Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.
Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.
Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.
But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.
Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.
In the Second Temple era, for instance, the schools of Hillel and Shammai routinely disagreed about matters both great and small. In one famous case, Hillel even accepted a convert who rejected the Oral Torah—a gross deviation from mainstream Judaism that had led Shammai to spurn the would-be convert. Yet despite such disputes, their adherents would still marry each other’s children.
In the 17th century, Chassidim and non-Chassidim fought viciously. Yet in modern-day Israel, despite ongoing disagreements, their commonalities have united them into a single haredi political party.
Sephardi and Ashkenazi interpretations of halachah still differ enough that Israeli bakeries typically obtain dual kashrut certification to ensure that everyone can eat their products. Yet Sephardi-Ashkenazi “intermarriages” are common.
What enabled all these divergent groups to remain one Jewish people despite their halachic differences was that all agreed on the basic principle: There is such a thing as Jewish law, and it’s binding on all Jews, just as American law binds Americans or German law binds Germans. Exactly how that law should apply to real-world situations is something Jewish scholars have wrangled over throughout history. But that doesn’t negate their fundamental commitment to halachah, just as Americans’ legal wrestling over constitutional interpretation doesn’t negate a shared commitment to the Constitution.
Obviously, most Orthodox Jews (myself included) find some Conservative halachic rulings to be untenable. But how many Orthodox Jews have never encountered an Orthodox ruling they find untenable? (My personal bugbear is the Israeli rabbinate’s growing practice of retroactively invalidating conversions, which violates centuries of tradition.) The truth is that any movement that grapples seriously with the challenge of applying halachah to modern life will probably produce some rulings that others find untenable.
Nevertheless, in a world where personal autonomy increasingly reigns supreme and the very idea that religious tradition could obligate future generations is widely scorned, the Conservative movement’s willingness to publicly insist that Judaism entails religious obligations is no small thing. And its traditionalist faction does take halachah seriously.
As one example, consider its ruling letting people drive to synagogue on Shabbat. Though in retrospect, I think it’s proved disastrous, the ruling was based on a longstanding halachic principle called hora’at sha’ah, under which the normal rules can be temporarily suspended in times of crisis. The “crisis” in this case was that in 1950s’ America, far-flung communities, widespread Jewish illiteracy and the fact that Saturdays were generally workdays meant many people simply wouldn’t be able to pray if they couldn’t drive to synagogue.
In Israel, however, virtually everyone lives within walking distance of a synagogue and is also literate enough to pray alone. Consequently, no such crisis exists, so the movement’s Israeli branch forbade driving on Shabbat.
Now contrast this halachic balancing act with the Reform movement, which scrapped the entire idea of binding halachah and replaced it with personal autonomy. There’s no way to paper over a departure of that magnitude from the halachic framework that has kept Jews together for millennia. But the gap between traditionalist Conservatives and Orthodoxy isn’t so large by historical standards that it ought to be unbridgeable.
Neither side is blameless in this rift. Inter alia, too many Conservative Jews scorn the Orthodox as benighted reactionaries rather than valuing their ostensibly shared fidelity to Jewish tradition; many also seem to prioritize progressive politics over Jewish needs. See, for instance, the American Conservative movement’s opposition to government vouchers for religious schools, despite the importance of Jewish education to Jewish continuity and the fact that its own Jewish day schools are in even worse financial shape than their Orthodox counterparts.
But the biggest barrier to cooperation is that too much of the Orthodox world views the Conservative movement as “non-halachic” and therefore beyond the pale. When some Orthodox Jews won’t call a Conservative rabbi “rabbi” even if said rabbi faithfully upholds the movement’s stated commitment to halachah (a practice sadly not unheard of in Israel, though less common in America), cooperation is obviously impossible.
In a world where the very idea of binding religious obligations is increasingly out of fashion, both sides have an obvious common interest; consequently, greater Orthodox-Conservative cooperation could be mutually beneficial. But even if it produced no benefits, it’s the right thing to do. As long as the Conservative movement remains officially committed to halachah, it remains within Judaism’s age-old tradition. And that’s a common denominator that ought to outweigh any interpretational divisions.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 31, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Three seemingly unrelated incidents occurred last week, yet all share a common denominator: They exemplify the way anti-Israel politics has corrupted the concept of human rights.
Let’s start with best-selling British novelist Richard Zimler’s report that two British cultural organizations recently refused to host him for lectures about his new book, though he has lectured many times on previous books. “They asked me if you were Jewish, and the moment I said you were, they lost all interest,” he quoted his publicist as saying.
It’s not that these groups have anything against Jews per se. They simply feared that hosting a Jew would make them a target for anti-Israel protesters.
Zimler isn’t Israeli, has no relatives or investments in Israel and doesn’t write about Israel. His latest book is set in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, but its storyline is Christian rather than Jewish (it’s called The Gospel According to Lazarus). So he wouldn’t seem an obvious target, given BDS apologists’ repeated claim that anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, much of the anti-Israel crowd hasn’t gotten that memo. See, for instance, the German courts which ruled that torching a German synagogue wasn’t a hate crime, but an understandable anti-Israel protest. Or the student organizations which demanded that a South African university expel all Jewish students to show its pro-Palestinian bona fides. Or the Norwegian attorney general who ruled that “F*** Jews” isn’t hate speech, but an expression of “dissatisfaction with [Israel’s] policies,” although the speaker never mentioned Israel. Or the dyke marches that banned Jews from holding Jewish pride flags because they remind some people of Israeli flags. And so forth.
So despite deploring the unnamed organizations’ cowardice, I can’t dismiss their fears as unfounded. And that’s the problem.
Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide rush to defend the “rights” of BDS activists; see, for instance, their opposition to anti-BDS legislation on the false grounds that it violates freedom of speech (it actually applies only to actions, not speech). Yet they’ve shown no interest in defending Jewish rights in most of the examples cited above. Evidently, Jewish rights are acceptable collateral damage in the sacred cause of anti-Zionism.
The second incident was the Palestinian Authority’s harassment of Palestinian businessmen who attended the U.S.-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25-26. One was arrested, but eventually released under American pressure. Another escaped arrest by fleeing to the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron. And the P.A. raided the homes of several others, confiscating documents like credit cards and passports.
These roughly 15 businessmen traveled legally to Bahrain to participate in what one reporter termed the conference’s “real, unofficial” purpose—closing legal business deals, mainly with fellow Arabs. They explicitly said they represented only themselves, not the P.A, and refused to talk politics, saying only the P.A. was authorized to do that. In short, not only did they commit no crime, they made no attempt to undermine the P.A.’s political positions.
Indeed, the P.A. didn’t even try to pretend that any crime was committed. As one Palestinian security official told Haaretz, there was “no specific charge” against the arrested businessman; the arrest “was a warning. He must understand the implications of this sort of collaboration.”
In other words, this was pure political persecution, which is standard P.A. practice. Palestinian journalists, activists and businessmen have all been arrested for such “crimes” as saying P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas should resign.
Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn Israeli violations of Palestinian rights (real or imaginary). They also frequently condemn Israel for utterly fictitious violations of Israeli rights. But innocent Palestinian businessmen arrested and harassed by the P.A. for doing legal business? You won’t hear a peep about that. Palestinian rights are evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred struggle against Israel.
The third incident was the estimated 100 fires that incendiary balloons flown from Gaza ignited in southern Israel. That’s an unusually high number for a single week, but incendiary devices from Gaza—courtesy of Hamas’s “balloon unit”—have been wreaking havoc for more than a year. In the six months ending in October 2018, such devices destroyed some 3,000 acres of forest and 4,000 acres of farmland. Since the winter rains ended, additional thousands of acres have been destroyed.
This is a war crime, according to both the Geneva Conventions and the treaty governing the International Criminal Court. Both define “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” as a war crime; the latter also lists causing “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” Palestinian arson attacks do both, while serving no military purpose whatsoever.
The ICC is looking into numerous alleged Israeli crimes against the Palestinians and has even begged Palestinians to provide it with more complaints. Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn these alleged Israeli crimes, including settlement construction, which, even if it were a genuine crime (it isn’t), is far less destructive than scorched-earth tactics (evacuated settlements could theoretically be given to the Palestinians under a peace deal). But I haven’t heard a peep about the destruction of large swaths of southern Israel, nor has the ICC considered probing it. Environmental devastation is evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred fight against Israel.
What all these cases show is that human rights have ceased being an objective standard applied equally to all. Instead, they’ve become a political tool to bash groups that liberals dislike. So Jewish rights matter when targeted by right-wing extremists (whom liberals loathe), but not when targeted by anti-Zionists. Palestinians’ rights matter when targeted by Israel, but not when targeted by the P.A. And Israeli rights never matter, except when violated by Israel.
This problem isn’t unique to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, of course. It’s just particularly blatant there.
Liberals and human-rights groups frequently complain that human rights are becoming devalued worldwide, and they’re right. But their own politicization of these rights is the chief culprit. And until this changes, contempt for human rights will only keep growing.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Distorting the meaning of language is a seductive but dangerous game. It’s seductive because it provides enormous short-term benefits. It’s dangerous because, as two recent examples show, it can ultimately eviscerate fundamental values.
One example comes from this week’s Israeli election, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party actually gained seats despite multiple corruption cases against him. A survey published in February by a Haifa University political scientist explains why: Most voters for Likud and allied parties don’t believe the allegations because they don’t trust the legal system. Fully 65 percent of Likud voters and 75 percent of haredi voters think law-enforcement agencies are simply trying to oust Netanyahu.
On one level, this is shocking. But on another, it’s not shocking at all because the Israeli left has spent decades successfully subverting the concept of “the rule of law” for its own political benefit.
For instance, Israel’s Supreme Court repeatedly overturns government policies not because they violate any law, but because the justices deem them “unreasonable.” Whether or not a policy is reasonable is a question other democracies leave to the voters. But the left has successfully branded all efforts to curb such judicial policy interventions as “contrary to the rule of law,” and thereby managed to stymie proposed reforms: Most legislators don’t want to “sabotage the rule of law.”
Moreover, in almost every Western democracy, the executive and legislative branches choose Supreme Court justices; only in Israel do sitting justices have veto power over the choice of their successors. Yet the left has branded every attempt to align Israel’s judicial appointments system with this Western norm as “contrary to the rule of law,” and thereby successfully staved off change.
Israel is also unique among democracies in treating the attorney general’s views as binding on the government. Thanks to a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, whenever the attorney general opposes a policy, he’s entitled to represent his own position in court rather than the government’s, thereby leaving the government’s position unrepresented and ensuring that it loses cases by default. Letting an unelected attorney general dictate to an elected government is patently undemocratic and preventing any group, even the government, from defending itself in court violates a fundamental democratic right. Yet leftists have successfully branded this, too, as “the rule of law”; consequently, attempted reforms have repeatedly failed.
Finally, there’s the unequal application of laws, as epitomized by a pre-election ruling that disqualified a Jewish Knesset candidate but nixed the disqualification of an Arab party, Balad. The law lists three grounds for disqualification: inciting to racism, rejecting Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state, and supporting armed struggle against Israel. Balad, as the court itself has acknowledged, openly rejects Israel’s Jewish character. Several of its MKs have also faced criminal proceedings for abetting anti-Israel terror. Yet the Supreme Court chose to ignore all this, thereby effectively declaring the law a dead letter except when used against Jews.
