Posts Tagged 'Judaism'

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

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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.


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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