Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On The Rabbis’ Manifesto and the Moral Limitations of Liberal (yet Religious) Zionism

Negative reactions to the rabbinic manifesto prohibiting the rental and sale of properties to Arabs continue to pour in. This post will discuss three that appeared in today's Haaretz.

The first, and most significant, is the letter written by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of the Har Etzion yeshiva, and one of the leading rabbis of the moderate wing of religious Zionism. The full text of the letter in Hebrew appears here, but its salient points appear in Haaretz English here

"There is no doubt the arguments in the letter are based on sources from the sages of blessed memory, and generations of halakhic tradition, but the document in general leaves one with the impression that it builds its conclusions on assumptions that reflect a particular, but not the only possible, halakhic approach."

Lichtenstein highlights the commandment prohibiting housing to non-Jews or idol-worshipers in the Holy Land. He lists four examples of misinterpretation in the letter, and of the authors ignoring other opinions in the Gemara and halakha. He says the ruling that anyone selling an apartment to a Gentile must be ostracized "is completely false."

"We should state the obvious: In the balance are key questions .... The readiness and ability to consider extensive factors linked to halakhic content and their connection to historic and social reality necessitate a wider discussion."

Rav Aharon attacks the simplistic and tendentious interpretation of sources and wonders how it can be that orthodox rabbis were unable to see the negative consequences of publishing such a letter. While his position will not make a lot of my readers happy – he is, after all, an orthodox rabbinical authority with certain theological and ethical commitments – he does present a reasonable conservative position.

In the same Haaretz article we are told that another prominent orthodox rabbi, rosh yeshiva, and former member of Knesset, Haim Druckman, wants to reformulate the manifesto so as to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Arabs. A good Arab is one that is loyal to the Jewish character of the state; another is one who is not. Anybody with a brain in his head can see that there is no essential difference between his position and that of the original manifesto.

But the most disappointing response was contained in an advertisement sponsored by forty-two Jewish organizations that promote the study of Jewish religion in Israel, or are guided by it, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Hebrew Union College, the Torah ve-Avodah movement, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc. With all its considerable merits, the counter-manifesto exemplifies the moral and political limitations of a Zionism that bases itself on a liberal interpretation of Judaism.

The counter-manifesto certainly begins well enough. Under the title, "No to Racism in the Name of Judaism," it sees the rabbinic manifesto as part of a struggle against humanistic values, and the love of humanity. But here comes the money quote:

We, the heads of organizations and institutions that study and teach Torah believe with all our heart that the Torah of Israel [i.e., the Jewish people], and its development in the Land of Israel, must distinguish between friend and foe, between the aggressor and the resident stranger, of whom the Torah said: "The stranger who lives with you will be like the citizen (ezrah). And you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord."

What is to be concluded from this passage if not that Arab native citizens of Israel are to be loved as "resident aliens"? What is the essential difference between these sentiments and that of Rav Haim Druckman mentioned above? True, he has a more expansive notion of what constitutes a "foe", and he feels less the noblesse oblige of the liberal religious organizations. But the advert fails to mention the equal rights of all citizens qua citizens. And why doesn't it? Because the minute you appeal to ancient sources to give your viewpoint authenticity, you leave behind modern notions of "rights", "equality" "citizenship." In their desire to show that Judaism and democracy are integrated with each other, the Jewish organizations have altered democracy beyond recognition.

I saw a copy of this statement circulating last week, and I noted my objections then. There already were more public objections to appealing to the concept of "loving the stranger" in reference to Palestinian natives (non-citizens are something else.) Whether these objections were noticed by the framers of the text of the advert I don't know. But this much is certain: to consider a native population – made a minority by expulsion and ethnic cleansing – as "alien" is morally despicable. I am an orthodox Jew, but I don't need to ground my moral convictions on a verse, especially if it is utterly inappropriate. At the very least, the advert should have taken notice of the problem, if only by implication.

It is statist Zionism that made the Arabs strangers in their own land. The problem is not with the texts of Judaism but in their simple-minded application to modern circumstances. I realize that adverts cost a lot of money, and manifestos are not the place for nuance. I also assume that some of the signatories were aware of the problem, gritted their teeth, and signed anyway.

But here in a nutshell we see the moral limitations of a Judaism informed by liberal statist Zionism. If Judaism and democracy can be integrated, it has not been by the framers of this advert. Were I a Palestinian Israeli, I would be deeply disappointed, though not surprised. In the same issue of Haaretz, conservative politician Moshe Arens holds the statements and actions of Israeli Arab politicians responsible for the negative Israeli Jewish attitudes towards Arabs.

Apparently, they don't behave politely like the aliens they are.


Tobias said...

You hit the nail on the head. When I first read that 'liberal' statement, I immediately thought it was condescending and thoroughly incompatible with a modern, liberal democracy.

Joachim Martillo said...

Why do you suppose that orthodox Judaism is so constipated?

During the 19th century the leading ulama (Muslim hakhamim/rabbanut) of the Ottoman Empire (the most highly evolved sharia state) essentially negated the concept of ahlu-l-dhimma (Muslim equivalent of gerei toshav) and laid the groundwork for the transformation of Ottoman subjects into Ottoman citizens.

Unknown said...

This is no different from when we Christian Palestinians are condescendingly told by some of our Muslim compatriots that we have a stake in our people's future. As if we didn't know that or we needed their blessing for it.

The organizations who published the "counter"-manifesto could have appealed to modern notions of citizenship and inalienable rights. The primary goal, it seems to me, to be less about Palestinians and more about Judaism. This is an intra-Jewish philosophical battle being waged on the field of Palestinian rights.

I've noticed this happen a lot recently, and it's demeaning. Organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights should know better.

Jerry Haber said...

Joachim, those may have been the good old days. I have been reading some of the Islamist literature (mostly Madudi), and it seems they call for a return to a modified form of dhimmitude

Ah, the Ottoman Empire.

On another note altogether...Larry Summers' wife is (distant) mishpaha, so watch what you say (about her, not him!)

Jerry Haber said...

T, I agree with you 100%. I was surprised to see RHR there. I may make some inquiries.

What annoys me is that the problem of the advert's language was already flagged a few days ago when it was circulating.

Alan Gilbert said...

Great post, thank you.

Joachim Martillo said...

It is a little bit facile but, as I remember from my undergraduate studies, Egyptian Islam was perceived as lagging about 75 years behind Ottoman Islam, and Indian Islam was supposed to lag about 75-100 years after Egyptian Islam.

Anyway, I have noticed a lot more interest among Islamic reformers today in Ottoman examples than there was 30-40 years ago.

As for Larry's new wife, you have criticized the company she keeps at least as much as I and for more or less the same reasons.