So here’s how your average rightist voter understands the rule of law today: It means that unelected legal officials—justices and attorneys general—can veto any government decision, thereby making a mockery of democratic elections. It means that laws meant to apply to Jews and Arabs alike are only enforceable against Jews. It means letting justices select their own successors, keeping the court ideologically monochromatic. In short, it’s just a trick for ensuring that the left can continue imposing its views no matter how many elections it loses.
That trick has successfully thwarted all legislative efforts at reform. But the price is that many rightists now distrust and despise “the rule of law” to such an extent that they dismiss pending indictments against a prime minister as just another attempt by the legal establishment to subvert democracy.
This is a tragedy because the rule of law, in its original meaning, is an essential foundation for democracy. Inter alia, it means that the bounds of legitimate action are defined not by the ruler’s whims but by laws whose content is public knowledge; that those laws apply equally to all; and that disputes are settled in court according to those laws rather than by force. In short, it’s a shared framework that protects the individual and enables diverse groups to live together.
The second example is last week’s National Council of Young Israel gala. When a speaker mentioned “the leftist progressive tikkun olam ideology,” the American Modern Orthodox audience booed.
On one level, this is shocking since tikkun olam just means “repairing the world,” and Jews have always believed that Judaism is supposed to make the world better in some fashion. Indeed, the Bible itself says so repeatedly, from God’s promise to Abraham that “through thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” to Isaiah’s dictum that Israel should be “a light unto the nations.”
Haredi Jews may believe that doing so requires scrupulously obeying Jewish law, while Reform Jews may believe it requires adopting progressive policies. But Jews across the spectrum should be able to say, “Fine, we agree on the goal of improving the world; now let’s argue about the means.”
Yet those boos weren’t actually shocking because Jewish leftists have spent decades trying to conflate tikkun olam with a particular set of progressive policies, such that anyone opposing those policies ipso facto opposes tikkun olam. And as evidenced by that speaker’s choice of words, they’ve succeeded: Even their Jewish opponents now view tikkun olam as a “leftist progressive ideology.”
But by appropriating tikkun olam as their own exclusive property, leftists have discredited the entire concept; many Jews now see it as a stand-in for ideas that they (and many other reasonable people of goodwill) consider destructive. That’s a massive own goal. But it’s also a tragedy for the Jewish people, which has lost a shared moral language that could have been a unifying factor.
The left’s subversion of language has thus wreaked long-lasting harm on both Israel and the Jewish people. And all of us will be paying the price for many years to come.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 10, 2019 © 2019 JNS.org
It’s easy to see why political polarization is so bitter today in both Israel and America these days: Moderation is a “lose-lose” proposition, winning politicians no credit from their opponents while alienating elements of their own base. This problem exists on both sides of the aisle. But two unusually candid left-wing assessments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provide a particularly clear example of how it works and why it’s bad for both sides.
In an interview with Haaretz last month, senior opposition politician Tzipi Livni noted (as I have repeatedly) that Netanyahu built very little in the settlements during his 10 years in office. “Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it,” she said, referring to the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, she continued, “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible.”
His problem, she charged, is that he’s under pressure from his rightist base on various issues, and sometimes, “he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in the previous Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations]—his actual positions are different.”
What makes this astounding is that Livni and her compatriots on the left have spent most of the past decade saying exactly the opposite—that Netanyahu is responsible for massive settlement construction, that he’s anti-peace. And this has serious real-world consequences.
The first and worst is that this narrative, which Livni now admits is false, has been widely embraced by American Jews and the Democratic Party. That’s bad for Israel as a whole, as it has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among both groups.
To be clear, I don’t think either group’s alienation stems primarily from Israel’s policies, whether real or alleged. Nevertheless, had prominent Israeli leftists told the truth—that Netanyahu was doing very little settlement building, that his “actual positions” are far from his hardline image—it might have slowed the process.
Second, this false narrative hurts leftists themselves since it impedes Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they favor. Many such policies, like the dearth of settlement construction, are indeed very unpopular with his base, but he could justify them if they were achieving something important for Israel, like maintaining its bipartisan support in America.
In reality, however, they don’t achieve anything. For instance, despite his restraint on settlements, the Obama administration repeatedly accused him of “aggressive” settlement construction, with full-throated backing from Israeli leftists. That makes it impossible for Netanyahu to justify restraint to his unhappy base, which is precisely why he sometimes “caves in to them.”
Finally, this false narrative hinders his ability to form a broader-based government. Far from being the “right-wing extremist” leftists term him, Netanyahu is a center-rightist, and he desperately wanted the Labor Party in his current government to balance the right-wing parties. But after months of negotiations with former Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, it became clear that Herzog had no support for such a move within his own party. So Netanyahu ultimately brought in the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu instead.
Nor is this surprising. Having told its own voters for years that Netanyahu was anti-democratic and anti-peace, Labor would have trouble persuading them that joining the government was justified. But had it instead told the truth about issues like Netanyahu’s settlement restraint and diplomatic moderation, joining the government (and thereby pulling it further to the left) might have been an option.
Two days after Livni’s interview ran, Jerusalem Post columnist Susan Hattis Rolef, who has worked for various senior Labor politicians, published a column lamenting that “in the past Netanyahu could be trusted to block legislative proposals that were blatantly undemocratic,” but today, he “no longer seems to bother himself with acting as a barrier against threats to democracy coming from the direction of his own coalition.”
