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Next Week in Jerusalem

orthodox-jew

Next week on February 7th I arrive in Israel for a five month stay as a Lady Davis Fellow associated with Hebrew University. The inaugural definition of this blog was devoted to the Middle East and Israel and even though it remains that way I do admit to adjusting course after Donald Trump floated to the top of the pool of presidential candidates. His candidacy and his victory as President is so unnerving and shocking that I could not help but devote more time to try and understand what happened. Trump has to be the crudest and least prepared president in history and I’ve been warning that this is going to be a wild ride. The first 10 days of his presidency certainly has lived up to my expectation.

But over the next few months I’ll post more about Israel – even though there are probably more readers interested in Trump – and I will try to provide some sort of real-time value-added insight as a result of my presence on the ground. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I simply will not be able to shake Trump from the tangle of international relations, identity politics, his oppressive populism, or my tolerances for outrage.

Israel is not quite the same country or culture it once was. The Israeli founding narrative (an invincible democratic and moral Jewish state–holding a righteous sword– and mightily reasserting itself in the face of historic anti-Semitism to reclaim its ancient homeland) has broken up and does not echo the emotional and historical resonances it once did. The long and corrosive battle with the Arabs has depressed the nation and unleashed an unhealthy tribalism and nationalism. Much of the talk between Arabs and Jews is we-they talk that treats the other as a member of a binary opposite group along with attributions that explain deficiencies and problems in the culture by referring them to the particular “nature” of the culture. Still, Israel is a complex multicultural society full of the old and the new.

Listen to Bret Stephens explain the political and social conditions of the Arab world. I might not hold such analysis against lesser journalists but Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Stephens is familiar with Israel, bright and knowledgeable about the issues but he remains committed to various prejudices and distortions when it comes to Israel. In the video Stephens explains how it is anti-Semitism that prevents Arab economic and political progress. He has teamed up with one of the most agenda-driven conservatives (Dennis Prager) to produce this short video, which has some defensible claims, but is so overstated and exaggerated as to render it unusable. The video capitalizes on the racist assumption that Jews are intellectually superior because when they were driven from Spain, or Germany, or Czarist Russia there was a decline in these cultures. A simplistic analysis if there ever was one. It is of course beyond the confines of this posting to offer more comprehensive historical and economic analysis but the notion that the loss of Jews in these populations is responsible for their decline sounds like just the sort of thinking he claims characterize Arab countries. I certainly don’t deny that a preoccupation with anti-Semitism is real enough and an unproductive distraction but is only one affect among an entire nexus of effects that explain problems in the Arab world.

Moreover, most Arabs critical of Israel would tell you that is Zionism and not Judaism that they object to. This may be a modern form of anti-Semitism – and I believe that argument can be made – but it still challenges the centrality of anti-Semitism as Stephens explains it. Israel is changing because it lives in an environment of constant threat that it has been unable to untangle itself from. 70 years of violence and aggression hasn’t worked very well for either side. Maybe it’s time both sides extend their hands palm down. I will explore the various possibilities in the next few months.

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Israel as a Jewish State

If you want to listen to one of the finer minds around click here and listen to Ruth Gavison. This is a first-class intellect grappling with the issues of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and how it can achieve such. Just put your feet up and enjoy. Then read a few opinions of my own. This issue is the classic intersection of politics, philosophy, and culture

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, a very conservative one, it’s time to think about the “Jewish” definition of Israel. We can explore these 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

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, barely, and it’s composed of some pretty right-wing parties it begs the question of Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature. Let’s think a little bit about this. 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.

 

Reprinted from earlier post May 7, 2014

What Kind of Mentality Kills Teenagers Because They are Jewish or Palestinian? I’ll Tell You What Kind.

O Allah kill Jewsgodless atheists

You have to be pretty far outside the category of “human” to kidnap three scared teenagers and shoot them in the back of a car. Shoot them for no reason other than they fit the category of “other.” The murder of Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach 19, and the Palestinian Mohamed Abu Khdeir reveals the monstrosity that can arouse itself in humans whenever group membership is highly salient and fueled by powerful beliefs such as religion. Let me explain how framing a conflict can be murderous.

Experts talking to lay people usually make the point that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about religion or culture but land and national rights. It is a conflict between national political movements – Zionism and Palestinian nationalism – and perhaps includes broader Arab nationalism. Framing the conflict this way is actually quite good and beneficial. In addition to the practical implications, describing the conflict as one between two national political movements makes the conflict more amenable to management and resolution with all of the attendant rational and political bargaining. It implies sensible trade-offs and compromise along with future relationships and the positive attitudes and beliefs that will accompany these compromises and future relationships. Each side will broaden its circle of humanity and slowly include more of the other.

But with the integration and the unity government formed between Hamas and Fatah, not to mention the Hamas Charter and its aggressive religious history, we have a powerful religious element introduced. Islamizing the conflict is our worst nightmare and begins from the simple category definition of the conflict as one between two rival religions Islam and Judaism. Or, to put it in even more intractable terms, a conflict between two opposing absolutes. Now attitudes about the other are not subject to rational trade-offs and the anticipation of future relationships. And yes, the conflict can be Judiazed but there are important differences which we will take up at another time. This post is mostly about Islamizing the conflict. I will deal with revenge later.

Turning the conflict into a religious one between Islam and Judaism means you operate with only two categories – the ingroup and the outgroup with all of the biases and mental distortions that demonize and dehumanize the outgroup and wildly exaggerate the truth of the ingroup.

