Posts Tagged 'Judaism'

A New Consensus in Israel about What Being Jewish Really Means

Two general elections within a span of five months are a treasure for any researcher, because they bring to light the issues that are most important to each group of voters.

Between the April and September elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not change, the security threats from Iran and the Gaza Strip neither grew nor shrank, and Israel’s population remained almost the same. But a new agenda that was placed at the center of the second election took five Knesset seats from the bloc comprising Likud and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The agenda was the relationship between religion and state, and the person who put it center stage also coined the slogan that most accurately summarizes Israel’s social and political center of gravity: “A Jewish state, not a halakha [Jewish religious law] state.”

One could say that this is the amorphous consensus on Jewish identity in Israel as it has emerged and come together in recent decades. In general terms, beginning in the 1990s Israeli Jewish society underwent two deep processes relating to its identity. On the one hand, Jewish Israelis learned to challenge the authority of Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic representative of historic Judaism. An increasing number of Jews are shaping their Jewish identity through a wide range of alternative avenues, from pluralistic study forums, through Reform Judaism to New Age-y doctrines like the Yemima Method to the various Bratslav Hasidic courts. This is privatized Judaism, shaped by the individual to meet their cultural, social or spiritual needs. This is also a Judaism that fears for its liberty and the possibility of realizing itself in whatever way it chooses.

On the other hand, we also see in Israel the rise of an ethnic-national Jewish identity, which is based on a sense of tribal belonging and whose meaning is derived from the mission of preserving the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. This Jewish identity is ostensibly collectivist and its center is the national-ethnic (not civic) community. But the demands this identity makes on the individual are minimal, and as such it can be integrated — in a manner that is complementary, not contradictory — into the privatization process. This identity is more strongly tied to Orthodox Judaism, which it considers more authentic and “faithful,” but in the end it also undermines it.

Jewish expressions in Israel

Both social trends stem from the same source: rising individualization in the Western world. The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.

But what happens when the individual is in fact expected to change his behavior? What happens when the government allows and even encourages increased religious influence in the state secular schools, separation between men and women in the public sphere or the closure of grocery stores on the Sabbath? What happens when it threatens to prohibit soccer games on Shabbat or the Eurovision Song Contest? Many who affiliate with ethnic-national Judaism will accept this, and some might even see it as an authentic expression of the heritage with which they identify. But many others will respond to this threat to their autonomy and their lifestyle by turning their backs on the parties that promote it.

Religious antagonism

The fault line between religious and secular is one of the most fundamental in Israel. The socialist Zionism that established the state rejected halakha and saw religion as a relic of the galut, the Jewish Diaspora, which was not only superfluous after the Jewish people returned to the land of its ancestors but was a constant threat to the establishment of a progressive, properly run state. Socialism as a mass progressive vision disintegrated, along with the decades-long rule of Labor Party forerunner Mapai and its ethos, but a fundamental antagonism toward “the religious” is part of Israel’s DNA. Add to this the perceived threat to civil liberties, and this antagonism turns into an electoral force.

The combination of this old antagonism and the insistence on personal freedoms brought Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s Shinui party 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election and his son Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid 19 seats in 2013. In September’s election it destroyed Netanyahu’s chance of obtaining a coalition of 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. In my opinion, it also prevented Kahol Lavan from weakening any more than it did. The bottom line is clear: In every election campaign in which the issue of religion and state becomes central, several Knesset seats move from the right-wing bloc to the left or, more accurately, from the right-traditional religious bloc to the central-civic bloc. These seats go not to Meretz, but to parties that offer a clear Jewish identity while also promising to preserve a secular civic space. Both Lapids offered exactly this. Now it was being offered by Lieberman and the four leaders of Kahol Lavan.

Lieberman’s slogan, “A Jewish state, not a halakha state,” precisely expresses this new, all-Israeli combination; on the one hand it emphasizes Jewish identity, while on the other hand it promises to preserve individual liberties. Moshe Feiglin had actually discovered this secret formula earlier, and during the campaign for the April election he used it very successfully with his libertarian party Zehut before he was brought down by campaign errors and Netanyahu’s skill in cannibalizing the bloc. Hayamin Hehadash, whose platform had remarkably similar messages, was hurt as a result of overly cautious wording (for example, party chairman Naftali Bennett stuttered over LGBTQ rights) and  suffered the same cannibalization. Looking forward, we can expect to see this winning combination in every party seeking the votes of mainstream Israelis.

The Haredi parties, in contrast, have maintained their strength, which is based on Orthodox and traditional Jewish voters, for whom personal autonomy and the secular  civic space is less important. The religious Zionist movement is caught in between: Its Haredi minority completed its takeover of the now-defunct National Religious Party (after obtaining similar, if less complete, control of the community’s educational institutions). In the process it alienated a majority of Israelis and even a majority of religious Zionists, who fear for their autonomy no less than secular Israelis do. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who in September ran together with Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz as Yamina, did not gain additional Knesset seats, suggesting that voters recognized that the alliance with the Haredi Zionists would stifle their relatively liberal voice.

Privatized traditionalism

Both election seasons shattered the religious-Zionist dream that secular Israelis wanted a knitted-kippa leadership. It turns out that secular Jews prefer — surprise! — to vote for secular politicians, whether Likud or Kahol Lavan. Beyond that, we are seeing the end of a process that began in the 1990s, with the National Religious Party’s unequivocal affiliation with the right. That move turned religious Zionism, which had always prided itself on being the “hyphen” that brought together Haredim and secular Jews, Torah and science, past and future — into just another right-wing party.

