Enforcing Jewish separateness

Hundreds of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the greatest spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Judaism community and the mentor of their Shas party, died age 93. Photo by Flash90

‘In a single moment, I stopped being religious’

Orthodox before her aliyah, Eva Illouz explains how Judaism lost its sacredness in Israel.

By Eva Illouz, Ha’aretz
November 23, 2013

In 2010, the man who was Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and an Israel Prize laureate, Rav Ovadia Yosef, was still what he had been throughout much of his long life: a powerful political machine, exercising a broad and profound influence on Israeli politics and society. During that year, in the course of a public meeting, he had mused, as he often did, about Jews and non-Jews in the context of work they could or could not perform on Shabbat: “Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us [the Jews]. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel.” And to drive the point home, he added “Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.”

On a beautiful October day of 2013, the same man was buried with much pomp in Jerusalem, with a total of 800,000 attending his funeral. Politicians from all sides and factions praised the great man and scholar he had been.

Ovadia Yosef’s remarks are characteristic of what I will generously call a “style of thinking and speaking,” embraced or silently approved by other rabbis on the official payroll of the State of Israel, by his very large following of hundreds of thousands of Shas voters and by numerous other sectors of the Israeli population, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim (Jews of Middle Eastern and European origin, respectively).

More than his comments per se, Ovadia Yosef’s enthusiastic or silent following should give us a long and quiet pause. Were such comments mouthed by English, French or Saudi Arabians about the Jews, they would be abhorrent. Yet, the author of countless similarly scandalous statements about non-Jews received the highest rewards, the benevolence, silent approval or indifference of Israeli society and of Jews around the world. How can this be? The answer to this question is not to be found in the vague accusation of “religious fanaticism” or “racism,” words that more often than not obscure rather than explain reality. Rather, these words and facts must compel us to engage in the sobering task of understanding them. Why have many good and ordinary people − as undoubtedly most Israelis and Jews around the world are − become receptive, sympathetic or indifferent to the shameful views routinely and casually expressed by many Israeli officials in the public sphere? ‏(See, for example, Mayor Shimon Gapso’s call for maintaining an all-Jewish Upper Nazareth; or Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, forbidding Jews to rent houses to Arabs in his city; or the Minister of Economy, Minister of Religious Services, Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett’s casual reference to the worth of Jewish blood.‏) Why does a country born from anti-Semitism tolerate such blatant displays of religious and ethnic superiority by its own representatives?


I was raised in France, in a Sephardic and strictly observant Jewish family. The France I grew up in was a secular state, which means that religious practices were relegated to the private realm: “Be French outside, and a Jew inside” was the solution the French polity offered me to become a member of a society in which citizens are defined by their common universal essence, beyond the particularity of their religion or ethnicity.

Whatever the subsequent collapse of such a model, French secularity took universality very seriously, and with it the idea that our common humanity demands the erasure of visible signs of religiousness. ‏(The fact that such equality is not always upheld is another matter; it remained a powerful norm and ideal‏). As a Jew, my consciousness was opposite to that of the universal French citizen: I cultivated with much relish a sense of the uniqueness of the Jewish people, I was proudly aware of my own history, I was vigilant about signs of anti-Semitism, I identified with the traumatic Ashkenazi memory, I viewed other Jews as brothers with whom I shared a priori bonds of solidarity.

I lived then with a dual consciousness: a public and universalist one, the French one; and a private and particular one as a member of an Orthodox Jewish family. There was nothing confusing about these two identities: I fully inhabited both because the first − the French and universalist one − made the second − the Jewish and the particular − possible. In the mid-1980s I arrived in the U.S. to do my PhD. I discovered an entirely different, more integrated and harmonious relationship between state and religion. People could be American citizens and members of their own particular religious community in the public space, which contained a large variety of religious denominations peacefully coexisting side by side. Mirroring the very religious pluralism of American society, Judaism offered a stunning variety of denominations hitherto unknown to me. Satmar, Lubavitcher, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist − all responded to the dilemmas of modernity and tradition.

Could women or gay men become rabbis? Was driving on Shabbat to attend synagogue closer to the spirit of halakha (Jewish religious law) than staying at home and not violating the prohibition on driving on Shabbat? I was dazzled by the intensity of the questions and the diversity of responses in synagogues and Shabbat lunches, the great care and reverence which reformers took to interpret tradition. I read Joseph Soloveitchik, Avraham Heshel, Norman Lamm, Mordecai Kaplan, and was awed by their theological responses to the moral dilemmas of Judaism in modernity.

