Monthly Archives: October 2013

How Israel Can Be “Jewish”

This is a big and controversial issue and I will not satisfy most people. Moreover, it is steeped in serious issues related to political theory, culture, philosophy, and the law. Better minds than mine have grappled with this issue. Still, I’m going to make a case. I’m going to make a case for two reasons: one, I believe a defensible case can be made. And, secondly, I believe it is important to make the case because Israel is clearly deserving but vulnerable and its political status is important for its long-term prospects. Israel is besieged on all sides by those who see it as illegitimate and conceived in sin (a Christian image). For these reasons – along with historical and cultural connections to the land as well as the ethnopolitical character of the people –it is important to establish Israel as a Jewish state. The single best reading here is by Ruth Gavison titled “The Jews Right to Statehood: A Defense.”

For starters, a Torah state run by Orthodox rabbis is not only undesirable but not defensible. A legitimately recognized Jewish state must be as democratic as possible and founded on human rights. It’s important to recognize that Israel cannot be a liberal democracy in the same vein as the United States. I’ve made this argument before but it is simple enough: if Israel is going to be even slightly favorable towards Jewish particularity than it is going to privilege one group sometimes at the expense of others. We have to remember that democracy is a continuum.

If some secular professor representing the universal values of the contemporary left believes that any state organized around ethnicity or religion is a remnant of ancient tribalism and thus undeveloped, then I say “so what?” The type of state I have in mind is not a theocracy. It is a state that privatizes much of religion but simply works to fulfill, support, and express the religious culture of Judaism. For example, Israel has no religious test for its highest offices of president or prime minister. The president or Prime Minister does not have to be Jewish in the religious sense he or she just has to have the fulfillment of the Jewish state in mind. They have to accept the founding principles of doing nothing to interfere with the Jewish character of the state.

We can dispense with the criticism of Israel as a political entity from Muslim states quite easily. Many of them (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait) have Islam as the religion of the state and laws requiring public officials to be Muslims. This is fine, it is a principled point but certainly lends hypocrisy to the claim that Israel should be multicultural or one secular state. Their refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state is not a political or philosophical argument, it is a charged political ideal based in their refusal to make peace with Israel.

And there are examples of secular states with religious ties that operate quite well. I would compare something proposed for Israel to that of Denmark. In Denmark the Constitution recognizes “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” as the established Church of Denmark. The only requisite is that the political leadership in Denmark do nothing to interfere with the established church.

Israel must continue to establish justification on moral universal grounds as much as possible because this appeals to most of its own people who feel the power of the Zionist project but are not particularly religious. Gavison makes the interesting point that the more Israel argues on the basis of universal values the more the Palestinians will follow suit rather than claiming ownership based on the sanctity of Muslim lands. The state of Israel will be a contestatory political system constantly engaging in interaction designed to balance human rights with its Jewish nature. This is consistent with all democracies who rely more on argument and deliberation than ideology.

I reiterate that it will be impossible for Israel to be absolutely neutral with regard to cultural, ethnic, and religious issues. There will be differences in civic equality. But these differences do not have to be fatal. It is still possible to have a democratic Jewish state that respects the rights of citizens – and certainly allows them to engage in their own religion in the same way as the United States does not interfere with religious practice as long as it is in the private sphere – and still represents a national identity.

So for now, the state I am imagining is not completely neutral, has an official language that is Hebrew, a calendar that marks Jewish time (including Shabbat ofcourse), and puts forth a public culture that is Jewish. The public sphere will be important in the Jewish state because that is the context for contestation with respect to issues that affect the public in general. People will be able to practice Judaism or any religion but the management and compromise will come in the public sphere when one person’s rights have to be balanced against another’s.

The state will be as democratic as possible and proudly Jewish.

I will say more next week.

What It Means for the State of Israel to Be “Jewish”

In a couple of posts I’m going to explore the issue of an official “Jewish” definition of Israel. I’m going to explore the issues and expose the difficulties and suffer the different philosophical consequences including the conundrums, logical impossibilities, and damning inevitabilities. Then I’m going to conclude that Israel should be Jewish, that the entire history of the country and the Zionist project makes little sense if Israel is not “Jewish.” You will see, of course, that according to some I’m recommending “Jewish lite” and that will be enough to disqualify my conclusions. But ultimately there’s only one way to meet that goal of Israel being both Jewish and operational and that’s for the Judaism to inform the state but not control it.

