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
A new book argues that the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
When Israel adopted a Basic Law in July defining the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” opposition was instantaneous and widespread. The objections fell into two categories. Some opponents agreed with the law’s basic premise but objected to specific provisions. Others, however, were dismayed by the very idea of defining Israel as a Jewish nation-state, believing that this definition inherently discriminates against non-Jews. Indeed, liberal opinion today increasingly views the nation-state as a relic of an unsavory past that the West has thankfully moved beyond.
It’s this view that Dr. Yoram Hazony, a longtime friend, challenges in his new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.” Hazony argues that for all its flaws — and he’s far from blind to them — the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
In the process, he also challenges a conception of Judaism increasingly popular among liberal Jews: the view that “universal values” like equality and human rights are the essence of Judaism. By definition, universal values aren’t unique to Judaism; they are equally applicable to and accessible by non-Jews. But Hazony argues that Judaism celebrates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “the dignity of difference.” It’s the only great civilization in history that never sought global application of its laws, customs, and religious practices; rather, the Bible explicitly envisioned a limited Jewish state surrounded by other, non-Jewish states.
It’s worth emphasizing just how exceptional this is. The other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, both sought global domination. At its height, the Muslim empire stretched from Spain to India; Christianity had the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Almost every major non-monotheistic civilization was also imperial, including Persia, Rome, Greece and China. And empires continued straight through to modern times‑ recent examples include the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, assigns the Jews a limited territory with specific boundaries. Like everything in Judaism, their exact location is disputed. But even the maximalist conception of this territory is minuscule compared to Biblical empires like the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian.
Moreover, Hazony notes, the Bible explicitly forbids the Jews to exceed those boundaries. In Deuteronomy, for instance, God warns, “Meddle not with [the children of Esau], for I will not give you of their land. No, not so much a foot’s breadth. Because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession … Do not harass Moav, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession … And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.”
Nor is Judaism’s self-limitation merely physical. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism hasn’t traditionally been a proselytizing religion; it sees no need for the entire world to be Jewish. And aside from the seven Noahide laws, Judaism’s extensive legal code is meant to govern Jews alone.
This doesn’t mean Judaism has no universal moral principles. Indeed, Hazony argues that the biblical idea, later adopted by Protestant nation-states like Great Britain and the Netherlands, requires any legitimate government to satisfy a “moral minimum,” and he considers any theory of nationalism that doesn’t include such a moral minimum unviable. Nevertheless, the Bible recognizes that how these principles translate into specific laws and practices might differ from nation to nation.
All of the above leads Hazony to argue that the Hebrew Bible gave the world the very idea of the nation-state, at a time when the surrounding world consisted of either empires or tribal societies. The rest of his book is devoted to explaining why he believes this biblical political model is still the best we have.
Cohesion and trust
A nation-state is one in which a substantial majority of the population shares certain characteristics, like a common language or religion and a common history, especially of uniting against outside aggression. These shared characteristics, transmitted from generation to generation, provide nation-states with a level of cohesiveness and trust that’s difficult to achieve in states lacking such commonalities, Hazony argues.
This cohesiveness and trust in turn make many other moral goods possible. Indeed, Hazony says, it’s no accident that most of the civil and political liberties we take for granted today developed in nation-states like Britain and the Netherlands.
I’m naturally sympathetic to that argument, not least because I chose as an adult to relocate from America to the world’s only Jewish nation-state. But until recently, that sympathy was widely shared. For centuries, Hazony writes, “a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit.”
What changed this was World War II — or more accurately, a post-war narrative that blamed nationalism for the war’s outbreak. But before discussing why that narrative is wrong, let’s consider some of the positive goods the nation-state bequeathed us.
First, Hazony argues, the nation-state is the largest political unit in which rulers and ruled can still feel a connection — not a personal connection, since government officials obviously won’t know most citizens personally, but the connection that derives from a shared history, language, religion or culture. And only that sense of connection, in which a shared heritage creates bonds of mutual loyalty, can make a ruler or dominant faction willing to circumscribe its own power.
Since circumscribed power is a necessary condition for democracy, it’s no surprise that democracy first developed in nation-states like Britain. Clearly, not all nation-states have been democracies. But no larger political unit ever has.
The nation-state’s cohesiveness and trust is also a necessary foundation for freedom, tolerance and individual rights, including for minorities, Hazony argues. That may strike many people as counterintuitive. But historically, majorities have usually felt confident enough to circumscribe their power and grant equal rights to all only when they felt that minorities posed no serious threat to the majority’s shared heritage. When dominant groups feel threatened, they often seek to suppress competing groups.
That’s why nation-states like Britain, India and Israel — as well as ostensibly “neutral” states that are effectively nation-states, like the United States, Canada and Australia, with their strong Protestant Anglo-Saxon cores — have historically proven comparatively free and stable, Hazony says. In contrast, countries lacking the cohesion provided by a clear majority with a shared heritage have typically either become dictatorships, torn themselves apart in civil wars, or both — think Yugoslavia or Syria. And every multinational empire in history has ultimately done the same.
Moreover, because a nation-state, by definition, is surrounded by other states with different languages, religions, cultures and laws, it has no choice but to tolerate these differences, even if it loathes them. Not only does this inculcate habits of tolerance, but “this formal grant of legitimacy to political and religious diversity among the nations then became the basis for the toleration of dissenting communities within the state,” Hazony argues.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean every nation-state will be tolerant and respectful of minorities; hatred appears to be endemic to human nature, and no form of political organization is immune to it. But despite sometimes horrific abuses, Hazony argues that nation-states overall have a better track record than multinational empires.
Indeed, precisely because the latter control so much more territory, they can often wreak far greater devastation: See, for instance, the centuries-long persecution of Jews throughout Europe under the Christians’ Holy Roman Empire, or Communism’s decades-long persecution of minorities throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At worst, nation-states can persecute minorities in one country. Empires can do so across entire continents.
The value of diversity
Another significant advantage of nation-states is that they provide scope for national experimentation, not just in politics, but in science, economics, art and other fields. A multinational empire, in contrast, will necessarily converge toward uniformity, at least on certain issues. And because no individual or group has yet attained perfect wisdom, the experimentation allowed by a world of nation-states is more likely to produce new or improved ideas and practices that other states can adopt.
A salient example, though not one Hazony cites, is the idea that instead of hereditary monarchs who rule for life, executives could be elected by the people and periodically replaced by them. Many countries eventually adopted this idea. But it entered the world only because America broke away from the British Empire, giving it the freedom to launch what was then a revolutionary experiment.
Granted, when nation-states experiment, the results will sometimes be disastrous. But if a nation-state adopts a failed policy, the consequences are limited to that state. When empires adopt failed policies, the suffering is much more widespread. Soviet Communism, for instance, created economic havoc and political persecution across a vast territory stretching from Eastern Europe to central Asia.
Finally, and perhaps also counterintuitively, nation-states have an inherent disincentive to aggressive expansionism. Empires typically seek to bring as many countries as possible under their aegis. But because the nation-state’s cohesiveness depends on the existence of a sizable majority with certain shared characteristics, conquering other states whose populations don’t share those characteristics would inevitably undermine this prized asset.
