Israeli identity

December 26, 2010
Richard Kuper

The rabbis in Israel have stirred up a hornets’ nest (see Rabbinical racism too much even for Netanyahu and More on the Rabbis…) and the question of what it is to be Israeli is firmly on the agenda. Israeli society is rapidly closing in on itself and voices that anywhere else in liberal democracies would be mainstream are becoming more and more dissident in Israel. But the naked malice and racism of the recent 300 rabbis’ statement has encouraged many to speak out and reflect, particularly in the pages of Ha’aretz, and we reproduce four recent discussion pieces on the interrelated themes of what it is to be a Jew, an Israeli, a citizen and indeed a mensch.
Don’t miss out on Daniel Blatman’s contribution, just because it is at the end of the pile. (He is Holocaust scholar and director of Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.) Or the other contributions for that matter…


The farce of a secular and democratic Jewish state
Gideon Levy, 16 December 2010

Is Judaism a race? Ask Israelis
Zvi Bar’el, 26 December 2010

We all owe Israel’s racist rabbis a vote of thanks
Bradley Burston, 14 December 2010

1932 is already here
Daniel Blatman, 26 December 2010

The farce of a secular and democratic Jewish state
Gideon Levy, 16 December 2010

The debate over the conversion bill is deceptive. It’s being held in -remote and dark places, it deals with trivial matters, it appears to affect the fate of very few, and it seems to interest even fewer. But what is really going on there should trouble every Israeli, because it touches on the most fundamental issues that define our society and state.

The question whether military or civilian rabbis will determine who is a Jew is marginal. Rafi Peretz or Shlomo Amar, who cares? Ten times more significant is the question whether we happen to be living in the only country on earth where clerics determine the right to citizenship. No less important, how do we dare continue deceiving ourselves that this is a secular and democratic state?

The rabbis are Israel’s gatekeepers. What most of them believe became painfully evident recently when they published a ruling that prohibits renting apartments to Arabs and foreigners. One “moderate” rabbi did propose a “compromise”: renting apartments only to “good Arabs.” Another moderate rabbi said that “there is no wisdom” in the rabbis’ letter, but not a word about morality and justice. Most of them are frighteningly narrow-minded, obsessed with fear, and willing to whip up hatred toward foreigners they never met. What do they know about the world? Or about human rights?

Convinced and trying to convince others that the Jews are a chosen people, to which entry and even contact with those deemed inferior is forbidden, they live in their narrow pale of settlement, most of them boorish and ignorant of what happens outside. They are our gatekeepers, and they determine our real image. Like the goons who get to select people at the entrance to dance clubs, the rabbis determine the character of the whole party, and this party is a benighted religious party.

The conversion debate raises another, deeper question: according to the bill, Judaism is a religion, solely a religion and not a nationality or people. So much for “the Jewish people” and “the people of Israel.” If rabbis are the gatekeepers, then it’s about joining a religion and ritual, not a people and state. In the so-called secular state of Israel, then, it is impossible to join the Jewish people and stay secular. How can we claim that Judaism is both a faith and nationality if joining it is based solely on Jewish law and rulings of rabbis? What about those who want to join “the people of Israel” but don’t believe in God? Why is the word atheist still a profanity in Israel, unmentionable? Entry for religious people only? Only in a state governed by religious law.

It’s time to admit that this approach can only be called racist. Yes, that hackneyed term. That’s what it is when it is the blood flowing through the veins that determines your status. If the grandson of a woman whose Judaism is doubtful has the right to automatic citizenship when he arrives here from the ends of the earth, and a non-Jewish soldier who chose to fight and live here runs into rabbinic obstacles, then this is not just judgment by religious law, but judgment by racist law. If the Arab native is an outcast, but a member of the “Tribe of Menasseh” from Burma is welcomed with full rights simply because a rabbi said he was Jewish, then this is a benighted theocracy. Sixty-two years after the establishment of the state, the time has come to summon the courage and change this reality.

Sufficiently rooted already, Israel must continue to be a home and shelter for every Jew, but by no means just for them. The time has come for normalcy, for joining the enlightened world, in which immigration laws are determined solely by civil criteria. Not entry for all – there’s no such thing anywhere in the world – but criteria of a state and society, not of God and religious law.