Here, too, what’s shocking is that Rolef and her compatriots on the left have spent the last decade saying exactly the opposite. Netanyahu has indeed allowed legislation in his current term that he would previously have quashed (most of which isn’t actually undemocratic, but that’s a separate argument). Nevertheless, the claim that he’s responsible for “anti-democratic” legislation didn’t just arise this term; prominent leftists have accused him of that for the last 10 years, even though, as Rolef now admits, he spent most of those years blocking proposals the left considered “anti-democratic.”
Again, the damage is threefold. First and worst, the false narrative that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among American Jews and the Democratic Party.
Second, it hurts leftists themselves, by reducing Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they would prefer. It’s hard for him to justify killing legislation his base supports unless doing so achieves something useful for the country. But in fact, his years of quashing bills the left disliked accomplished nothing since Israeli leftists still accused his government of being anti-democratic, and American Jews and non-Jewish leftists believed them.
Finally, this false narrative impedes his ability to form a broader-based government. Had Labor joined the government, it would have been able to kill any legislation it considered undemocratic, as coalition agreements usually give every party veto power over issues particularly important to it. But after falsely telling its voters for years that Netanyahu himself was anti-democratic, how could it justify doing so?
Many of the same evils obviously derive from Israeli rightists’ favorite trick of calling left-wing opponents “anti-Zionist,” though most Israeli leftists are no such thing. Inter alia, the false narrative that anti-Zionism is widespread on the Israeli left helps legitimatize anti-Zionism as a normative left-wing position overseas.
But since Netanyahu has led Israel for the last decade, the greatest damage has come from the left’s false narratives about his beliefs and conduct. And in the end, everyone has lost by it. Netanyahu, and by extension the entire center-right, has been unjustly tarred as anti-democratic and anti-peace. The left has forfeited its ability to block policies it opposes and promote those it supports. And Israel as a whole has seen its image overseas undeservedly tarnished.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 16, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Like most pro-Israel commentators, I’m appalled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. Nevertheless, this is the wrong issue for pro-Israel activists to pick a fight over. Criticizing the decision on grounds unrelated to Israel—of which there are many—is fine. But to imply that U.S. troops should remain in Syria for Israel’s sake is to betray the fundamental tenet of the American-Israeli alliance: Israel will defend itself by itself; it will never ask America to put soldiers in harm’s way for its sake.
It’s worth underscoring just how unique this makes Israel among American allies. America has fought to defend Europe repeatedly. It fought for South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991. And there’s an understanding, often anchored in bilateral or multilateral treaties (such as NATO), that America would fight for many other allies if necessary, like Japan, Canada or Australia.
But with Israel, the agreement has always been that Israel would see to its own defense, while America would provide it with the means to do so. That arrangement suited both sides. For America, it was much less costly in terms of both lives and money than having to defend Israeli militarily (a point I explained in detail here). And for Israel, it satisfied a deeply ingrained lesson of Jewish history: Relying on others for protection always ends badly for the Jews.
In that sense, Trump was right, but only partly so, when he rejected claims that the withdrawal would hurt Israel by saying, “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves.” Enabling Israel to defend itself is indeed why America gives it such generous aid ($3.8 billion annually, plus $700 million for missile defense in 2018). If Israel relied on American troops to defend it, that aid would have no justification.
But money alone isn’t enough to enable Israel to defend itself. In fact, it’s far less important than two other critical needs.
The first is a reliable arms supplier—one not only willing to sell Israel top-quality weaponry in peacetime, but also to keep the supplies coming during wartime, when they’re most needed. America is irreplaceable in this regard, as Israel has learned through bitter experience. France, for instance, famously halted arms shipments to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Britain has done so repeatedly, most recently by threatening an arms embargo in 2014 if hostilities in Gaza resumed. This, even more than the fact that most American aid must be spent in America, is why Israel buys little military equipment from either country.
The second is support in the diplomatic arena, where Israel is highly vulnerable. Every time Israel fights, it comes under tremendous international pressure to stop immediately before it can defeat or even damage the enemy. Moreover, it’s routinely threatened with international sanctions over issues ranging from spurious war-crimes’ allegations to the settlements. America’s diplomatic umbrella, especially but not exclusively at the United Nations, is thus critical both to buying Israel the time it needs to fight and to protecting it from sanctions.
This brings us to the second reason why a pro-Israel fight with Trump over Syria seems counterproductive. Though Israel benefited significantly from the American troop presence in Syria, its most pressing needs are diplomatic support in general and support for its ability to defend itself in particular. And on both, Trump remains a vast improvement over his predecessor.
Granted, Israel hasn’t fought any wars since he took office, so there’s no guarantee of how he would act. But there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t provide the needed support, given his administration’s staunch defense of Israel at the United Nations to date.
In contrast, Israel did fight a war while Barack Obama was president, so it knows what it’s like to be without American support. During the 2014 Gaza war, Obama’s administration famously refused to resupply Israel with Hellfire missiles. It sought to pressure Israel into a cease-fire agreement that met all of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. It issued an endless stream of condemnations of Israel during the fighting, rather than supporting Israel’s right to self-defense against the thousands of rockets Hamas fired at Israeli cities.
Then, in 2016, Obama also stripped Israel of America’s diplomatic protection. The U.N. Security Council resolution against the settlements, which he allowed to pass, laid the groundwork for international sanctions against Israel and even prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
And that’s without even mentioning the minor detail that it was Obama who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia to begin with. Tehran financed its massive Syrian intervention with the billions of dollars it reaped from Obama’s flagship act of diplomacy, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And Moscow entered the Syrian war only after waiting more than three years to make sure that America wasn’t planning to get involved. By the time Trump took office, Russian-Iranian domination of Syria was a fait accompli to which America’s scant 2,000 troops could make little difference.