This, incidentally, is why no Israeli government, including several wrongly branded as annexationist, has ever annexed the West Bank and Gaza, why numerous governments sought to negotiate peace deals ceding them, and why polls have consistently shown a majority of Israeli Jews favoring such a deal in principle. Israelis understand that permanently annexing millions of Palestinians is antithetical to maintaining a Jewish nation-state.
Because Arab states repeatedly attacked Israel from these territories before Israel captured them in a defensive war, it’s understandably unwilling to cede them without good reason to believe that situation won’t return. Thus the fact that every bit of land ceded to the Palestinians so far has become a launching pad for attacks on Israel, coupled with the repeated failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has increasingly led Israelis to question whether a Palestinian state is a viable solution to this problem. Yet even so, support for annexation remains minuscule.
Hazony’s arguments raise one obvious question: If he’s right that the nation-state has historically fostered freedom, democracy and civil rights, why is it widely viewed today as inherently aggressive and oppressive? The answer is World War II, whose horrors are commonly blamed on nationalism — or in Hazony’s words, on “German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.”
Yet in reality, he says, Nazi Germany wasn’t a nation-state, but a classic imperial state. Its desire to conquer all of Europe, and then the world, was the age-old goal of every imperialist, whereas the nation-state, as noted, inherently requires limited borders. Indeed, Hazony writes, the Nazis understood themselves as imperialists. They explicitly sought a “Third Reich,” the German word for empire, inspired by the “First Reich,” aka the Holy Roman Empire (which, despite its name, was dominated by Germanic states for much of its history).
In fact, Hazony argues, every large-scale war in history has resulted from imperial ambitions; other examples include the Napoleonic wars and the Cold War, in which Communist expansionism and Western efforts to contain it sparked hot wars worldwide. That’s because imperial states typically seek to enlarge their empires, and therefore necessarily draw many other countries into their wars. Nation-states also obviously fight wars, but because they require limited borders, those wars are necessarily limited in scope.
Hazony’s recurrent comparisons between nation-states and empires may seem like a straw man. The bloody empires of old, with their expansionist wars and persecution of minorities, appear to have little in common with modern forms of multinational or global governance like the European Union (EU) or the United Nations. And it’s the latter that modern liberals believe should replace the nation-state.
But Hazony sees little fundamental difference between older empires and what he terms the “liberal empire” envisioned by many Westerners today — “one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights … are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.” And nothing illustrates this better than the EU itself.
Unlike previous empires, the EU was formed by member states’ consent — a nontrivial distinction. Yet it suffers from many of the same ills that have historically plagued empires.
First, it lacks the cohesiveness and trust generated by a shared heritage. Consequently, after a mere few decades, it’s already under strain from centrifugal forces. Unhappiness over “dictates from Brussels” is widespread throughout the union’s periphery — Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland and, of course, Britain, which in 2016 became the first country to vote to quit the union.
Pundits often deem this griping irrational, arguing that many of the problems these nations decry stem from national policies rather than EU policy. But that merely underscores Hazony’s point: People find it easier to believe ill of “the bureaucrats in Brussels” than of their own politicians precisely because they believe their own politicians are more likely to care about their country’s welfare than politicians with no connection to their country. Nor is this mere self-delusion. By definition, EU officials are concerned with what they consider the good of the union as a whole; often, that will end up being the good of its dominant members, which may not be good for weaker members. See, for instance, EU austerity policies, which benefited strong creditor states like Germany but hurt peripheral states with weaker economies.
Nor is it surprising that one of the most consistent gripes about the EU is its “democratic deficit.” As noted, no political unit larger than a nation-state has yet managed to be democratic. Certainly, the EU is more democratic than previous empires. But voters still have no way to oust EU policy-setters when they dislike EU policies.
Moreover, like all empires, the EU has steadily aggrandized its power, far beyond what most member states originally envisioned. It now governs large swathes of its members’ political and economic life, from setting monetary policy to dictating rules on labor, education and the environment to running courts that can and do overrule national laws.
Thus while the division of power between the EU and its member states originally left space for national experimentation, this space is steadily shrinking. Indeed, Hazony argues, in any federative arrangement, the federal government will tend over time to centralize power and restrict member states’ autonomy.
Even the EU’s most touted achievement, preventing war, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny; it has escaped war for decades solely because it was protected by American troops. Without this protection, it would have faced the same military aggression as states not under America’s umbrella, first from the Soviet Union (see Eastern Europe) and then from Russia (think Ukraine and Georgia). At that point, it would either have fought back or collapsed.
Finally, Hazony argues, empires typically believe their own solutions merit universal application, and indeed are the only “correct” ones. Therefore, they constantly strive to impose these solutions on others and cannot tolerate dissent that challenges the universality of their core truths.
In this regard, liberal internationalism is no different from communism, religious fundamentalism or any other ideology that believes itself the sole possessor of a universal truth. The salient example is liberal internationalists’ intolerance of nationalism itself.
Because the EU and other multinational institutions are predicated on nation-states ceding their own sovereignty, Hazony argues, they cannot abide supporters of national sovereignty. As he notes, this is evident in the “public shaming campaigns” now common in the West against anyone who challenges liberal internationalist dogma, as well as in the loathing for nation-states like Israel, post-Brexit Britain and the U.S. (the latter long predates the presidency of Donald Trump).
The Brexit negotiations are a good example, albeit not one Hazony cites. Brussels adamantly refuses to grant Britain the same deal the EU has with dozens of non-European countries: free trade but no free movement of people or contributions to the EU budget. Yet the scope of EU-British trade means the EU has an interest in preserving free trade with Britain, and it clearly doesn’t object to such agreements in principle. Thus it’s hard not to see this as a classic imperialist attempt to punish Britain for rejecting the empire’s core truth, the wisdom of multinational government, and discourage other parts of the empire from following suit.
In Israel’s case, Hazony cites the obvious example of Gaza. Today, Israel is vilified far more over events in Gaza than over events in the West Bank. But if hatred of Israel were really “because of the occupation,” one would expect the opposite. Unlike in the West Bank, in Gaza Israel did exactly what the world claimed to want, removing every last settler and soldier; ever since, the territory has been a launching pad for nonstop attacks on pre-1967 Israel. Yet hatred toward Israel over Gaza has only intensified since the pullout.
Hazony considers it no surprise that the Jewish state is a particular thorn in liberal internationalists’ side. First, this is because Judaism insists on the value of its own unique laws and traditions, and hence implicitly on the value of national uniqueness in general. Second, it’s because of World War II’s special significance in antinationalist thought.
Because many liberals view the Nazis as the ultimate proof of nationalism’s evil, they find it particularly galling that the Nazis’ principal victims drew the opposite conclusion — that the Nazi genocide was made possible not by nationalism, but by Jewish powerlessness, and therefore, the creation of a new, Jewish nation-state was an inherent good rather than an evil. Or in Hazony’s blunt formulation, Israelis see Israel as “the opposite of Auschwitz.” But to many liberals, “Israel is Auschwitz,” because it embodies the nationalism which they wrongly believe produced Nazi Germany.
