At this election, throw out the theocrats

Judaism can and should be a unifier, a connection to the past and an inspiration for ethical social action.

March 11, 2015 21:53
haredi haredim

Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Another election is on the horizon, and there is a genuine and consequential divide between the competing political parties. It is not a simple Left / Right split, rather it can be found in answering the question: “What kind of Jewish and democratic state is Israel to be?” Specifically, is the “democratic” half of that duality a fundamental philosophical underpinning of the state? That is, is the state informed by the enlightenment concepts encapsulated so well in the American Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights?” Or is to be a Jewish and democratic state where “Jewish” refers to the religion of Judaism and where “democratic” refers purely to the system of choosing a government? That is, where interpretations of God’s will determine certain rights of Israeli citizens, policies concerning territory and how we treat the other.

If we desire the first of these options, that is to say, if we see ourselves as part of the Western democratic world – with the shared values that speaker after speaker at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference referred to – then let us vote only for parties that do not preach policies that lead us inexorably to the second, more theocratic version.

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In the first instance, we should reject the ultra-Orthodox parties, which support the state Rabbinate and the fossilized, fundamentalist version of Judaism it presents as the only authentic interpretation of the religion. Is there another institution in Israel (or any democratic country) that better exemplifies how when religion infects politics, politics exacts its revenge by corrupting the soul of religion? The Rabbinate should be democratized, with the plurality of Jewish religious expressions represented, or it should be abolished. Those political parties that would insist on preserving this religion/state status quo should be punished at the polls.

Perhaps of greater urgency however, is the threat posed by politicized Judaism that does not come dressed in the black and white of the ultra-Orthodox.

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In the years following the Six Day War in 1967, the followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook took over religious-Zionism and its parliamentary representation, the National Religious Party. By the mid-’70s, the NRP had become the party of the settler movement.

In every government of which the NRP or its successor party Bayit Yehudi was a member, there has been a voice insisting that the question of Israeli control of the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) – the most divisive domestic political issue and the most critical in Israel’s foreign relations – be answered by an interpretation of Divine will.

There are serious and compelling security arguments that can be made for Israel to keep hold of the West Bank at this time, but for the religious right-wing, these arguments are merely politically useful trimmings to the main dish of “God-promisedus- the-land.” One can debate the merits of different future scenarios for the status of the West Bank and its Palestinian population, but the dogma of post-’67 religious-Zionism – represented in the coming election by Bayit Yehudi and, in a more belligerent form, by the Kahanists running with Eli Yishai’s new party – makes that debate impossible.

The separation of religion and politics that is urgently required need not be the formalized “separation of church and state” of the United States, which was founded on the basis of universalist principles alone.

The State of Israel by contrast was always supposed to be a nation-state for a particular people – though importantly, as we can see from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with universalist principles at its heart.

“[The State] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Religion is such a central part of the culture and traditions of the Jewish people that it would be absurd for that specific religion to play no role at all in the public culture and traditions, of the state. This role includes somewhat innocuous references to Judaism in symbols of the state – for example the allusion to a tallit in the blue and white national flag, or the rendering of the Temple menorah on the insignia of all government bodies and institutions; but also Jewish religious tradition expressed unambiguously through, for example, observance of the laws of kashrut in all public institutions or the reciting of Kaddish at otherwise secular state memorial ceremonies.

The secular men and women who fought for and built the Jewish state are proof enough that Judaism is not a requirement for Jewish nationalism, but religion does remain unmatched in its capacity to create a sense of unity and common purpose. And while only a fool or a bigot would claim that religion is required for morality or social conscience, there is yet to emerge a societal force that can more powerfully motivate the masses to act for the benefit of “the other.”

Imagine if the many thousands of religious- Zionists who took to the streets to protest the withdrawal from Gaza were demonstrating today about the shocking poverty statistics in Israel. Forget about where Israel’s borders are. What sort of Jewish state has 2 million people living below the poverty line? Imagine if rabbis in synagogues and yeshivot were exhorting their congregants and students to action based on the Torah’s multiple injunctions to care for the most marginal people in society.

It was the ardently secular-Zionist thinker, Ze’ev Jabotinsky who said: “There is no social collective that would not lapse into barbarism were it not for the iron bit in its mouth of immemorial custom and manners.”

Uninterested though he was personally in Jewish religious life, he understood the “civilizing” effect on a society that deep-rooted tradition can play and the unparalleled capacity of religion to impart ethical teachings.

Judaism can and should be a unifier, a connection to the past and an inspiration for ethical social action. But there is a critical distinction to be made between the religious symbols of the state, which serve to keep alive and venerate the connection between the modern state of the Jewish people and that people’s historical culture and traditions, and the imposition of religious imperatives in the politics and policies of a modern democratic country. Similarly there is a difference between religious convictions influencing policymakers in their deliberations and the absolutist positions of Israel’s religious parties. To paraphrase the cofounder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, religion should have a vote not a veto.

ISRAEL’S DECLARATION of Independence (signed, lest we forget, by representatives of every Zionist faction – include the religious- Zionists of the day) made very clear that the values that should guide the new state would be Jewish in two respects only: That it will be a homeland to every Jew who wishes to take citizenship (the state’s very raison d’être); and that the ethical teachings of “the prophets of Israel” would inform its conduct. Absent is any reference to biblical commandments or to the Halacha.

Neither is this decidedly secular direction a departure from earlier Zionist thought.

The most fleshed-out exposition of Theodore Herzl’s vision of “the Jewish state” is not in his seminal work of that name, but in his later novel, Altneuland, which depicts a democratic country, where a Third Temple is constructed but religion remains in the private sphere only. The plot includes a national election in which all citizens have the vote regardless of gender, race or religion. (The book was written in 1902. In the US, women had to wait until 1920 to attain suffrage; in Britain, until 1928.) What’s more, the election pitted a secular-liberal candidate, running on a platform of equal rights for all citizens, against a racist rabbi who believes non-Jews should be denied the right to vote.

And we can go much further back into Jewish history for support for a separation of religion and politics. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a preeminent modern-Orthodox thinker, has described “the separation between religion and political power” as “one of the fundamental principles of Judaism,” citing the deliberate divide between monarchs and the priesthood in ancient Israel.

Ultimately, Israel can either remain part of “the West,” alongside the US, Europe, Canada and Australia or we can choose to join the other geopolitical camp – already well represented in the Middle East – where absolutist, totalitarian ideologies decide state policy.

The ultra-Orthodox parties remain unchanged in their theocratic tendencies, while, despite Naftali Bennett’s attempts to rebrand and broaden the appeal of his Bayit Yehudi, it remains wedded to an uncompromising position of “all of biblical Israel.”

To be clear, it is one thing to be the reluctant occupiers of another people following a dispassionate assessment of Israel’s security requirements, but to do so because of a messianic religious ideology is a major point of departure from the liberal democratic world that Israel is currently a part of.

Whether we lean Right or Left, whether our main concern is the threat of terrorism or the price of cottage cheese, let us vote for the parties that decide on their positions through reason, deliberation and values inspired by both Jewish tradition and secular wisdom; parties that have the concepts of the freedom and equality of the individual at their heart. And let us throw out the theocrats.

Paul Gross lives in Jerusalem and has written on Israeli politics and the Jewish world for a number of Israeli, British and American titles. He is the director of the Israel Government Fellows, an elite leadership and professional development program for young Diaspora Jews, but writes here in a personal capacity.

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