For the first time in my life, I found religion intellectually enticing. I engaged more deeply in religious practice. I regularly attended synagogue, relished the minutiae of Shabbat and holiday rituals, taught myself to read the medieval Rashi. Despite my admiration for the various liberal forms of Judaism I encountered, I practiced “modern orthodoxy” and felt entirely at home in Ashkenazi shuls. The synagogue was the most natural place for the French and Sephardic person I was to feel a member of the Jewish people, that historical entity to which I unquestioningly and fervently belonged.

At no point did my orthodoxy seem opposed to what had been, since adolescence, a deep commitment to left-wing, socialist, and liberal political values. On the contrary. In the French and American societies I had lived in, the point of a democracy was to guarantee my equality as a member of a religious community, whether in the confines of the private sphere, as in France, or whether in the sphere of civil society, as in the U.S. The tolerance and openness of both societies could be ascertained precisely because my religion was a matter of individual choice and conscience. By the age of 30, I had had the powerful experience of the two main paths 20th century liberalism had taken − one in which the public space contained a plurality of religions, and one in which the state was secular. In both cases, religion was an affair of private conscience.

When I arrived in Israel after completing my PhD, I was still religious and Orthodox. To my surprise, however, my religiosity started feeling like shoes bizarrely becoming not larger and more comfortable with the passing of time, but smaller, tighter, and aching.

Jewishness was everywhere around me, and everywhere it was enforced. I had to eat kosher at the University cafeteria; I had to buy kosher wine and kosher meat at the supermarket; I had to avoid using the car on Yom Kippur; I had to go to a mikve ‏(ritual bath‏) before getting married; I had to be married by a rabbi; buying anything on Shabbat was a far from trivial task.

The empty roads of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, 2013. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

All those myriad acts of choice that had made religion a matter of private conscience were naturally and invisibly forced upon me, neutralizing my own act of choice and making my religiosity a straightforward extension of the state. Israel had brought me back to the state-enforced religiousness which my parents, as Jews, had rejected when they emigrated from Morocco to France.

My years-long perplexity about the state character of Judaism came to an abrupt end on the day Itzhak Rabin, then prime minister of Israel, was assassinated by a religious Jew who saw himself as defending the land of Israel, in the name of a Torah and a halakha that seemed foreign to the ones I had known.

On that evening, November 4, 1995, I had a secular epiphany ‏(secular people can have epiphanies too‏). I realized that in France and the U.S., my religiousness had been a way of exercising my own freedom and individualism; I realized that my commitment to human and universal rights would always supersede my religious beliefs; and I realized that what had stitched my religiousness and universalism together was the fact that the French and American states had guaranteed full and equal citizenship to religious minorities like the Jews.

I had a further understanding: As long as the universalist vision of the state, which I had come to take for granted from other countries, did not constitute the collective morality of Israel, I could not subscribe to its “for-Jews-only” framework. In one single moment, I stopped being religious. What had been a powerful, meaningful experience of many decades, became empty. Because it was so closely connected to the interests of a state, Judaism had lost its sacredness.

On Wednesday, October 2, 2013, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected a petition by a group of Israelis to have the word “Jewish” struck from their ID cards and be identified as “Israelis” instead. According to the Supreme Court, Israel does not recognize “Israeli” as a legitimate ethnic group ‏(le’om‏) because the judges recognized only ethnicity as a valid juridical category. While the State of Israel has existed for 65 years, the judges did not think that citizenship should be independent of religious affiliation, that it could be a source of identity, thus bizarrely contradicting the whole raison d’etre of the Zionist project.

Here too, the decision of the Supreme Court should give us a long and quiet pause. What could possibly have made the judges deny the category of citizenship, which throughout the world is the most banal way for nations to affirm their existence, and for their populations to claim membership in them? Didn’t Israelis exist as Israelis? Apparently not.

While Western European and American nationalisms detached themselves from religion in order to take on the task of regulating groups of many ethnic and religious origins, in Israel, the opposite happened: The state predicated citizenship on religion, and in so doing, became the nation of a people defined in religious terms.

Stranger perhaps was the fact that it bestowed on a small faction of this religious group − the Orthodox − the right to control the definition of membership in Judaism. In other words, the Zionist state willingly gave up the most powerful prerogative of states and nations − the right to define citizens − to the same Orthodox rabbis who had controlled their lives in the ghetto. Israel was not only Jewish, but very narrowly Jewish, the state of a narrow category of Orthodox Jews who did not recognize the theology and the creative solutions that other Jewish denominations had found to the struggles of tradition in the modern world.