For religious Zionism, the movement toward individualism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other undermined the halakhic dimension. Along with turning the settlement enterprise into a central tenet of faith, identifying with the political right replaced halakha as the fundamental basis of religious-Zionist identity. Bennett and Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party accepted secular right-wingers, but would never have accepted religious leftists.

The two components of Yamina represent two opposing responses to this process. Bennett and Shaked are nothing more Likudniks with a twist, and the platform of their party was not materially different from that of Likud on matters of religion or foreign policy. This model won them around a dozen Knesset seats in 2013, and presumably that was their peak. Politicians such as Smotrich, Peretz and Moti Yogev, however, seek to return the topic of religious law to the fore. But in an age when civil liberties and even liberal causes such as feminism and LGBTQ rights are becoming part of the Israeli consensus, such a move will confirm the party’s place as a small Likud satellite.

The combination of Jewish ethnic nationalism and individualistic liberalism has thus become the main intersection of the range of circles making up Israeli society. Likud, which was founded on a blend of nationalism and liberalism, could have been the primary beneficiary of this situation, had Netanyahu not become completely dependent on his alliance with his “natural partners,” which repels his voters. Kahol Lavan gained from Likud’s loss but it now faces a dilemma since in the absence of a unity government it, too, is dependent on the Haredi parties.

But the importance of the current situation goes well beyond the political arena. The evolving Jewish identity represents a sort of privatized traditionalism, grasping on to a heritage that is dependent upon the will of the individual and custom-made to fit. It is a dynamic, creative Judaism, but it’s also egocentric, and the liberalism it demonstrates toward the Jewish direction (from weddings outside of the rabbinate to LGBTQ rights) does not generally extend into the non-Jewish space. This is Judaism in Israel in the early 21st century, and it shows us that most Israeli Jews will not relinquish their Jewish identity, but at the same time they will rise up against religious coercion and insist on individual liberties, at least for themselves.

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Published in Haaretz, Oct. 29

Of White Supremacy and Chosen Peoples – The Turner Diaries and their legacy

from The Great Gatsby“Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’?” Tom Buchanan, Gatsby’s rival, asks in “The Great Gatsby.” “The idea,” Buchanan explains, “is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the 1925 masterpiece, knew well why he had his antagonist speak those words. The crux of the tension between Jay Gatsby and Buchanan is the question of truth and authenticity. On the one hand, the source of Gatsby’s wealth is dubious: He’s charming and charismatic, but his life is founded on a lie. On the other hand, Buchanan is a nasty piece of work, arrogant and boastful, but he’s a faithful son of the American upper class of the tumultuous 1920s. For a large slice of American society, the racist calumnies he spews out were the unvarnished truth.

The title of the book Buchanan mentions is a distortion of a real work: “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” published in 1920, which attracted interest in the United States. The author, Lothrop Stoddard, a prolific American thinker, writes of his concern that ineluctable demographic trends will transform the world’s whites into an oppressed minority. As someone who espoused a detailed race theory, Stoddard maintained that the “Nordic race” is superior to all other races and that, for the common good, it should continue to rule the world.

Stoddard’s book is just one link in a long chain, beginning in the early 19th century, all of whose parts are obsessed with the white person’s fear of becoming a minority. By ascribing these views to Buchanan, Fitzgerald marked him as being flesh-of-the-white-flesh of the particular social circle that’s caught in the grip of this anxiety and drawn to such works.

from The Great GatsbyStoddard has long since been forgotten, and the views he advocated – which, in certain versions, were accepted at the time even by people who considered themselves to be progressive – became the object of condemnation and excoriation. The concrete results that these race theories engendered in the 1930s and ‘40s made the subject taboo; in our time only fringe groups espouse such ideas. However, with the aid of the internet, what was for decades the preserve of the rejected and the ostracized has become the subject of a lively dialogue today. The web connects oddballs and fundamentalists, and it gives extremists the feeling that they are part of a broad movement. A rising, seething wave of toxicity is being ridden by unscrupulous politicians who are aggrandizing the feeling of white victimhood. Those who consider themselves the spearhead in the struggle against the “colored surge” are acting accordingly.

The footprints of these ideas are obvious in acts of mass murder perpetrated in recent years. Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 murdered more than 70 people, most of them teenagers, in and around Oslo, left a 1,500-page manifesto in which he warned against “white genocide” (the preferred term by those in the grip of the anxiety) and against the “Islamization of Europe.” In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, shouting, “You’re taking over our country!” In an essay attributed to him, Roof expressed concern at developments in Europe, “the homeland of White people.”

Brenton Tarrat, who last March murdered 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was fearful of “the great replacement” – a conspiracy theory revolving around the alleged replacement of whites by nonwhites. And Patrick Crusius, who in August opened fire in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, slaying 22 people, purported to be defending his country against a “Hispanic invasion.”

The massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year was also carried out by a white supremacist who used slogans such as “Diversity means chasing down the last white person” and accused the local Jewish community of assisting “invaders.” A year earlier, Jason Kessler, speaking at an alt-right gathering in Charlottesville that he helped organize, warned against “white genocide” and “the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically.” “Jews will not replace us,” the torch-bearing marchers there chanted.

