“Dirty Hands:” The Jewish de-legitimization of Israel and the Jewish return to history

For the past three or four years the government of Israel and the Jewish world have been occupied with the issue of the de-legitimization of Israel. In June the government passed a resolution making a cabinet minister responsible for coordinating all efforts to fight it and leading Jewish organizations in the Diaspora such as JFNA in the US have set up special initiatives and bodies to combat it such as the Israel Action Network.

Most distressing within this context is the phenomenon of the Jewish de-legitimization of Israel – Jews or Jewish organizations who not only criticize Israel (which is of course, perfectly legitimate, even if the criticism is very severe) but also deny its right to exist as a Jewish state (or the nation state of the Jewish people), or state or imply that the very existence of Israel is a crime or advocate Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against the State of Israel itself.

This phenomenon is becoming increasingly widespread and it includes not only a relatively large organization (Jewish Voice for Peace – 11 chapters and claims 100,000 supporters) but also prominent spokesmen and supporters, for example Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler (famous radical feminist theorist), Tony Kushner (playwright and screenwriter) and Naomi Klein (of anti-globalization fame). An internet list of “self-hating” Jews – concerned mainly with de-legitimizing Jews contains thousands of names. These, of course, are in addition to prominent Jewish Israeli de-legitimizers such as Ilan Pappe, Nurit Elchanan-Peled, Nive Gordon, Yonatan Shapira and others. Other Jews with this tendency can be also found in South Africa, such as leading ANC and South African Communist Party members Denis Goldberg and Rob Davies.

I think that merely dismissing these figures as “self-hating Jews” is not adequate. We are dealing with a significant phenomenon in contemporary Jewish life and we should try and understand it. Only then will we be able to formulate an adequate response to this de-legitimization.

The Jewish People formulated three responses to modernity and the issue of their integration into the surrounding non-Jewish society. The first two responses are very familiar to us here in Israel, the third perhaps less so.  The first of these responses is that of Zionism, i.e. Jews can successfully participate in modernity under the condition that they found their own nation state in which they can be a majority. The second response is that of Orthodoxy. This entailed turning the Jewish religious tradition into a self-conscious ideology which explained and systematized religious practice. Armed with such an apparatus traditional religious practice learned to sustain itself under modern conditions and, in the last few decades, has even flourished. The third response has been integration into Western societies while maintaining some sort of Jewish culture or values which make a worthy contribution to modern society. The exact formulation of this culture and the exact nature of the contribution had variously formulated. Some of the Enlightenment and Reform thinkers (such as Mendelssohn) spoke in terms of pure monotheism and spoke of Jewish “mission”. Others thought in terms of social justice and struggle on behalf of the downtrodden (Hannah Arendt in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah”). Of course, Jews have been very prominent in various “progressive” movements and causes – liberal, socialist and communist.

Until the Second World War the Zionist response constituted a minority one in the world Jewish community, especially if one speaks in terms of concrete political action and not only of mere sentiment. After the Holocaust, the drive to create a Jewish state accelerated and garnered support from all sectors of the Jewish world. This was especially the case in the crucial years 1947-49. Not only did the Communists and Agudat Yisrael sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence but the Agudah, through the United Religious Front, even joined the first government. Already in the first decade, the Ultra-orthodox registered their disappointment with the State of Israel and deemed it in principle, illegitimate, though they did not altogether withdraw their practical participation.  Until 1967, Israel did better with Left and progressive sectors of Jewish life. Not only did the Soviet Union support and play a crucial role in Israel’s independence, but Israel’s governing elite was socialist and Israel’s communes, the kibbutzim were world famous. In this period, the Jewish Left tended to identify with the image that Israel projected about itself – that is, as a progressive social democratic state that served as a refuge for a persecuted people, unjustly attacked by corrupt Arab oil sheiks and rich international oil corporations.

The support of the Jewish Left for Israel began to erode after 1967 when Israel began to occupy and settle the territory conquered in the Six Day War – the Golan Heights, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), Gaza and the Sinai.  It was during this period that the perception of Israel began to turn from that of David to that of Goliath especially vis a vis the Palestinians. As time progressed and as further developments emerged – the two Intafadas, the Oslo peace process etc. – the international Left and significant sectors of world public opinion turned significantly against Israel. With them the Jewish Left also turned, until a significant portion of it now engages in de-legitimization.

While I believe the above history to be more or less accurate, it really does not fully explain Jewish de-legitimization. Criticism of, and opposition to, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank abounds in the Zionist camp both in Israel and in the Diaspora. In Israel, at least forty percent of the population has continuously and consistently voted for parties in the peace camp and most of the community in the Diaspora supports a peace process and a two state solution. According to the recent Pew Survey 61% of American Jews think that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, more than in the US general public.  In line with this, 62% of American Jews do not think that the government of Israel is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement. Despite this implicit and explicit criticism of Israeli government policy the vast majority of American Jews support Israel and, again according to the Pew survey, 69% feel very or somewhat attached to Israel. Thus, the great majority of American Jews is critically supportive of Israel. They do not engage in de-legitimization. In fact, the major Jewish organizations (and some grassroots initiatives) combat de-legitimization and boycotts, sanctions and divestment (BDS) directed against Israel.