In other words: Judaism had flourished in liberal Christian countries more than in Israel itself, and this for a simple reason: because the built-in mechanism that discriminates against non-Jews ‏(mainly Arabs‏) is the same one that excludes and discriminates against non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel. This is a stunning fact. But what is most stunning about this fact is that Jews around the world and in Israel have hardly taken notice. How do we explain the obliviousness of so many Jews around the world to the somewhat anomalous political path Israel increasingly seems to follow?

Let me suggest this: The 2013 decision of the Supreme Court judges, Ovadia Yosef’s statements, the exclusion of liberal Judaism from Israel, and the benevolent acceptance by Jews of Israel’s illiberal political culture, rely on the same fundamental mode of thinking, which views the main vocation of the State of Israel as one that must “preserve” Jewishness − understood as a genetic, ethnic and religious category. Sociologists call such basic modes of processing the world “cultural schemas.”

A cultural schema is an unconscious way of understanding, interpreting, and organizing the world. For example, for many centuries, Jews favored literacy and learning more than Christians because of theological differences between the two religions ‏(many strands of Christianity held knowledge and learning in deep suspicion‏). These theological characteristics become a cultural trait when they become organized in institutions that enable their transmission. In the example here, the heder ‏(elementary school‏) and the yeshiva (religious school) were the institutions that transmitted and reproduced the value of literacy and learning among male Jews, and were reinforced by other institutions: learned men received public community positions, scholarships to continue learning, and finally, they ranked highest in the marriage market. The heder, the yeshiva, marriage and economic rewards all concurred to maintain the value of learnedness among Jewish communities. Therefore, in trying to understand why and how Israel’s discriminatory practices go virtually unnoticed, we need to understand both beliefs and institutions.

A privileged relationship with God

The Jews constitute a remarkable and entirely exceptional sociological entity that overcame, creatively and obstinately, two major obstacles to their existence: that of spatial fragmentation and that of temporal continuity.

Spatial fragmentation: The Babylonian exile marked a profound challenge for the Jews, scattering them throughout the world. And yet, despite the exile and the subsequent dispersal, no people has managed like the Jews to exist in so many different countries, to be so protean, to take so many cultural forms, and simultaneously to continue to conceive of itself as one single community − and this for more than 2,500 years. At a time when communications and transport were very uncertain or nonexistent, Jews in different communities around the world entertained deep relationships with each other, and thus constituted an exceptional sociological unit that transcended locality and space.

Temporal continuity: But an even more remarkable accomplishment has been that the Jews managed to retain their religious and ethnic identity despite the relentless violence they were submitted to by other religions − Christianity and, to a lesser but still definite extent, Islam. No people in history has been such a persistent object of contempt, hatred, fear, and sheer violence as the Jews. Despite the fact that they lacked political sovereignty, that they were forcibly converted, viewed as evil and accused of the worst crime − deicide − the Jews maintained their existence throughout the centuries. The Jews were not only a minority, but a minority par excellence, heroically surviving the constant threat of massacres, forced conversion, imprisonment, expropriation of land, and general hatred.

What enabled the Jews to achieve the remarkable feat of overcoming spatial fragmentation and the incessant assaults on their existence and identity was a core metaphysical belief in their own eternity, itself a result of the idea that Jews had a privileged relationship with God. Even Paul − who contributed more than anyone else to establishing and spreading Christianity − was convinced that God had chosen the Jews to bring the Law to the world. The Jews had an exceptional sense of their historical mission in God’s grand plan for humankind. This narrative helped place Jews beyond the contingencies of time and locality and helped forge a metaphysical sense of their identity, beyond space and time. The theological belief that Jews were eternal, that they carried a special relationship with God who had entrusted them with a unique mission, entailed a number of other beliefs and practices ‏(Halakha is a powerful way of institutionalizing beliefs, by making them tangible, objective, and thus highly transmittable‏in daily life).

