Tribalism and Universalism in Judaism

I was recently fortunate enough to come across coherent and compelling arguments from what might be described as the hard-left and the centre of the Middle East conflict that did not talk past each other, but rather spoke quite clearly to the fundamental differences between certain segments of the world Jewish community.

In the first article, Jerry Haber seriously questions the “deeply-held belief by many [Jews]” that “the Jewish state serves as a necessary refuge for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism and a guarantor of the survival of Jewish culture.”  After making it clear just how late to the scene of modern Jewish cultural revival the birth of the modern State of Israel was — in comparison with such institutions as the Hebrew University, the Hebrew Language Committee, and the Bezalel Art School, to name a few — Haber focuses on the central claim of most (if not all) Zionists: that the State of Israel must exist in order to provide refuge for Jews against any future threat of anti-Semitism.  In Haber’s words:

“Which brings me to the “place of refuge” dogma: If Israel exists as a physical refuge to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, then it has failed miserably in that respect. We are told by Israel’s leaders that the Jewish state is, or soon will be, under an existential threat from Iran, or from terrorism. If this is true, then will some one please tell me how Israel is a safer refuge for the Jews than, say, the United States, or even, Europe? More Jews have died because of the Israel-Arab conflict since 1945 than as a result of all other anti-Jewish behavior combined since 1945. And since much of the new anti-Semitism is correlated to Israel’s actions, not only is Israel a dangerous place for Jews living within its borders, it isn’t so good for the physical safety of Jews outside it either.”

I cannot recall ever reading such a stark, pragmatic approach to critiquing this “dogma” (as Haber calls it).  What brought this home even more for me was a discussion with an Israeli over Pesach that ultimately broke down over our fundamental disagreement of what Judaism would look like if Israel ceased to exist — or, more specifically, whether Judaism would exist if Israel did not.  Not being of the mind that Judaism is totally dependent for its survival on the State of Israel, I have a hard time understanding what exactly under-girds that position, and also find a lot of sense in Haber’s view, when he states:

“…that argument seems to say that unless there is a Jewish state of refuge, some Jews may die or suffer anti-Semitism. But with a Jewish state some Jews may die or suffer anti-Semitism. The real question is or should be, “Can Judaism and the Jewish people survive without a Jewish state.” And the answer is, so far, yes. In fact several thousand years of Jewish survival teaches us that.”

I wonder if, instead of claiming that Judaism depends for its survival on the State of Israel, the position Haber and I find difficulties with might instead frame the issue as the flourishing of Judaism depending on the existence of a Jewish State in Israel.  That, at least, could be argued back and forth in terms of how to define flourishing.  I am still inclined to look at the fantastic developments that Judaism has made — internally, by producing works such as the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch; and externally, through thinkers like Maimonides, Freud and Einstein — without any ‘homeland’ as proof that Judaism does not need a State to flourish.  I think, in fact, that some of the resiliency that Judaism has, by now, built into its very being, is due to the exile it was forced to endure for two thousand years.

While the ostensible connection between Haber’s article and Daniel Gordis’ is that both are responding to Peter Beinart’s recently published The Crisis of Zionism, I see the connection in the fundamentally different ways they seek justification for the establishment — and, hence, the continued presence in — a Jewish State in what used to be Palestine.  Haber begins from the position that people do not have a right to uproot a native population to create their own state, even if the stated goal is the creation of a state to free that population from persecution, while Gordis trumpets the idea that tribalism ought to be accepted as part of Judaism, even to the chagrin of many liberal Jews today.

Gordis puts it quite clearly when, in explaining why he thinks Beinart expresses such unbalanced criticism of Israel in his new book, Gordis states: “Beinart’s problem, most fundamentally, is that the American liberalism with which he is so infatuated does not comfortably have a place for Jewish ethnic nationalism.”

