While writing last week’s column on “progressive” Jewish intellectuals who call openly for the destruction of the Israel, a thought crossed my mind (hopefully not for the first time): Why am I writing in Yated Ne’eman as if being anti-Israel were the greatest possible betrayal of one’s Jewishness? After all, wasn’t Agudath Israel once labeled an “anti-Zionist” party? And did not most gedolei Yisrael oppose the creation of a non-Torah state in Eretz Yisrael?
In his Ba’ayot Hazeman, which remains the classic exposition of the halachic parameters of participation in the Israeli government, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, zt”l, begins by describing the baseline position that “participation in the government is forbidden.” And even if various practical considerations necessitate participation, he writes, participation remains “in the nature of a transgression for the sake of Heaven,” [and] must be done without giving more respect to [anti-Torah leaders] than necessary.”
Many of the Jewish “progressives” quoted in Alvin Rosenfeld’s “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism” claim that Israel represents a betrayal of Jewish values. And the chareidi world also frequently criticizes the state for its many deviations from Torah values. So why did I shower contempt on the “progressives,” as if it quoting their views were tantamount to refuting them?
IN TRUTH, the criticisms of the state advanced by “progressives” and chareidim bear no resemblance to one another. I found the most clearly articulated expression of why not at a website devoted to Rosenfeld’s article. One of the discussants offered a simple question to distinguish the two groups of Jews. Ask them: Why is the continued existence of the Jewish people necessary in the 20th century?
“Progressives” will have no answer to that question. George Soros, who told a New York Times reporter last month that the United States will have to undergo a period of “de-Nazification” after the Bush presidency, is perhaps the best-known and by a wide margin the wealthiest of the Jewish “progressives.” (At some future date, we will discuss, imy”H, the congruence of anti-Americanism and anti-Israel sentiment.) Soros, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, once famously told Connie Bruck in The New Yorker, “I don’t deny the Jews their right to a national existence – but I don’t want to be part of it.”
That is, I would guess, putting it too mildly. What really gripes the “progressives” is that as long as there are those who assert a Jewish national identity, they will find themselves identified as Jews and grouped together with Jewish “nationalists.”
To declare that one has no wish to be part of Jewish national existence is tantamount to declaring that one sees no particular value in the continuation of that national existence. The extreme nature of the “progressive” attacks on Israel surveyed by Rosenfeld, the way in which Israel’s actions are judged on a scale of moral absolutism applied to no other state in the world, including her closest neighbors, reflects a profound discomfort with being identified as a Jew. That discomfort is, as Leon Wieseltier has pointed out, a perverse form of acceptance of the anti-Semites’ view that all Jews are alike and that the act of any Jew can be fairly attributed to all Jews.
Only by denouncing Israel and demanding its dismantling can the “progressive” free himself from association not only with the state of Israel but with all those who seek to preserve a Jewish national identity. It is the most public and dramatic way of demanding out of that identity.
Intermarriage is another – albeit more private and less dramatic – way of opting out, a way of stating, “I’m no longer one of them.” Admittedly, there are many reasons behind the high intermarriage rates. The wish not to be identified as a Jew and the feeling that it is a matter of grave indifference whether an identifiable Jewish people continues to exist is only one. But it is safe to say that those who believe that the continued existence of the Jewish people is vital to the future of mankind will be far less likely to intermarry. Thus the Jewish “progressives” only represent the most extreme example of a much wider phenomenon of denying any value to Jewish national existence.
There is one way in which the “progressives” do like to play up their “Jewish background.” They cite being Jewish or Israeli as if it gives greater credence to their jeremiads against Israel. Doing so also serves to build their self-image as lonely voices speaking truth to power, “prophets” in the best Biblical tradition.
They would have us believe that it is so difficult for a Jew or an Israeli to criticize Israel that only the very bravest would ever do so. That is another typical foible of intellectuals – making themselves out to be far braver than they are. In response to Tony Judt’s statement that the cancellation of his speech at the Polish consulate in New York on “The Jewish Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” showed that “the public space for non-conforming opinion in this country is closing down,” Leon Wieseltier aptly observed: “He [Judt] is one of the least suppressed, repressed, and oppressed intellectuals who ever lived. If there is life on Mars, it knows what he thinks.”
Even those who claim to attack Israel from the vantage point of “Jewish values” do not necessarily view the continued existence of the Jewish people as necessary to the fate of the world. For one thing, those alleged “values” are rarely derived from serious study of classical texts, and therefore do not depend on the continued existence of those with an intimate command of those texts. Nor are those texts viewed as in any sense binding.