Return of the scarecrow

But how are the Jews actually connected to all of this? According to the widespread version of this white anxiety, Jews are the planners and orchestrators of the takeover by “inferior races” that is leading to the extinction of the white race. The Jews’ status as “whites” is provisional, as everyone knows, and depends on the good will of white Christians. For most of those who fear white genocide (though not all), Jews are themselves an inferior race, and the migration of nonwhites to Western Europe and the United States is a Jewish plot aimed at eradicating the superior race.

Fitting neatly into the picture here is the tendency of Jewish Americans to be on the progressive side of the map and, similarly, the tendency of Jewish organizations and philanthropists to support progressive causes. It turns out that Jews who are fighting racism and working for tolerance are in reality advocating miscegenation and scheming to liquidate the whites. The Jews’ support for minority groups stems not from a moral commandment to love the stranger; it’s a plot against the light-skinned majority. Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros features prominently in right-wing conspiracy theories, but he also occupies a central place among those who play up white anxiety and even on morning talk shows. Middle East-affairs commentator Dr. Guy Bechor enthusiastically echoed the “replacement theory” in his regular slot on Israel’s Channel 13, and in another context said, “The Jewish progressives will inflict a terrible disaster on American Jewry; and that is exactly what happened in Europe.”

This anti-Semitic narrative is far from marginal. The blood libel according to which Jews are working toward the eradication of the “white man” is in the background of most of the murderous violence perpetrated by white supremacists in our time. As Eric K. Ward, a social activist who has been researching these groups for three decades, writes, anti-Semitism is the “theoretical core” in the conspiratorial schema of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements. According to Ward, anti-Semitism became a central element in white racism in the United States after the successful civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. The racist groups couldn’t fathom how “inferior races” had succeeded in getting the state to eliminate segregation, promote equality for women and gays, and above all also stirred public opinion in favor of those groups. Their conclusion: There must be a secret network of crafty, manipulative agents who pulled the strings and brought about this result. Inevitably, the “Elders of Zion” entered the familiar niche.

For white supremacist groups, Jews thus fulfill their classic conspiratorial role. But this time, the plot does not involve accumulating money or power, or undermining Christendom, the economic order or the nation-state. Now the eternal Jew wants to mongrelize the different races so as to cause the pure whites to disappear. As always, anti-Semites use the Jews as a scarecrow that embodies the threat that they feel to their identity.

‘Shabbos Goyim’

To grasp the narrative framework that renders this conceptual approach accessible, it’s worth delving into the book that Ward calls “the bible of generations of white supremacist groups,” and what the Anti-Defamation League describes as “one of the most widely read and cited books on the far-right” in the United States. They are referring to “The Turner Diaries,” by William Luther Pierce, writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The book, which was written, not by chance, in the 1970s – following recognition of the victory of the civil rights movement – is probably the most widely disseminated and influential anti-Semitic work since “Mein Kampf.”

“The Turner Diaries” is neither a manifesto nor a philosophical tract. It’s a novel. It tells the story of Earl Turner, who is part of an underground organization that is waging a battle against the federal government in the United States. Originally published in 1978, the book is set in the future, the 1990s, when the government, which is controlled by liberals and Jews, is adamantly pursuing racial intermingling and integration, is encouraging mixed marriages and is battling racism and segregation. In fact, it’s apparently doing everything in its power to bring about the disappearance of the white race.

This is not by chance: It’s the Jews who are pulling the strings here. The Christian liberals and progressives are the useful idiots who are helping them (in the book, they’re dubbed “Shabbos Goyim”), while the blacks and Hispanics provide the muscle and the cannon fodder. If the Jews achieve their goal, the white race will be eliminated and they will rule the world.

“The Organization” – the whites’ underground – uses guerrilla warfare and terrorism against the federal government, which is referred to as “The System.” Organization cells carry out terrorist attacks on American soil with the intention of destabilizing the social order. The aim is to awaken public opinion and induce whites to snap out of their pro-equality, pro-pluralism, pro-tolerance indoctrination and ultimately convince them to understand that they, the whites, are superior to all the rest.

The turning point in the book occurs when the government embarks on a campaign to confiscate all the firearms in the public’s possession. Police units, consisting largely of nonwhites, go house to house collecting the weapons, in a scenario that undoubtedly constitutes the worst nightmare of the National Rifle Association. The protagonist, Turner, understands that the time has come to act and he goes into the underground with his associates. They stay in contact with other terror cells, of which there are apparently many.

Turner’s first major act is to blow up FBI headquarters in Washington. The members of the squad park a commercial van packed with explosives below the building and topple it with its personnel inside. If that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, murdering 168 people, drew his inspiration for the act from the book. Pages from “The Turner Diaries” were found in his getaway car.

Indeed, “The Turner Diaries” is not only a novel, it’s also a form of do-it-yourself manual. It teaches readers how to manage an underground cell, manufacture a homemade bomb, and rob and slaughter Jewish businesspeople in order to underwrite the underground’s activity. In its battle against “Jewish brainwashing,” the underground attacks the offices of a newspaper, fires mortars at a gathering attended by the U.S. president, and murders Jews and liberal activists.

Finally, its members seize control of a military base and fire nuclear missiles at New York and Tel Aviv – which have the largest concentrations of Jews in the world.

The Turner Legacy

A reading of the book, aside from inducing a physical feeling of nausea, shows how deeply its ideas have influenced the new right (the alt-right and other variations of the radical right in their American and Israeli versions).

