More Secular Humanistic Zionism

More Secular Humanistic Zionism April 3, 2011

As I write this, I have only received one comment about my previous post on Zionism.  It was a rather long one, posted anonymously, that deserves a reply.  At first I was going to merely write it as my own comment, but I think others may have had the same reaction, so I’m going to place it here.  “Anon,” as I’ll call him (I’m just going with “him”) begins with this:

Daniel [Gordis; see below] continues: “IT IS thus time to get strategic, just as the Saudis did years ago when they began to seed academic positions across America.”

The Saudis also contributed the funds for supporting madrassas across Pakistan, with a version of very orthodox, very intolerant, Islam, similar to the Wahabi school that officially dominates Saudi Arabia. We saw the results of that with the Taliban, and the material support they gave Saudi extremists, which resulted in 9-11.

That’s the model to follow, Jeffrey? You may want to think about its implications. Daniel is asking us to emulate the mind control of fundamentalist organizations, to ensure blind, unquestioning obedience to an abstract idea — whether it’s a jealous, vengeful God or support for a Zionist nation state, based on a 19th century model of racial French nationalism but with 20-century apartheid.

I believe that Danny was referring to the many professorial seats at various American universities endowed with Saudi money.  These have been very successful in sharing the Palestinian narrative with American academia.  He’s not advocating a Jewish version of other Saudi investments in religious intolerance.  Now to the heart of Anon’s argument.

Anon claims that the “Zionist nation state” is based upon “a 19th century model of racial French nationalism.”  Why the French?  Why not the dozens and dozens of 19th, 20th and 21st century aspirations to national sovereignty?  Are all of those nationalist movements legitimate while only the Jewish version is not?

The description of a “racial” form of nationalism does not describe Israel.  To the extent that the idea of “race” even has any coherence, Israel is a multi-racial nation.  Anyone who has spent any real time there is struck by the array of hues of eye color, hair and skin.  The intermarriage rate among these groups has always been on the rise despite early generation immigrants’ suspicions of each other.  There was a time when no Moroccan would marry an Eastern European.  Those days are LONG gone.  The same is beginning to occur among Ethiopians and Russians.

Let’s talk for a moment about apartheid.  That’s a pretty serious allegation and it’s also quite inaccurate.  The picture is much more complicated than that.  First of all, Arab Israelis can be found in every walk of life.  There are even some (Bedouins and, of course, the Druze) in the IDF.  The judge who just sentenced the former president to prison is an Arab.  In opinion polls  about land exchanges with a future Palestinian state, 83% of Arab Israelis in Umm El-Fahm have stated that they wish their city to remain inside of Israel’s borders.  The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that Arab Israelis have all of the same rights as Jewish Israelis.  That’s the law.  This is not apartheid.

Anon continues:

Israel denies its Arab citizens equal rights. Even if peace broke out, and Hamas embraced Jewish legitimacy and feminism, Arab citizens would still be discriminated against. Because that *IS* the foundation of Zionism, even in its most moderate form. Shas and Liberman aside, Zionism is still racist because it favors one people with a given bloodline over others. It is *NOT* about personal choice, such as becoming an American citizen. It is about the bloodline and religion of one’s mother. It differs from the nationalism of a synthetic, multi-ethnic state, like the US.

In practice it is lamentably true that there is discrimination against Arab citizens.  Much of it is grounded in anger about the conflict and will disappear when the conflict is resolved.  There is no denying that it is wrong and that it must come to an end.

This discrimination is by no means “the foundation of Zionism.”  Zionism sought to privilege Jewish immigration for reasons that were quite valid then (arguably less so now).  Jews were in danger.  Perhaps the time has come to open up a discussion about the Law of Return.  Maybe it’s started to outlive its usefulness.  Prominent members of Knesset (and not only on the left) have already raised this issue.

I would personally take it a step further.  An anomaly of Jewish existence is the strange combination of nationality and religion.  It is high time to bring that to an end.  Secular Humanistic Jews, Israelis among them, argue that the religious beliefs of Israelis or other Jews should be immaterial.  The state should privilege only the cultural forms of Jewishness and provide equal treatment to all of its citizens.  And yes, I did say that Jewish culture should be privileged in its secular form.  That’s part of why Israel was founded.  Israel is not America.  Japan or The Netherlands might serve as better comparisons.

