I want to propose a different direction for thinking about religious revival, using his examples. This direction seeks to apprehend that revival in the three countries under consideration as a reaction not to detachment or to condescension, but to a foreign political and social superstructure. That is, simply, we should note that in each of the countries – Israel, India and Algeria – the religion that returns to center stage is not Christianity.

This is a significant point, because secular, democratic nationalism – of which an essential element is the separation of religion from state and the rendering of religion as a private matter for each citizen – is a phenomenon that derives from Protestantism and that is shaped by its religious model. In the cases under discussion, then, the reaction is not only one of a tradition that was forgotten, whether in a natural process or by force, and is now rising to the surface again: The reaction is that of a collectivist religion that harbors extreme ambitions for the public space, and that rises to the surface in contradistinction to a secularized, privatized political body that is structurally based along the lines of a foreign religious model.

Judaism, Islam and, to a lesser degree Hinduism, are incapable of fully digesting the process of Western secularization, which sprang from Protestantism. (Even Catholicism had a hard time accepting secularization, not recognizing it in essence until the 1960s in Vatican II.) It should be clear that any attempt to secularize the religions according to that model will generate a challenging response. Indeed, no fundamentalist resurgence occurred in Christian countries that were liberated from colonialism.

In a postscript to his book, Walzer surveys the liberation movement that transformed 13 British colonies into the United States of America, and admits, as in passing, “The idea of a secular state did not challenge the deepest convictions or feelings of (most of) the future citizens of the American republic.”

This is the core of the matter. As Walzer notes, the separation of religion from the state even gained the support of evangelical Protestants, because one’s relationship with God was perceived from the outset as a private and individual matter – not as communal, social or national. In short, the evangelicals view the state as a threat to religion; religious Zionism views it as the earthly foundation of the seat of God.

Consider, for example, Ireland, which gained its independence from Britain after a struggle. It’s always been a Catholic country, but the recent referendum approving same-sex marriage by a large majority indicates that the state is definitely not moving toward a revival of religious fundamentalism.

Similarly, the East European countries that attained freedom after years of Soviet domination are not spawning radical religiosity – whereas the movement for the liberation of Palestine is coping with a Muslim religious resurgence even before achieving its goal.

Prof. Walzer’s new book analyzes one of the fateful questions of our generation: why young democracies constitute fertile ground for the rise of extreme religion. He cites a great deal of evidence and presents the considerable resemblances in the three examples he writes about. Undoubtedly, the alienation between the liberating elite and the liberated masses played an important role in the return of tradition after its suppression. This is a spectacle we are witnessing today. However, it is not the whole story. The causes of religious revival need to be sought in religion.

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Published in Haaretz

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.

yedioth-fb

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nation-State of the Jewish People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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