To distinguish between Israel and the nations

Rabbi Daniel Gordis has written again about rabbinical students who can’t see the difference between Israel and its enemies. He’s “rendered speechless” by an email to students at a rabbinical school that included this:

For Yom Ha-Zikaron, our kavanah [intention] is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. In this spirit, our framing question for Yom Ha-Zikaron is this: On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?”

I don’t blame him for being speechless. Actually he’s not — he has plenty to say about it. He mentions the fact that these students don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a state of Israel, don’t grasp the possibility that Israel could cease to exist, and don’t understand Israel’s importance to Jewish life in the Diaspora.  But then he puts his finger on the central issue:

This new tone in discussions about Israel is so “fair,” so “balanced,” so “even-handed” that what is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging—the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to create the state of Israel is their blood and their loss.

Judaism’s commitment to particularism may be based in instinct rather than ratiocination, but it need not be mindless. No thinking Zionist ought to deny that Israel is deeply flawed or that its leadership makes grievous mistakes. Israel, like all free societies, needs internal criticism in order to improve. The right of these rabbinical students to criticize Israel is not in question. What is lacking in their view and their approach is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people.

Gordis points out that, despite rules about the need to treat the stranger (ger) among us fairly, Judaism takes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ very seriously (in fact the injunction to treat the stranger fairly proves this):

What these students did not learn on their Jewish journeys, because they were not raised that way, was the instinctive Jewish sense that Judaism is, at its core, still a matter of “us” and “them.” To this generation’s students, that claim strikes a horribly discordant tone. To be sure, Jewish tradition is extraordinarily nuanced and generous when it comes to the question of how Jews are to treat non-Jews. But it is a simple matter of fact that Jews have always been taught to care, first and foremost, for other Jews.

Why is this? The first reason is that the Torah is a book about the relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel. Of course it matters if someone is a Jew.

And the second one is the Jewish experience through centuries of Diaspora, the need to remain a people despite persecution. I grew up in a household with immigrants from a place where Jewish life, to borrow Hobbes’ words, was often “nasty, brutish and short.” To them, everything was divided between Jewish and non-Jewish.

This isn’t an easy argument to win with someone educated in an American university in the last 40 years or so. They are taught that the highest ethical value lies in universalism — understanding, engagement (Gordis talks a lot about this), communication, openness, acceptance, multiculturalism, diversity are good. Particularism, orthodoxy (upper- or lower-case ‘o’), moral judgments about cultures, separatism, borders, patriotism, homogeneity, tribalism are bad.

There are lots of internal contradictions in this position. For example, take the most universalist American academic and suggest that his child, or even his cousin’s child, should be the subject of a dangerous experiment that might help find a cure for a plague that kills, say, hundreds of thousands of black Africans every year. Humans are primates and some degree of tribalism is built into them; it’s just a question of where they draw the line.

Consider also that among Israel’s enemies are found some of the most tribal and chauvinistic peoples imaginable, peoples who are generally remarkably intolerant of anyone who is different from them in any way, intolerant on the basis of gender, clan, color, religion, etc. But we are not permitted to think that these cultures are morally inferior — which raises the question of where we get the authority to condemn intolerance in our own culture.

But don’t bother. Gordis is frustrated in trying to get through to these rabbinical students and (worse) their teachers, and I’ve had the same experience. A few years ago I wrote from Israel to friends in the US and tried to express the feeling of belonging that I experienced there, despite the real differences between American and Israeli cultures, differences which often gave rise to dislike or distrust. I wrote about the feeling that I needed to defend these Jews and they would defend me because we were all members of a  people. A people needs to stick together.

Other things being equal, I said, I should come down on the side of the Jew in a conflict between Jews and non-Jews.

They were annoyed. There is no reason for me to feel differently toward someone because he is a Jew, rather than an Arab or a Norwegian, they insisted. That’s a kind of racism, they said.

This is a very deep-seated issue, one of the deepest. Everyone has general moral principles from which they reason out particular decisions (when they do try to reason morally as opposed to simply rationalizing their felt needs and wants). The choice to accept or reject the principle that who a person is can be relevant to our treatment of him is fundamental to one’s moral system.

Gordis thinks he knows why so many American Jews take a different path than that of traditional Jewish ethics:

All this is simply a reflection of the decreased role of “peoplehood” in Judaism. What we are witnessing is a Protestantization of American Jewish life. By and large, today’s rabbinical students did not grow up in homes that were richly Jewish. More often than not, these students came to their Jewish commitments as a result of individual journeys on which they embarked. They sought meaning, and found it. They sought prayer, and learned it. Their Jewish experience is roughly analogous to a Protestant religious awakening. The Protestant religious experience is a deeply personal one, not a communal one. Worship in the Protestant tradition is about reaching for the divine, while in the Jewish tradition, it is no less about creating a bond with other Jews. In Protestant liturgy, history is almost absent, while in the Jewish prayer book, it is omnipresent. The replacement of communal faith by personal journey among today’s young Jews is a profound reflection of the degree to which Christianity has colored their sense of what Judaism at its very core is all about.

So these Jews are closer to the principles found in the Gospels than they are to the Torah, despite the fact that they are studying the Torah. Why? Because years of exposure to popular culture (including Hollywood movies made by Jews!) has inculcated them with the principles of Christian morality first.

They are also far from the persecution that characterized the Diaspora until the golden age for Jews in post-1960 America (and today in the ‘Tel Aviv bubble’). Combine these factors with the previously-mentioned failure to grasp the precariousness and importance of the existence of the Jewish state, and you get what rendered Gordis speechless:

Young Jews that can’t tell the difference between Israel and her enemies.

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One Response to “To distinguish between Israel and the nations”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    Belonging to a people is belonging to its History. One need not be a religious believer to have a strong sense of Jewish history and belonging. I believe it is the sense of belonging to a Jewish history, sympathizing with the struggles of Jews in the past which is the first means to true Jewish identity.
    I would note that it is not only these ‘Protestant – like Jews’ who lack this sense of Jewish history but also religious Charedim. And it seems to me extremely important that new means of educating all Jews be found so that at least a certain sense of common history and past is shared. And of course one central theme of this regards Jewish survival and now Jewish survival in a Jewish state.
    I would have thought by the way that after the Shoah after the deliberate effort to eliminate the Jewish people completely, after the horror of over one- third of the Jewish people murdered, those who survived and their descendants would understand the ‘imperative of survival’. And those who felt Jewish helplessness and defencelessness at that time would have understood the importance of a Jewish state which can defend its people.