Monday, July 4, 2011


This one is for David Cobin, of blessed memory.

A recent essay by Robbie Gringras of Makom, a project of the Jewish Agency, has attracted admiring attention from friends of mine, both real and virtual. I confess I found it troubling. There's a facile comparison between the protestors of Tahrir Square and and the early (and contemporary!) Zionists, and a bizarre slip-slidey move that equates having a historical connection to a place and having a categorical right to sovereignty over that place*. But I don't know how much those issues really matter - Israel has the same rights to be free of attack as every other state, and its citizens have the same right to define its nature as the citizens of every other state, subject to the same legal and moral constraints governing the conduct of other civilized democracies. It is the simple fact of Israel's existence that provides it with all the legitimacy it needs - which is precisely the same legitimacy as any other state; such legitimacy is not threatened by the philosophical incoherence of its supporters.

What did bother me was this: It may be that we in the Jewish community have moved a little too far from the source. It may be that some of our arguments are more about Western values refracted through Israel, rather than about Israel itself. It's the old rhetorical move to delegitimize certain claims as coming from an outside source. Sometimes, as here, it's the Israel/West boundary that's being asserted; other times it's the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish thought. In either case, it's wrong, and worse, it's dangerous.

First things first. A secular state is a Western idea. A constitutional democracy is a Western idea. National liberation is a Western idea. You can't exclude "Western ideas" from Israel without replacing the Zionism of Herzl and Ben Gurion with the weird ethno-fascist clericalism expressed most recently and most explicitly in the work Torat HaMelech.**

By all accounts, Torat HaMelech is vicious, terrible work, and emerges from the ideological stew as gave rise to the terrorist butcher of Hebron as well as Rabin's assassin. Now, I do not believe that everyone in the religious settler community supports terrorism. I don't even believe that all of those protesting the questioning of Rabbi Dov Lior are actually in favor of murdering non-Jewish babies. Of course, they're not protesting on behalf of a general "Freedom of Speech" either. Rather, they're insisting that "Torah" is not subject to critique from the secular state - from "non-Jewish values."

But here's the thing. If Torat HaMelech is indeed a terrible work, it's not because the authors got their sources wrong, misunderstanding a gemara here or ignoring the Beit Yosef there. If you have to wait to find the appropriate Jewish text before passing moral judgment on a passage that says
that Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us” there is something profoundly wrong with you.

The late David Cobin was a legal scholar, and one of his interests was the history of slavery, and specifically Jewish attitudes towards that peculiar institution. One of the things he taught me was that Abolitionism arose first in the Quaker community. It was not until later that Jews joined the struggle against slavery, and there remained rabbis who supported slavery (just as leaders of other religions did) until after the Civil War.

Now, I trust all of us would agree that slavery is evil. Absolutely and categorically. And that any one, even a rabbi, who spoke otherwise would not just be wrong, but would in an entirely different moral universe. But as David Cobin pointed out, abolitionism was at first a non-Jewish value. Nevertheless, we have made it into a Jewish value not because traditional rabbinic sources say so, but because it is so powerfully true.

And so we are left with a choice. We can have a Judaism from which we try - like those defending Rabbi Lior and his friends - to exclude all "foreign thought;" all "Western values." Or we can have a Judaism that teaches that slavery is evil. We can't have both. I know which one I want.

*See under: Basques, Welsh, Hutus, Lapps, Samaritans, Kurds, Ainu...
** I am not ruling out the possibility that the current aggressive rejection of secular authority by both the so-called "Religious Zionists" and the Hareidi community is itself informed, if indirectly, by the triumph of militant Islam in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.