The book inveighs against liberalism (more precisely, “the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague”) but also castigates classic conservatives. The latter are depicted as nerds who don’t understand when it is necessary to dispense with the law and take up arms. (The contempt for conservatives is echoed in the alt-right’s term for them – “cuckservatives” – where “cuck” is short for “cuckold.”)

Feminism, too, is the object of virulent hatred in the book, parallel to the misogyny that prevails today in new-right circles. Women’s lib is a “mass psychosis” that descended on the world before the triumph of the whites, and women who fell prey to it were persuaded “that they were ‘people,’ not ‘women.’” Feminism was actually a plot by The System to turn the white race against itself.

There is a lot of penny-ante Nietzscheanism in “The Turner Diaries,” from the ridiculing of liberalism as a “feminine” ideology to notions of social Darwinism holding that every person and every race must look after itself, and the strongest survive. People who seek equality and pluralism are either cheats (i.e., the Jews) or brainwashed (white liberals). A “healthy” and “sane” society is one of racial purity; it is masculine, militant, patriarchal and heterosexual. That, according to author Pierce, is what a normal people in its land looks like.

Liberals are idealistic but blind. They ignore the crimes of the minorities (blacks, mainly) and always take their side, even when they are clearly guilty. A girl who complains to her mother that African-American children are harassing her at school gets a slap in the face and is accused of being racist. Other liberals allow members of minority groups to rape their wives before their eyes, unopposed, then cover up for them to the police. The parallel to present-day accusations of liberals covering up for crimes committed by minorities – such as the allegation made by the Israeli television personality Avri Gilad that Notre Dame Cathedral was torched by Islamists and that the French police were lying about the cause of the blaze – is clear.

The book was also ahead of its time in the hatred of Muslims it expresses. The narrator, as early as the late 1970s, knows that there are too many “dark, kinky-haired Middle Easterners” in the country, and when he and his associates take control of Southern California, they set about murdering them systematically. In later years, fear of so-called Middle Easterners would morph into an outcry that they are “taking control of Europe” – a libelous declaration the new right is disseminating in both the United States and Israel.

Surging anti-Semitism

A typical antisemitic caricature based on the current white-supremacy worldviewAs J.M. Berger, an expert on extremist movements, found, “The Turner Diaries” is only one text – albeit a very successful one – among a quite a few centering on a “colored” threat to the white man. In the 1920s, publications like “The Rising Tide of Color” earned fame, and were accompanied by a call for “racial hygiene.” However, Berger actually found the genesis of the genre in the 1830s, against the background of the controversy over slavery and ahead of the American Civil War. The anxiety that gripped the white people of the South over the possibility that their slaves would be freed produced at least four dystopian (from their viewpoint) novels, which depict the United States as a place of indiscriminate mongrelization, to the horror of the light-skinned folk. Some of the works portray a war to restore the “natural order.”

The genre’s rise can be tracked through the history of liberals’ achievements. The struggle to free the slaves was the catalyst for the emergence and initial popularity of such literature. The second wave surfaced in the first decades of the 20th century, coinciding with the surge in the number of immigrants entering the United States. Analogously, this period also saw the appearance of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which perceived that a threat was posed not only by blacks but also by Catholics, Jews and the intellectual elite. That wave receded in the wake of the defeat of Nazism in World War II. The next surge did not appear until the late 1960s, with the legal prohibition of segregation and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the Jews played a central role in the conspiratorial structure. Those who chanted “Jews will not replace us” meant to say that they would fight so that Jews would not replace them with Hispanics and Muslims.

It is against this background that one can understand the complexity of the present upsurge in anti-Semitism. President Donald Trump is manifestly fanning the flames of xenophobia. His attitude toward migrants, his warning against an “invasion” of Hispanics and his refusal to dissociate himself from avowed white supremacists such as David Duke are fodder for the extreme right. Steve Bannon, former Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, referred to The Camp of the Saints a few times, hinting to the extreme right that he knows and approves of yet another white-supremacist novel (published 1973). On the other hand, advocates of the “replacement theory” cannot accept Trump’s positive approach to Israel, which is evidence, they feel, that the grip of the “Zionist Occupation Government” – as anti-Semitic, right-wing groups refer to the U.S. administration – is stronger than ever.

The facts, in any event, are clear. A special report issued a year ago by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry found that “supporters of white supremacy in the United States are experiencing a resurgence” in recent years. An FBI report published in 2018 also found a consistent rise in the number of hate crimes since 2015, including a considerable uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes. The reality is that murderous violence against Jews in the United States has reached unprecedented levels. It’s been a long time since every type of racist, homophobic and misogynist lowlife, as well as populists, demagogues and purveyors of conspiracy theories have felt as comfy-cozy as they do now. Anti-Semites drink from the same sources.

The Jewish Religious-Nationalist connection

All countries are different, but the radical right in all of them tends to think along the same lines. Racism is racism, but that is not the end of the resemblance. The story of a Jewish conspiracy operating behind the scenes to persuade good white people to become liberals and pluralists is very much like the “irresponsible attempt to reprogram the human society […] which is being done by ‘white collar’ people who operate behind the scenes.” That quotation is from a pamphlet titled “The Courage for Independence,” published last May by Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Thau, a leader of the yeshivas affiliated with the so-called Hardali community (whose members combine ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, and national-religious beliefs). It’s aimed at those who are inducing the Jewish people to think that, heaven help us, women are equal to men or that gays deserve equal rights.