This question of Israel’s Judaism is really no small matter because it determines whether or not the state serves Judaism or Judaism serves the state. In other words, if the state is Jewish first and democratic second then the democracy has to be flexible enough to fit the Jewish nature of the state. Strongly religious Jews who want Israel to be a Jewish state begin with Judaism and shape all other forms of government to fit the needs of the Jewish community. Places like the United States begin with democracy and shape the society to fit the democracy. This is known as a liberal democracy and in the more pure sense is impossible in Israel if the state is “Jewish.” I would recommend a reading from the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs available here.

If Israel is devoted to Jewish particularity than it begs the question about what that particularity is and whether or not it is sustainable. A society that is truly communal in the sense that everyone holds a religious or ethnic identity is a society that is truly actualized and expressed by the state. The “state” is truly a full expression of the people and not simply a compromise or the sum of the parts. Even at the risk of some exaggeration the state becomes the full expression of the nature of the people. Now, we’ve seen all this before and it certainly wasn’t pretty (think Fascism or the Soviet Socialist Republic). But it is not inevitable that the state will gravitate toward authoritarianism and oppression – even though constant monitoring is required. But Israel will have trouble if it has a strong sense of Jewish identity wrapped up in the state because the community is not cohesive. An officially Jewish Israel will be oppressive for non-Jewish groups such as the Arabs. Again, this is a situation that simply cannot stand. Israel must find a way to be Jewish but acceptably tolerant of the groups within its confines that are not Jewish. It is easy to describe the state as fundamentally expressing a culture when everyone in the culture is the same or holds the same political or religious values. But government is about managing differences and this is going to be true even of Jewish government.

So this is the primary tension. The tension is between Israel as a modern state and Israel as a continuation of Judaism. In what sense is Israel uniquely Jewish? Well, we could begin with the question of the Jewish people living independently in their own country. How important is it that Jews have a sense of completeness and does this depend on living in certain territory? An Orthodox Jew, although not all strands of orthodoxy, will tell you that the task of completing the Jewish people is dictated by God and an in-tact political system is a means to that end. In fact, the reconstitution of the state of Israel in the biblical and religious sense is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the Bible a collection of people make up the nation and they are permanent entity. In this image Israel would become a Torah state that might be an honorable expression of the will of Jews, but it would also be discriminatory not only against non-Jewish groups but include gender and the various intellectual discriminations. To be sure, Israel could create a state of the Jewish people and such a state would struggle in contemporary terms.

We are still confronted with the question of how modern Israel fits into the long tradition of Jewish civilization. And if we decide that Israel is Jewish first then there is the daunting question not of Judaism – which will make adjustments slowly to the modern world – but how Jewish Israel fits into the contemporary culture of justice and fairness for all. More later.

Good News Friday

Yea, boycott Isreal but watch this video first. I wish the sentiments of this video, which is thoroughly enjoyable, were made available to all. It simply cannot be denied that Israel is singled out for special criticism and the litany of injustices portrayed in this video is a remedy for that.


Also, it is unfortunate that the news about the Nobel Prize winners has to be turned into nationalism. I happen to know members of the Warshel family and they would not appreciate the focus of the announcements about the award to be so blatantly nationalistic. Professor Warshel is immensely talented and I’m sure deserving but we can never ignore influences and the complex networks of people who make a difference in our work.

Anne's Opinions

It’s time for another Good News Friday installment.

My first item for this week is the very exciting news that two out of the three 2013 Nobel Prize winners for chemistry are Israeli, and the third winner is Jewish.

Israeli professor Arieh Warshel on Wednesday won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, along with fellow Jewish professors Michael Levitt (who also holds Israeli citizenship) and Martin Karplus.

Warshel, 72, is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he has been since the 1970s.

Fellow winner Michael Levitt, a South Africa-born professor, immigrated to Israel in 1979, married here and taught at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot for most of the 1980s. Vienna-born Martin Karplus fled the Nazi occupation of Austria as a child in 1938.

Of the 23 chemistry Nobels awarded in the past decade, 11 of the winners were…

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Recognition Is at the Core

We will know that real progress is being made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when the Arab world explicitly states that it “recognizes” Israel. This concept of state recognition is at the core of the difficulty between these two sides, and I have the feeling that Arab countries choke on the word “recognition” so badly that they just can’t cough it up. In fact, it makes even little sense to negotiate and work to solve problems without such recognition. But it is the official recognition that holds the symbolic value and is more important than the practical outcomes of negotiation.