This explains not just the often pathological hatred of Israel, but also the fact that more and more liberals believe a Jewish nation-state has no right to exist. Of course, they enthusiastically champion a Palestinian nation-state, but Hazony explains this seeming contradiction through Immanuel Kant’s theory of progress toward enlightened world government: Tribal societies must first become nation-states before advancing to global government. Thus liberals who view the nation-state as a step forward for non-Western countries think that Israel, as a Western country, should know better, and consider its refusal to continue down the road to enlightenment unconscionable.
Yet given the widespread view of global governance as the “moral” choice, perhaps Hazony’s most surprising indictment is his stark formulation of what this choice means: “Here, ‘moral maturity’ is equated with the renunciation of one’s own judgment as to what is right, and of one’s own power to act in the service of what is right.” It’s truly astounding that liberals, who claim to value moral autonomy, have now become the strongest advocates of ceding it.
Why the nation-state law?
Though Hazony’s book was written before the nation-state law was enacted, his arguments underscore a fact that was once widely understood but clearly no longer is: Israel has always been a democracy that generally protects minority rights not despite its self-definition as a Jewish state, but because of it. Indeed, its record on protecting non-Jewish minorities sometimes surpasses that of “liberal” Europe. For instance, Israel has never forbidden civil servants to wear headscarves, like France, or barred mosques from building minarets, like Switzerland. Also, unlike Europe, it funds semi-autonomous Arabic-language public schools to help its Arab minority preserve its language and culture. And that’s precisely because its sensitivity to particularistic Jewish interests allows it to empathize with others’ particularistic interests.
Nothing in the nation-state law changes this. Indeed, the most puzzling aspect of this law is that it says nothing that hasn’t been axiomatic for decades: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and within its borders, only Jews will exercise national self-determination — a provision that neither negates equal social and political rights (as opposed to national rights) for non-Jews nor precludes the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which are outside its borders. Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Its language is Hebrew. It is open for Jewish immigration. It will strive to preserve the heritage of Diaspora Jews and strengthen their ties with Israel. It will seek to rescue Jews or Israeli citizens anywhere (the term “Israeli citizens” includes non-Jewish citizens). It views Jewish settlement as a value (where isn’t specified, but the Hebrew word used usually refers to inside Israel rather than the territories).
In fact, many of its provisions are already codified in existing legislation. And even the one ostensible novelty, the “downgrading” of Arabic’s status, isn’t really much of a change, as legal scholar Netanel Fisher noted: Arabic has never been equal to Hebrew (for instance, court cases can’t be filed in Arabic), and such status as it had was preserved through a clause stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.”
Moreover, the law in no way supersedes existing Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system of government and basic human rights. Most notably, the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty explicitly protects “the dignity of any person as such,” and courts have consistently interpreted this as barring discrimination, on the reasonable grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity.
In Israel’s constitutional system, each Basic Law is merely one article of a constitution-in-the-making, and is meant to be read in concert with all the others, not in isolation. Therefore, as in any constitution, protections enshrined in earlier articles — in this case, for democracy and human rights — need not be reiterated in subsequent articles addressing different issues, such as Israel’s Jewish identity.
All this explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute – a left-leaning organization not enamored of Israel’s current government – said at a media briefing in July that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run” and is merely “symbolic and educational.” There’s simply nothing in it that undermines democracy, equality or minority rights; these values are no more vulnerable today than they were before the law passed.
Yet if the law truly did nothing but reiterate old truths, why did many Israelis suddenly feel a need to codify these truths in quasi-constitutional legislation? And why was it vehemently opposed not just by people who wish to erase Israel’s Jewish identity, but by many who genuinely want to preserve it?
Primarily, because the very idea of a Jewish nation-state has been under growing assault — from international institutions, liberal intellectuals both in Israel and abroad, increasingly assertive and stridently anti-Israel Arab activists, and above all, Supreme Court justices. Many justices believe, in former court president Aharon Barak’s famous phrase, that the “Jewish” half of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity should be interpreted at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature.” Consequently, they have repeatedly issued rulings undermining Israel’s ability to preserve particularistic aspects of its unique heritage.
Many Israelis therefore felt a need to reassert Israel’s Jewish identity in a Basic Law that would give this identity equal standing with the state’s democratic nature. But many others, not without cause, feared the consequences of flaunting this identity in a world increasingly hostile to it.
The very fact that reiterating truths held self-evident for decades could cause such an uproar today shows just how far the idea of the nation-state has been eroded. And it also shows why, far more than we need new laws codifying the Jewish nation-state in particular, we need a vigorous intellectual defense of the nation-state in general. Hazony has offered just such a defense.
Originally published in the Jewish Journal on August 15, 2018
Ever since Saturday night’s demonstration against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv, which was organized by Israel’s Arab community, people have been talking about the presence of Palestinian flags. But too little attention has been paid to something even more disturbing—the enforced absence of Israeli ones.
Certainly, demonstrators who wave Palestinian flags while chanting slogans like “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” merit attention. As Jonathan S. Tobin noted earlier this week, those protesters clearly weren’t seeking to reform Israel, but to eradicate the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, the demonstration’s organizers explicitly asked people not to bring Palestinian flags since they hoped to attract Jewish moderates rather than just the usual far-left fringe, and understood that Palestinian flags would make Jewish moderates uncomfortable. Nor is it their fault that some people ignored this request; at any demonstration with tens of thousands of participants, some people will disregard the organizers’ instructions. So while the chants and Palestinian flags certainly say something about the intentions of those particular demonstrators, they don’t necessarily indicate the views of the majority.
What’s far more telling is that the organizers also banned Israeli flags at the protest, arguing that they would make Arab demonstrators uncomfortable (here, too, some people disobeyed). They did this knowing that it would undermine their goal of strong Jewish participation since many Jews opposed to the nation-state law would still feel uncomfortable at a protest where Israeli flags were unwelcome. And this wasn’t a decision by a few rebellious protesters; it was made by the Arab community’s most representative body—the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which consists of elected mayors, Knesset members and other community leaders.
In other words, the organizers believed that Israeli flags were unacceptable to most of their community. So they informed Jews that no partnership was possible, even over an ostensibly major shared concern, unless the Jews agreed to forgo even the most basic symbol of their Israeli identity.
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as outrageous, try imagining, say, a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy at which protesters were forbidden to wave American flags. It would be ridiculous. After all, most of the policy’s opponents consider themselves proud Americans who object to the policy precisely because they think it contradicts America’s best values, and most of the immigrants themselves would like to become proud Americans. So why would anyone mind if American flags were present?
For the same reason, Israeli flags were much in evidence at the Druze community’s protest against the nation-state law the previous week. Those demonstrators, Druze and Jews alike, considered themselves proud Israelis, nor did they have any objection in principle to Israel’s Jewish identity. They merely thought the law as currently worded contradicts Israel’s best values as a Jewish and democratic state.
