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It’s the ‘spirituality,’ stupid

How is it that American hippies, once utterly devoted to counter-culture causes, turned into die-hard right-wingers when they came to Israel?

Some years ago I happened to notice on the “Political Views” of a Facebook “friend” living in Israel the following line: “Right on Israel, left on everything else.” The woman is a long-time ba’alat teshuva and an unreconstructed hippie from the ’60s. Her description stayed with me in part because I too was a baal teshuva and a hippie from the early ’70s who very much identified with her return to Judaism, her romantic ties to Israel, and her spiritual path, which was for the most part non-political. (I also happen to know her well and have great respect for her as a person.)

A few weeks ago I was having a Facebook “chat” with an ex-student of mine who graduated from an American university and moved to Tel Aviv. Michelle (not her real name) is, as far as I know, a non-Orthodox but “spiritual” Jew and a devoted Deadhead. She is also quite “right-wing” on Israel and, I would assume “left on everything else.” She is of another generation from my Facebook “friend,” one of the “post-Garcia” Deadheads, and I felt I had the opportunity to ask her what has been bothering me for years: “How do you square your commitment to the values of the counter-culture with your right-leaning Israeli political views?” In other words, how did she understand the counter-culture’s commitment to freedom, justice, civil rights, pacifism, and equality with Israel’s continued occupation that includes systematic discrimination against the Palestinian population? Her answer was short, unapologetic, and not at all defensive. “I think the connection to liking the Dead and being right wing,” she wrote, “is spirituality….just a divine connection to the land, I guess, like Rav Kook.” (I assume she meant Kook the father, but I did not ask.) I liked her answer because it was not justificatory; it did not dwell in “hasbara” rhetoric, and it was not political. In short, she was saying, “Its the spiritualty, stupid.”

She is not alone. Radio Free Nachlaot is a counter-cultural internet radio station transmitting “somewhere deep in Nahlaot” that is devoted to American and Israeli counter-cultural music that includes Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his affiliates. They have a very popular annual “Nine Days of Jerry,” celebrating The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garica, who was born on August 1 and died on August 9, by playing live Dead shows and discussing them in impressive detail for nine full days. (They do a similar “Nine Weeks of Shlomo” between the yahrzeit of “the dancing rabbi” and his birthday.) The station’s programming includes classes in Hasidism and Jewish spirituality, taught mostly by American-born baalei teshuva. Here’s a video preview for the station’s broadcasts on “the second annual International Temple Mount Awareness Day:”

The station’s founders sport long hair and long beards, colorful head scarves, flowing dresses, and tye-dye T-shirts. Many of the announcers and guests reminisce about the good old days of the student protests, peace marches, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Some even talk about the Civil Rights movement. But when they talk about Israel they are almost exclusively right wing, defending the settlements and Israel’s right to the land, and repeating the rhetoric heard among many settlers. When they’re playing music, they sound like WBAI from 1970 (the famous radical leftist radio station in New York); when they’re talking politics, they sound like Arutz Sheva (the settler news network in Israel). All this is done seamlessly, as if playing Bob Dylan’s 1963 protest song “Masters of War” and defending Greater Israel are somehow congruous. Although my integration of counter-cultural values may differ from theirs — and I was once very much a part of their sub-culture in Israel — I only use them here as an example to ask a larger question: How does a progressive ideology devoted to fairness, equality, and justice became an ideology that defends what appears to me to be its opposite?

Universalism, in particular

There are, of course, many answers one could give, describing the difference between the two situations (1970s America and early 21st-century Israel): the existential threat to the Jews, etc. But this is all far less interesting, and in my view, less honest, than Michelle’s more poignant response: “I think the connection to liking the Dead and being right wing, is spirituality….just a divine connection to the land.” Or my old Facebook friend’s unabashed exceptionalism: “Right on Israel, left on everything else.”

In some way, this all harkens back to the conundrum of the universal and the particular, a dichotomy that Jews and others have struggled with since the time of the Hebrew prophets. Even Paul’s oft-cited comment in Galatians 3:28 — “There is no longer Jew or Greek,  there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male of female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” — did not resolve the issue for Christianity; Christians, the ostensibly quintessential universalists, often continued to define themselves hierarchically, sometimes in stark racial or ethnic terms, in relation to all others.

In modern thought it was perhaps Hegel’s dialectical philosophy that had the most interesting things to say about how a commitment to the universal can function within the body of the particular. Jews have struggled mightily with this issue, one that became even more pronounced with the advent of Jewish nationalism and the establishment of a Jewish state. In fact, even with Hegel, and his critical student Marx, it is the nation-state that poses the greatest challenge to the universal. The late French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote numerous essays about this, arguing that true universalism can only arise from the particular, while the particular must carry the universal, which implicitly criticizes Kant’s cosmopolitanism as both naïve and misguided. This remains a central concern for political philosophers to this day.

A particular brand of universalism. Emmanuel Levinas (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)
A particular brand of universalism. Emmanuel Levinas (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

In many ways, early secular Zionism, much of which was humanistic in orientation and was committed to refracting the universal through the particularity of Jewish peoplehood, attempted to embody this dynamic, which is why Marxism and socialism played such a significant role in early Zionist ideology.