In order to understand Jewish de-legitimization we must go beyond current policies and criticism to deeper themes within Jewish culture and civilization. Unlike criticism of Israel which focuses upon specific policies undertaken by the Israeli state, the de-legitimization of Israel claims that something is essentially wrong with it; that the existence of Israel constitutes a wrong in its essence. In order to understand this, we might do well if we would consider Jewish Leftist de-legitimization in the light of the other wing of Jewish de-legitimization, the Ultra-Orthodox wing.

Here too, we have a structure which consists of criticism and de-legitimization. The state of Israel as it currently exists is a far cry from the way in which Orthodox Jews imagine how a Jewish state should look or be run. The vast majority of the Jewish population is not Orthodox. Radio, television, entertainment and shopping operate on the Sabbath and are available to most of the population. The civil laws of the country have little relation to traditional religious law (Halacha) and graduates of the state school system (especially the general, non-religious system) know very little, if anything at all, concerning traditional Jewish religious texts such as the Bible and the Talmud. Orthodox Jews have responded to this situation in two ways. One camp, the religious Zionist one, accepts the state of Israel as a positive or very positive development, criticizes the religious policy of the state as it currently exits and attempts to change this policy and the general public in a direction more to its liking. The other camp, the ultra-Orthodox, does not merely criticize. It has declared the state to be essentially illegitimate. As is well known, because of this in-principle objection to the existence of the state, they engage in symbolic negation of primary symbols of the state – do not participate as ministers in the government, walk out when the national anthem is played, do not celebrate Independence Day etc.

What lies behind this common rejection of the legitimacy of the State of Israel? Despite the fact that the content of the two sectors, the ultra-Orthodox and the Jewish Left is very different,  they seem to be engaging in a similar pattern of behavior vis a vis the state of Israel. (This fact was not lost on the sectors themselves. It is part of Israeli political folklore that R. Itche Mayer Levin, the representative of  Agudat Yisrael, always shared a table in the Knesset cafeteria in the 1950’s with the Communist MK Shmuel Mikunis.)

I suggest that in fact, they do share a common Jewish theme. This theme was articulated by the great Israeli scholar of the Jewish religion, Gershom Scholem, who argued that the price that the Jewish people paid for their development of the Messianic idea was their own “exit from history.” During the long history of the Exile the Jewish people imagined a Messianic, redeemed world of perfect justice, perfect national restoration, perfect relationship to God and religious observance. They could develop this idea precisely because they were removed from “history” – they could not participate as a national collective in world politics, in world culture and in the endeavors of building a state, developing a national economy etc. Thus, on the national level they did not have to deal with the inevitable, mistakes, compromises and wickedness which is necessarily part of any concrete action in the world. Instead they could develop one of the most important Jewish contributions to the human spirit – The Messianic Idea. But, as Scholem points out, there was something profoundly unreal about Jewish life in the Exile.

Zionism was one of the most profound revolutions in Jewish life. It constitutes, as Scholem defined it, a departure from the Messianic Idea to the realm of history.  Once Jews enter the realm of history by building a Jewish state they necessarily become implicated in a life that is less than ideal – they become implicated – simply by the fact of action in the real world – in injustice, in moral compromises, corruption and other ills and wrongs. They can no longer cling to the perfect justice and perfect religion of the Messianic Idea. But here is the rub: Only the Zionist were willing to make the leap into history. The two other Jewish streams – the (ultra) Orthodox and the Left-integrationists continued to maintain that the Jewish vocation is to remain, collectively, outside of history, and to hold up, as a measuring standard for humanity, the perfect messianic society. The ultra-Orthodox  continue to affirm the religiously perfect society while, the Left continues to affirm the Messianism of perfect social justice, especially for the downtrodden and the oppressed. Both groups will only affirm and support a Jewish state if it is Messianic – that is perfect, either religiously or terms of social justice. Any Jewish state that is less than perfect is not merely an object of criticism and improvement. It is in an essential sense illegitimate and a betrayal of the Jewish vocation.

The personal histories of some of the most well-known of the Jewish de-legitimizers seems to support this interpretation. Noam Chomsky and the late Tony Judt were both active left wing labor Zionists in their youth and both lived in Israel for a period of time. They were committed to Israel as long as Israel seemed to realize a dream of social justice and progressive social democracy. As soon as Israel began to tarnish its image as a progressive society oriented towards social justice both through the occupation of the West Bank and through its transition to a “normal”, bourgeois capitalist society they both turned against Israel to the point of de-legitimization.

Thus, between the Zionists and the other two movements in modern Jewish history – the (Ultra )- Orthodox and the Left integrationists – there really is a principled Jewish debate: To what extent can the Jewish people legitimately enter history and inevitably “dirty their hands.” Undeniably, the Jewish state engages in morally questionable activity, but it does so as part of genuine struggle with genuine enemies in the context of genuine national and political conflicts. A truly effective response to contemporary Jewish de-legitimization both from the Left and the ultra-Orthodox is to present an intellectual case that Judaism does not only require the presentation of sublime visions of moral and religious perfection, but requires that one actually “dirty one’s hands” with actual engagement in the world. Indeed, as we try and constitute a world under the kingship of God (L’taken olam b’malchut shaddai), failure is inevitable, but only through failure and its repair can a truly just, moral and religious society in reality be established.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He teaches 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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