One such core belief was that Jews formed a single, unified people, with a common essence. It is quite remarkable that during the many centuries in which language, local customs and political regime defined people’s identity, Jews retained a sense of their extraterritorial cohesion and unity. They were the first transnational community in history, a feat achieved because of the belief in an essence called the “Jewish people” ‏(that belief, in itself, created the reality of the Jewish people.‏)

This powerful belief means, then, that Jews − who were excluded from membership in the nations they lived in − shared more readily bonds of solidarity with other, distant Jews, than with those with whom they shared a territory. We may argue that for Jews, the bonds of peoplehood powerfully coexist with ‏(or are prior to‏) the bonds of land and nationality. ‏(The very existence of the Jewish Agency is predicated on this idea, since it presupposes that Jews from all over the world have a privileged and an a priori relationship of membership in Israel.‏)

Along with their remarkable capacity for transnationality, the Jews’ existence throughout much of Christian Europe and the Islamic countries was highly precarious. Jews were frequently reduced to the humiliating position of requesting authorization of settlement ‏(many European cities did not allow Jews to settle‏) and often expelled from their places of residence ‏(one example among many: in 1290, Edward I of England famously issued an Edict of Expulsion of Jews from England‏). Jews were often forced to live in quarters and neighborhoods separate from those of the general population ‏(like the ghetto in 16th century Venice, the Moroccan mellah, or the Eastern European ghettos‏). Ghettos and separation from the majority population were the rule. But what made the Jewish people thoroughly unique was that this systematic geographical exclusion resonated with a powerful Jewish theology that emphasized the radical separation between Jews and non-Jews ‏(such separation had its basis in the concept of “idol-worshiper,” which the Hebrews viewed as a dangerous threat‏).

The concept of the goy, which in biblical Hebrew meant simply “a people” came to have a more narrow, specialized meaning of “non-Jew” for the rabbis, which became more negative with time. The concept of the goy came to mark the strict boundaries between the members and non-members of the group. Laws of kashrut ‏(both food and wine‏), laws of conversion, of intermarriage, of burial, and laws of Shabbat reinforced this perception as they made interaction with non-Jews a dangerous source of pollution. As the Jewish historian Jacob Katz put it in his “Tradition and Crisis,” Eastern European Jewry lived segregated from non-Jews and viewed such “absolute separation between Jew and gentile [as] desirable.” Indeed, as he put it, “an absolute distinction” between Jews and non-Jews existed, and it was learned, taught, and enforced from early age. A theology that emphasized such deep separation ended up viewing non-Jews as a dark, threatening force. As Prof. of Jewish Studies Sacha Stern suggests in his important book, “Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings,” non-Jews were viewed as wicked, suspected of major offenses such as murder, adultery, and idolatry. This is why they became associated with pigs and the animal kingdom.

We may thus say this: The profound originality of the Jews consisted in the fact that they devised a set of laws that not only helped them overcome and counter the violence of the surrounding majority, but also to stand apart from it, to resist the temptation of conversion or assimilation, by turning Jewishness into an essence which made non-Jewishness into another essence opposed to the Jewish one. Jewishness then designated a group with fixed, innate properties, above national boundaries, difficult to enter or to leave.

These combined beliefs and institutional practices ‏(in the form of halakhic prohibitions and prescriptions‏) represented an extraordinary tool for the survival of Jewish identity. To give a quick point of comparison: The Greek concept of “barbarian” marked off anyone who was not Greek. But that concept did not express an essence. Barbarians designated a geographical area ‏(The Persians, the Egyptians‏) and designated those who were unfree, who lived under tyrannical regimes, did not speak Greek and could not therefore be endowed with reason. To be a barbarian was a condition that could be changed, not an essence, if one was able to exercise one’s reason, which was viewed as a universal faculty ‏(logos‏). Socrates, for example, could teach Meno’s slave − a barbarian − geometry, and therefore turn him into a Greek. Similarly, for the Christian, the non-Christian was a human being only waiting to be ‏(forcibly‏) converted, thus suggesting that the boundary between the two was easily crossed ‏(by forced conversion‏). Jews’ conception of themselves, on the other hand, had little interest in converting others and stressed their separation from non-Jews. Jews, then, were three times excluded, and three times made to experience their difference from non-Jews: Once by the the symbolic, spatial, and physical segregation forced on them by non-Jews’ violence and hatred; twice because of their own set of self-imposed laws, which worked at preventing contact with non-Jews; and a third time because of the Jewish belief in their unique relationship to God and in their historical mission. For that reason, perhaps, we may say that Jews have a radical and powerful sense of difference, which made Jews both a profoundly original people and one that was concerned with maintenance of the purity of the group. Radical difference from the non-Jew is a core motif of Jewish theology and religious practice and has constituted, throughout the centuries, an almost invincible shield of identity.