Moreover, those “values” are inevitably expressed at a level of generality – e.g., the Jewish concept of justice – that remove them from any particular Jewish context. In this sense, the Jewish progressives resemble recently retired president of the Israeli Supreme Court Aharon Barak. Barak famously argued, in a debate with the then vice-president of the Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, that there can be no contradiction between the words “Jewish” and “democratic” in the Basic Laws’ description of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Though the term “Jewish” appears first in that formulation, Barak insisted that no Jewish legal materials could ever modify or limit his modern understanding of the term “democratic.” To avoid any possible contradiction, he advocated interpreting the term “Jewish” at a level of abstraction that removes any possible contradiction between the two terms.
Of course at that level of abstraction, any so-called “Jewish values” have already passed into the realm of general universalistic “human rights” that are now the patrimony of all enlightened modern men. As such, their preservation certainly no longer requires the preservation of the Jewish people. At best, Jews brought these concepts into the world. But that is no reason for the continued existence of an identifiable Jewish people.
CHAREIDI MISGIVINGS ABOUT MODERN DAY ISRAEL are an altogether different matter. Truth be told, the chareidi world has long since made its peace with Israel, in one way or another – and for a reason that highlights the differences between the chareidi critique and that of the progressives.
Israel is today home to almost half the world’s Jews and over half the world’s Jewish children. For that simple reason alone, chareidi Jews worldwide are deeply concerned about Israel’s security however dismayed they may be about the internal direction of the country. Precisely because they do not doubt for a minute that the entire world depends on the existence of the Jewish people are they ardent defenders of Israel’s security.
In this respect, I have found little difference between the 16th Ave. Telshe minyan in Boro Park and the average Modern Orthodox shul in Teaneck. The latter may have a few more members convinced that they have security expertise worth sharing with Israel’s prime ministers and generals and the former may worry a bit more about kiruv in the Holy Land, but, in general, the sense of involvement in Israel’s fate does not differ greatly between the two.
Chareidi Jews can acknowledge that the creation of Israel was not without moral taint and caused the suffering and dislocation of tens of thousands of Arab residents of what would become the new state. But in that respect, Arab refugees were no different than the other 38 million people dislocated in various ethnic conflicts around the world in the 20th century. With the sole exception of the Palestinians none of those millions still enjoy refugee status today.
No moral absolutism will cause chareidim to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel and thereby increase the danger to its Jewish residents just because Israel, like every other nation state in history, was born in war. If the Jewish people is to fulfill its world mission, it must first survive. And because Torah Jews believe in that world mission they urge Israel to follow the principle of “the one who comes to kill you, rise up and kill him [first],” towards those who remain committed to expelling all the Jews of Israel from their homes. And it does not matter, at this point, that those who come to kill us may have real grievances so long as they cannot reconcile themselves with Jewish existence in any part of Eretz Yisrael.
Precisely because all Torah Jews view the Jewish people as a nation, not just an amalgam of individual believers, have chareidim over the years become far more involved in internal Israeli issues that might at one point have seemed to be primarily of concern from a religious-Zionist perspective, which imbues the state of Israel with theological significance.
Issues like the recognition of heterodox conversions in Israel, for instance, have greatly exercised the Israeli chareidi leadership, though such conversions will have little immediate impact upon the chareidi community itself. Similarly, Rav Shach, zt”l, in his time, refused to permit Degel HaTorah to join a Rabin government with Shulamit Aloni as Minister of Education, even though she would have left chareidi education alone and the substantial financial inducements were offered to the chareidi community. Rav Shach would not entrust a woman who so frequently heaped scorn on mesoras Yisroel with the education of any Jewish child.
The battle over El Al’s Shabbos flights, despite the fact that El Al is no longer a national carrier and is well known to do preparatory work on Shabbos and to fly planes of its wholly owned subsidiary on Shabbos, shows a keen sensitivity to the messages conveyed to Israeli and world Jewry. Israel may not be in our eyes “the Jewish state,” and certainly not “the first flowering of the Redemption.” But it is perceived as “the Jewish state” by many Jews around the world. And so long as El Al is still perceived by many as Israel’s national airline, its flights on Shabbos convey a negative message about the sanctity of Shabbos to world Jewry. And over those messages the gedolim went to battle. That battle itself demonstrates the strong sense of Jewish national existence and collective responsibility at the heart of Torah thought.
In short, chareidi and progressive critiques of Israel start at diametrically opposite points and will never meet.
Appeared in Yated Ne’eman.