The similarity between the modes of thought (not of action) between the conspiracy theories espoused by the Euro-American anti-Semites and those of the Hardali yeshivas stems from the premise that the superior person (the white man or Jew) cannot be bad but is at most confused. If he’s liberal, feminist and gay-friendly, it’s not because that’s what he really thinks but because he underwent indoctrination by a small, manipulative group of miscreants. The latter disseminated an “unnatural ideology” (Pierce), but “that is not the nature of the people of Israel” (Thau). Deep down, the Jew or the white is perfectly all right: loyal to himself, his origins and his purpose. He’s an “authentic” white or Jew – in the same way that Tom Buchanan, the antagonist in “The Great Gatsby,” is an authentic Roaring Twenties wealthy American.

The heroes of “The Turner Diaries” try to awaken whites people from their progressive slumber, and in the same way Israeli homophobic groups such as the right-wing Orthodox Noam party or other Hardali movements appeal to the good-hearted but bewildered Jew. Because both movements depend on a far broader public than them, which they consider exalted but which doesn’t think like them – they are compelled to assume that this wider public has been brainwashed and to deny that its members truly think what they say they are thinking. The white supremacists want the whites to open their eyes and understand that they actually hate blacks and Jews; the followers of Thau are asking Jews to open their eyes and understand that they are actually revolted by gays and are superior to Arabs. When these things happen, the world will return to its “natural,” “true” order.

It’s precisely here that the Achilles’ heel of every racist project lies. Simply put: Racism is not compatible with the truth. In “The Turner Diaries,” the author presupposes that people of color are naturally dumb and violent, an assumption that’s a key cog in the plot mechanism.

Liberalism, he maintains, is a lie that’s easily refuted, because nonwhites are “truly” violent and “truly” untalented, and mixed neighborhoods “truly” suffer from crime, despite liberal efforts to cover all that up. Because the government systems, security agencies and military units are “racially mixed,” their operation is faulty, according to Pierce. For this reason it’s easy for the white underground to outsmart them. If the nonwhites were as smart as the whites, the underground would not triumph in the struggle. The book, then, is not only dystopian; it verges on science fiction.

From this perspective, the war on facts that Trump, Thau and certain media figures are waging is understandable. The facts simply are not consistent with the racist theories they’re promoting. “It’s all scientific stuff,” Tom Buchanan says about “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” but that “science” is a ludicrous cocktail of prejudices, anxiety and self-victimization. And even if we ignore the reality on the ground, the one thing that refutes these racist conspiracy theories is the very fact that anti-Semites and Jews, white supremacists and Jewish supremacists, those who believe the Jews are subhuman and those who believe that the Jews are superhuman – ultimately believe in the same clichés.

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Published in Haaretz

Daniel Boyarin on Judaism and “Judaism”

If you ask a member of the Hopi tribe, “What is your Hopism?” you won’t get an answer. You can also ask a Romany (Gypsy), “What, actually, is Romanism?” And then meet a Druze and ask, “Excuse me, what is Druzism?” In each case you will have to suffice with the perplexed look of your interlocutor, as though there’s something very basic that you don’t seem to understand. That something has to do with the form and type of the entities about which you’re seeking clarification. Simply put, they are not ideological or religious constructs, but ethnic groups possessing a particular social-cultural heritage.

It’s hard for us to discern this, because our worldview – deriving from the modern Western approach – makes every effort to deny their existence. We are accustomed to subsume every large human group under two primary categories: nation and religion. The two categories are connected at their point of birth: The modern era introduced the nation-state, a political entity in which a particular people acquires self-determination; and religion, which is separate from the state, and with which people are free to form relations privately. Religion, in the sense of being a conception, a totality of the beliefs that an individual chooses to adopt, was born together with the nation-state, and completed from the private angle what the state provided from the public – which is to say, it conferred affiliation and meaning. But the one has nothing to do with the other. As Jesus proposed, unto Caesar is rendered that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

Like the Hopi or the Druze, it’s also difficult to associate the Jews with one of the two alternatives. They are not only a nation and not only a religion, nor are they simply a nation that practices a religion. In recent years a number of books have been reexamining the modern (that is, Western-Protestant) perception of Judaism. Leora Batnitzky wrote a brilliant introduction to modern Judaism, titled “How Judaism Became a Religion”; in his book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg discussed the construction of Judaism out of the Christian need for an eternal antagonist; Yaacov Yadgar dwelt on the Jewish anomaly that is expressed in Israeli nationalism in his book “Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism”; and last year saw the publication of Daniel Boyarin’s “Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion” (Rutgers University Press), to which the following comments are addressed.

It is almost superfluous to introduce Boyarin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the greatest living scholars of the Talmud. For the past 30 years he has been a central signpost of contemporary directions in Jewish studies. From the outset of his career he interwove philology with techniques of literary criticism in order to understand the Talmudic text, and beyond that in order to introduce the Talmud into contemporary academic literary discourse. Boyarin possesses the ability of looking at the seminal texts from the scholarly angle and from the traditional angle alike, and with a combination of an astute analytical capability and a sly tendency toward provocation, almost every book he’s published has left a concrete imprint on the research in the field.

