Whatever happened to the Torah ethic of the dignity of every person?
By Robert Cohen, Micah’s Paradigm Shift
August 06, 2013
So, peace negotiations have been restarted but nobody’s holding their breath for any miraculous breakthroughs in the next nine months.
And why is that?
Well, I could talk about the long-standing American bias towards Israel and the undue influence of the pro-Israel lobby on Congress and the White House. I could mention the appointment of Martin Indyk as the talk’s chairman (a former Israel lobbyist and previous US ambassador to Israel). I could point out that Israel’s governing coalition is stacked firmly in favour of continued Settlement expansion. I could remind you that Israel has already said it will never share Jerusalem and refuses to take any responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugees in 1948.
So, all in all, it’s hard to imagine quite what a fair and principled final status deal would look like that could be remotely acceptable to both sides.
But instead I want to examine a different factor. Something more fundamental to the dynamics of the talks. Something that underpins all of the issues above.
A few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made clear that his main motivation for agreeing to the resumption of talks with the Palestinian Authority was to secure the future of a ‘Jewish and Democratic State of Israel’. And he expects the Palestinians to recognise the country in those very precise religious/ethnic terms. At all costs, he wants to avoid anything that looks like it will lead to some kind of bi-national state of all its citizens. In other words, he wants to ensure Israel remains democratic for Jews only, and that means on both sides of the 1967 borders.
It’s the description ‘Jewish and Democratic State of Israel’ that takes us to the heart of the matter. It’s a shorthand descriptor that always sounds so reasonable, indeed admirable, to most western ears. Far better than those despotic Arab regimes that persecute women and gays and outlaw political dissent. And anyway, don’t the Jews deserve their own distinct state that is theirs, and theirs alone, after all they have suffered at the hands of other nations.
There are a number of ways to argue against this position..but the one I’d like to put forward here is that the current way in which the Jewish and Democratic State of Israel is constituted is not very…well, Jewish.
The Jewish community, worldwide, needs to wake up to what Zionism has done to the Hebrew conception of ‘Democracy’. And by ‘Democracy’ I mean the ideas of universal human dignity, individual rights and collective responsibilities that have come to define what an ethically grounded community or state should look like. These are the Jewish values I was taught to understand and take pride in as a Jewish youngster. These were the values I was told that we had brought to the community of nations and made witness to even during the darkest moments of our history.
But, during our current ‘Age of Zionism’ we have distorted Jewish ethics to the point where they have become unrecognisable from our traditional teaching. Either that, or we are being to asked to live in some strange world of Jewish Orwellian ‘doublethink’ where we are expected to hold in our heads contradictory versions of Jewish Democracy and claim that both are to be admired and respected.
Personally, I think it’s high time to rouse ourselves from the Orwellian nightmare and tell the Israeli version of Jewish Democracy to phone home.
In the beginning
You don’t have to look too hard to find the origins of modern democratic thinking in the Hebrew bible.
What does the creation story in the book of Genesis teach if not the dignity and worth of every human being, each made in the image of God? In the very first verses of the Torah, we are presented with all embracing God who creates an all embracing universal ethic. This was Judaism’s breakthrough moment in theology and it goes on to to influence the entire history of Western thought.
What do the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood teach if not that each of us has personal moral agency and responsibility.
And the morality that the early Hebrew scriptures teach is not an ethnocentric code that says that only Jews really count. In a moment of true moral grandeur we see the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, becoming the conscience of God, audaciously negotiating with the Almighty to save of the city of Sodom for the sake of the righteous who live there. What higher example of moral agency in the ancient world is there?
What is the Exodus story if not a sacred foundational myth to teach us the meaning of oppression, freedom and justice? And what can the commandment to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation mean if not to share God’s vision with all of humanity.
Through the rest of the Torah we get the fine detail of how to live in a community that respects and cares for all of its members with particular attention to the ‘widow’ and ‘orphan’, or in modern vernacular, the most vulnerable. The prophets take the theme forward to the next theological level, making it absolutely clear that the Hebrew God is not a tribal totem but a being intimately concerned with how every aspect of his creation is playing itself out.
What is the biblical story of the Jewish people if not an account of the struggles and set backs to create a just society?
However much they may have been sceptical about God and critical of the teachings and behaviour of organised religion, there’s no question that Hebrew thinking profoundly influenced the radical enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century and the high ideals of the American and French revolutions.
The creation of the League of Nations after the First World War and the United Nations after the Second both clearly had the same Hebrew ancestry. Along with a body of international law that has evolved during the 20th century, these institutions have been serious attempts to bring a universal consistency to the behaviour of nation states, no matter how powerful they may be.
It’s the same body of international law that has consistently ruled on the illegality of Israel’s Settlement building project on the West Bank and the creation of the separation wall that builds deep into the Occupied Territories.
But just when the world has finally understood the value of Hebrew Democracy, we have lost sight of our own achievement.
In the last 100 years, through our wholesale adoption of the Zionist agenda for the Jewish people, we have abandoned our central contribution to the development of Western thought and culture. We have exchanged the universal ethic we forged in biblical times for the narrowest conception possible of Jewish Democracy. We have pursued, not the justice of Deuteronomy, but the imperatives of ethnic nationalism.
Ask the Bedouin
And there are plenty who can bear a painful witness to the dereliction of our inheritance.
Ask the Bedouin herdsman in the Negev waiting to be evicted from his ancestral land – what he thinks of Jewish Democracy.
Ask the Nazareth school teacher who knows her Palestinian-Israeli pupils will be disadvantaged throughout their lives – what she thinks of Jewish Democracy.
Ask the villagers from Bil’lin protesting non-violently against the separation wall – what they think of Jewish Democracy.
Ask the olive oil farmers of Burin whose land is destroyed by Jewish Settlers with impunity…
Ask the teenage boy from Jenin detained without charge in a military jail…
Ask the Palestinians clinging on in East Jerusalem…
Ask the market trader in Hebron…
Ask the fishermen from Gaza…
Jewish Democracy has shrivelled to a form of exclusive nationalism that cannot tolerate the ‘other’, or the ‘stranger’. Today’s version of Jewish Democracy sees only threats and has turned notions of victimhood and eternal suffering into a self-serving cult and the State of Israel into the Sparta of the Middle-East.
Bringing it all back home
And where does all of this leave the peace talks?
There is little hope for this new round of negotiations to get anywhere until we rediscover our ancient Hebrew heritage and remember what it is that gives us purpose as a people.
Jews have made an outstanding contribution to the development of human rights and right relationships. Right now we are busy squandering our own gift when we should be applying it to our current predicament and building a truly democratic homeland that respects and honours Jews and Palestinians in full and equal measure. If we concentrate on that, you can be sure that peace and security for both sides will look after itself.