None of this justifies the Syria withdrawal. It’s a terrible idea, and not only, or even primarily, because Israel benefited from having American troops blocking Iran’s long-desired land route through Syria to Lebanon. It further empowers Russia, Turkey and Iran—none of which wish America (or Israel) well. It also may enable a resurgence of the Islamic State, just as America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 did. Abandoning the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies after they have been America’s best foot soldiers against the Islamic State for years is not only a moral crime, but a strategic one, as it will undermine America’s ability to recruit local allies in the future. And America will save little in terms of either lives or money by ending this low-cost, low-casualty mission.
But from a pro-Israel perspective, none of this changes two basic facts. First, there are things Israel needs from Trump more than troops in Syria. And second, asking America to keep soldiers anywhere for Israel’s sake violates a sine qua non of both the Israeli ethos and the bilateral alliance—that Israel defends itself by itself.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
For the second time in two months, a major study has shown that anti-Semitism in Europe is surging, and the far-right isn’t primarily to blame. Yet American Jewish leaders remain fixated on the idea that right-wing anti-Semitism is the principal threat to Jewish life.
Last month’s study by the Joint Distribution Committee surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe. Inter alia, it found that Jews felt safer in right-wing Eastern Europe than the liberal West by a 20-point margin.
The new study, by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, surveyed almost 16,500 Jews in the 12 E.U. states where most European Jews live. Overall, 89 percent of respondents said anti-Semitism had worsened in their country in the last five years, 85 percent considered anti-Semitism a “very” or “fairly” big problem, and 38 percent have considered emigrating because of it. Additionally, 28 percent always or frequently avoid “wearing, carrying or displaying” anything identifiably Jewish, and 43 percent sometimes do.
But though every single country scored poorly, countries commonly viewed as liberal generally fared worse than those viewed as having “right-wing” governments. The highest proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a big problem was in France (95 percent), followed by Belgium (86 percent), Germany and Poland (85 percent), Sweden (82 percent), Spain (78 percent), Hungary (77 percent), Britain (75 percent), Austria, Italy and Holland (73 percent) and Denmark (56 percent). Thus of the countries perceived by their own Jews as having the worst anti-Semitism problems, all but Poland are considered liberal bastions.
In contrast, the lower end of the scale consisted almost exclusively of countries widely deemed to have populist or even borderline fascist governments: Italy’s coalition of the right-wing League and the populist Five Star Movement, Austria’s coalition of traditional conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party, Britain’s pro-Brexit conservatives, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and in Denmark—home to some of Europe’s most draconian anti-immigration laws—a minority government dependent on support from the far-right Danish People’s Party.
Moreover, of the seven countries covered by a previous E.U. study in 2012, the proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a major problem declined in only one: Hungary, which registered a drop of 12 percentage points, whether despite or because of being under Orbán’s rule that entire time. France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Britain all registered substantial increases. Britain’s was the biggest, propelled mainly by Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left Labour Party. Close behind were the liberal bastions of Germany and Sweden, up 23 and 22 percentage points, respectively.
In fairness, more specific questions produced murkier results. Some faithfully mirrored the overall pattern: The three worst countries for “expressions of hostility … in the street or other public places” were liberal France, Belgium and Germany (with 91, 81 and 80 percent deeming this a problem); the best were conservative Poland, Hungary and Austria (37, 46 and 46 percent). In contrast, the worst countries for “anti-Semitism in political life” were Britain, Poland and Hungary (84, 77 and 74 percent).
Nevertheless, two questions in particular help explain why liberal countries fared worse overall.
One relates to who actually perpetrates anti-Semitic harassment. Though respondents frequently couldn’t identify perpetrators’ political views, when they could, it was most often a “Muslim extremist view” (30 percent). Next came “left-wing political view” (21 percent), and trailing in the rear was “right-wing political view” (13 percent).
In short, despite the widespread perception that anti-Semitism comes mainly from the far right, in Europe, Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems. And both are more prevalent in liberal Western countries, simply because the liberal West has much larger (and more influential) populations of both Muslims and hardcore leftists than the conservative, anti-immigrant East.
The second illuminating question showed that “feelings of being blamed” for Israel’s actions were far more common in liberal countries than conservative ones. In Hungary and Poland, only 8 and 19 percent of respondents, respectively, said this happens frequently. In Germany, Spain, Belgium and France, 50 percent or more deemed this a frequent occurrence.
Non-Israeli Jews obviously shouldn’t be blamed for anything Israel does. But it’s hardly surprising that this happens more often in countries where antipathy to Israel is greater to begin with. And since both Muslims and liberals are generally more anti-Israel than conservatives nowadays, countries with large Muslim and left-wing populations are more prone to this problem.
None of this means right-wing anti-Semitism should be ignored. But given two major surveys showing that Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems in Europe than the far right variety, and that liberal countries consequently have worse anti-Semitism problems than conservative ones, American Jewish leaders’ continued fixation on the far-right is shocking.
Take, for instance, the reaction to the latest survey by World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder—someone deeply involved in supporting European Jewish communities, and therefore ostensibly familiar with European realities. “How can one be surprised by these results,” Lauder said, “when in Chemnitz, Germany, anti-Semites practicing the Nazi salute were allowed to march while the police stood idly by; when in France, Marine Le Pen, whose father was a virulent anti-Semite was almost elected president; when in Austria and Hungary, the FPO and Jobbik, both of which were originally founded by neo-Nazis, are now the second-largest parties and members of the governing coalition; and when in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.”