By banning Israeli flags, the Arab community’s protest sent the opposite message. Arabs didn’t come as proud Israelis who felt that Israel was betraying its best values; they came because they oppose the very existence of a Jewish state, up to and including its most innocuous symbol: the flag. And they object to the nation-state law not because of any infelicitous wording, but precisely because it enshrines aspects of Israel’s Jewish identity in a quasi-constitutional law, thereby making it harder (at least theoretically) for the Supreme Court to continue eroding this identity by interpreting “Jewish” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature” (to quote former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak). In other words, Arab demonstrators were dismayed because they fear the nation-state law will impede their decades-long effort to erode Israel’s Jewish identity—which, of course, is precisely why the law’s supporters favor it.
Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a flag ban, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee said all this explicitly in a document it commissioned in 2006. The first operative paragraph of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” reads as follows: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and the west and realized by Colonial countries contributing to it and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” In other words, Israel is an illegitimate colonialist enterprise that has no right to exist.
The document then proposed various mechanisms for eradicating Israel’s Jewish identity, such as demanding that the Arab minority be given veto power over any policy adopted by the Jewish majority. This, incidentally, would also destroy Israel’s democratic character: Countries where ultimate decision-making power rests with the minority rather than the majority aren’t generally classified as democracies.
Nevertheless, over the past decade, there’s been a slow, grassroots movement toward greater integration in the Arab community. So one could simply argue that more time is needed before this sentiment trickles up to the community’s leadership.
But it’s never been clear whether this integrationist movement represented growing acceptance of a state that’s both Jewish and democratic, or merely a growing belief that efforts to erase Israel’s Jewish identity were gaining momentum. After all, many Jews feel that the state’s Jewish identity is under siege, which is precisely why many supported the nation-state law. Thus it wouldn’t be surprising if many Arabs had reached the same conclusion.
Unfortunately, the Israeli flag ban at Saturday’s demonstration indicates that the pessimistic interpretation may be more accurate. The worrying part isn’t that Arab demonstrators didn’t want to wave Israeli flags themselves; nobody has to wave flags at a demonstration. It’s that any Jew who wanted to do so was declared persona non grata. In short, the Arab community wasn’t willing to countenance any form of Jewish-Arab cooperation that didn’t include the Jews completely abdicating their identity.
That is the real message of the missing Israeli flags. And it’s one that anyone dreaming of a glorious new era of Jewish-Arab civic partnership should keep in mind. Because no such partnership is possible as long as the price of entry for Jews is abandoning Israel’s Jewish identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 15, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Israel’s new nation-state law has elicited a storm of criticism since it passed on July 19. Some of this criticism is justified; a law that manages to unite virtually the entire Druze community against it, despite this community’s longstanding support for Israel as a Jewish state in principle, clearly wasn’t drafted with sufficient care, as even the heads of two parties that backed the law (Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon) now admit. Nevertheless, much of the criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s constitutional system.
Israel doesn’t have a constitution. What it has is a series of Basic Laws to which the Supreme Court unilaterally accorded constitutional status. Many people, myself included, disagree with that decision, inter alia because constitutional legislation should reflect a broad consensus, whereas many Basic Laws were approved by only narrow majorities or even minorities of the Knesset. Nevertheless, both sides in this dispute agree on one thing: Each Basic Law is merely one article in Israel’s constitution or constitution-to-be. They cannot be read in isolation, but only as part of a greater whole.
Consequently, it’s ridiculous to claim that the nation-state law undermines democracy, equality or minority rights merely because those terms don’t appear in it, given that several other Basic Laws already address these issues. The new law doesn’t supersede the earlier ones; it’s meant to be read in concert with them.
Several Basic Laws, including those on the Knesset, the government and the judiciary, detail the mechanisms of Israeli democracy and enshrine fundamental democratic principles like free elections and judicial independence. There are also two Basic Laws on human rights, both of which explicitly define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
Of these human rights laws, the more important is the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. It includes general protections like “There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such” and “All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity,” as well as specific protections for liberty, property and privacy. Though the law doesn’t mention “equality” or “minority rights,” the courts have consistently interpreted it as barring discrimination on the eminently reasonable grounds that discrimination fundamentally violates a person’s dignity (the one exception, which all legal systems make, is if discrimination has pertinent cause, like barring pedophiles from teaching).
Granted, there are things this law can’t do, such as breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce, because it explicitly grandfathers all pre-existing legislation. But it applies to all legislation passed after 1992.
Thus to argue that the nation-state law is undemocratic because it doesn’t mention equality or minority rights is like arguing that the U.S. Constitution is undemocratic because Articles I and II confer broad powers on the legislature and executive without mentioning the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Everyone understands that the Constitution’s provisions on governmental power aren’t supposed to be read in isolation, but in concert with the first 10 amendments, so there’s no need to reiterate those rights in every other article. Similarly, the nation-state law isn’t meant to be read in isolation, but only in concert with other Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system and basic human rights. Thus there’s no reason for it to reiterate protections already found in those other laws.
Nor are any of the law’s specific provisions undemocratic. For instance, the provision stating that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” doesn’t deprive Arabs of individual rights within Israel, nor does it bar the possibility of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, which aren’t part of the State of Israel. The only thing it prohibits is an Arab state within Israel’s borders, which is problematic only if you favor replacing Israel with another Arab state.
As for the provision making Hebrew the state’s only official language, many other democracies also have a single official language despite having large minorities with different mother tongues. For instance, 17 percent of America’s population is Hispanic, only slightly less than the 21 percent of Israel’s population that’s Arab, yet Spanish isn’t an official language in America, and few people would argue that this makes America undemocratic.
Indeed, Israel’s new law goes much farther than many other democracies in guaranteeing minority language rights, thanks to one provision according Arabic “special status” and another stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.” The latter provision actually preserves Arabic’s status as an official language de facto. It may have been stupid not to preserve it de jure as well, but “stupid” isn’t the same as “undemocratic.”
All of the above explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute—a left-leaning organization usually harshly critical of the current government—said at a media briefing this week that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run,” and is merely “symbolic and educational.”
The law was meant to solve a specific constitutional problem: The courts have frequently interpreted the Jewish half of “Jewish and democratic” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature,” as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak famously said. Yet no definition of “Jewish” can be complete without recognizing that Judaism has particularist, as well as universal, aspects because it’s the religion of a particular people with a particular history, culture and traditions. By emphasizing some of those particularist aspects, the law is supposed to restore the intended balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. But it doesn’t eliminate those democratic components, which are enshrined in numerous other Basic Laws, nor was it intended to do so.
I’m skeptical that the law will achieve its intended purpose, but I see no good reason why it shouldn’t exist in principle. Israel isn’t just a generic Western democracy; it’s also the world’s only Jewish state. And its constitution-in-the-making should reflect both halves of its complex identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 1, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
The news that Hungary’s prime minister will visit Israel next week has sparked outrage from liberal Jews both in Israel and abroad. Opponents raise two main objections. One would be serious if true, but it doesn’t seem to be. The other is sheer hypocrisy–and it’s an excellent example of the way liberal Jews routinely hold Israel to standards they apply to no other country on earth.
The hypocritical objection is that Viktor Orban is an authoritarian. “Sad company to keep,” tweeted Brookings Institute fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes after hearing that Orban was definitely coming and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (who is admittedly more problematic) might be. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro also questioned the wisdom of welcoming Orban and other authoritarians. “While Israel’s unique security and other requirements understandably impel it to develop as wide a network of relationships as it can,” he said, “I think it will want to avoid finding its own democratic identity tarnished by, of its own choosing, aligning less with the club of democracies and more with this very different coalition.”