But that was a long time ago.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s allusive and enigmatic writings, many of which did not become popular until the 1960s through the work of his son R. Zvi Yehuda Kook (the elder Kook died in 1936), added a spiritual and — just as significantly — romantic dimension to Zionism, based on mystical doctrine.  Many counter-cultural Americans who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s and founded communities such as Moshav Modi’im (where I lived from 1986-1989), and later Radio Free Nachlaot, had never heard of Kook before arriving in Israel. He was almost unknown in the US in those years, except to a small circle of mostly Orthodox Jews who had been exposed to his writings through family or trips to Israel. Kook’s humanistic and universalistic inclinations are deeply embedded in his cryptic writings and, to some degree, were concealed by the more nationalistic, particularistic, and militaristic rendering of his son Zvi Yehuda. Those same writings also contained quite stark exclusivist tendencies. Kook scholars continue to debate which perspective dominates his work.

Many of the American counter-cultural immigrants came to Judaism through New Age religion and disassimilation born in part by identity politics in 1960s America. Figures such as Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and institutions such as The House of Love and Prayer and the Aquarian Minyan in San Francisco and Berkeley, the Havurah movement in the Northeast, and Habad, were instrumental in making the “sidduch” between the counter-culture and Judaism. Here Hasidism and neo-Hasidism played an important role. In my experience, while still in the US (in the 1970s and early 1980s) many of these newly religious people maintained a commitment to leftist ideas, including peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. A good example of this tolerant new Jewish romanticism can be seen in the three volumes of “Jewish Catalogues,” published in the early to mid 1970s and modeled after the progressive “Whole Earth Catalogue” of the late 1960s. At that time, American counter-cultural Jews had not met the settlers (whose movement was just getting under way in Israel); nor had they been introduced to the romantic Zionism of Rav Kook that was being forged in various yeshivot and religious kibbutzim.

Many of the counter-cultural American immigrants from this period were inspired by a New Age spirituality that contained its own distinct form of Orientalism. The Jewish version of this outlook was easy prey for an emerging settler spirituality that institutionalized a “divine connection to the land” that had little tolerance for coexistence if it meant sharing said land. While these American counter-culturalsists sympathized with the subaltern in principle, as they became more integrated into this new Zionist romanticism of the settler movement, the divine connection to the land began to take precedence.

Somewhere under the rainbow

The narrative I tell here is, of course, only one way to tell this complicated story. My larger point is that, by and large, this movement was not driven by politics; nor was it a reaction to the conflict on the ground that erupted in 1987 with the first intifada. By that time, a well-established spiritual ideology was in place, and the transvaluation of the counter-culture was largely complete. Events on the ground surely solidified that ideology — but they did not found it. The progressive and tolerant ideology of the counter-culture had already morphed into a nationalistic doctrine of exclusivity. The universal had now become the particular.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

In his writings, Levinas stressed that the particular is valid, and useful, only to the extent that it embodies and expresses the universal. As a prisoner of war in German-occupied France during the Second World War, he knew first-hand what can happen when the universal becomes the particular. The American counter-culturalists had the potential to contribute to the shifting state of late twentieth-century Zionism by transporting the values of the counter-culture into contemporary Israel. Instead, the powerful Kookean romanticism stressing “the divine connection to the land” became the template onto which their progressive sentiments became embedded and ultimately effaced. This resulted in at least two different and, in my view, equally troubling alternatives. The first is my old Facebook friend’s “Right on Israel, left on everything else” alternative, which is in effect an exercise in bifurcation and unapologetic exceptionalism. That is, she maintains the progressive values of her youth except when it comes to Israel. The second is my student Michelle’s comment about spirituality and the link connecting her right-wing political views and her undying love of the Grateful Dead. In that case, the connection between one people and one land becomes the house of the spirit, and anything that interferes with that runs counter to the spiritual quest. Here the universal collapses into a particularist frame and becomes a form of spiritual nationalism fueled by romanticism.

Justifying these alternatives brings us to the realm of the political. Enter the pragmatists: politicians, and policy wonks who offer reasons and “empirical” justifications for the continuation of the occupation. But the American counter-culturalists of which I speak are generally not political animals; they are spiritual seekers. Politics becomes a tool to justify a romantic vision, a vision born on the college campuses of late 60s and early 70s America, a progressive ideology fed by a fight against segregation in the south, an unjust war in Southeast Asia, American imperialism abroad, and the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons. This culture produced music that spoke truth to power. But the freedom and equality embedded in that music, and the culture it helped produce, have been transformed into one people’s divine right to one land. This is not new. It happened with German nationalism in the nineteenth century and again before the First World War. Both cases exhibit a political theology founded on a romantic vision of people and land.

My two friends comfortably live their contemporary counter-culturalism within the confines of one people’s spiritual and divine right to one land. The moral price has been buried in the ancient stones and terraced hills. But, following Levinas, when the universal disappears under the rainbow prayer shawl of a romantic spirit, what value does any particularity have?

About the Author
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. His most recent book, 'From Metaphysics to Midrash; History, Myth and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbalah' (Indiana University Press), was awarded the 2008 American Academy of Religion Best Book in Religion in the Textual Studies Category. His forthcoming book, 'American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,' will be published with Indiana University Press in the winter of 2013. He writes regularly for Religion Dispatches, Tikkun Magazine, Shma Magazine and Zeek Magazine. He is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Sea View, NY.