In other words, aside from in Britain—where the anti-Semitism spewing from Corbyn’s Labour has become impossible to ignore—Lauder was concerned solely about the far-right. He completely ignored the two more serious sources of European anti-Semitism.
Since most American Jews lean left, it’s understandable that they would rather focus on right-wing anti-Semitism, which comes from the enemy’s camp, than left-wing and Muslim anti-Semitism, which come from their political allies. It’s also understandable that they’d rather worry about right-wing Hungary and Austria than liberal Germany and Sweden.
But if they actually want to combat anti-Semitism, removing these ideological blinders is essential. Anti-Semitism is hard enough to fight under the best of circumstances. It’s impossible when you ignore the facts.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on December 19 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
The narrative adopted by many American Jews these days is that rightist governments enable anti-Semitism, while liberal governments allow Jewish communities to flourish. A corollary of this thesis is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open friendship with rightist governments in Eastern Europe has enabled anti-Semitism. Thanks to a poll of European Jews published last week, we now have some facts by which to judge this thesis. And the facts appear to belie it.
The Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe and found that in general, Jews felt safe everywhere. Nevertheless, there was a stark difference between Eastern and Western Europe.
In the east, a whopping 96 percent of respondents felt safe, while only four percent felt unsafe. In the West, 76 percent felt safe, and 24 percent felt unsafe. Thus respondents from places like Poland, Hungary, and Romania—countries routinely accused of having anti-Semitic, borderline fascist governments—felt safer than Jews in liberal countries like France and Germany by a 20-point margin.
Moreover, “Western European respondents were more likely to consider antisemitism as a threat than were Eastern Europeans, and to report deterioration in the situation from earlier surveys,” the JDC’s report said. Nor is this mere subjective perception: Other studies have found that Jews are much more likely to experience physical violence in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. In 2017, for instance, Hungary’s 100,000 Jews didn’t report a single physical attack, while Britain’s 250,000 Jews reported 145.
Jews in both regions expected anti-Semitism to worsen over the next five to 10 years, with the result that combatting anti-Semitism “ranked among the top three communal priorities” for the first time since the survey began in 2008. Nevertheless, the East fared better than the West on this score, too. “A significant regional difference emerged on expectations of increasing antisemitism with those in Western Europe considerably more pessimistic (75 percent) than those in the East (56 percent),” the report read.
There are two reasons for all these seemingly counterintuitive results, which, as the report noted, are a “reversal of the situation … over the past two centuries.” The first is the politically incorrect fact that violence against Jews in Europe comes mainly from Muslim anti-Semites rather than either the right-wing or the left-wing variety (see, for instance, the shootings at a Jewish museum in Brussels, a Jewish school in Toulouse, and a kosher supermarket in Paris). And in Western Europe, liberal governments spent decades implementing liberal immigration policies that have produced large Muslim populations. Eastern Europe has very few Muslims, initially because decades of Communist rule made these countries economically uninviting and more recently because rightist governments have imposed restrictive immigration policies.
The second reason is more speculative, since correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causality. Nevertheless, as the report noted, the findings are suggestive: “Hostility towards Israel in the general society is perceived to be fiercer in Western Europe; 88 percent of leaders from Western Europe considered that the media in my country regularly portrays Israel in a bad light, as opposed to only 36 percent from Eastern Europe [italics in original]. This might be a contributing factor to the higher antisemitism in the West.” Here, too, objective data seems to support this hypothesis: Whenever Israel launches a major counterterrorism operation, anti-Israel sentiment spikes, and so do anti-Semitic attacks.
Everyone except anti-Semites understands that Israeli actions don’t justify attacks on Jewish citizens of other countries, but rampant anti-Israel sentiment often makes anti-Semites believe that society will tolerate such attacks as long as they can be portrayed as “anti-Israel.” And this belief is hardly unfounded. To take just one example, consider the notorious case of a German synagogue firebombed in 2014. Both the trial court and the appeals court ruled that this wasn’t an anti-Semitic crime, but merely an overly zealous form of political opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the perpetrators received mere suspended sentences.
In short, hostility toward Israel in the surrounding society encourages anti-Semitic acts among people who already hold anti-Semitic beliefs. And since hostility toward Israel emanates primarily from the left these days, it’s no surprise that such hostility is higher in liberal Western Europe than conservative Eastern Europe. Thus, both of the main contributors to anti-Semitism in Europe today—Islamic anti-Semitism and left-wing hostility toward Israel—are more prevalent in the liberal West than in the allegedly “fascist, anti-Semitic” countries of Eastern Europe.
None of the above implies that right-wing anti-Semitism isn’t a real problem; it obviously is. Nor does it imply that Eastern Europe’s right-wing governments have a clean bill of health on anti-Semitism; they have been responsible for some undeniably problematic acts and statements. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that nationalist parties won’t turn against the Jews tomorrow, as a prominent European rabbi warned last week. The British Labour Party’s swift transformation into an anti-Semitic cesspool shows just how quickly Jew-friendly attitudes can disappear. And it doesn’t mean America’s situation is necessarily analogous; the U.S. is too different from Europe for easy parallels to be drawn.
Yet to pretend, as many American Jews do, that right-wing anti-Semitism is the only kind we need to worry about flies in the face of reality, at least as it has played out in Europe. The European reality similarly belies the claim that rightist governments are, by definition, bad for the Jews. And given that reality, Netanyahu’s close relations with conservative European governments could actually help combat anti-Semitism in those countries by bolstering their positive attitudes toward Israel.
The world is a great deal more complex than the simple “left-wing good, right-wing bad” equation so prevalent among American Jews today. And recognizing that complexity might help liberal Jews be more understanding of their conservative brethren, both at home and in Israel.