This is simply ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also regularly hosted liberal leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (several times) and Barack Obama, with French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly planning to visit later this year, the reality is that most countries in the world today are authoritarian, and even a growing number of Western democracies have authoritarian leaders. Thus, any country which wants to maintain relationships with more than a handful of other countries will end up hosting a lot of authoritarian leaders, which is why every other Western democracy also does so.
In fact, other Western democracies often host leaders considerably more objectionable than Orban, and with less justification. I can understand hosting Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping despite their aggressive foreign policies; Russia and China are too important to be ignored. But just this month, Switzerland and Austria welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as did France and Italy in 2016, even though Rouhani’s government is actively abetting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Yemen and brutally crushing dissent at home. That’s far worse than hosting Orban, whose government isn’t killing anyone.
Moreover, Hungary is genuinely important to Israel’s core foreign policy interests, since it has repeatedly helped quash anti-Israel decisions by Israel’s largest trading partner, the European Union. What vital contributions does Iran make to Europe’s core interests that justify overlooking its complicity in mass murder?
In short, liberal Jews are criticizing Israel for doing exactly what every other Western democracy does—except that other Western countries are even more egregious, and with fewer excuses.
Now let’s consider the serious objection, which is that Orban foments anti-Semitism in Hungary. Most Israelis would agree that their government shouldn’t whitewash anti-Semitism; that’s why Netanyahu’s recent statement downplaying Poland’s role in the Holocaust sparked outrage far beyond the ranks of his usual opponents. If true, this charge would be a valid reason to oppose Orban’s visit.
The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support it. That isn’t because Hungary has no anti-Semitism problem; indeed, a major study published last month showed that almost two-thirds of Hungarian Jews think it does. Moreover, Orban has undeniably made some problematic statements.
Nevertheless, the study found an objective and significant improvement over the past 18 years, almost half of which were under Orban’s rule. For instance, the number of Jews who reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the street dropped from an astronomical 75 percent in 1999 to 48 percent (still outrageously high) last year, while the number who reported experiencing three or more anti-Semitic incidents fell from 16 to 6 percent.
This jibes with JTA’s in-depth report on Hungarian anti-Semitism earlier last month. In light of the data cited above, the fact that the Hungarian Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog, TEV, recorded just 37 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 (down from 48 in 2016) only shows that anti-Semitic comments are massively underreported. What was noteworthy, however, is that not a single reported incident involved violence.
By comparison, reporter Cnaan Liphshiz noted, the United Kingdom, with a Jewish population only about 2.5 times that of Hungary, recorded 145 physical assaults in its total of 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Austria, with a Jewish population less than a tenth of Hungary’s, recorded five cases of physical violence among its 503 anti-Semitic incidents last year—and, incidentally, that was under a left-wing government led by the Social Democrats. Conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz took power only in December 2017.
Thus, Jews in Britain or Austria were far more likely to suffer anti-Semitic violence than their Hungarian brethren. Indeed, unlike their counterparts in, say, France or Belgium, Jews with beards and kippahs told Liphshiz they feel safe walking Hungary’s streets.
Hungarian Jewish community leaders also said a 2014 revision of the legal code enacted by Orban’s government significantly increased prosecution and punishment of anti-Semitic offenses. “It was a big step forward,” said TEV’s secretary-general, Kalman Szalai. Nor, incidentally, did the Jewish leaders Liphshiz interviewed think Orban’s attacks on George Soros—Exhibit A in most liberal Jewish indictments of Orban—were anti-Semitic (a point I made last year).
In other words, as Szalai said, “It’s not that Hungary doesn’t have anti-Semitism . . . But it also has little to no anti-Semitic violence, and responsive authorities in the judiciary, the police force and also in government.” All of which makes it hard to argue that Orban should be shunned as a dangerous anti-Semite. That is, unless you think, as liberal Jews increasingly seem to do, that right-wing authoritarians are by definition dangerous anti-Semites.
And once you remove the straw man of anti-Semitism, you’re left with the double standard in all its glory: Israel alone has no right to host authoritarian leaders important to its interests, even as other Western democracies routinely host worse leaders with less justification. By insisting that Israel shouldn’t host Orban, liberal Jews are effectively saying that Israel, alone of all the countries of the world, has no right to conduct a normal foreign policy.
Originally published in Commentary on July 13, 2018
The BDS movement hasn’t had much luck targeting Israel’s economy or even its cultural life: Despite some high-profile cancelations, there were 140 performances by international artists last year, up from 22 in 2010.
Yet these failures are secondary to the movement’s main goal, which is to delegitimize Israel and turn it into a pariah state by insisting that Israel—alone of all the world’s countries—is uniquely deserving of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And in that, BDS has been more successful, particularly on American college campuses.
The only way to fight this is to turn the tables—to make BDS itself a pariah with which no decent person would associate. That’s precisely why the numerous state laws against anti-Israel boycotts are so important.
Nevertheless, many Americans who oppose BDS object to trying to ostracize the movement, arguing that doing so essentially emulates and thereby legitimizes its tactics. As a free-speech advocate, I’m sympathetic to this argument. The problem with it, however, is that it effectively legitimizes the movement’s underlying message instead.
After all, even in America, some views are so unacceptable that no respectable organization would give them a platform. By not putting BDS in this category, we’re effectively saying its message—that Israel is fundamentally morally illegitimate—isn’t beyond the pale; it’s a legitimate position over which reasonable people can disagree. And that makes it easy for BDS to grow because it enables even groups that don’t care about this issue to feel comfortable embracing the movement for tactical reasons (i.e., to gain its support for their own pet causes).
Moreover, as several recent examples show, delegitimizing BDS is far from mission impossible.
Earlier this month, for instance, an Australian social-services agency canceled an invitation to Tamika Mallory, co-leader of the Women’s March movement, to address its annual conference after complaints by local Jewish groups. Mallory has said, inter alia, that Israel’s very establishment was a “human rights crime.”
A spokesman for the Victorian Council of Social Service said the agency was “concerned both by comments Ms. Mallory made in recent days regarding Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and the capacity for these remarks to overshadow the Good Life Summit. The Good Life Summit is about setting a positive vision for a fair and just Victoria. … We don’t want anything to detract from that vision.”
Thus, Mallory’s anti-Israel animus made her someone a respectable agency would rather not host. In the agency’s view, she, and not Israel, had become the pariah.
Several recent developments in Germany send similar messages. Earlier this month, the German music festival Ruhrtriennale demanded that the BDS-supporting Scottish band Young Fathers reject BDS if it wanted to perform this year. Young Fathers then withdrew from the festival, announcing that organizers had canceled its show because of its support for BDS. Once again, BDS, rather than Israel, had become the pariah.
Last week, when leading boycott activist Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame performed in Munich, Mayor Dieter Reiter vowed to ensure Waters never performed there again by applying last year’s city council resolution barring the use of public facilities for BDS activity. Accusing Waters of “growing, intolerable anti-Semitic statements,” Reiter said it’s “important for me to make it unmistakably clear ahead of the concert that anti-Semitic propaganda of Roger Waters is neither welcome in Munich nor will it remain unanswered.”