Such a sense of radical difference is the deep cultural template that helps explain how the Jews survived the violence and dispersion lasting thousands of years. Let me, however, make the following suggestion: the tools and strategies that were apt, appropriate and even exceptionally useful for the survival and identity of the most persecuted minority in history are inadequate and even dangerous for a majority. Cultural templates can be reproduced even when the initial conditions that gave rise to them no longer exist. The Zionist movement, which claimed to provide a secular revolution for the Jewish people, adopted a religious template and adapted it to the state in the form of its citizenship law, thus perpetuating an identity that is unsuitable for a majority that wants to be governed by liberal and universalist precepts and institutions.

Two examples suffice to illustrate this. One is the massive exclusion of Arabs, who live segregated in their own towns and neighborhoods and are excluded from full membership in the state. As the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel writes in its website, there are over 50 laws that discriminate against Arabs, whether in access to land, citizenship rights, education, and state budget resources. These laws de facto create exclusion and segregation of the Arab indigenous population from the Jewish collective. The second example is the exclusion of many legitimate forms of liberal Judaism from the Israeli state. Liberal Judaism is not accepted in Israel for a simple reason: because its conversions and marriages allow a flexible and fluid entry to non-Jews. That is, the discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism is at its core motivated by the regulation and exclusion of non-Jews from the Jewish collective, out of fear for the purity of the group. While these worries are legitimate from a strictly religious point of view, they become a violation of religious pluralism and basic human rights once they become state-sanctioned practices. In the hands of an Orthodox minority, the state becomes the patrol of the high walls of Jewish ethnic purity.

The Jewishness of the Israeli state is thus twice unacceptable: first, because no traumatic history can justify a failure by Israel to follow the precepts of all liberal countries in the world, which have worked at disentangling the relationship between the state and a single religious and ethnic group. By failing to do so, Israel has thereby renounced its moral and legal vocation to represent all its groups equally. The second reason is even more profound: because Judaism has closely guarded Jews from contact with non-Jews, this religion cannot offer any guideline to a liberal polity. It is high time we accepted that some aspects of Jewish thought are inimical to modern, liberal, and universal modes of thinking. This religion, which was so inventive, original and effective in helping the most abjectly persecuted people in history to retain its dignity and identity, becomes an instrument of institutionalized politics of racial purity when it acts as a state religion, precisely because Judaism was so intensely geared toward the maintenance of the group difference from non-Jews.

What was good for a minority has become unwise and dangerous for a majority.


For the last decade or so, the inner Jewish, particularistic logic that was contained in the State of Israel has come into full view for all to see and muse over. There was Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech, in which he demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state ‏(one has to wonder what is wrong with recognizing Israel as an Israeli state‏). There was the expulsion of a massive amount of immigrant workers initiated by then-Interior Minister Eli Yishay because of the “danger” they represented to the purity of Jewish blood. There is the increased use of the Holocaust in international relations to justify political aims and actions; the compulsory tours of Hebron to reclaim its Jewish identity ‏(initiated by Gideon Sa’ar when he was Education Minister‏); and many other such initiatives, which have definitely marked a Judaization of Israeli culture.

These manifestations of the increasingly Jewish character of Israeli society is a “copy-paste” of the Diaspora to Israel: It aims at replicating and protecting a minority identity − but in the context of a powerful, militarily strong majority. The marked Jewishness of Israel is confirmed by surveys analyzing political trends in Israeli society. In an important survey conducted in 2011 by Mina Tzemach, she found that young people’s attitudes had dramatically changed. If in 1998, Jewishness was only the third most important goal after democracy, named by 18 percent of participants, in 2011 the importance of Jewishness as a national goal had climbed to first place ‏(with 26 percent‏). The same age group observed a sharp decline in support for democracy and a rise in anti-democratic sentiment. Another survey, taken in 2012, published by Haaretz, indicated that half the young people finishing high school were not willing to live in the same neighborhood as Arabs. These surveys indicate a strong correlation between the increasing Jewishness of Israeli identity, its suspicion of democracy, and racist trends in Israeli society. To those who will retort that Arabs or Turks suffer discrimination in France or Germany, and that Israel is not worse than these countries, there is a simple answer. Racism that comes from the population is different from racism that resonates with the laws of a state. When such resonance exists, it is easier to legitimize racism − of the kind, for example, routinely expressed by Ovadia Yosef or his followers. It is the state itself that seems to authorize it, and thus the state itself becomes vulnerable to wholesale rejection by others. Moreover, once institutionalized and authorized by the most powerful institution of a country, the state, public norms against racism become weaker. To oppose racism and defend human rights appears to be a radical left-wing act, whereas these are considered basic values, common to right and left in liberal states around the world. This change of attitude has had important political consequences as well. As Charles Enderlin − the great French journalist and author of the important book “Au nom du Temple” − suggests, the reason why the two-state solution seems to have been abandoned, is precisely because Israeli society is becoming increasingly religious and accepting the fringe messianic views that the territories are inherently Jewish ‏(this is certainly the view of a good portion of members of the New Likud‏).

