Celebrating the Founding of the State of Israel or Protesting White Privilege

Should all Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut? I think many Jews have good reason not to.

Just as I wouldn’t expect Native American Indians celebrate the birth of the country that stripped them of almost everything that was valuable to them; their heritage, their culture and way of life, their land, their lives and well being, I similarly would not expect many Jews of Mizrahi lands to celebrate the creation of the State of Israel.

Native American Indians were clearly the victims of the colonization of North America by white Europeans. The colonizing powers certainly looked down on the Indians as a backward and primitive people who did not deserve to be given rights equal to the white man. Why? The white Europeans had better technology, better weapons, better education, better standard of living, and more sophisticated literature and art. This gave White Europeans a sense of superiority–that they had the right to use all those advantages against the primitives to deprive them of their lives, their land, their way of life, and their dignity.

The more one studies the history of the founding of the State of Israel and its immediate aftermath–the impact it had on the Mizrahi Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East, the more the comparison with colonialists’ treatment of the Native American Indians comes to mind.

The Times of Israel recently brought the very important television documentary series exposing some aspects of the dark side of Israel’s early history to their readers’ attention.

It reveals that the Early Jewish Zionists (White European colonialists) looked down on Mizrahi Jews with contempt and disdain. The thought of them as backward and primitive and did not give them the same rights and privileges that were afforded white refugees coming from European countries.

The openly racist policies and discrimination against Mizrahi Jews, forced secular indoctrination and infant abductions, even human x-ray medical experiments on them makes one shudder at how viciously the Ashkenazi (read:white) secular elite abused their power over the rest of the Jews in Israel when they won independence.

I feel deep sympathy for the lost glory of the Mizrahi Jewish communities which only in the last 20 years has started to make a comeback. For many uninterrupted centuries, the Jews of the Middle East were mostly religious and quite traditional. It was very hard to find a secular Mizrahi Jew before he came to Israel and attended our Zionist public schools, military, and universities. Respect for rabbis and rabbinic authority was almost universal. Assimilation and intermarriage was still at the fringes of society in the mid 20th century.

So I find it very hard to celebrate the day that effectively brought it all to an abrupt end.

I also believe that for a genuinely religious person, religion is the most important thing in one’s life. As the Rambam explains the aphorism of the Talmud that “a convert is like a newborn”, religion is more important than the strongest bonds to one’s own country, community, and even one’s own family.

Seeing a movement that has succeeded in perpetuating the cycle of secularization of millions of Jews– for three generations now– by exercising their white privilege and abusing the power of Jewish government and Jewish statehood should induce profound sadness–not joy.

I think we can be sophisticated enough to on the one hand be very
“pro-Israel” from a pragmatic point of view going forward, but have great misgivings about celebrating the success of the Zionist movement in founding a Jewish state in their secular, white, European image.

The fact that said government tolerates and begrudgingly supports public religious observance, education and institutions should be acknowledged, but it does not seriously mitigate the overwhelming secularizing influence that the State of Israel has wielded and continues to wield over millions of its Jewish citizens.

The mainstream public education system is secular. The military is secular. The Government is secular. All three institutions together and in concert dominate our Israeli culture to an enormous degree.

This is how the State of Israel continues to secularize the vast majority of its citizens and I find it very hard to celebrate that.

Now of course people will say “What’s the alternative? How can a Jewish state with millions of citizens not be fundamentally secular? What, you want to only provide religious schooling for the public, only allow rabbis to make the military and political decisions for the nation? That’s a theocracy! We’d be rightly shunned by the modern western world and be lumped together with Islamic fundamentalist countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia!”

To them I respond: For a genuinely religious person, religion is the most important thing in one’s life; not approval from the modern western world. The fact that there is a secular state run by Jews presiding over millions of secular Jewish citizens is a painful historical tragedy — despite the fact that it provides a safe place for Jews to live and live an authentic Jewish life.

If one’s religion is truly the most important thing in life, how can one argue that Jewish autonomy and relative physical safety was worth the price tag of creating millions of secular Jews in perpetuity? And even if you can understand how it was worth it, (of course, as with all historic Jewish tragedies, we have faith that G-d must have had his reasons) how can you celebrate it?

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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