Last month, student councils at two German universities voted to ban BDS as anti-Semitic. The student council at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz unanimously approved a resolution saying it “condemns the anti-Semitic boycott campaigns, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS], and works against the implementation, participation and support of such campaigns and events on JGU.” Heidelberg University’s student council similarly declared BDS anti-Semitic and voted to deny BDS advocates university funding or facilities.
And in the United States, Texas A&M’s Student Senate resolved in March not to “facilitate, promote or participate in any activities that promote BDS or any other form of anti-Semitism.”
Also significant, albeit very different, was last week’s decision by world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to open disciplinary proceedings against Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub over his conduct prior to this month’s planned match between Israel and Argentina. Many media reports, using such time-honored tactics as truncating a quote (Argentine player Gonzalo Higuain’s statement that canceling was “the right thing”) to distort the speaker’s intentions, have credited BDS with convincing Argentina to nix the Jerusalem match out of principle. BDS itself also gleefully claimed credit.
In reality, as the Argentine media reported, the team canceled because of death threats against players and their families. That was evident from Higuain’s next sentence: “Health and common sense come first.” The vice president of Argentina’s soccer federation, Hugo Moyano, similarly said that “the players’ families were suffering due to the threats.” This campaign of intimidation was egged on by Rajoub, who urged Arabs and Muslims worldwide to burn shirts and posters bearing pictures of Argentine team captain Lionel Messi.
FIFA’s decision to take action against Rajoub obviously doesn’t mean that the organization is taking a stance against BDS. The only position it’s taking is the entirely correct one that soccer officials shouldn’t be running intimidation campaigns, and especially not campaigns intended to prevent soccer from being played, in blatant violation of FIFA’s mission.
Nevertheless, this decision dispels the myth that BDS is a “non-violent … human rights movement,” as Young Fathers termed it. In fact, it’s a thuggish one that relies on threats and intimidation of a kind even FIFA—an organization with a high tolerance for bad behavior—finds beyond the pale.
What’s especially encouraging about all of the above is that BDS was ostracized by people and groups that have traditionally been its bastion of support: university students, international organizations (where Palestinians usually command automatic majorities), leftist politicians (Munich’s mayor belongs to the center-left Social Democrats, the more anti-Israel of Germany’s two major parties) and left-leaning organizations (cultural festivals and social-service agencies both tend to lean left).
Sometimes, fire must be fought with fire; only by making BDS a pariah can we keep it from turning Israel into one. Fortunately, this is an eminently achievable goal.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on June 21, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Note: This column has been changed to include the full quote from the Talmud and clarify that the interpretation refers to the specific pairing of Jephthah and Samuel
Donald Trump has posed a serious dilemma for religious Christians and Jews supportive of his policies but dismayed by his character. As The New York Times reported last month, this dilemma has fractured evangelical Christianity, with some conservative Christians even abandoning evangelicalism because they view evangelical support for Trump as morally untenable. In contrast, Orthodox Jews, at least in my experience, seem willing to agree to disagree over Trump. And perhaps that’s partly because Jewish tradition grapples with this very dilemma and offers some guidance for how to approach it.
The key source is the biblical story of Jephthah. In the book of Judges, Jephthah assumes leadership of the Israelites after the neighboring Ammonites have ravaged six of the 12 tribes virtually unhindered for 18 years. His character flaws are evident almost immediately: When the elders beg him to lead a war against Ammon, he agrees only on condition that he also become the nation’s political leader, indicating that he sees his people’s well-being as secondary to his own aggrandizement. Yet he initially proves a successful leader. After trying and failing to negotiate peace with Ammon, he leads a brilliant military campaign that produces a swift, decisive victory.
But then, his character flaws come to the fore. On the eve of the battle against Ammon, he vows that if he wins, he will offer “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me” as a burnt-offering to God. And what comes forth is his own daughter, running to welcome him home.
Even if, as some commentators say, he never dreamed that the first creature out of his house might be a person rather than an animal, this was a rash, ill-considered vow. Jewish law has strict rules about which animals are and aren’t valid sacrifices, and the first animal to emerge might well have been completely unsuitable. But other commentators don’t give him even this much credit. They say he knew from the start that this vow could result in human sacrifice, which is anathema to Judaism.
Moreover, rather than repenting his vow once he sees the result, Jephthah announces that he indeed intends to sacrifice his daughter (though commentators are divided on whether he actually kills her). He sticks to this decision even after the two-month cooling-off period his daughter provides by requesting that amount of time to mourn her fate. He never considers trying to get his vow annulled, which Jewish law permits under certain circumstances (this would certainly qualify). He doesn’t even accept responsibility for his own rashness, instead blaming his daughter, at whom he rails, “Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art become my troubler” (Judges 11:35).
The next chapter shows that Jephthah’s flawed character has deadly consequences for the nation as well. When the tribe of Ephraim threatens for no good reason to burn his house over his head, he doesn’t try to make peace. Instead, he launches a civil war that kills 42,000 Ephraimites. Even those who flee are mercilessly hunted down and slain.
Given this track record, one would expect the verdict on Jephthah to be unequivocally negative. Instead, the Talmud takes the astonishing step of comparing him to one of the Bible’s most revered figures—the prophet Samuel, who was both a successful political leader and a moral exemplar. “Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation,” the Talmud declares (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 25b).
The full statement reads, “Jerubaal [Gideon] in his generation is like Moses in his generation, Bedan [Samson] in his generation is like Aaron in his generation, Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation, to teach you that the most worthless, once he has been appointed a leader of the community, is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty.” While there are varying interpretations of why these specific pairings are chosen, one is particularly relevant to the modern-day dilemma: Just as Samuel represented the best of his generation, Jephthah, despite his horrific flaws, was actually the best leader his generation had to offer. In an age devoid of anyone of Samuel’s stature—it’s noteworthy that the Bible records no effort to save Jephthah’s daughter by any of the priests or elders of the day—Jephthah was the least bad of many bad options.
This verdict is possible because Judaism isn’t concerned solely with an individual’s moral life; it also recognizes the nation’s physical welfare as a positive value that leaders are obliged to pursue. Thus, even Ahab, one of the wickedest kings in the Bible, receives credit for his care of Israel’s physical well-being. Some of Jephthah’s peers may have been less immoral, but there was clearly nobody else capable of saving the Israelites from physical destruction at Ammon’s hands. And Judaism recognizes saving Jewish lives and preserving the nation’s physical integrity as moral goods in and of themselves.
Thus Jewish tradition acknowledges “realpolitik” national concerns as morally valid even as it warns of the dangers of ignoring individual morality. The ideal, obviously, is a leader who shines both morally and politically. And the Jephthah story warns us that a morally flawed leader will always have negative consequences for the nation. But it also tells us that when no ideal leader is available, even a morally repugnant leader can still accomplish some good—and may even be the lesser evil.
None of this provides any tools for determining in advance whether any specific politician will be the lesser evil. Nor does it imply that there are no moral red lines. It merely says that certain realpolitik concerns carry moral weight in and of themselves, and can therefore legitimately be included in the calculus.