If one can distinguish a recurring motif in his work, it is the tension and cross-fertilization between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (with a probing glance at the Hellenistic world as well), both in the Second Temple period and today. He has devoted considerable attention to the point at which these two traditions were born, in the same place and at the same time, amid brotherly rivalry beneath which lay a common biblical origin. In the course of examining the relations between the conjoined traditions, Boyarin devotes requisite space also to an examination of their approaches to gender and sexuality, weaving critical elements from feminist discourse into the fray. The critical gaze at the tension between Judaism and Christianity enables Boyarin repeatedly to dismantle frameworks of modern categorization, such as, in our case, “Judaism” and “religion.”

His latest book thus joins a series of studies that call into question the popular-naive conception of Judaism. Starkly put, Boyarin asserts that until a few hundred years ago, there was no such thing as “Judaism,” in the sense of an abstract category of thought and thus of life. Indeed, the term is not found in the Torah, Prophets or Writings, the Mishna or Talmud, the works of the early medieval Geonim, of Rabbi Judah Halevi or of Maimonides. None of them knew of the existence of such a thing as “Judaism.” The term’s first appearances date from the 12th century (for example, in the “Midrash Sekhel Tov,” by Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo), and even then it denotes not a particular culture or a particular religion but a condition – that is, the condition of being a Jewish person.

In his book, Boyarin traces the origin of the term, naturally not confining himself to Hebrew but also investigating the Greek loudaismos, Yiddishkayt in Yiddish, Judentum in German and “Judaism” in English. The author arrives at the conclusion that “Judaism” is not a Jewish term. Jews talk about the people of Israel, about Hebrews, about the Israelites and the Sons of the Covenant and several other collective attributes, but not about any sort of faith-based or theological structure. This notion of religion originates in Christianity, which began as a voluntary framework (after all, one wasn’t born Christian in the first century) and emphasizes correct faith.

Concurrently, the Jewish sages underscored affiliation with the ethnic collectivity and the observance of laws and customs. It was only beginning in the 16th century that the term trickled slowly into use as denoting religious belief – as something that occurs in the individual’s heart. Not coincidentally, all this arrived together with the Reformation, which split the Church and necessitated a reorganization of theological and meta-theological concepts in Europe.

Until the 19th century, Boyarin notes, it is impossible to find “Judaism” as the subject of a sentence. There is no “Judaism” that believes in one thing or another, there is no “the essence of Judaism.” Those attributes emerged only when modern Jewish avenues were compelled to define themselves: namely, when traditional Jewish society in Europe underwent dramatic processes of modernization and when Reform and Orthodox Judaism evolved. The two denominations sought to determine the basic principles of “Judaism,” each for its own reasons.

The Jewish tradition, then, increasingly resembled the Christian tradition, for it set out to integrate itself into the (modern Western) Christian world. For Christianity, this was of course very convenient. Boyarin makes clear how, already from the first centuries of the Common Era, Christianity constructed Judaism as the fundamental “Other,” vis-a-vis which it defined itself. In other words, there is no “Judaism” other than in a Christian context. There are of course Jews, the halakha (traditional Jewish law) exists, and so forth, but there is no abstract and general term other than through the Christian eye and against the backdrop of Christendom.

With the advent of the Emancipation, “Judaism” became the “religion” of the Jews, a development that helped them exceedingly to integrate into the emerging nation-states – thus, for example, a person could be a “German of the Mosaic faith.” The Jews became equal citizens in Western Europe. That process, Boyarin writes, “destroyed Yiddishkayt as a form of life.”

Which is true: The Jews’ traditional way of life was eradicated. In places where emancipation did not occur, Jews continued to maintain “traditionalism” – so it’s not surprising that Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries had a completely different attitude toward their Jewish identity than their European brethren. The Judaism of the traditionalists, beginning in the late 18th century and today as well, is not “religion” or “nationalism,” but a comprehensive ethnocultural identity.

Of course, Boyarin understands that there is no way back. Even though he is critical of the modern configuration of Judaism, he, like all of us, derives no little benefit from it. Himself an observant Jew, Boyarin is known as a firm critic of Zionism who perceives the Diasporic Jewish existence as a more authentic and worthier form of Jewish life. His vision involves the establishment of Jewish communities in the Diaspora that would take part in a joint national project with other groups and foment communal Jewish life. But this is achievable today only within a liberal democratic framework, namely the Christian-Protestant model that renders Judaism solely as a religion.

Boyarin in his office

Liberal Jews?

In an effort to understand Boyarin better, I met with him for a conversation. I asked him about the Christian – specifically, the Pauline – idea that presupposes that we are all first and foremost individuals, and about the fact that this is not only a potent and highly attractive notion but is also, ultimately, a highly advantageous one. After all, liberalism, which is based on this idea, created a beneficent world in which we, as Jews, can also live a secure, thriving life.

Boyarin said that he is definitely not a liberal. “We, the Jews, maintain that a human being is not monadic: Humans do not exist on their own and are not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” he explained. At the same time, he noted, “The depiction of Jewishness as a non-chosen condition into which one is born does not theoretically inhibit recognition of equality by the state.”

Nonetheless, I asked, isn’t the idea that all people are equal and have inalienable rights based on the Christian perception of the individual as being endowed with universal reason and free choice, which are situated in a nonmaterial soul? In other words, our conception of human equality is rooted in an inner essence that is considered more meaningful than any external feature (such as skin color, ethnic origin or different sexual organs). It’s only on the presupposition of an inner persona, hidden and autonomous, that we legitimize ethical ideas and institutions, such as the social contract, human rights, feminism and transsexual journeys. I have my own reservations about the modern occupation with inwardness, I told Boyarin, but we are bound to recognize that it has engendered much that we cherish.

