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The Too Jewish Jewish State

Avishai aims at Newhouse, misses

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Bernard Avishai.(BernardAvishai.blogspot.com)

Bernard Avishai detects chauvinism in editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse’s argument against Israel’s controversial conversion bill. I’ll leave aside the ordinarily astute Avishai’s downright creepy choice of words—one doubts that, if he had been responding to a male writer, he would have used the word “sassy” or conjured up an image like “brunette fetishists.” The real discourteousness of his argument lies in his refusal to accept Newhouse’s ontological premise, which is that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state, and as such is inherently connected to Jews the world over.

Resorting to the parlor game of what-if, Avishai invokes an imaginary scenario in which a newly independent Quebec announces that only Catholics are true Quebecois and accordingly awards them excessive rights. If that happened, Avishai quips, no serious intellectual would ever think that what’s at stake is merely a question of Catholic pluralism; instead, they would decry the fact that a democratic state “should presume to define or legally designate” an individual’s religious affiliation, “or award material privileges to individuals based on this legal designation.”

In his view, Israel, too, must be measured according to the yardsticks of Western democracies, those virtuous remnants of the Enlightenment that hold all men equal regardless of creed. “The Jewish state,” he writes, “began as a Jewish national home, distinctive for its Hebrew language and thick cultural soup, in which individual poets, politicians, etc., made individual choices about identity and voluntarily joined associations and movements inspired by what of Jewish civilization mattered to them.”

But actually, Zionism was more than a Costco of individual choices and personal freedoms. It was, and is, an ideology calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel; and it realized its fruition in a state founded by people who believed themselves chosen and in a territory they believed was promised to them by God. This is why it’s no Quebec, and this is why it answers to a higher authority when it comes to forging its identity as a modern nation. While Israel aspires to, and in most cases meets, the criteria of modern democracy, it is still primarily a Jewish state.

The conversion bill, Newhouse argued, is disastrous because it challenges a key assertion of contemporary Jewish life: Namely, that “the redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong Diaspora, which have spoken to each other politically and culturally, and whose successes have mutually reinforced the confidence and capacities of the other.” From this premise, the logical conclusion comes easily: Placing the power to define the boundaries of belonging to the Jewish people in the hands of a tiny religious bureaucracy would disrupt this delicate, and essential, balance.

If Avishai wants to have a problem with Israel’s intrinsically Jewish nature—to say that it is sinful, and ought to be rectified—then by all means. But this he does not do. Instead, he diagnoses in Newhouse “the narcissism of people who think that their ‘people’ is the only people in the world.” He sees this, apparently, in her description of the state of Israel as a state defined above all by its Jewishness—which is nothing more than forensically accurate. The only narcissism here is that of the journalist who thinks that his viewpoint is the only viewpoint in the world.

‘Future Historians Will Invariably Wonder’ [TPM Café]
The Diaspora Need Not Apply [NYT]
Earlier: Conversion Bill Takes Aim at Diaspora

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David says:

“While Israel aspires to, and in most cases meets, the criteria of modern democracy, it is still primarily a Jewish state.”

These are what are known as “weasel words.” Israel is not a democracy — for millions of people, Jews and Arabs. It is not even a Jewish state so much as it is a corrupt ethnocracy.

Peter W. says:

Let’s see, the Norwegians can have a Norwegian state, the French can have a French state, the Russians can have a Russian state, but the Jews, or Israelites, or Hebrews, or whatever you want to call them, (what one calls them depends upon what language one speaks), can’t have a Jewish or Hebrew or whatever you want to call it state? Nations can have their state, except if the nationality is tied to a religion? There are scores of states that have official religions, and Israel ISN’T one of them, e.g., U.K., Ireland, Sweden, Greece, etc.

Agreed, Peter. Not to mention the growing body of evidence demonstrating irrefutably that Jews worldwide share a common genetic heritage, like any other pre-modern tribe that eventually coalesced into a nationalist entity. The only difference is that we had our country, with demarcated borders, long before most others.

And yes, how does one categorize the transnational Organization of the Islamic Conference, with its 57 member states, if not as a group explicitly devoted to promoting the interests of countries whose self-definition rests on their religious identity?

Will Avishai go campaigning that they all disestablish Islam as their official religion, and strip it of its privileged confessional status?

Because if he doesn’t, he is either a coward or a hypocrite, or both. But you can say these things about Israel, because there are no consequences to you as a person, save your possible lionization by the fringe Left.