Originally published in Commentary on November 26, 2018
Note: This article was published on October 24 but was posted on my site only 10 days later
The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.
A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.
Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.
Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.
Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.
Secular Israeli Jews also engage in more Jewish practice than American “Jews of no religion.” For instance, 87 percent attend a Passover seder—more than double the rate among “Jews of no religion” (42 percent), and even surpassing Reform and Conservative Jews (76 and 80 percent, respectively). A third of secular Israeli Jews keep kosher at home, putting them on a par with Conservative Jews (31 percent) and vastly ahead of both Reform Jews (7 percent) and Jews of no religion (11 percent). And 47 percent fast on Yom Kippur—more than double the rate among American “Jews of no religion” (22 percent), though below both Reform and Conservative Jews (56 and 76 percent, respectively).
In short, by almost any measure of Jewish identity, secular Israeli Jews aren’t equivalent to “Jews of no religion”; they’re roughly on a par with Reform and Conservative Jews. And on some issues, like intermarriage, they even significantly outperform those movements. It turns out that just living in a Jewish state is sufficient to maintain a Jewish identity equal to or greater than those of non-Orthodox American Jews.
Nor is this surprising because in Israel, maintaining a Jewish identity is much easier. In Israel, you’re surrounded by other Jews; in America, you’re surrounded by non-Jews. In Israel, Shabbat and Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school, and celebrating the holidays doesn’t mean standing out from your friends and neighbors; in America, observing a holiday entails taking vacation from work, pulling your children out of school and being different from almost everyone around you. In Israel, all (non-Arab) public schools teach Bible and other basics of Judaism like holiday traditions; in America, children who don’t attend a Jewish day school or after-school Jewish-studies program may never open a Bible or learn anything about such traditions. In Israel, most supermarkets don’t even stock non-kosher food; in America, keeping kosher requires effort.
But because Israelis don’t need the non-Orthodox movements to maintain a Jewish identity, they often fail to understand why these movements are genuinely important for American Jews. And because American Jews do need those movements, they often fail to understand why many Israelis dismiss them as unimportant.
This mutual misunderstanding goes a long way toward explaining controversies like the one over the Western Wall deal, which would have given the non-Orthodox movements equal space and visibility at the site. The non-Orthodox movements believed that this deal would bolster their members’ Jewish identity by making them feel more welcome in Israel in general and at the wall in particular; thus they were understandably outraged when the government scrapped it. But the deal was irrelevant to secular Israelis’ Jewish identity, so they weren’t upset by the government’s decision to cancel it in exchange for ultra-Orthodox support on issues more important to most Israeli voters.
If Israelis understood the gaping void the non-Orthodox movements fill in America, they might have realized that the Western Wall deal was genuinely important. And if American Jews understood that no such void exists in Israel, they might have realized that Israelis’ indifference to the deal wasn’t a slap at American Jewry, but merely a reflection of the issue’s irrelevance to Israelis’ Jewish identity, which inevitably made it low priority for them.
This understanding probably wouldn’t resolve many Israel-Diaspora disputes, but it might at least make them less bitter. And that, in itself, would be a step forward.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on October 24, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Ever since Israel’s nation-state law was enacted in July, one constant refrain has sounded: The law should have included a provision guaranteeing equality to all Israelis. It’s not only the law’s opponents who say this; so do many of its supporters, liberals and conservatives alike. But they are wrong.
Adding a provision about equality to the nation-state law sounds innocuous because civic and political equality is already implicitly guaranteed through the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Basic Laws are Israel’s closest approximation to constitutional legislation, and the 1992 law, which protects the “dignity of any person as such,” has been consistently interpreted by the courts as enshrining equality on the grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity. So what harm could it do to offer an explicit guarantee in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People?
The answer is that doing so would elevate Israel’s democratic character above its Jewish one. And that would negate the entire purpose of the nation-state law, which was to restore Israel’s Jewish character to parity with its democratic one—not superiority, but merely parity.
To understand why this is so, it’s first necessary to understand why adding an equality provision would violate basic constitutional logic. This argument was cogently made from the liberal side of the political spectrum by Haim Ramon, a former senior Labor Party Knesset member and former justice minister. Writing in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last month, Ramon argued that if anyone thinks equality isn’t sufficiently protected by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, they should work to amend that law rather than the nation-state law, as the former is where any provision on equality belongs.
This isn’t mere semantic quibbling. A constitution, being a country’s supreme instrument of governance, isn’t supposed to be a jumble of random provisions thrown together with no more thought than a monkey sitting at a keyboard might provide; it’s supposed to be a carefully crafted document. That’s why constitutions typically group all provisions relating to a given topic into a single article or chapter. Each article has equal status; none is more or less important than the others. And together, they create a comprehensive document that addresses all the basic questions of governance.
Israel has largely followed this logic to date. It doesn’t have a finished constitution, but every Basic Law is considered to be one article of a future constitution. So Israel has, inter alia, a Basic Law on the legislature, one on the executive, one on the judiciary, one on basic human rights, and now, one on Israel’s Jewish character: the nation-state law. And just as details of how to choose the prime minister belong in the article on the executive rather than the article on the judiciary, so, too, provisions on universal human rights, like equality, belong in the article on human rights, not the one on Israel’s particularistic Jewish character.
But precisely because this is the normal constitutional procedure, any glaring deviation from this norm would have moral and legal significance. So what would it tell us if, contrary to all constitutional logic, a provision on equality—something already implicitly guaranteed in an earlier article of Israel’s constitution-to-be—were to be explicitly restated in a subsequent article dealing with Israel’s Jewish character?