“I don’t think I share those views about inner essences,” he said. “Is shared physicality not sufficient for solidarity? We resemble others, we mate with them, even when we don’t pretend we don’t, and we use language like them. They are us.”

Well, I replied, we know that historically, shared physicality was insufficient. We do not look exactly alike, and therefore we can treat others as being inferior to us – or, in rare cases, like the Incas’ encounter with Francisco Pizarro and his bearded white men, as superior to us.

Boyarin replied that he “still thinks that the homogenization of human beings through their supposed soul has done far more harm than good.”

But it seems to me that there is an unresolved point here. The modern, Western-Protestant world demands that Judaism change, as it demands of hundreds of other cultures to change. Given enough time, “Hopism” and “Druzism” will also come into existence. There’s something imperialist about this universalism, Boyarin is right about that, but even so, there’s a reward that comes with making the transition. We get human rights, civil rights and equality under the law, even at the moral and pragmatic level. In personal-psychological terms, the reward is still greater: We possess individuality and a sense of autonomy that are inconceivable in traditional societies. How many of us are willing to live a life that “does not exist on [its] own… not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” as Boyarin put it.

Regardless of how valid it may be, the liberal temptation captures our heart no less than it transforms our Judaism. Without doubt, the homogenization that Boyarin talks about exists, and there’s also a flattening of depths that once existed and are no longer, and there’s also social fragmentation. Our Judaism is not what it was, and what was will not return. But are we capable of giving up our Western individualism, even if we wish to? And is that in fact what we wish?

Published in Haaretz

The Absurdity and Malignancy of a Jewish Theocracy

“Israel will not be a halakhic state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Monday, and for a change he was right. Israel will not be governed by Jewish religious law, and in fact no government has ever been ruled in accordance with halakha. In the time of King David, not only was there no halakha as yet, but the Book of Deuteronomy had yet to be written.

By the time halakha came about, with the completion of the Mishna in the second century, there was no longer an independent kingdom of Israel. And in the intervening period, the Hasmonean Kingdom absorbed Hellenistic concepts (Aristobulus and Hyrcanus are not Hebrew names), and persecuted and executed Jewish sages.

So when he speaks about Israel “returning to operate as it did in King David’s time,” MK Bezalel Smotrich is denying history. No wonder: Historical ignorance is a prerequisite for any fundamentalist vision.

As with other examples of theocratic ambition, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State organization and the “Hindu nation” promoted by religious nationalists in India, the attempt to imagine a modern government based on religious law always necessitates the invention of a fictitious past and significant self-persuasion.

With just a few tweaks and minor adjustments, the story goes, we could then copy and paste ideas and institutions from the distant past into our world. This never works, and not just because such efforts are based on mythology to begin with. It doesn’t work because it completely ignores the radical changes that have taken place in the human condition.

Not that there haven’t been rabbis who have tried to sketch a vision of a modern halakhic state. In the 20th century, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli addressed this. Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan devoted four volumes to “Regime and State in Israel According to the Torah.” Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg wrote “Hilkhot Medina,” on halakhic issues in the modern state. Justice Menachem Elon wrote extensively on “Hebrew law” and, leaping forward, just last year Rabbi Ido Rechnitz published a book called “Medina KeHalakha: A Jewish Approach to the Challenges of Independence.” Still, no one has ever been able to come up with a framework that anyone but a handful of fanatics would consider realistic.

That’s not a coincidence. The problem with halakha as it is today is not that its laws are bizarre or anachronistic. Yes, the punishment for theft is a fine amounting to twice the value of the stolen item, a ludicrous penalty that would permit people of means to steal to their hearts’ delight. Yes, halakha prohibits women from testifying or serving as judges — an insult to the intelligence of any rational human being. Such details can presumably be modified and updated.

The real problem is the fundamental understanding of humanity in halakha. According to halakha, human beings must obey divine law and cannot legitimately choose to do otherwise.

Simply put, halakha minimizes the significance of individual autonomy. The compulsion to observe the commandments is part of halakha, and it is also no coincidence that halakha permits both slavery and pedophilia. When there is no unequivocal recognition of the individual as an autonomous subject, then enslavement becomes acceptable, and when choice and consent are not a necessary condition for sexual relations, it’s no wonder that it is permissible to have sex with someone who cannot choose (and, on the other hand, consensual sex between people of the same sex is prohibited).

For its time, the Hebrew law was an advanced, enlightened system, and Jewish tradition brought into the world many principles that ultimately contributed greatly to modern humanism and liberalism. Yet today there is a fundamental tension between halakha and modern conceptions of humanity and liberty.

As a personal and communal commitment, a halakhic lifestyle can be deep and meaningful, but one cannot talk about a state operating in accordance with halakha without also talking about religious coercion. In fact, Waldenberg was an avowed supporter of theocracy, and Rechnitz’s book also clearly demonstrates that there can be no freedom of religion in a halakhic state.

Actually, one needn’t go so as far as picturing some future halakhic dystopia in order to understand that Smotrich’s proposal is not a good bet. It’s enough to look at what’s already happening in the Israeli systems that are in the hands of the Orthodox establishment.