Let’s start from the law itself. The term ‘conversion’ in a religious context is shorthand for “conversion of a soul from one type of spiritual entity to another.” —or is it? That’s what conversion used to mean. It used to mean a behavioral and intellectual process by which a person’s very spiriutal essence was changed from Gentile to Jew. If that is still our definition of conversion, then it is right and proper that the conversion process be relegated into the hands of those qualified to conduct it—i.e. Orthodox rabbis. But now the waters become extremely muddy. We have other strains of religion claiming to be Jewish that may or may not even recognoze the existence of a soul, much less the necessity of transforming it. If one views joining the Jewish religion as merely an intellectual choice, or simply ‘the thing to do’ when marrying a Jew then placing the conversion process in the hands of Orthodox rabbis is anathema. If one believes in the spiritual nature of conversion, what gives a State the right to place the conversion process in anyone’s hands? If the State we have in mind is a modern democratic (open society system) one then is not the very term ‘Jewish State’ an oxymoron? Yet, it exists. David and Peter are struggling with the problem in their comments. The larger problem is created by the Law of Return, which was supposed to apply to Jews only (back to Who Is a Jew again!) but was in legal fact extended to non-Jewish relatives of Jews (again, an oxymoron in Torah law, since there cannot be non-Jewish relatives of a Jew). The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the State has a Rabbinate that is chosen at least partially by non-observant Jews in what can only be regarded as a political and not religious process. I am not a rabbi, just a poet. This is truly a mess of grand proportion, and would be so even if it were not being used by politicians on all sides to push their agendas.

I think Israel is going to have to rewrite it’s national anthem if Avishai gets his way.

“Oh, nation of people!
Nothing special about us, nothing!
We hesitate to even employ the term people!
More like aggregate of individuals,
With nothing particular in common!
You could be one of us too,
If you didn’t live in Jersey!
Which is not to say we’re better than Jersey,
Because we’re not!”

tillkan says:

“which is that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state, and as such is inherently connected to Jews the world over.”

Speak for yourself, white man.

Jacob says:

“Resorting to the parlor game of what-if, Avishai invokes an imaginary scenario in which a newly independent Quebec announces that only Catholics are true Quebecois and accordingly awards them excessive rights. If that happened, Avishai quips, no serious intellectual would ever think that what’s at stake is merely a question of Catholic pluralism; instead, they would decry the fact that a democratic state “should presume to define or legally designate” an individual’s religious affiliation, “or award material privileges to individuals based on this legal designation.””

Well, Jews aren’t very welcome in Quebec no matter what the law says or it calls itself.

Quebec fought hard and long to be a Francophone State. Why can’t Israel be a Hebrew State.

Religion is only one of the issues at stake.

btw: Avishi has been attacking Israel for many decades now. He just doesn’t seem to like Jews who are not on the left.

Joshua says:

Avishai seems to be the chauvinist to me, because apparently he can’t stand the notion that he might just be wrong. Same goes for his wife Sidra, too. Boy, was it a mistake to take a class taught by her at Duke. A couple of narcissists indeed.

Bryan says:

I think it’s incorrect to assume that the Orthodox should be the only ones to decide who and who is not a Jew. Did Avraham or Ruth need a Beit Din of Orthodox rabbis?

In any case, conversion is first and foremost a matter of naturalizing as part of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and adopting its culture, customs, ethics, and faith. Much as one might become American, French, or any other nationality; the primary difference is that Am Yisrael had existed (until 1948) as a nation in exile with a “decentralized government” in communities spread across the globe.

Look to the Torah and see if you can find any reference to Judaism, the Jewish religion, etc. What you will find is references to B’nei Yisrael and Am Yisrael (and to proselytes of Israel).

The Rotem bill would not be an issue to begin with if Orthodox rabbis didn’t have a monopoly on who can marry whom, where people can be buried, etc.

Bati says:

Bryan: You are mixing modern politics with history. There is not just one Jewish culture or set of customs, and these categories should not be considered as equivalent to terms like “ethics,” “people,” and “faith.” (The term “Jewish faith,” as well, is something of a misnomer, as Judaism is a practice and a life more than a faith as modern westerners think of it — roughly equivalent to a “religion.” “Faith,” when used to classify in this way, is a Christian-oriented term. Similarly, one rarely speaks, properly, of a Buddhist faith or an Islamic faith. The application of the suffix “ism” onto these “religions” — Islam then being called, improperly, “Mohammedism” — began in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, the result of “enlightened” Europeans’ attempts to classify everything “scientifically.” But that is another issue.)

What you will find in the Torah are references to the tribe of Judah, from which eventually were derived the terms “Jew,” “Judaea,” Judaism, etc. Today’s Judaism is not the religion (so-called) of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, nor even of the biblical prophets. (Nor, for that matter, is today’s Christianity the faith of Paul of Tarsus, nor is Islam strictly speaking the religion of the Qur’an.) All of the faith-paths practiced today have evolved over the centuries. Those who assert that they have not are misinformed.