In a speech at Bar Ilan University Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu pointed to the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the home of the Jewish people as at the core of the Middle East conflict. It really is an excellent speech and I highly recommend it. Some countries recognize Israel from a purely political perspective but not as a Jewish state. There is, of course, a storm of anti-Semitism that accompanies this lack of recognition but my concern here is with more official explanations; that is, with the sources and documents typically used to prop up the objections to recognition. First, let’s take a quick look at what is meant by recognition in international law. These criteria are quite straightforward and easily applicable to Israel:

1. A permanent population that exist together and compose the people of the nation.

2. Territory or a parcel of land that the permanent population lives on. This land must be defined by boundaries and territories.

3. A government or a functioning political system that constitutes the law of the land.

4. The capacity to enter into relations with other states.

These are the criteria for recognition by international law but some states get around these criteria and maintain nonrecognition by the Stimson doctrine which is to withdraw recognition to any new entity that comes into being as a result of illegal actions or force. And of course some Arab states claim this applies directly to Israel because they came into being illegally through the United Nations and as a result of war. On one hand the United Nations is the epitome of official recognition, but many in the Arab world consider the United Nations to be in a position to sanction anything. The definition of illegal actions can be ambiguous. The United Nations resolution 242 was used in the aftermath of the six day war in 1967 and it was agreed to by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Israel agreed that it should promote a lasting peace and a peaceful resolution. But the details of this resolution remain murky and there is still confusion over language.

Recognition is a difficult process especially deep and symbolic recognition which is the most important type of recognition. Simple recognition of the state, which means such a state is suitable for routine contact and trade, is easy enough. But recognizing the deeper aspects of a political culture and its legitimate ties to land in history is another matter that requires greater respect and understanding. And, of course, the more the surrounding nations recognize Israel as a Jewish state with a legitimate claim to the land the more they drain their own claims of exclusivity. For example, many in the Muslim world hold the following:

1. Judaism was superseded by Christianity and later by Islam.

2. Jews are not a nation but a religion.

3. Recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” would question Islam’s claim to be a superior revealed authority.

4. The land the Jews are inhabiting is part of Islamic holy land and can never be associated with another group.

It will be a long time before a collection of Arab leaders stands up and states to the world that it “recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.” This failure of recognition includes a rejection of Jewish prayer, history as well as cultural artifacts. This is dangerous and potentially the “stuff” of anti-Semitism.

Learning How to Talk to People

The polarization that currently characterizes the American political environment, and is graphically depicted above, is a consequence of the degeneration of political relationships. Political friendships treat opponents as respectful adversaries, not enemies, that have common interests in problem resolution as much as anything else. The issue sophistication that comes with political relationships is quite compatible with the ability to sustain “reasonable disagreement.” Solving political and ethnopolitical conflicts involves initiating the two conflicting groups into the larger cultural conversation, where the understanding is that the conversation is about the relationship between the two groups. This involves creating a relationship where members of each group understand that they must engage in reasonable discourse, accept the burdens of justification, and reject illiberal attitudes and behaviors. Another way to think about it is as a network of weak ties. Weak ties are important forms of relationships that are more casual friendships or work relationships (e.g., acquaintance or coworkers) and engage in less intimate exchanges and share fewer types of information and support than those who report stronger relationships. Strong ties include in their exchanges a higher level of intimacy, more self disclosure, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, reciprocity in exchanges, and more frequent interaction. We have fewer strong ties and they are more important to our personal lives. Facebook and electronic contacts create numerous weak ties that serve important functions.

What Danielle Allen (2004), in her book “Talking to Strangers”, describes as “political friendship” is a sort of important weak tie. This is the sort of friendship that goes beyond the close relationships we have with family members and intimates. Political friendship is a set of practices and habits used to solve problems and bridge difficult differences. Emotional attachment to the other is less important than the realization of interdependence and the need for practical problem resolution. This form of a communicative relationship serves as a useful outlet for conflict resolution, and allows minority groups in multicultural societies to establish mature relationships with the dominant group.

The concept of political friendship is important and deserving of some elaboration. It is necessary to develop a healthy path to the resolution and reconciliation of group conflicts in order to provide either citizens or members of competing groups with political and interpersonal agency. The idea of political friendship is particularly associated with citizenship which is not necessarily a matter of civic duties but a communicative role that values negotiation and reciprocity. It is an excellent relationship to cultivate between members of different cultural and political groups because it is based more on trust than self-interest. Political friendship recognizes self-interest but develops a relationship that rests on equitable self-interest; that is, a relationship where each attends to the utilitarian needs of the other. As Allen (2004) writes, “Equity entails, above all else and as in friendship a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other.” (p. 134). Political friendship is less concerned with intimacy because intimacy is reserved for relatively few relationships that are more absorbing and based on sacrifice and strong identity with the other. But utilitarian political relationships can apply to large numbers of people and is focused on the pragmatics of problem solving or resource gratification. Parent-child, ruler and ruled, or superior- subordinate relationships are not political relationships because they limit the autonomy and agency of one person (the child, ruled, or subordinate) and are based on maximization of differences. In short, the political friendship relationship is central to the problems associated with multicultural contact and the ability of groups to develop their capacities for trust and communication. As Allen (2004) points out, we have to teach people how to “talk to strangers.”