Anon now moves on to Gaza:

I already had that argument with my local Reform rabbi at the time of the attack on Gaza, which led to my leaving the congregation and ripping down all the Judaica on my household’s walls.

Anon and I obviously disagree about the attack on Gaza.  As I’ve written before, I’ve spent some time in southern Israel, including a horrifying day of “red alerts” that I will never forget. Radically religious Muslim terrorists, claiming to be the “resistance” to an occupation that was ending, fired thousands and thousands of rockets and mortars on civilian populations.  They made daily life unbearable.  A nation must defend its citizens.

Israel’s attack on Gaza was completely justified after numerous failed cease-fire attempts.  Just this week Richard Goldstone clarified that Israel did not violate human rights in the way that his eponymous report indicated.  I’m sure the IDF made plenty of mistakes, but intentionally trying to hurt innocent civilians was not one of them.  If some soldiers did, then they will be punished.

As for Anon’s “ripping down all the Judaica” on his walls, I congratulate him for realizing that maybe the Jewish people is not a positive place to park his identity.  Being a part of the Jewish people means grappling with all of the good, bad and ugly parts of our history and current situation.  It means viewing yourself as part of the family even if you are bitterly angry toward many of its members.  If this is completely beyond him, then maybe he shouldn’t have Judaica on his walls.  In either case, it’s his decision to be part of this enterprise or not.  In 2011, Jewishness is voluntary and open to all.

Here are Anon’s concluding remarks:

I haven’t observed Passover since 2002, when he [the aforementioned rabbi] lectured his confirmation class (in which my son sat), that “it is just as easy to fall in love with a Jew as with a non-Jew.) This was said to a class in which half of the kids, my son included, were from mixed marriages. And the man is an unabashed Likudist, who believed in the resettlement of all Arabs, across the Jordan, in to THEIR state. Elsewhere in the world, we call this ethnic cleansing.

Maybe the existence of these rabbinical students is actually a hopeful sign, that they cannot abide the actions of a racist, nationalist state with the loving tradition of their religious studies? I don’t know. There are also rabbis who deny the existence of Israel because only the messiah can bring it about.

That rabbi’s statement was horrible.  People should fall in love with and marry whoever they want and create a home based on whatever culture – or combination of cultures – is meaningful to them.  I fail, however, to see any connection between that rabbi’s statement and Passover celebration.  Surely Anon knows that there are many lessons to take from Passover seders and a variety of ways to participate in them.

If that particular rabbi is a Likud supporter who thinks that transfer of Palestinian Arabs is a moral choice, I will absolutely take issue with him.  Such a transfer would be ethnic cleansing.  This conflict between our two peoples must be solved fairly and peacefully with emotionally painful concessions on both sides.  But does Anon expect that nearly seven million Israeli Jews should up and leave?  Where should THEY go?

Finally, he returns to those very same anti-Zionist rabbinic students who so shocked me in Danny Gordis’ article.  Ethnocentrism, a disagreeable attribute of every group of humans that has ever lived, is widely expressed in “the loving tradition of their religious studies.”

I actually think that if they cleared the supernatural gunk out of their heads they might be able to see more clearly that this is a conflict between two groups of flawed humans. I would suspect, however, that aside from their negativism about Israel, Anon will also find that these future rabbis will be quite strident about intermarriage.  I expect they will also emphasize the centrality of theism to Jewishness and embrace many aspects of religious tradition.

At the very end of his comment Anon references the tiny number of traditional Orthodox Jews who deny the legitimacy (not “the existence” as Anon wrote) of Israel.  These are rigid fundamentalists (misogynistic, homophobic) who claim to know that God disapproves of a secular Jewish state and will not sanction Jewish sovereignty until he sends his “holy messiah.”

Obviously, I don’t care about God, who is a fictional character, much less what others tell me he desires.  I only care about human beings.

And in this particular instance there are two groups of human beings about whom I care deeply.  One is the Palestinians.  I care a great deal about them and want to see them happy and flourishing in their future share of that little piece of land.

The other is my own extended Jewish family.