For most Israelis, who have grown up in this distorted reality, all this seems to be normal. It’s normal to live in a state where there is no public transportation on the Sabbath, where on almost every doorpost there’s a mezuzah, where there’s no possibility of civil marriage, where the state institutes blatantly religious laws and the rabbis are the sole arbiters of who can join the people. There’s virtually no protest against any of this. Even the public debate, to the extent that it exists, is limited to the marginal questions: the military or civil rabbinate? And after all this, we dare call ours a liberal and modern state.

Is Judaism a race? Ask Israelis
Zvi Bar’el, 26 December 2010

“They should be put prosecuted. Incitement is a crime. Had the rabbis who called for Rabin’s murder been prosecuted we might not be facing this situation today,” said the law professor, a pleasant man who once held a senior position in the Military Advocate General’s Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. His stance is logical and well-argued. That evening, after our meeting, he sent me the link to a YouTube video of the demonstration. “What do you think now?” he asked. We were arguing over whether the law creates norms or reflects norms already established. In other words, can Israeli racism be eliminated through law, trial and punishment, or is it already part of the Israeli identity.

The recent demonstrations in Bat Yam, Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Quarter and Zion Square, in Jerusalem, featured a motley medley of paradoxical partners in racist positions: ultra-Orthodox rabbis and “liberal” rabbis standing together against the rental and sale of apartments to Arabs; working-class folk demanding that foreigners be deported; members of the middle class who “fear for our daughters’ welfare” and male chauvinists carrying signs that say “Jewish women for Jewish men.” This demographic array poses an impossible burden on the law: Using legal means to stifle the trend would be tantamount to putting Israeli identity on trial.

For some time, shows of Israeli purity have not been the sole property of rabbis who serve the divine will. These demonstrations formulate and express something essential within the Israeli identity. “We” Israelis are everything “they” are not. Being Israeli is no longer a territorial or a religious definition, nor even a national definition resting on religious foundations. The Israeli state might be more Jewish than democratic, but being Israeli means belonging to a separate race that also happens to be Jewish; what counts is the Israeli race.

The economic argument – that foreigners take jobs away from Israelis – is a pretext. Even if there was no unemployment Israelis would not love Arabs, Sudanese or other foreigners. Even were army service voluntary Haredim would be considered foreigners, representatives of another culture and not Israeli. Even were there peace between Israel and the Arab states, Israeli identity would still be wrapped in fear.

The Israeli race defines its identity as Zionism. Within that identity, it seems, are religion, territory, nationalism and a dream. All these components, however, are the products of ideology. Religion is neither belief in God nor what is written in the Scriptures, but rather the religion defined by the State of Israel. For that reason, Reform Judaism, for example, is rejected. The territory is neither that which was recognized by the United Nations, nor what was promised to the Jews as a national home, nor a sanctuary from anti-Semitism. Rather, it is a boundary-less sprawl that sends satellites into the land of another people and refuses to confine itself in a defined national container. The territory that has been allocated to this Israeli entity is too small for it. The state is only the beginning of the age of redemption, not its consummation.

Israeli nationalism does not tolerate other narratives, and it is based on the fear of external threats. The dream – and this is the trick that promotes unity – refers to peace and national solidarity. Whoever is not reconciled to this mass of components is not Israeli. Anyone with a blue Israeli identity card he waves while yelling “the people of Israel lives,” and “I have no other land,” must pass an admission test. If he doesn’t pass the test, he will be regarded as a “Russian,” or “Ethiopian,” or “American” or, of course, Arab or Sudanese.

This test of belonging is not encoded in any law and the examiners change locales, from Bat Yam to Safed to Kiryat Arba. They are empowered to strip Israeli identity even from those who possess it by dint of birth, the Law of Return, military service or naturalization. They have the authority to decide who is Zionist and who is not. They are everywhere: in the apartment across the hall, at the next desk, at the supermarket or sitting at the cabinet table. Should they be tried? They aren’t inciting, they are establishing norms, defining who is a true Israeli.

We all owe Israel’s racist rabbis a vote of thanks
Bradley Burston, 14 December 2010

Rabbis who signed a ruling against leasing to Arabs have put an end to the notion of rabbinic authority and have freed us to be Jews on our own terms.

A year ago at this time, I wrote a piece which I ultimately decided was too venom-laced, too cruel, and too socially un-redeeming even for this often problematic space.

An end of the year feature, it was called “The Top 10 Rabbis Judaism Could Do Without.” No one saw it. I threw it out.

It was a time for new beginnings, I believed. A time for granting the benefit of the doubt. A time for giving a chance, for hoping against hope. A time to refrain from tarring all rabbis with the refesh – the filth of a few.