CVBruce says:

@Sol Lachman,

You had me with your logic, right up to the end. Then you said non-observant Jews. Isn’t that an oxymoron. If conversion is a spiritual and intellectual transformation, wouldn’t non-observant Jews be those that have had a reverse conversion, i.e. be no longer Jewish?

If that is true, what level of observance must one maintain to still be considered a Jew. Do we let those who are ultra observant decide that too, because they are most qualified?

I noticed in your picture on your website that you have “squared” your head. Would the most observant still consider you observant? If not then are you still a Jew? Has your soul stopped being Jewish?

My point is not to attack your Jewishness, for I believe you are a Jew, but to show you where your logic leads.

Bruce

Ira Wolff says:

It’s misleading for the author to suggest that Israel was “founded by people who believed themselves chosen…in a territory they believed was promised to them by God.” Ben Gurion and other leaders of Mapai were motivated more by Ber Borochov’s brand of Marxist Zionism than Orthodox belief and practice. They were secular nationalists, not religious messianists.

Bryna Weiss says:

I hear a lot of fancy phrases which I don’t exactly get. I must be very ignorant. But I’m smart enough to know and believe in Israel as a Jewish State AND smart enough to know this conversion bill must be rejected. It’s a bad idea and it’s time the ultra religious in Israel are restrained from their inordinate power.

Der Royter Rov says:

I have no idea where Jacob gets the entirely mistaken notion that Jews are not welcome in Quebec. The Jewish community of Montreal has flourished in Quebec for almost two centuries, and continues to do so. The Quebec government is the most generous of any Canadian provincial legislature in its support of Jewish private schools and cultural institutions. As it happens, Montreal native Bernard Avishai (or Shaikovitz, his original “pre-post-Zionist Quebecois” name) was reared and educated at those very institutions. While I don’t agree with his critique of Israel as a Jewish State, the fact is that the only issue of contention that Jews have (mistakenly) perceived as detrimental to their interests, was that of Quebecois natioanlists’ insistence on establishing French as the Province’s official language. There is absolutely nothing in Quebec law that discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities. In fact, Quebecois society is the most socially liberal entity in North America. Jews are an integral and historically essential component of the exemplary diversity of Quebecois culture.

Dear Liel:

Ordinarily I agree 300% with your articles. But I must respectfully point out a few possible inaccuracies in this one.

1. You state that Zionism “realized its fruition in a state founded by people who believed themselves chosen and in a territory they believed was promised to them by God.”

Robin replies: The founders of modern Israel, as they proudly proclaimed, were hard-core atheist socialists. They were militantly hostile to Jews arriving from the Arab world who brought deeply-rooted Sephardic G-d and choseness beliefs with them.

2. You state: “this is why it answers to a higher authority when it comes to forging its identity as a modern nation. While Israel aspires to, and in most cases meets, the criteria of modern democracy, it is still primarily a Jewish state.”

Robin replies: Liel, if being a “Jewish state” and “answering to a higher authority” is not compatible with being a fully-fledged modern democracy, the Jews of the Diaspora will eventually have to abandon Israel. The vast majority of us are fully committed to the importance of democracy. I hope and pray that Israel will return to the democratic ideals of its youth.

3. You said: “state of Israel as a state defined above all by its Jewishness—which is nothing more than forensically accurate.”

Robin replies: Not exactly. A large chunk of Israel’s population are: half-Jewish people (shamefully classified as “non-Jews” or “non-halachic Jews”), Palestinian Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze, Bedouin, and thousands of non-Jewish “guest workers.”

And many Israeli Jews have stated that they want to abandon Judaism — which they confuse with strict ultra-Orthodox Judaism — and be known as just “Israelis.”

So Israel is increasingly less of a “Jewish state.” The conversion bill is partly an attempt by ultra-Orthodox Jews to “double down” on Israelis who are not Orthdox — or are half-Jewish — and force them under ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authority still further.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo says:

@ Sol Lachman

“If one views joining the Jewish religion as merely an intellectual choice, or simply ‘the thing to do’ when marrying a Jew then placing the conversion process in the hands of Orthodox rabbis is anathema.”

As a prospective convert in an interfaith marriage, I find this a disingenuous and reductive statement. My decision to join the Jewish religion was a resolution to a conundrum considerably more spiritual than intellectual– how to best be a father to my Jewish children– and lead inexorably to “a behavioral and intellectual process” (to quote your earlier words) which is ongoing and will continue, I’m sure, well past the mikvah; being a Jew is not a static but a dynamic condition–challenging, rewarding, enervating, humbling– judging from the lives of my wife, her family and friends, our fellow congregants, our teachers, and our rabbis past and present– none of whom happen to be Haredi Orthodox.

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The Too Jewish Jewish State

Avishai aims at Newhouse, misses

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