It is necessary to identify some conditions of political friendship. These are habits of communication that facilitate the relationship. They include recognizing and publicly acknowledging groups and their differences as well as promoting deliberative environments and intelligent judgment. Many of these communication behaviors require exceptional sensitivity and tolerance. Recognizing a group, for example, that is less talkative or more remote from Western habits of thinking and either accepting the differences or trying to meld cultural norms is difficult. So minority groups simply need to learn communication skills most associated with success depending on the nature of the dominant culture. Diverse groups must understand their problems as “public” problems. Under the best conditions different groups will have secure knowledge of each other and a similar level of understanding about what is occurring between them.

5 Barriers That Must Be Overcome for Islam to Move toward Democracy

Westerners who live in democratic countries usually have trouble imagining other forms of political systems. It’s sort of like most Americans who think that other people in the world would be American if they only had the chance. Extending such reasoning implies that most people believe that Muslims would be democratic if they only had a chance. And while such reasoning might be seductive, the road to democracy will be long and difficult. Here are some basic forces preventing the adoption of serious democratic conditions anytime soon: A good source for additional information is a book titled Islamic Democratic Discourse by M.A.  Muqtedar Khan.

1. Democracy is relatively unrealistic for serious Muslim polities because of its emphasis on individualism and secularism and the almost idealization of these things. The basic Enlightenment principles of progress and a continuous movement toward a more free and truthful future is quite alien to Islam. Moreover, many Muslims are skeptical about the gap between the truth and the ideal of democracy. They believe the United States sells an appealing sounding tonic but its actual consumption is bitter.

2. Muslim societies are not oriented toward individualism and they are more attached to collectivist ideals and an authoritative text. Pushing a democracy agenda continues to impose models and values on Muslim societies that do not serve the needs of that society and are inconsistent with it. And pushing democracy results in a distraction for Muslims directing their attention away from the achievement of a genuine Islamic society. Some of the radical thinkers thought that it took time to achieve a genuine Muslim society and democracy interfered with that. These radical thinkers (such as Sayyid Qutb) were also more interested in returning to earlier idealized political organizations and clearly democracy is inconsistent with these historical periods.

3. Many Muslims, especially the traveling intellectual class, are “put off” by what they see in capitalist systems. They easily believe democracy is for the rich and is based in corruption, colonialism, and is a general anathema to Islam. And it is not difficult to find examples of all of these things even though it is an exaggeration and not particularly correct to assume that they are the definitional base of democracy. The sort of personal freedom that democrats value and cherish is seen by many Islamic intellectuals as resulting in corruption and social degradation, whereby moral standards slip away and prohibitions about sexual conduct and other behaviors are abandoned. Again, it is easy enough to find examples of these things and make the case. Some even take it a step further and conclude that the goal of democracy is to destroy Islam.

4. The West has tried to make the case that there is no serious contradictions between Islam and Western civilization namely democracy. But Muslims increasingly respond with statements of clear contradiction. For example, they explain that Muslim civilization is dependent on divine revelation and that life is directed toward religious fulfillment. By contrast, Western democratic societies are more rooted in materialism, secularism, and individuality. These things are quite distinct from Islamic spiritual and moral values. For Islam, science and reason are subject to the conditions of revelation and there is no separation of mosque and state.

5. Finally, some theorists compare the Muslim system of consultation in decision-making with democracy. But these two systems remain distinct enough such that democracy cannot be compared. Muslim decision-making is top-down and a sort of elitist consultation. It lacks the nitty-gritty interaction of the population. And the consultation system is typically more concerned with the proper interpretation of Islam than it is with civic jurisprudence. Shia sects have always been more preoccupied with the existence of a divine ruler than with democratic processes and this forms a barrier to change. In fact, these principles have become alternatives to democracy and interfered with many democratic influences. Democracy will have a tough time as long as the primary objective of the Islamic state is to implement divine law even if this law is interpreted by erudite men.

Muslims see themselves as essentially an ethical enterprise and not as an enlightened polity on its way to democracy. In fact, the intrusion of human discretion makes the implementation of divine commands more difficult. For the serious Muslim human development and law are unambiguously derived from Islamic sources. This makes democracy quite untenable.

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