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Why Religious Judaism Is Tied To Nationalism

What subjects of a recent New York Times column get fundamentally wrong

Liel Leibovitz
February 18, 2014
Snow covers Jerusalem's old city on December 14, 2013.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Snow covers Jerusalem's old city on December 14, 2013.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

This weekend, the New York Times ran a column by Mark Oppenheimer about what the author correctly identified as a small and curious minority of observant American Jews deeply opposed to Zionism. The piece was well-written and compelling, and Oppenheimer’s five interviewees all came off as thoughtful and morally minded. But none, alas, sounded very Jewish.

Uniting them all was a belief that Judaism, at its core, was somehow incompatible with the sort of earthly power on which states depend for their existence and which they apply daily in nearly every capacity. “I think nationalism and religion together are toxic,” said Stefan Krieger, a professor of law at Hofstra University. Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, put it even more poetically; “There are lots of ways to be Jewish,” he said, “but worshiping a heavily militarized state seems like a bit of a comedown from our past.”

You don’t have to be a noted rabbinical scholar to know that the past to which Robin alludes begins with a covenant that elects the Jews God’s chosen children and directs them towards the Promised Land, where they’re instructed to settle down and live according to the commandments of the Torah. Which, at first blush, seems like a strange idea: if the Chosen People are truly destined to serve as a light unto the nations, might they not better accomplish their mission by settling down among the goyim and preaching their truth to each nation in turn? Why shepherd them, like Abraham in his turn, to Canaan? Why insist on the establishment of a Jewish polity there?

The answer is a core tenet of Judaism, namely the realization that earthly power is indispensable. As Michael Walzer elegantly noted in his Exodus and Revolution, nothing inherent sets Canaan apart from Egypt and its houses of bondage; the Promised Land’s promise lies not in some external bit of magic but in the ability of the Jews to apply their sovereignty and turn their nation state into a concrete example of a just and merciful kingdom. In other words, Judaism suggests that if you’re going to live up to your calling and set a moral example, you do it not by shuffling off this mortal coil and declaring yourself too pure for the imperfect and compromise-ridden business of government, but by jumping right in and serving as an example of how a real nation addresses real problems right here in the real world.

Which is not to say that Israel’s current means of addressing its problems are perfect; far from it. But which is to say that seeking to define Judaism as antithetical to nationalism when it is, at its very heart, as much of a nationality as it is a religion, is a theological travesty against the ancient faith. Even the traditional religious opposition to Zionism, which Oppenheimer cites in his piece, stemmed not from a categorical rejection of a nation state but from a belief that such a political entity could be established only after the coming of the Messiah. Judaism, then, could certainly be understood as a critique of power, but never as a call for its abdication.

Oppenheimer’s subjects, however, don’t see it this way. Steeped in the kneejerk rejection of all forms of nationalism that is de rigueur in many parts of academia these days, they seem to tolerate the religion only if it deals in the ethereal realm of universal morals. Which, again, seems to have very little in common with our ancient faith. Of course, it’s poor practice to judge someone’s belief system on the basis of a few select quotes, however eloquent, in a newspaper article. The men and women Oppenheimer interviewed are all scholars and prolific writers, and this is a conversation well worth having. I’m curious to see how they would reconcile their seemingly modern ideas with the more traditional tenets of Jewish theology.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.