Monday, June 27, 2011

How Big Can the Communal Tent Be?

I recently participated in a conference that dealt with the question of Jewish peoplehood. One of the speakers noted that in the Bible there seem to be two models for the Jewish people, one based on family (Genesis), the other on religion (Exodus).

If one wishes to add to the concept of family the notion of shared historical experience, one gets to the distinction offered by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik between the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the People of Israel was forged initially in Egypt, i.e., prior to Sinai by their shared experience; that was their fate, their looking backward. Sinai provided them with another model of peoplehood, one formed by a covenantal religious community. They looked forward to a shared religious destiny. One could be a member of the former community without signing on to the latter community. Through this distinction Rabbi Soloveitchik broadened the Jewish community beyond that of a community determined by religion.

Even a family often has its renegades. At the conference we discussed texts dealing with various categories of social deviance in the Jewish tradition, apostate, heretic, sabbath-violator, etc. Because the conference was under the auspices of a liberal institution, there was sympathy for the inclusive position that you can be a member of the tribe, even a member of the tribe in good standing, without affirming theological doctrines or observing Jewish law. There was little sympathy for doctrinal litmus tests. What mattered was whether you consciously distanced yourself from the community – like the wicked of the four sons in the Passover Haggadah, who excludes himself from the community and hence is criticized (but he is still there at the Seder.)

The institution sponsoring the conference is now engaged in a big project that will attempt to “civilize” discourse on Israel among American Jewish groups and individuals. Whether you are J Street or Z Street, Peace Now or ZOA, there should be some respectful communal space in which the dialogue can continue, according to those involved with the project.

Will the institution decide that there are limits to this inclusiveness? Will it say that groups and individuals can take no steps, or support no polices, that threatens Israel’s well-being in any way (such as asking Justin Bieber to cancel his concert). Will Jews be able to support criticism of Israel from gentile quarters. What of those who question the merit of the Zionist regime founded in 1948? What of the position that gives he Palestinian refugees the choice to return to their homes? Does one have to be a Zionist, or, at the very least, not speak in public about reservations from Zionism? Can you question whether Israel has been good for the Jewish people. Can you suggest that its actions provide fertile ground for anti-Semitism? Must criticism of Israel, when offered, be discrete and loving.

I know many committed liberal Jews who are usually tolerant of all sorts of Jewish doctrinal deviations. Yet they become intolerant Torquemadas when they talk about leftwing Jewish critics of Israel, even those who are motivated by their Judaism to criticize Israel’s policies. Why is this the case? I think that there are three answers. First, the image of a weak Israel surrounded by the powerful Arabs has become so central to the identity of many American Jews (the ones who care!) that they literally believe that Israel faces serious external existential threats. Now this is truly one of the most ridiculous claims on the face of the earth, but when it comes to your existence or the existence of your loved ones, the liberal mask often drops. Even if they are intensely uncomfortable with Israel’s actions, they are afraid that their criticism will be used to weaken the Jewish state significantly (cf. Elie Wiesel.) Add to this the claim that the survival of the Jewish people depends upon Israel – not a ridiculous claim, just one completely without basis – and you understand the vehemence of those attempts to exclude and delegitimize the critics of Israel.

What galls Jews most is the forging of alliances outside the Jewish community, especially with Arabs and with liberal Christians. How many times have I been told, “Jerry, you have some good criticisms, but you have to understand that they are being manipulated and exploited by anti-Semites’? Or: “Your support of the Global BDS Movement means that you support those people who want to throw Jews into the sea.” My answer to that is to say that I don’t endorse people; I endorse principles, and there is nothing in the principles of the Global BDS Movement that is remotely connected by any stretch of the imagination with throwing Jews into the sea – in fact, to suggest otherwise is the height of bigotry. And if there were people in the movement who were anti-Semitic, so what? Do I have to agree with every thing anybody says who supports some of the principles I support?

I have yet to hear somebody say that one cannot be pro-settlement because Christian evangelicals view settlement activity as a necessity step in the conversion of the Jews. I think it would be inappropriate for a Jews to be pro-settlement for that reason, and whether one wishes to form coalitions with such people is an open question.