The murderers of these teenagers did not see  human beings, they did not see naïve young boys, and they certainly did not see three individuals who like sports, school, and their friends. No, they saw three Jews or a Palestinian who are all alike; they saw the “other” who was responsible for usurping the holy land; they saw grossly distorted historical monsters who – as the Hamas Charter indicates – were a demonic force on earth, bloodsuckers and the killers of prophets.

And it’s getting worse. As Hamas asserts itself Judaism becomes its primary enemy. The hate and narrowing categories of acceptance will reach hallucinogenic proportions as Jews are described in demonic terms and according to the Hamas Charter are a “corruption on earth.” It will be increasingly easier to kill innocent teenagers because Islamizing the conflict drained them of any remnant of humanity.

The Hamas Charter – and I encourage everyone to read it to fully appreciate the depths of its depravity – relies on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The old charges of the Jews controlling everything would be laughable if they were not so consequential. Hamas is not bargaining over land because Palestine is sacred and not subject to division or occupation by anyone else. There will be no discussion of borders, or settlements, or land swaps. Palestine is dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam).

Islamizing the conflict is the worst thing that can happen from a contemporary social science and intergroup conflict point of view. It will increase the distance and differences, and decrease opportunities for positive contact even more than they are. As the two groups retreat into their own worlds and formulate their psychological and communicative categories such formulations will be increasingly based on misinformation, distortions, historical inaccuracies, stereotypes, and emotions until the two groups retreat to their respective corners each having drained the other of even the slightest consideration. At that point it becomes easy to murder teenagers.

 

 

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.

Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Triumph of “Narrative” over “History.”

Last week I attended a conference on Zionism at Brandeis University. It was an excellent conference populated by highly capable people all of whom had something to say and are worth listening to. There were lectures on the history of Zionism and its various expressions.  The essence of Zionism is a rather simple idea. It was a national movement designed for the care and feeding of Jews who had a history of displacement and discrimination. Zionism was about finding a home and reconstituting the Jewish people as a nation along with the promotion and development of Jewish culture, history, arts and literature. Zionism was a program designed to foster a transition from a dispersed and discriminated religious group to a coherent nation.

This basic idea and many of its ramifications received attention during the conference. But there was a dearth of papers and discussion about the changes in Zionism over the years. Some have argued that Zionism is over; the state of Israel was created and Zionism has successfully served its purpose. Moreover, there was little discussion about the degradation of the term Zionism. Jews and the Zionists have had the contradictory misfortune of benefiting by the movement toward nationhood and nationalism in the last century – a period of time when nationalism was on the ascendancy – along with the deconstruction of nationhood. Contemporary theorists such as Hobsbawm have argued that groups of people have invented history and invented traditions in order to serve their own purposes which are sometimes inconsistent with true nationhood. Of course, Benedict Anderson and his captivating phrase “imagined communities” has been at the center of the claim that traditions are invented. Zionists have been particularly subject to recent efforts to deconstruct historical traditions. Zionism began as a noble effort to find a homeland for a historic people but its enemies successfully degraded the term associating it with at one time or another with “racism” or “apartheid” or “colonialism.”

Two words that appear quite often in discussions of Zionism and issues related to national histories are “myth” and “narrative.” I’ve noticed an increase in use of these terms over time. Both of them imply a subjectivity and I think their increased use is due to academic and intellectual fears of talking about historical facts or truth. The postmodern sensibility that vaporizes “truth” and characterizes knowledge as having lost its moorings needs a new language to talk about historical events and their explanations. This new language includes “narratives” which have a subjectivity and truth coded into them. In other words, a member of one ethnic group or nation does not have a history they have a narrative. And narratives are rooted in individuals and subject to their individual distortions. Hence, one narrative becomes as good as the next if it is tied to an individual and a perception of reality, and there is no historical or evidence-based grounding for the claims of the narrative. The same is true for the word “myth.” The culture does not have events or occurrences in its history that are meaningful, the culture has “myths.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be understood as filtered through these lenses. The current intractable nature of the conflict is the result of the clash of “narratives.” And narratives are subjective and rooted in the beliefs of one group or collection of individuals. Because narratives are personal and assumed to be the “reality” of the individual or group they must be taken seriously. So a Palestinian can tell his or her story and it must be treated as truthful, real, and respectfully. The same is true for an Israeli Jew. His story must be treated as truthful, real, and respectfully. The two realities are incommensurate and share very little in common, they have almost no sense of overlapping historical evidence or truth, the two narratives are almost incapable of sharing facts or interpretations, but both must be considered “real!” The two sides cannot even narrate one another. The Israeli “war of independence” is a Palestinian “disaster.” This paradox goes directly to the heart of the conflict. The conflict is a consequence of contemporary sensibilities about truth and reality, and a form of political correctness, as much as it is about historical events.

So Zionism, which was so central to the redefinition of Jewish nationhood, is now an opaque and harsh term according to many that has degraded in significance. In the future I think there needs to be more discussion of how this happened and why. Finally, the argument that Zionism has successfully established the state of Israel is a defensible one, but now there needs to be room for some sort of new Zionism:  A Zionism that continues the tradition of developing Jewish nationhood but adapts to current political and geographic conditions. This sort of Zionism might include more attention to democracy, conflict resolution, and better ways to coexist in the neighborhood.

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