If for no other reason than respect for Judaism and the vast majority of rabbis who are forces for good in this world, I decided to learn to live with the rest. Even those whose rulings contravene some of the most fundamental moral precepts in Judaism, and also those who issued bans on living with non-Jews, as well as those who have declared it moral to kill Arab innocents, even infants, and those who preach the destruction of Palestinian property, and those who have advised IDF soldiers that mercy toward Arabs is cruelty, and those whose ardor for settlement is such that it has bent and broken the principle that the saving of human life takes precedence above all else.

What can I say? After a year of waiting and watching, I now realize that I’d been wrong in more ways than I knew. Not only was the list of 10 Rabbis that Judaism Could Do Without, mean-spirited and presumptuous, it also turned out to be much, much too short.

By 290 rabbis, at least. Those who have gone out of their way to endorse a written religious ban on selling or renting homes, apartments, and lots to non-Jews, particularly Arabs.

At this year’s end, then, let me begin anew, with this preamble. In my house, growing up, a true Yid, a person with a Jewish soul, was synonymous with that of a mensch, a genuinely human being; a person who is sensitive to the difficulties of others, and appreciative of the differences between people. That is to say, a Ben Adom, a descendent of Adam and Eve – who were, by the way, and certainly by Orthodox definition, not Jewish.

It’s the end of a terrible year. A time to take stock. To rethink. And to realize that the Jewish People as a whole owes a special vote of gratitude to these hundreds of rabbis and their colossal ill will.

These rabbis have set the rest of us free.

In their newfound candor, these men, many of them municipal chief rabbis and heads of rabbinical academies – that is, the people who get to decide who is Jewish and who is not, who may marry and who may not, who may be buried where and with whom – have at long last told us what they have for years been quietly telling their rabbinical students, their parishioners, each other.

In so doing, they have effectively put an end to the notion of rabbinic authority. They have done the Jewish People an invaluable service.

They have freed us. Freed us to be Jews. Not on their terms. On ours.

Just listen to how the letter ends: “The neighbors and acquaintances [of a Jew who sells or rents to an Arab] must distance themselves from the Jew, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly [ostracize] him until he goes back on this harmful deed.”

In their level-eyed bigotry, their ironclad insensitivity, their untouchable, corrupting, bureaucracy-based immunity, they have taught us finally to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain of Oral Law.

At the same time, they have helped us to see where Jewish leaders the world over truly stand on issues of fundamental human consequence. The mumbling and the silence of the many who have ducked a response to the rabbis’ action have made the strongest statement of all.

This month, even as the country was engulfed in flames, some of the same rabbis were busy in back rooms, deciding who could decide who is a Jew, and making sure that they would retain more and more of the say.

We no longer have to go along. They’ve lost the franchise.

We should thank them for showing us how they can take a period focused on disasters and personal tragedies and turn it into one more opportunity to threaten the government with dissolution. The issue this time?

Ultra-orthodox rabbis – who are only too happy to allow immigrant soldiers to keep them safe – now want to disallow the Orthodox conversions these same soldiers have undergone during their military service.

No one has to go along. And if this is about giving thanks, this is surely an opportunity to mention the more than 700 rabbis who have already signed a petition against the ban on selling or renting to Arabs.

No longer need we listen to the Gang of 300 when they tell us what the Almighty wants.

From apocalyptic rulings shielding settlements, to the brutal stranglehold on conversion policy, they are making up Judaism as they go along. And, in the process, by stating that non-Jews have no place here, annihilating the democracy that pays their very salaries.

How are we to understand these public remarks by officials of the state of Israel? What is it that they are telling us, these apparatchiks in Armani? That non-Jews can no longer be Israelis? That Arabs can no longer live here?

That Zionism turns out to be a form of racism, after all? Or, is it Judaism itself?

For years, we let this go on. We paid their salaries in taxes, in Jewish Federation contributions, in bribes disguised as clerical service fees, in bribes disguised as donations.

Does it surprise anyone that it would be these men who, in the space of one rabbinic open letter, would declare Israel’s Declaration of Independence invalid?

These are the people whom we allow to decide who can be a Jew.

No more. Let people decide on their own.

Who am I to say this? A nobody.

But one who believes that it’s hard enough already to be Jewish in this world, and a person who cares about Israel in this world, without having to run the gauntlet of self-elected Torah Jews whose Judaism is a product of, by, and for, a stateless people.