I was raised with an identification and attachment to Israel that is enormously strong.  I’m a frequent visitor, intimately knowledgable of its language and literature.  It is no symbol for me, but a real place with real people, the majority of them secular and humanistic to one degree or another.  All of the Israelis whom I know (and I know quite a few) stand out in that region for the degree of humanity to which they strive.  They work for equal rights for women, gays and non-Jews in their nation.  They also want an end to the conflict.

They are sick and tired of putting their children in uniform and sending them off to stand in harm’s way.  Many suffer physical illness from worry.  They, too, are tired of settlements and roadblocks and suspicion and tension and fear.  They hate no one and just want to divide up the assets and get this inevitable divorce over with already.

After that happens, the world will see the path that Israel takes and it will be good.  If it’s not, then like every human enterprise, we’ll continue to work to make it better.

Until then, stereotyping this still young, small and struggling nation as some kind of a racist monster, created for a people undeserving of sovereignty, can’t be called anything other than antisemitic.

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  • Anonymous

    Yasher koach! Very powerful response. I agree 110%

    The Reform Deist

  • Anonymous

    I don’t agree with many of your arguments. But thank you for the respectful manner in which you analyzed and countered mine. And thank you for fixing my typos and merging my comments.

    I’m afraid that in the current political environment in Israel, a discussion about the Law of Return will not turn out positively, toward inclusiveness. The push, rather, is in the other direction, toward denying the offspring from mixed marriages, putting them on the same level as Arabs displaced by the Nakbah. There is a push toward mandating a pledge of allegiance to the Jewish state, allegedly targeting Arab citizens, but with the potential to deny civil rights to secular Jews (supporters of an American-style secular state) as well. There have been campaigns to stigmatize mixed marriages, particularly between Arabs and Jews. Finally, there are moves to target Israelis (particularly professors) who offer verbal support for the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestments Movement. This is notable, because this movement is non-violent. And yes, I know the argument that the state has a right to defend itself… against its own people, in this case.

    I regret the impact that 44 years of occupation has had on the Israeli psyche. Herzl wanted Jews to cease being a “ghost people” and to become a real nation state on the Western European model. There is now a real nation state, which has, ironically, practiced real colonialism just like Western Europeans did in Africa and Asia. It has used militarism, buttressed by racism, to support those colonies — or should I say “settlements”? Because the parallel is not to the race segregation of pre-1954 America but to the French colonists (pied noirs) in Algeria. Although you take issue with my allegations of racism, there are numerous examples, from the ad hoc acts of fundamentalist settlers in Hebron to official discrimination against non-Jews at checkpoints and prohibitions against using Jewish roads. There is chilling footage of young Israelis and American Jews, partying in Tel Aviv, speaking of Arabs as apes and dogs. (And this is Tel Aviv, not the fundie theme park that so much of Jerusalem has become.) I was raised during the Civil Rights Movement, and I abhor such attitudes. But they are becoming widespread because of the poisonous occupation. Colonialism does that. It causes dehumanization of “The Other.” Even those who celebrated a tradition of liberty, like the French, massacred Algerian immigrants on the banks of the Seine, during the Algerian War. With Liberman and the neo-Kahane skinheads, we are seeing similar pressures in Israel.

    As a child attending Hebrew School, I was encouraged to bring money to school to buy a tree. “Make the desert bloom” was the slogan. But no one ever told me that my trees were planted on the sites of many Palestinian villages that had been ethnically cleansed and bulldozed for the new forests. “An empty land for a landless people” was the slogan. This hidden history, at least, is being corrected by a new generation of Israeli historians.

    Finally, being an American, in this place, and in this decade, I have a choice of identity. If the mainstream voices of Judaism have become befouled with racism (as they have among certain Haredi), I can separate myself from that. My parents did not have that choice. Nor did I, as a child. Sometimes, you have to leave the Temple in order to save it… and yourself.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Jeffrey. My nightmare is imagining scenes from the Bosnian War in Israel / West Bank / Gaza. Those images include a 21st century concentration camp (as was photographed at Omarska), and mobs of women who sit down in the middle of the road to block food shipments to hungry families of a town of a different ethnic group. I think the motto of the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia could have been: “Why should I be a persecuted minority in your country when you can be one in mine?”

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