Religious Trump supporters cite precisely such concerns. For instance, both Jews and Christians who believe that Israel vitally needs American help in coping with enemies ranging from Iran to the BDS movement often cite Trump’s pro-Israel positions as a justification for supporting him. Christians who genuinely believe abortion is murder (a position Jewish law rejects) also frequently cite his anti-abortion policies, arguing that they could save the lives of countless unborn children.
All of them could be wrong in believing that, considering Trump’s character and his policies as a whole, he is a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton. But they aren’t guilty of religious hypocrisy. For at least in Jewish tradition, such calculations aren’t morally illegitimate. On the contrary, they’re a moral necessity in a world where political policy can have real moral consequences, for good or for ill.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on June 7, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Note: This column originally ran on April 23 but has not previously been posted on my website
Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel just a week before Independence Day, and for Israelis, those days are thematically as well as temporally connected: One of many reasons why a Jewish state is needed is to save Jewish lives. Young American Jews also acknowledge a thematic connection. Shockingly, however, the connection many have been taught to see is the exact opposite: that the Holocaust is why a Jewish state shouldn’t exist—or at least, why they as Jews shouldn’t care about it.
Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed this. But then I read the column that Haaretz published on April 11, the eve of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In it, Steven Davidson described the standardized Holocaust-education curriculum he teaches his sixth-grade Hebrew-school class in Brooklyn, N.Y. As he noted, he is just “one of hundreds of Jewish educators across Canada and the U.S. to utilize the Holocaust curriculum developed by the nonprofit organization, Facing History & Ourselves.” Since 1976, this curriculum “has educated over half a million students in the U.S. and Canada about the Holocaust.”
So what does it teach Jewish students? “The lesson,” Davidson explained, “tasked me with writing a quote on the board: ‘I love my daughters more than my nieces, my nieces more than my cousins, my cousins more than my neighbors. But that doesn’t mean that we detest our neighbors.’ ” He asked his students’ opinion of this sentiment; unsurprisingly, all but one approved it.
And then, “I revealed to the class who said that quote: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Holocaust-denier and renowned xenophobe.” And also renowned anti-Semite, though one can see why Davidson didn’t mention that. After all, the whole point of this lesson is that loving some people more than others is evil—the kind of thing only a Jean-Marie Le Pen would do. Why confuse the message by mentioning Le Pen’s hatred for Jews, in particular, as if that were something Jewish students should care about?
The ensuing discussion drove the point home. One student soon “realized” that this quote is “like America First,” Donald Trump’s slogan, and Trump is a far greater symbol of evil to these students than Le Pen, whom most had never heard of before. As Davidson noted, “My sixth-graders generally hate Trump because nearly all their parents do.” Soon, students were explicitly connecting Trump to the Nazis: “During another lesson, a couple of students related the Brownshirts and Nazi rallies to Trump encouraging and retweeting violence on his behalf.” The conclusion of this logical progression was clear: Loving some people more than others is Nazi behavior—something no good Jew can countenance.
Of course, any parent who actually cared no more for his own child than for some random child down the block would probably be indicted for child neglect. But the curriculum’s designers know the instinctive parent-child bond is strong enough to overcome such indoctrination; that isn’t their target.
Rather, their target is the bond Jews feel for their fellow Jews. Because that isn’t one of humanity’s deepest instincts; it’s very much a learned behavior.
The canonical Jewish texts taught it by intertwining universal principles with particularist messages about the special obligations owed one’s own people, like “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Talmud Shevuot 39a) or “The poor of your own city take precedence” (Talmud Baba Metzia 71a). Yet even American Jews who never studied these texts used to be taught this behavior. Most Jews of my generation can remember charity boxes at home in which we put money for Israel or Hebrew-school events when we wrote letters to imprisoned Soviet Jews; the unambiguous message was that we had a responsibility to our brethren.
Today, many American Jewish children are taught the exact opposite: that feeling any special responsibility toward their fellow Jews is Nazi-like behavior, and only if they eschew such feelings can they be good Jews who have internalized the Holocaust’s lessons. Given this, is it any wonder that in a 2013 Pew Research poll, 73 percent of American Jews deemed remembering the Holocaust an essential part of being Jewish, but only 43 percent said the same for caring about Israel and just 28 percent for being part of a Jewish community?
This also explains why many young American Jews are “distancing” themselves from Israel. American Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum have increasingly blamed this on Israeli policy (see, for instance, last month’s New York Times op-ed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, a longtime Republican and supporter of Israel’s ruling center-right Likud Party).
Yet even if Israeli policy fulfilled American Jews’ wish list in every particular, that still wouldn’t give them any reason to care about Israel one whit more than they do about any other country. Only if they felt a special affection and concern for their fellow Jews—and hence for the Jewish state where almost half of world Jewry lives—would American Jews have reason to feel any special affection and concern for Israel.
Instead, they are taught that special affection and concern for their own people is wrong. And if so, then special affection and concern for the one country on earth belonging to their own people is doubly wrong. In fact, the Jewish state’s very existence is wrong, because states shouldn’t be concerned with the fate of one particular people any more than individuals should.
Thus it’s no surprise that when the National Survey of American Jews asked respondents in 2007 whether they would see Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy, about 80 percent of Jews aged 65 or older answered yes, but only 50 percent of Jews under 35 did. After all, why should Jews who have been taught that particularism is evil feel bereaved at the loss of the world’s only Jewish state?
And that is the tragic irony of Holocaust education in America today: Young Jews are being taught that the only way to internalize the Holocaust’s lessons is by becoming indifferent to the possibility of a second one. For the destruction of Israel, with its 6.6 million Jews, would assuredly be nothing less.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 23, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.
Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.
Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.
And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.
A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.
Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).
The same thing happened on questions about immigration, which Israeli respondents almost certainly interpreted as referring to non-Jewish immigrants (the ostensibly neutral Hebrew word for immigration, hagira, is actually used only for non-Jews; Jewish immigration, for which Israeli support has traditionally been high, is called aliyah). Israel was among the six most immigrant-averse countries in all four categories: belief that employers should prioritize hiring locals over immigrants, concern about immigrants’ impact on social/public services, concern about their impact on jobs and opposition to uncontrolled immigration.
Yet when it came to the question about feeling like a stranger in your own country, Israel again suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with just 20 percent of Israelis agreeing. Only Japan, at 14 percent, was lower.
Two factors help explain Israel’s exceptionalism in this poll. One is simply that complaining is Israel’s national sport; Israelis routinely gripe about every aspect of their country. Many of those grievances relate to real problems. Nevertheless, the reality is rarely anywhere near as bad their complaints make it sound (a fact that American Jews, who often accept the Israeli left’s complaints at face value, should bear in mind).
Indeed, Israel’s flourishing economy, high standard of living, and high levels of both personal security and personal freedom are all testaments to the fact that its institutions aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Israelis deemed them in this poll. Countries with truly dysfunctional institutions rarely score well on any of these fronts.
And despite their complaints, Israelis actually do know this. That’s why Israel consistently ranks as the 11th happiest country in the U.N.’s annual “World Happiness Report,” and why on overall assessments of the country—like whether society is broken or whether people feel like strangers in their own land—Israelis were far more upbeat than respondents in most other countries Ipsos Mori surveyed.