I have been asked whether, in the name of tolerance of Jewish viewpoints, I would give Jews for Jesus a place at the communal table. Or Jews for the Lubavicher Rebbe. These are good questions, and there are no easy answers. Groups always draw lines; I am not against that. I am against making Zionism and support of Israel into such a dogma that those who question it are shunned as heretics, and their organizations booted. To change that situation, there are concrete steps that these individuals and organizations should take. Here is what I suggest:

1. Keep trying to engage, and when the other side refuses to play, be prepared to embarrass them publically.

2. Keep making the arguments within and without the Jewish community against the dogmas

3. Make your case civilly and respectfully, understanding that your opponent is driven by fear and tribalism. Take those fears seriously.

4. Try not to become a one-issue Jew. It’s not that this is illegitimate; it simply detracts from your effect. People are complicated, and I have found that I have things in common with the most rightwing Jews, even those who read this blog. That shouldn’t be important but it is…if you are family.

7 comments:

Keith Kahn-Harris said...

Hi

'The institution sponsoring the conference is now engaged in a big project that will attempt to “civilize” discourse on Israel among American Jewish groups and individuals'

Can you tell me what the institution is and what the project is?

Thanks

liberalzionism said...

"First, the image of a weak Israel surrounded by the powerful Arabs has become so central to the identity of many American Jews (the ones who care!) that they literally believe that Israel faces serious external existential threats."

I'm not sure if "powerful" Arabs is the controlling word so much as "hating" Arabs.

The question of intent is a different question. Your statement about "so what if there are anti-semites in the BDS movement?" is wrong to my view.

My assessment of the statements of the BDS positions is that they are principled, affirmations of the rule of law (ignoring the fetishized invocation of "international law") but that that is not the BDS movement in practice.

Within the BDS tent are those that ignore the phrase 67 borders in the description of "occupation", and accordingly interpret the right of return as applying to any claimed descendant of any Palestinian wherever they lived (including East Bank, even outside of the region) to return specifically to Israel/Palestine (river to sea and Gaza).

There is a similar argument made against liberal Zionists, that we give cover to the more abusive and excessive Zionists.

I think the way to get past the animosity is to emphasize the principles that guide you and attempt to apply them.

So, for example, if you are moved to respect all human beings, and value the description of charity epitomized by empowerment and mentorship, then applying that would be helping one's Palestinian neighbors AND one's Israeli neighbors get on their feet.

Who subscribes to the view of "a healthy neighbor is a better neighbor than a stressed one", is my definition of tent.

Anywhere I encounter Israelis declaring that Arabs are less than fully human, or solidarity declaring that Zionists are fair game for hatred, I know that they are not in the same tent as me, that I will be unwelcome in that tent.

You?

dmr said...

Jerry, I'm dying to know:

If you feel, as plainly you (together with so many among your readers and in the wider constituency beyond your blog) do feel, that your country in its present form is a racist, militarised ethnocracy more or less past praying for, and one, to boot, one that ex definitione makes a mockery of much that is positive in Judaism - if, I ask myself, you've been driven by events and by considered reflection to this direly ungainsayable conclusion, why on earth do you wish to remain part of it?

In posing this question - not, I hope, an impertinent one! - and in hoping for a persuasive answer I will with your permission discount in advance replies emphasising force of habit or sentimental attachment to food, landscape, language, etc. (though I grant that presence of family is a strong bond to a place that's in other respects so objectionable, morally and politically speaking). In South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s men and women who felt and thought about their country as you do about yours saw no alternative in the circumstances to voluntary exile and a continued struggle for change from without. (The like of Ilan Pappe, I think it's true to say, has been actuated by the same belief about Israel/Palestine - or do in fact you part company with him?)

Or is the Magnes Zionist an object-example of Turgenev's tragic dictum, to the effect that an honourable man will end up not knowing where to live?

cheers
dmr

Jerry Haber said...

Keith, no and no
The project is still in the planning stage. One day I will give further details.

Jerry Haber said...

liberalzionism, there are lots of tents. I was referring to the Jewish communal tent.

Jerry Haber said...

"In South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s men and women who felt and thought about their country as you do about yours saw no alternative in the circumstances to voluntary exile and a continued struggle for change from without. "

This is simply not true. Some left; many stayed. Ditto for Israel/Palestine. I can envision a time where it will be dangerous for people with my views to stay. Ask me then.

pabelmont said...

In thinking about the importance (to many people) of preserving the "Jewish People", I wonder about how those people balance that concern with other preservational concerns, such as preserving human-civilized life on earth (under threat from HCLoE via Global Warming), to say nothing (as, I guess they usually do) of the matter of preserving Palestinian national, human, and civil rights.