Readers may recall that I published an op-ed here a few weeks ago condemning Israel’s attitude toward African immigrants and calling for a paradigmatic shift in the way they are treated. In doing so, I was influenced by the repeated admonition in the Torah to take good care of the stranger, the ger, which the Torah takes as the main lesson from the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt. I have always found these sources inspiring, all the more so when one adds to them the repeated Jewish experience throughout history of being gerim, of living among people who didn’t always treat them so well.
A few days after that article was published, I was approached by colleagues from various universities in Israel to help organize a petition protesting against government policy in this area. With the above arguments fresh in mind, I agreed enthusiastically and rushed to read the draft sent to me and see whether I had anything to add.
I agreed with the content but thought that we should connect it to Jewish tradition. So after the sentence saying that “history should have taught us what it means to be asylum- seekers,” I inserted, “because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the concluding line I changed the proposition that the government’s policy “is incompatible with the law and with morality,” by adding the words “and to the Jewish tradition.”
I felt great about these revisions and was sure that the other initiators – all Jews at this preliminary stage – would gladly approve of them. I was therefore amazed to read the email sent shortly afterward by one of them.
“I have a difficulty with relying on the Jewish tradition in this context,” he wrote, “because it is not the basis for determining norms.” He added that there are many unjust aspects of the tradition, for instance, its attitude toward women; thus if we rely on it in the present context, we would be automatically committed to its problematic attitudes in other contexts. In response to the claim that Judaism does contain some universal messages, he said that a petition that speaks in the name of Jewish ethics “is ethnocentric by definition.” He concluded by saying that if Jewish ethics are so important to somebody, he (meaning me) could write articles on the subject – but not mention it in the public discourse, which should be universalistic rather than ethnocentric.
I was distressed by this response. The underlying message was that the Jewish tradition is so morally corrupt that its contaminating effect exists even when reference is made only to its positive aspects. It is as if the only way to avoid Judaism’s ethnocentric, chauvinistic and other immoral influences is to banish it altogether from the public sphere and keep it as a mere object of academic inquiry.
It is one thing to criticize problematic aspects in one’s national or religious tradition – and all traditions with some historical depth would find a lot to be ashamed of – slavery, colonialism, persecution of heretics, what have you. It is a different thing altogether to repudiate one’s own tradition in its entirety, to form an overall negative verdict about it and to feel embarrassed by any association with it.
I didn’t see much point in arguing with that colleague, so I just told him that for me the reference to Jewish tradition is a necessary condition for being associated with the petition. In my naiveté, I was sure that the other partners in this initiative would side with me and be proud, as I was, to connect the moral protest at hand with the position of the Torah vis-à-vis gerim. I was again disappointed.
Only one supported me, so we were clearly outnumbered by the rest. The end result was that the petition was circulated among all universities with no reference to Jewish tradition, no connection to Jewish sources and no flavor of Jewishness.
From a theoretical point of view, the thought that any reference to a specific tradition is automatically ethnocentric is ridiculous. We always talk in a specific language, which doesn’t turn the ideas expressed through it ethnocentric.
What is most disturbing about this course of events is that 65 years after the Zionist dream was fulfilled, a non-marginal group of Jewish intellectuals in Israel is so ashamed of, alienated from or – at best – ambivalent about their Jewish roots, that they can’t bring themselves to include even the most inspiring words of the tradition in a petition that they wish to address to the general, mainly Jewish public.
In effect these academics have quit the historical debate about the character of Judaism.
Instead of struggling to bring a more humanistic interpretation of the tradition to the public in a fashion that would speak to them, they have left the tradition captive in the hands of chauvinists, nationalists and other extremists.
Daniel Statman is a member of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. Get more information about iEngage at iengage.org.il