I’m a nobody, like the people who stood at Sinai, every Jew in this world, who received the Torah every bit as personally as the members of the Gang of 300.

Oh, and one other thing. I was once a Dayan, a rabbinical court judge. Years ago, newly in Israel, newly finished with my IDF service, bearded and short-haired because of it, I donned a skullcap and sat in the Beer Sheba Rabbinical Court, waiting to vouch for the Jewishness of a friend who was about to be married.

The Beer Sheva institution being what it is, that afternoon a divorcing couple came together one last time to physically assault one of the dayanim hearing their case. He wound up in Soroka hospital, and I was abruptly plucked from the bench and pressed into service as an appropriately bearded, if bewildered, alternate.

It’s the end of a very tough year. As a Dayan B’Yisrael, I say, if you tell me you’re Jewish, that’s good enough for me. And if you’re not, let’s talk real estate.

1932 is already here
Daniel Blatman, 26 December 2010

Sebastian Haffner was a young lawyer in Germany in 1932. As a non-Jew, Haffner could have continued to further his career in the civil service. In describing the atmosphere in his country before the takeover by the Nazi dictatorship, he wrote that “the game dragged on tedious and gloomy, without high spots, without drama, without obvious decisive moments … what was no longer to be found was pleasure in life, amiability, fun, understanding goodwill, generosity and a sense of humor …. The air in Germany had rapidly become suffocating.”

Haffner chose to leave Germany. If he were to visit the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Safed, Jerusalem or Bat Yam in late 2010, he would certainly recall those hard days in his homeland. He would find rabbis who sign racist manifestos against an ethnic minority and call for a policy of apartheid, fiery demonstrations against refugees from Africa, gangs of teens attacking Arabs, legislation promoting separatism and discrimination in racist and ethnic contexts, an oppressive public atmosphere, as well as violence and a lack of compassion toward people who are different and foreign.

Haffner would mainly warn against the anemic response of political institutions whose weakness and fears in 1933 led to a political reversal that could have been avoided. Of course, most Israelis do not see themselves as racist. The fact that half of Israel’s Jewish population would not want to live next to Arabs is given various excuses, as is the popular and sweeping support of initiatives designed to keep Arabs or Africans from living alongside Jews. But only a few people who give those excuses would be willing to openly state that they support ethnic and racial separation.

The wild propagandists of the right like MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union ) do not hesitate to use imagery and explanations taken from the anti-Semitic lexicon of Europe: Foreigners spread disease and take Jewish women; black refugees are violent criminals who endanger public safety.

This horrific propaganda is terrifying poor population groups who are already living with an infinite number of problems of survival. And the people who espouse this propaganda are persuading themselves that keeping foreigners out and racial separation produce hope for a solution to their problems. The historian Saul Friedlander defined this mood in Germany of the 1930s as “redemptive anti-Semitism.” A society in existential confusion lacking a political direction that gave it hope was swept up by an apocalyptic idea at whose heart was the need to keep Jews out; if not, the nation’s existence would come to an end.

Millions of people in Germany who would not have defined themselves as anti-Semites and certainly not as Nazis were swept up in the messianic and pseudo-religious public atmosphere. Israel today is becoming slowly and increasingly swept up in “redemptive xenophobia.” To an increasing number of Israelis, the Arab, the African refugee and people who are foreign in their religion, skin color or nationality are considered the most serious problem society has to solve on the road to tranquillity.

No society is immune to deterioration into violent racism. In the Israel of today, we can observe quite a few conditions whose presence in other societies and among other peoples led to racial separation, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. There are minority groups (Arabs and foreigners ) who are ostracized by the majority, a growing racist ideology, attempts to limit the political activities and civil rights of the minority, a tense security situation and strong political elements with vested interests in territorial expansion.

But this is not an edict from heaven. The task of responsible leadership is to stop this dangerous process. Benjamin Netanyahu frequently uses the imagery of 1938 regarding the international community’s attitude toward the Iranian nuclear threat. Back then, at the last moment before the world descended into a horrific bloody war, the democratic powers could have stopped Hitler, but they stuttered.

Netanyahu must understand that the domestic reality in Israel today is 1932, and his pallid speech calling on people not to take the law into their own hands cannot extricate Israeli society from the xenophobic and intolerant atmosphere that has spread. For this, a move of an entirely different magnitude is required.

The writer is a Holocaust scholar and director of Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.

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