It would tell us that Israel’s universalist democratic character trumps its Jewish character. That would be the natural implication of equality being the only principle deemed worthy of being stated not once, but twice—not just in the article where it naturally belongs, but also in an article dealing with a completely unrelated topic. That would also be the natural implication of Israel’s Jewish character being the only constitutional issue deemed unworthy of a Basic Law entirely to itself, the only one forced to share its Basic Law with material that properly belongs, and in fact already exists, in a different one. Indeed, the implication would be that Israel’s Jewish character is so illegitimate that it can be allowed in the constitution at all only if its legal significance is diluted by adding a restatement of Israel’s universalist character.
In short, the clear message of adding “equality” to the nation-state law would be that Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities aren’t equal; rather, its democratic identity has primacy and its Jewish identity is subordinate. That’s exactly the situation that existed prior to the nation-state law’s enactment, when Israel had several Basic Laws setting out its democratic character but none at all setting out its Jewish character. And that’s the very situation the nation-state law was meant to correct.
Nothing in the nation-state law gives Israel’s Jewish identity priority over its democratic one; the law was intended merely to put these dual identities back on an equal footing. Adding “equality” to it would thus be antithetical to its purpose.
In one sense, this entire discussion is moot. As Ramon noted, an explicit mention of equality was omitted from the Human Dignity and Liberty law due to haredi opposition, and almost certainly couldn’t be enacted today for the same reason, regardless of whether it were proposed for that law or the nation-state law.
But the broader issue of parity between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities isn’t moot at all. It’s an ongoing battle, and a crucial one.
The vast majority of Israelis wants Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, and a plurality believes that these two elements should be equally balanced. But being a democracy isn’t Israel’s raison d’être; there are plenty of other democracies around. There would be no reason to have made the effort of establishing and sustaining Israel in the teeth of regional and, often, international hostility in order to have just one more democracy, indistinguishable from all the others.
Israel’s raison d’être is that it’s the world’s only Jewish state—the only place in the world where the Jewish people can determine their own fate. That’s what makes it worth having. Thus a Basic Law that contradicts this raison d’être by subordinating its Jewish character to its democratic one is something no one who values Israel should want in its constitution.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 12, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Review of ‘To Heal the World?’ by Jonathan Neumann
It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.
Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.
He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.
The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?
This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.
The third problem, according to Neumann, is that tikkun olam Judaism offers a warped interpretation even of the Jewish sources its advocates quote to support it. He analyzes several of these sources in depth, and some of his analyses are illuminating. The best chapter is his deconstruction of the view that the prophets rejected Judaism’s particularist ritual aspects in favor of its universalist ethical aspects. His argument is too complex for me to do it justice here, so I’ll cite a simpler example—the Joseph story.
Liberal Jews often treat the account of Joseph’s work for Pharoah as a model of successful government action. Yet in reality, as Neumann points out, it is also a warning about the dangers of excessive governmental power. True, Joseph uses this power to avert famine in Egypt. But in exchange, he first takes the Egyptians’ money, then their livestock, then their land, and finally their freedom: “Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh’” (Genesis 47:23).
Moreover, Neumann is undeniably right that nothing in Jewish tradition dictates the specific policy prescriptions beloved of liberal Jews. For instance, Judaism certainly cares about helping the poor, but it offers no guidance on whether higher minimum wages are an effective way to do so. Thus when liberal Jews insist that any good Jew must back this prescription, that is indeed a corruption of Judaism.
Nevertheless, Neumann’s analyses suffer from one major flaw: In his distaste for tikkun olam Jews, he sometimes mirrors their error by downplaying parts of the Bible that could be construed as supporting their message. For instance, he’s right that if the universalist principle of equality embodied by Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image,” were really the essence of Judaism, as the rabbi Arthur Green argues, it’s hard to see the point of the rest of the Bible, with its story of one particular nation. Yet neither can one ignore the fact that God, or the Bible’s editor (take your pick), decided to begin his largely particularist narrative with this universalist idea, indicating that Judaism also has messages that go beyond this one particular nation.
Similarly, significant portions of both biblical law and the prophetic texts are concerned with proper interpersonal behavior. As Neumann correctly says, most of these dictums are specifically about how Jews in a Jewish commonwealth should treat their fellow Jews. But once you acknowledge, for instance, that Jews in a Jewish state have responsibilities toward the Jewish poor, it’s hardly far-fetched to extrapolate from this that Jews in America have responsibilities toward America’s poor.
In other words, tikkun olam Jews haven’t fabricated their social-justice theology “almost out of whole cloth,” as Neumann writes; many of their concerns do exist in Judaism. They just aren’t the whole of Judaism, by a long measure, nor do they actually mandate most of the specific values and policies liberal Jews have saddled them with.
Because Judaism does have universal as well as particularist aspects, any convincing account of it must address both. And Neumann actually has a good answer for how to do so. Unfortunately, he buries it in a few throwaway paragraphs at the end of his third chapter. As he correctly notes, God tried a world based solely on universalism twice, first with Adam and then with Noah. But after those two failures, God evidently concluded that human nature itself doesn’t work that way, and He therefore tried a third time by working through one particular nation—an effort to which the rest of the Bible is devoted. In other words, Judaism argues that universal problems can best be addressed through a very particularistic method: a particular nation in a particular state practicing its own particular laws.
And this is one final reason that the tikkun olam movement’s abandonment of particularism is antithetical to Judaism: It’s a return to a method that God Himself tried twice and couldn’t make work.
Neumann deserves credit for mounting an unapologetic challenge to a worldview that has gone unquestioned for far too long. I can only hope it inspires others to tackle this subject in a way more likely to persuade the people who most need to hear it.
Originally published in Commentary on August 15, 2018