When we look at the current political culture of Israel, the deep and massive involvement of religious parties in Israeli politics, the ever-increasing references to Jewishness in the public sphere, we are forced to conclude that the Israeli model of citizenship, which did not separate religion from the state, has failed. If the Jewish state has left 20 percent of its population outside, has discriminated against liberal Judaism, and cannot recognize “Israeli” as a valid form of citizenship, then something has gone wrong with its political culture.


Nations depend crucially on how their members imagine their solidarity with others. Israel’s national imagination was born from three diasporic reflexes: it conceived of national membership in religious terms; it conceived of solidarity with distant Jews more readily than with those with whom one shares a land; and it readily separated and segregated the Jews from the non-Jews. These three reflexes conditioned the ways in which social bonds were forged. That Israelis share their mental space more easily with far-away Jews than with the Arabs and Christians around them may perhaps fulfill the identity needs of Jews dispersed in the world, but represents a mental dislocation of the Israeli nation, accompanied by a distrust and fear of the non-Jew, which, following its own self-feeding logic, has only increased with time. While historically, such fear and distrust were a realistic, apt, adapted response to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, when institutionalized and transformed into state policy, they produce an isolationist and isolated nation, alternating between fear of others and showy displays of force.

Jewish history and the Arab countries’ rejection explain why Israel opted for a path of military strength. But this does not explain why it opted for a politically weak path. Why weak? Because non-liberal countries based on religious and ethnic supremacy cannot, in the long run, produce legitimacy. Israel is far more isolated today than 20 years ago, both among Jews and non-Jews: A Pew Research Center report clearly shows the Jews are disaffiliating with Israel ‏(because of its policies‏); Europe has taken steps against Israel; the BDS campaign in the U.S. is surprisingly successful and will remain to be so not only because of the well-oiled Palestinian propaganda machine, but also because Israel’s isolation is an outcome of Israel’s policies which deviate dramatically from the moral norms of liberal states around the world.

The secularity and neutrality defended by liberalism are nothing but a way to secure the capacity of the state to include and co-opt different groups. Alexander Hamilton, one of the 18th century authors of the U.S. Constitution, put it cogently in the Federalist Papers, Number 10: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.” One could hardly suspect Hamilton of being a radical, yet his vision seems oddly daring for Israel. A state is a union, he writes, and a union cannot function as a union if it does not offer a framework in which to gather different religious and ethnic groups.


In her recent book, “Parting Ways, Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” radical left-wing thinker Judith Butler makes a plea against Israel in the name of a minority ethics, presumably because minorities have no access to power. Such a view is naive at best. There is nothing romantic about minorities. In that respect, Zionism was a profoundly mature political movement, because it understood that minorities have a crippled cultural and political existence. More importantly: Minorities do not have a greater access to ethics than non-minorities; in fact, the opposite is true. Minorities can usually think only about themselves, not about other minorities; only majorities can worry about minorities. Minorities tend to feel overwhelmingly morally right, and can only rarely develop the moral language to dialogue with other groups. Minorities do not have a feeling of duty and responsibility to either majorities or to other minorities, so preoccupied are they about insuring their survival. Minorities tend to be and to feel victimized, and thus become worried about their own preservation. This is where Israelis have much to learn from non-Jews and from the centuries of political sovereignty they enjoyed. For only long practice of power and sovereignty can bestow the wisdom and knowledge to use power.

Israel and Zionism are far more than a national project: They provide a historically unique opportunity for Judaism to become a civilization, comparable to the Chinese, Islamic, or European. Civilizations include religions but extend beyond them in that they can also adopt and adapt other cultures and populations, and have a wider, universal reach, thus further extending their scope. In a piece he published in the New York Review of Books shortly before his death, the socialist historian Tony Judt wrote: “[O]ver the years these fierce unconditional loyalties − to a country, a God, an idea, or a man − have come to terrify me. The thin veneer of civilization rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it.” ‏(New York Review of Books, November 7, 2013, p. 102‏). There cannot be a greater way to love Jews and Judaism than to “cling” to the demand that Israel become a universal and secular state, that it represent equally all its citizens, embodying the idea of a common humanity.

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