The laws of marriage and divorce, over which the Chief Rabbinate holds a legal monopoly, have become a mechanism for coercion and injustice. Nonreligious couples are compelled to marry not in keeping with their beliefs, women are discriminated against under the marriage canopy as well as in the divorce laws and the rabbinical courts abuse many who come before them. Even without the blatant corruption and nepotism that is so rampant in the rabbinate, it would still be despised by the public – simply because the modern conscience rebels against coercion and discrimination.

Smotrich, whose “decision plan,” published two years ago, called for the Palestinians to either agree to live as subjects or to choose between emigration and death, has proved before that democratic principles are of no interest to him. It’s no surprise to find him leading the theocratic charge. Hardalim, or ultra-Orthodox Zionists, account for just 2 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but intoxicated with the political power given to them by Netanyahu, they mistakenly believe the time has also come for their fundamentalist ideas. Placing them in the centers of decision-making will clearly lead to religious coercion and a shrinking of civil liberty.

“There is also room for democracy in Torah law,” Smotrich hastened to reassure everyone, following the uproar over his comments touting the imminent return of the Kingdom of the House of David. But this is not correct. There is room for Torah law in democracy, but not the reverse. The relationship is always one-way, because one conception is fundamentally tolerant and insists on individual rights and freedom of religion, while the other does not. Should Smotrich and company obtain the kind of power they desire, we will all be made quite aware of this.

CapturePublished in Haaretz

How the New Israeli Judaism Was Born

From the newspaper articleWhen the image of Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, appears on the cover of a book, we know we’d better sit down. It’s a momentous event. Something in us, in our very essence, in our sheer Israeliness, isn’t what it used to be. The sabra image created by Kariel Gardosh (known as “Dosh”) has long since been transformed from the symbol of the young state into the symbol of parting from the young state – a concise representation of everything we no longer are. Usually it turns out we’re no longer young, beautiful, secular and just.

Every society undergoes change, but in Israel the transformations seem especially rapid and, in a particularly reflective culture – the Jewish self-awareness that Woody Allen made a caricature of – there will clearly be a need for an constant introspection. The freneticism accompanying these changes is also understandable: Not enough time has passed since the shtetl for us to feel that we’re comfortable in modernity. Even when what has been repressed isn’t really threatening to burst onto the surface, just the fear that it will can stir anxiety. Accordingly, self-examination and accountability are called for at all times.

Two Hebrew-language studies from the previous decade come to mind in this connection. Their very titles attest to the end of an era: “The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony” (2001) by Baruch Kimmerling and “Farewell to Srulik” (2004) by Oz Almog. Authored by sociologists, these two books marked the transition from denial to awareness, possibly even mourning. Things aren’t what they were, we’re told, and not necessarily for the better.

In his encyclopedic work, Almog summed up the transformations, as he saw them, in the realms of the media, law, women’s status, the family and psychology. The plethora of quotations he generously (at times tediously) offered the reader were intended to illustrate how the Israeli elite (“the veteran Jewish stratum, secular, educated, established”) parted ways from Srulik, who as usual embodies the Israel that is no more.

However, Almog’s explanation for the parting is flawed. In his view, along with the inertia that saps the energy of every revolution, it was the media which reshaped the Israeli consciousness. Supposedly, the media’s control of the agenda caused the Israeli elite to forsake the shared Zionist vision for “globalist consumerism.” Almog concludes by expressing his concern that no new ideological framework will coalesce, and Israelis will gradually be divested of their Jewish identity. Fifteen years on, it’s easy to see that the exact opposite has occurred.

Kimmerling undoubtedly probed deeper than Almog. He eulogized the “Ahusalim” – his acronym for the secular, socialist, nationalist Ashkenazim who founded the country and tried, based on a collectivist “statist” agenda and the social “melting pot” they forcefully forged, to shape the state in their image. The Ahusalim failed, and since the 1970s gradually disappeared from their positions of control and influence.

Kimmerling ascribed most of the responsibility for what he called “the decline of Israeliness” to the Gush Emunim settler movement – something of an Ahusali approach in itself. The messianic spearhead of the religious-Zionist movement supposedly brought to the surface the religious and ethnocentric elements implicit in secular Zionism and hurled them in every direction (though mainly toward Judea and Samaria). The universal humanism in the hearts of the Ahusalim and the civic-republican ethos of the young state were too feeble to resist. Both faded.

But Kimmerling reversed things. It wasn’t Gush Emunim that ruptured the hegemony of the Ahusalim; it was their rupture that allowed the self-confident bullying of Gush Emunim. First, the weakening of the ruling leftist Mapai party in the trauma of the Yom Kippur War – the crisis of faith that seized secular Israelies at the sight of the demigods from the Six-Day War, floundering and humiliated. Second, and more significantly, it was the erosion of socialist collectivism in favor of liberal individualism, that rewrote the Israeli ethos. Both made it possible for Religious Zionism, that admired, almost to the point of worship, not only secular generals but also the state’s leaders, to take the reins and the law into thier hands. . Likud’s rise to power in 1977 completed the process and did much more than religious Zionism to inject what Kimmerling calls “Jewish-ethnocentric categories” into the Israeli identity.

What then brought about the end of Ahusali hegemony? Why did we part from Srulik? Two recently published books reexamine the metamorphoses undergone by Israeli society…

Follow this link to read the rest of the article at the Haaretz site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnocentric Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Turning Point in the Elections

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

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

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

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

What the Left Can Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meretz’s Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why and how did you found Tevel b’Tzedek?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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