It is impossible to watch the news from Israel/Palestine just now without tears in one’s eyes, wherever your sympathies lie. And whilst the conflict with Hamas is sadly all too familiar, the sort of mob violence inside Israel itself is shocking and something new, or at least something which recalls the early days of the State of Israel and the years leading up to its establishment.
How do we react to all this? Or more specifically, how do I react as a member of the centrist Orthodox, religious Zionist, United Synagogue, and a left-wing, doveish, peacenik based in the Diaspora?
That there are faults on all sides is a given. However, the rabbis say that people see very clearly when observing the faults of others, but when it comes to their own faults, their vision is blurred (paraphrasing).
Looking at ourselves, how is it possible to see ‘religious Zionist’ Jews shouting ‘mavet le-aravim’ [death to Arabs] and then acting out on this through taking part in lynch mobs?
Gershom Gorenberg notes that following the perceived miracle of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, ‘a new theology swept much of Israeli Judaism. It described the battlefield triumph as part of God’s plan for redeeming the world, for bringing humankind into the perfected age of the messiah. The theology assigned sanctity to the State of Israel and its military. It made settling Jews in the newly occupied territory a divine commandment ‘as important as all the others combined’. The new doctrine constricted Judaism’s universal moral concerns and made militant nationalism a pillar of faith.
The extent to which Judaism has ‘universal moral concerns’ has been much debated. The Talmud contains many negative statements about non-Jews. Xenophobia was commonplace in late antiquity (and even much more recently to cite one egregious example of many), so we should not be astonished to find it in the Talmud. There are also reflective stories, whereby the rabbis question the fairness of the laws they have created in the eyes of the world.
Within these texts, and the commentaries which followed and are the basis for modern-day halakha, there are counter texts which are more inclusive, and this reflects a tension in all societies and ages as to how we approach the ‘other’ however defined.
When Jews were living in the Diaspora, the tendency was to interpret these texts, and halakha, in a more universal light. However terrible events can change people’s views.
Within orthodoxy for example the more universal ‘Torah in Derekh Eretz‘ movement was already under challenge well before the Shoah: ‘The generation of the first World War, which experienced the decline of the European ideals of humanism and liberalism … brought about an estrangement from the ideological elements of S. R. Hirsch’s conception which were associated in their minds with the nineteenth-century world of idealism and humanism.’
Looking at the current, tragic news in Israel/Palestine, again we see people turn against each other, with some religious Jews citing Biblical verses such as ‘do not let anyone live‘, referring to killing the seven Canaanite nations, or references to the Amalekites.
The extremists use religious language to argue for Jewish supremacy. justify ‘collateral damage’ and ethnic cleansing to ‘save’ Jewish lives. This is not an argument about defence or rules of engagement, this is a basis for religious extremism and fascism.
Trauma understandably produced extreme reactions, in the case of the Holocaust the cry of ‘never again’ became dichotomous, ‘never again’ to any human being or ‘never again’ to us, the Jewish people. The latter view, when combined with the religious nationalism Gorenberg outlines above, can become a toxic mix, and the growth of Kahanist ideas epitomised by Lehava, and Otzma Yehudit, shows where this can lead. President of Israel Reuven Rivlin has compared the actions of Lehava to ‘rodents gnawing under the shared democratic and Jewish foundation of Israel’.
Rabbis have rushed to condemn the ‘extremists’. However, they rarely address directly whether people like Itamar ben Gvir are outside Jewish tradition in their views of Jewish supremacy, and whether a more universal view is possible.
Judaism is a 3000-year-old argument, and one can argue for many opposing positions. Even the often quoted ‘whoever saves a single life, saves an entire world’ comes in two versions – the alternative being ‘whoever saves a single Jewish life’
Yair Wallach argues that ‘what has gone largely unremarked is the extent to which these events signal the emergence of a version of Judaism that fetishises rock and soil – and pursues a fantasy of redemption in the physical takeover of the Temple’s site.’
What has happened, gradually since 1967 and the wider acceptance of groups such as Gush Emumin, and the Jewish underground, is the gradual marginalisation of moderate religious Zionists like Rabbi Melchior.
Traditional Jews need to re-assert that all human beings are formed in the image of God, and views of Judaism that deny humanity to others are completely abhorrent. ‘Never again’ must apply universally, any other view is not a Judaism I can respect.
It is heartening to see that Jews and Arabs are coming together currently in Israel, to reject racism and to find common humanity and hope against hatred.