Gordis’ claim is that Judaism has always been a “tribal” religion/culture, and it is the fact that this aspect of Judaism irks Beinart’s sense of universalism that is driving the vitriol directed at Israel in Beinart’s book.  The fact that Judaism has contained a strong ‘tribal flavour’ throughout its history is not a reason for it to continue to do so.  However, Gordis argues, if that was Beinart’s argument, that would be a whole different kettle of fish.

Gordis hedges his bets and does not reveal his own hand in this article, but I would be surprised if he wasn’t uncomfortable with much of Jewish particularism just as Beinart and I are.  Gordis asks: “How could someone as smart as Beinart be so naïve?” with regard to the fact that Israel, after fighting 10 wars in her short history, has committed “terrible misdeeds.”  I would ask, in the same vein, whether someone as intelligent as Gordis could possibly imagine that any Seder in which serious conversation took place did not involve a repudiation or serious critique of the paragraph in the Hagaddah which begins with “Pour out Your wrath against the nations that do not know You,” which Gordis uses as a current example of Jews ascribing to Jewish particularism.  The fact is, whether original or having first been expressed by the Reform movement, many Jews are deeply uncomfortable with the notion of particularism, or what Gordis calls “tribalism.”

Gordis sees this being problematic mainly for what it implies about Israel:

“In the universalized Judaism for which Beinart yearns, however, there would be no place for Israel. Jews would not need a refuge, for they would fit in everywhere. They would not reside in the Middle East, for the creation of the Jewish state (like the creation of every other state) required the displacement of people.”

Haber disagrees with the assertion that there was nowhere Jews could have created a state in the aftermath of the Shoah that would not have required displacing the local population, as he states:

“[T]he Postwar states had a responsibility to receive the World War II refugees, and that responsibility was first and foremost that of their native countries. But where repatriation was not possible, the refugees should have been allowed to go to countries where there [sic] settlement would not adversely affect the rights of the native population.  The settlement of Jewish refugees in Palestine — of which they were not native — was not morally justified insofar as that settlement furthered the designs of Jewish statehood, since the majority of the Palestinians were opposed to Jewish statehood, and Jewish statehood would have adversely affected their rights.”

I will leave it to those with knowledge of state creation to determine the historical accuracy of both of these positions.

Finally, Gordis attacks Beinart and any subscribing to his understanding of Israel and Judaism as:

“…essentially Jewishly illiterate. They know nothing of Judaism’s intellectual depth, can say nothing about the classical Jewish canon, have no sense of what great ideas Judaism has brought to the world. They are thus utterly incapable of articulating what a Jewish state not committed to America’s ideals might be about. Confused and disappointed, they grow ashamed of us. For us to fit their universalistic world, in which nothing Jewish is of supreme value, they need us to be perfect. When we’re not, they cannot abide us.”

I find it very hard to stomach a debating tactic where one’s view is aligned with all ‘qualified,’ ‘intelligent,’ or ‘literate’ members of a group, while those who hold any other opinion are fringe, shallow, and illiterate.  Gordis is a very engaging writer and speaker, but that, for me, crosses the line.  You can be an engaged, passionate Jew well-versed in Jewish history and ideas today and still be harshly critical of some of the choices Israel has made in the past 64 years.  When the rhetoric is raised to this hysterical a pitch, what I observe happening is an us-vs.-them on all sides, to the point where Beinart depressingly does not show equivalent empathy for victims of abuse on all sides of the conflict, and where Gordis calls into question the Jewish pedigree of anyone who would disagree with him.

I think that, if all parties to this conversation agree that ideas expressed within the Jewish canon deserve weight, then it is important to note that, of all commandments in the Torah, the commandment to “love the stranger” is repeated more often than any other.  And it is equally important to note that Judaism was conceived as a tribal system.  I think that anyone who wants to sincerely engage with these issues and how they relate to the actions of Israel and the moral status we ought to assign them should be allowed to do so in an open and respectful space, without trying to kick them out of the tent, regardless of the views espoused.


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