Shlomo Fischer
Shlomo Fischer

Between Purim and Holocaust Memorial Day

Twenty-five years ago, my colleagues and I founded Yesodot – Center for Torah and Democracy to advance democracy education in the state religious school system. One of the pedagogical tools we developed was the “Rawls Game.” This pedagogical game was based upon the moral philosophy of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, as he formulated it in his book, A Theory of Justice.

The heart of the theory is a thought experiment: Rawls proposes to imagine a situation in which people take upon themselves the task of founding a state and then writing its constitution. They have complete knowledge of the social sciences but they lack knowledge of one sort – what their personal identity is and what they will be in the state they are founding. They do not know their gender, age, nationality etc. This is Rawls’ famous concept of “the veil of ignorance.”

At the end of the exercise the veil of ignorance lifts and the participants discover their national and gender identity, their economic and social status etc. One participant could discover that he is in fact a Satmar Hasid with disabilities, while another would find out that she is actually a Palestinian lesbian. Thus, if the participants have to take into account that every conceivable social identity may be revealed, they will legislate rules and laws that are equal for all, realizing “justice as fairness.”

In the Rawls Game, instead of a “thought experiment,” we asked principals and teachers within the state religious education system who participated in our programs  to divide up into small groups and actually write the rules of a new state that they were founding. They were to do this under the conditions Rawls defined: they had perfect social and economic knowledge but had no knowledge of their respective social identities. In the beginning we played this game only with Jewish religious principals, however as time passed, we were able to do it , in various frameworks, with Muslims, Christians, and Druze. In the course of the game, for example when Jewish religious teachers would propose laws that privilege  Jews, the game’s counselors (the Yesodot team), would remind the players that the veil of ignorance would lift at the end of the game and you yourselves may be revealed as Palestinians or Druze. Do you still think that is fair?

Often, something surprising would happen over the course of the game – there would be participants who could not or would not play. They explained that they could not imagine themselves with a different identity from the one they bore (for example, they could not imagine that they were not settlers or Palestinians) or that they totally rejected other possible identities (for example, Arabs could not imagine that they were really settlers or Haredim).

It seems, as Rawls himself remarked, that in order to conduct the thought experiment or to play the Rawls game, one needs to have certain cultural premises. The main premise has to do with the conception of the self.

Does the self have a unique essence or status that is “beyond” the ordinary and the mundane, an essence that confers upon it a unique dignity or even sacredness? Or conversely, is the self necessarily bound up with the social roles of age, gender, social status, and ethnic or national identity? The first conception stands behind the Western liberal conception of human rights, which are deemed to be universal and not conditioned upon status, role, or social identity. Human rights are designed to protect the essence of the self, which bears unique human dignity, and to grant the self that complete autonomy whose full realization alone constitutes the self’s full dignity. However, if one accepts the second conception, it is much more difficult to accept the demand for radical individual autonomy as the highest ethical imperative.

The first conception, that the self constitutes an entity that is sui generis in its dignity and standing is expressed in the common understanding of the Biblical concept that man is created in the image of God, and in the Christian tradition, in a verse from the Letter to the Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male or female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This conception of unique universal human dignity is presented in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  Kant argues that human beings deserve a special attention (achtung) and that one ought not relate to them only as a means; it is imperative to relate to each human being as an end.

Rawls adopts liberal premises regarding the self. That is, that the individual’s true self is a sacred entity “beyond” social roles and identities and that it can manifest itself in manifold social identities and roles. However, some participants in the Rawls Game, perhaps the more traditional and religious ones, hold  the second conception of the self – and understand it to be submerged in social identities and roles.

It follows from this that conceptions of fairness and justice that are derived from the liberal ontology of the self are not universal but restricted to those who share a certain culture (whose roots are in the Jewish Bible, Christianity, and Kant’s Enlightenment philosophy).

The various conceptions of the self, and the emotions and fears they engender are among the sources of Israel’s political polarization: Religious and right-wing groups suspect that the left – which heavily weights support of human rights – is insufficiently loyal to the Jewish people and Israel as a Jewish state. Whereas the left suspects that the right does not sufficiently accord sacred human dignity its rightful respect and deference by tying the self to a specific ethnic, religious, or national identity.

I was reminded of this philosophical-pedagogical incident in the wake of Purim and looking toward Holocaust Memorial Day. Purim contradicts to a certain extent the slightly gloomy conclusion of the previous analysis and points to the fact that the answers to the question, “what is the self?” are not binary. They are not “either this or that” answers.

Purim celebrates inversion, as it is noted in the Book of Esther (9:1): “but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.” Inversion is celebrated through the Purim costumes and masquerades. Men dress up as women, and women dress up as men, Jews dress up as Arabs and in all kinds of other costumes. However, there is one costume that constitutes a complete inversion, but I have never seen anyone put it on.. Despite the fact that it constitutes a complete inversion and is even related to the theme of Purim, no one masquerades as a Nazi on Purim.

The reason is clear. Our conception of self rejects the idea that we can be Nazis, even as a joke. Even if we are full-fledged liberals, there is something in our conception of self that ties it to social roles, even if it’s only a negative relation. Our liberal selves are not totally abstract and beyond any social role in an absolute manner.

In addition to rejecting the Nazi identity because we are Jews and were the targets of the Nazi murder machine, there is another reason why we reject this identity, which brings us back to the first conception of the self:  that it is sacred and transcendent. Nazism directly opposes the notion of a sacred human essence. It treats human beings as raw material to be used and thrown away.

We reject Nazism because of our particular identity as Jews, but also because of universal value considerations: to one extent or another we believe in the sacredness of humankind. Our rejection of Nazism show that we – all of us – share both conceptions of the self.

Thus, the political-cultural polarization currently attributed to Israel is to a certain extent false. Indeed, there are very sharp differences concerning the relations between the two conceptions of the self, the measure of importance attached to each conception and their respective implications. But in the final analysis these disagreements take place within a single framework of sharing both the human-universal conception and the “Jewish” conceptions of self.

These thoughts connect to Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust is a symbol that can contain the two aspects of our identity – the universal-human and the Jewish (at least negatively in terms of the rejection of Nazism). Marking Holocaust Memorial Day a week before Independence Day reminds us – all of us – that our shared framework is both Jewish and universal-democratic.

With these thoughts I returned to thinking about Jewish religious, Arab, and Druze principals and teachers and wondered if the common rejection of Nazism is enough upon which to build a state. True, there are theories that define “the political” as the ability to define an enemy and act against him. Nevertheless, that solidarity built upon a negation – the rejection of Nazism – is not sufficient. It is sufficient to create boundaries and define red lines but not the positive glue of solidarity. In fact, it creates an almost-state. Sometimes it seems to me that what we have here in Israel  is not a state but a collection of overlapping almost-states.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
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