But there’s also a deeper reason. Israelis understand that there is only one Jewish state, and for all its flaws, its very existence is something precious and worth preserving. That’s why 90 percent of Israelis define themselves as Zionist. For Zionism, at bottom, is simply the belief that the Jewish people has a right to its own state, and that a Jewish state therefore ought to exist.
This has enabled Israel to escape one of the modern West’s besetting ills. In a world where elite opinion scorns both religion and the nation-state as anachronistic but has failed to provide any compelling source of identity to replace them, many Westerners have grown increasingly unsure of their identities. Hence, it’s no surprise that they feel like strangers in their own land—or as if their societies were broken.
Israelis, in contrast, are very confident of their identity: They are Jews living in the world’s only Jewish state. Thus, it’s impossible for most Israeli Jews to feel like strangers in their own country; this is the state created precisely so that all Jews, anywhere, will always have a home.
Similarly, it’s difficult for most to feel that their society is broken when, against all odds, it has not only successfully maintained the first Jewish state in two millennia, but also turned it, in 70 short years, into one of the world’s most thriving countries. Israel has successfully absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world and continues to provide an insurance policy for Diaspora Jews nervous about their own countries’ future. It has built one of the world’s 20 wealthiest economies per capita. It has maintained a robust democracy despite being at war since its inception. And its growing economic, military and diplomatic clout led American analysts Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley to rank it last year as one of the world’s eight great powers.
Thus, despite arguing bitterly over what policies their country should pursue and complaining endlessly about its many shortcomings, Israelis are overwhelmingly glad that a Jewish state exists, and committed to both preserving and improving it. And that’s why most will be celebrating on Israeli Independence Day next week. Because the very existence of a Jewish state, whatever its flaws, is grounds for rejoicing—and all the more so when that state has so many real achievements to celebrate.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 11, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Bipartisanship was the watchword at last week’s AIPAC conference, but it’s no secret that pro-Israel Democrats have trouble swallowing Israelis’ enthusiasm for President Donald Trump, whose approval rating in Israel hit 67 percent even before he decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They can understand Israel’s joy over that decision. But they can’t understand its seeming disregard of Trump actions that harm Israel, like abandoning Syria to Iran and Russia or divulging classified Israeli intelligence to Russia’s president.
The explanation is simple, but unfortunately, Democrats won’t like it: Barack Obama set the bar for U.S-Israeli relations so low that there’s literally no Israel-related issue on which Trump has been worse than his predecessor. And there are many on which he’s been not just modestly better, but spectacularly so.
In Trump’s negative column, Syria is “Exhibit A.” Anyone who has heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lately knows that Iran’s growing presence there is a top security concern. Moreover, thanks to Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel can’t handle this problem alone; Russia is way out of its weight class. Consequently, it needs America’s help, which hasn’t always been so forthcoming.
Nevertheless, it’s not Trump who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia; that was Obama’s decision. When Syria’s civil war first began, America could have prevented Tehran and Moscow from moving in at relatively low cost. But by the time Trump took office, both were well-entrenched; ousting them now would be far more difficult and costly.
Granted, there are still things America could do—and Israelis wish America would do them. But thanks to Obama’s choices, low-cost solutions no longer exist. In this situation, many U.S. presidents would have opted for inaction. Certainly, Trump’s Democratic rival would have; as Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was party to his decisions. So despite their dismay about the current situation, Israelis can’t blame Trump for this.
Leaking Israeli intelligence to Vladimir Putin, in contrast, isn’t something Obama ever did (as far as anyone knows). But his administration did regularly leak classified Israeli information to major media outlets. And judged by the all-important standard of how likely the information is to reach Israel’s enemies, that’s considered even worse.
With Putin, there’s at least a reasonable chance that Israeli secrets won’t be shared with enemy countries, as proven by Israel’s hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years. To avoid conflict with Russia, it gives Russia prior notice of all such strikes. Yet there’s no indication that Russia ever shared this information with Syria and Iran; if it had, one would have expected Syria’s aerial defenses to be ready and waiting. Instead, most Israeli strikes encountered no Syrian resistance at all. (In the one major exception—Syria’s downing of an Israeli plane last month—the warning almost certainly came from Iran; it would have alerted Syria to expect retaliation after an Iranian drone launched from Syria was downed over Israel.)
In contrast, information leaked to the media goes straight to enemy intelligence agencies, which routinely scan open-source material. And some of that information was potentially deadly. For instance, when Israel first began airstrikes in Syria, it deliberately refrained from claiming responsibility; that let the Assad regime save face by blaming Syrian rebels rather than Israel, thereby reducing the risk that it would feel compelled to retaliate. Yet the Obama administration repeatedly told the media Israel was behind those strikes, raising the risk of a Syrian retaliation that could spiral into war. Trump’s leaks haven’t been anywhere near that dangerous.
Now consider the positive side of the equation. The embassy move stands out by any standard; it’s something many presidents promised, but none before Trump ever delivered. And many pro-Israel Democrats seem to underestimate just how important this is. The global refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the starkest form of delegitimization. Not only is no other country in the world denied the right to choose its own capital, but if Jews have no right to their holiest city—to which they prayed to return for 2,000 years—what do they have a right to? For putting an end to this outrageous discrimination, and thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit, Trump would deserve the gratitude of Israelis even if he never did another thing.
His financial sanctions against the P.A. (for funding terrorists) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for perpetuating the conflict) are similarly unprecedented and welcome.
Other Trump moves, like Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shine brighter due to the contrast with Obama. Though Israelis would always have adored Haley, in 2008 she would have been just the latest in a long bipartisan tradition of outstanding pro-Israel U.N. ambassadors (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jeanne Kirkpatrick). But Obama’s ambassadors were a different breed. Even when opposing anti-Israel resolutions, they lambasted Israel in harsh terms, rather than actually defending it. And though it hurt Israelis deeply to have America join the world body’s round-the-clock “Two Minutes Hate Against Israel,” this isn’t primarily about hurt feelings.
Such speeches signaled to other countries that America would be fine with any anti-Israel action they chose to take as long as Washington didn’t have to be complicit in it. And that encouraged both the European Union and the United Nations to take steps towards anti-Israel boycotts (product labeling and compiling a corporate blacklist, respectively). Haley’s pro-Israel speeches send the opposite message: America has Israel’s back, and anti-Israel actions will rouse America’s wrath.
The same goes for Trump’s scrupulous avoidance of public spats with Israel. That, too, might have seemed unremarkable in 2008. But after eight years of Obama’s nonstop public feuding with Israel, which insinuated to other countries that Israel was fair game, Trump’s reversal of this behavioral message simply elates Israelis.
For most American Jews, Trump’s domestic policies are obviously more important than his Israel ones, and that’s legitimate; his domestic policies more directly affect their lives. But Jewish Democrats ought to grant Israelis the same courtesy. Accept that they judge Trump on his Israel policies rather than his domestic ones, as the former are what directly affect their lives. And after eight years of Obama, Trump’s Israel policies have so far been a welcome relief.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 14, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org