A colloquial expression in Hebrew is “tzeh li me’havrid” – “get out of my veins”: you are too pushy, too close, you’re brutally invading my space. It’s an aggressive expression, and aggression is not my intention, so I’ll go with “American Jews, kindly get out of my veins.” As a left-wing Israeli, the last thing I want is your intervention in my politics – or, rather, your intervention as Jews.
I know, I know. Your intentions are good. You want to promote peace, justice and liberty in a place which sorely lacks them. I understand that. I believe you. I truly do. I’ve seen the horrified faces of American Jews who came to Israel and saw what it actually looks like. But, please, while your intentions are good, your actions are destructive.
Please hear me out. Recently, there was a loud hue and cry over the decision of the Israeli government over the Western Wall and legality of conversion issues. Many Jewish leaders came over and protested. Senators were burning the international wires with outraged phone calls to the government. Why did this happen?
It’s simple: While Israel pretends to be the “homeland of the Jews”, it is actually the homeland of the Orthodox Jews. Israel has a state religion, which is Orthodox Judaism. It maintains two chief rabbis – one Sephardic Orthodox, one Ashkenazi Orthodox. The so-called “national” education system is actually a light-Orthodox education system; we have also a national-Orthodox education system and several shades of ultra-Orthodox education systems. There was once (i.e., in the 1930s and 1940s) a humanistic school system, but David Ben-Gurion dismantled it. The little autocrat didn’t like the idea of freethinking.
Why is this so? Well, the short version of it is this. In the 1880s and onwards, Eastern Europe witnessed a mass emigration of Jews. Some 2.5 million of them went to the US. A few tens of thousands went to Palestine. The Jews who went to the US – yes, this is a gross generalization, we’re talking about 2.5 million people here – were progressive. They wanted a better life and were willing to discard the ghetto thinking of the old Jewish town. In a short period of time – amazingly short – they’ve become one of the most brilliant and forward-thinking communities in the history of the world. American Jewry, for all its problems, is a huge success story. The main drive behind this wave of emigration was the will, if not to assimilate, then to participate. To include, not to exclude.
Then we have to talk about the others. They were (again: this is a generalization) a polar opposite. They wanted a state for the Jews, or a Jewish state – they never quite managed to make a sharp distinction between the two. They were, in the main, Eastern European revolutionaries who discarded Communism; they wanted not the opportunity to participate, but to dispossess. And, in order to dispossess a people, you need – if you’re unwilling, as most conquerers are, to see yourself as a despoiler – an ideology to back you up. And Orthodox Judaism fit the bill. It alone could provide the essential link to the past which will allow the Zionists to claim a “historical right” to the land.
Zionism had – still has – an inherent contradiction. It claimed that all the Jews in the world were not a religious community, but a people. Yet they lacked a common history, a common language, and naturally a common homeland. Nor were they similar ethnically. A Jew from Northern Africa had little in common with a Jew from Belarus – aside, of course, from the prayers they were saying every day and their joint messianic bond.
So Zionism pulled a difficult stunt: it claimed that Jews were a nation because throughout the ages they kept the belief they will one day have a homeland; and this bond manifested itself in religion. But Judaism has also strong anti-national messages: the inherent passivity of the Talmudic Three Vows*, for instance. The Zionists had to take out of Orthodox Judaism just its nationalist core.
So we came to the position where the Zionists – who were mostly secular – had to use the paradoxical claim (as formulated by Prof. Amnon Raz-Karkotzkin) that “God does not exist, and he promised us this land.” The emphasis here is on “us.” And, since as Gershom Scholem noted, “God will not stay silent in the language in which He was invoked millions of times”, Zionism could not but cling to Orthodox Judaism. Even as Zionism claimed to replace it, it had to use it to get legitimacy. Indeed, a main talking point of the Orthodox against secular Israelis is “what are you doing here? If you don’t believe in God, you are nothing but robbers and despoilers, who unjustly dispossessed the Palestinians.”
Still with me? Good.
1. A Zionist state had to be a Jewish Orthodox state in order to gain legitimacy.
2. Hence, it cannot recognize the legitimacy of other Jewish movements.
3. A Jewish Orthodox state, being based on the most exclusionary elements of Judaism, will inevitably be illiberal. Furthermore, it will likely spiral into radical illiberalism as it tries to return to an imagined “laws of our fathers” system which never actually existed.
4. Any attempt to sway the country from this course will run up on the shoals of the source of Zionism’s legitimacy: Orthodox Judaism.
Hence, the government’s decision to not recognize Conservative and Reform conversion was not only unsurprising, it was inevitable. So was the decision to exclude heretical Jews (which is how Reform and Conservative Jews are seen by a majority of Israel’s Jews) from one of Judaism’s holy sites, the Western Wall.
Fine, Yossi, nice historical lecture. Why do you want us out of your bloodstream?
Well, it’s quite simple. Israel claims it is a Jewish country.
It contains some 20% non-Jews, who are discriminated against. And I’m not even talking about the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where it’s full-bore apartheid. When you are trying to impact Israel’s policy as a Jew, you are granting legitimacy to this. You are saying: I, who was not born in Israel, should have not just a voice in its affairs – but a much louder voice than its non-Jewish natives. What do they call that popular hasbara trip? I have a birthright.
At least, you can’t claim a birthright here and still claim to be a liberal. If you do, you’re playing Israel’s game: you’re claiming Jews are a nation, you are claiming Israel is the national homeland of the Jews, and that therefore your voice counts more than non-Jews who live here.
And, of course, by playing Israel’s game, you are empowering its government to spit you out like a half-eaten grape. They’ll take your money, they’ll take the legitimacy you grant them in the US, but at the end of the day, Zionists will Zionate: they will always return to Jewish Orthodoxy, and the virulent local strain of Orthodoxy will always consider you as heretics.
Does it mean I don’t want to hear from you? Not at all.
You are important to me as liberals. Liberalism everywhere is under attack. You might have noticed that Israel is walking hand in hand with Russia and the eastern European anti-liberal governments. We are facing an international ultra-national movement. We need to link hands against it if we are to survive.
So, as liberals, you are my allies; but, as Jews, kindly get out my veins. By speaking as Jews, you are lending force to the illiberal forces here. Speak to us in the voice of humanity you earned by standing by the civil rights movement, by the martyrs of the Freedom Riders; but don’t speak to as Jews. My country only sees you as Jews when it needs to exclude others. Don’t legitimize it.
*Footnote, re The Three Vows:
According to Talmudic legend, God issued three vows:1. That Jews would not antagonize the gentiles.2. That Jews would not “rise up the wall” (Ya’alu ba’khoma) – attempt to seize the Land of Yisrael before the coming of the Messiah.3. That the gentiles will not abuse the Jews “too much.”The second vow was used as a weapon by the Ultra-Orthodox against the Zionists, and the alleged breaking of it was why Zionism was considered a heresy.