Analysis from Israel

There’s a popular saying in Israel that if you really want to know what’s going on, you should talk to the taxi drivers. That’s the Israeli version of a worldwide truth: Ordinary people sometimes have a better grasp of reality than intellectuals. A classic example of this truth played out in Western cultural milieus this week, when representatives of both highbrow and lowbrow culture coincidentally weighed in on the Israel issue.

On the highbrow end, we had American literary lion Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has just published a new book, and as Jonathan Tobin detailed here yesterday, it is so vile that even the Anti-Defamation League was moved to denounce its “vitriolic and hateful rhetoric” as blatantly anti-Semitic. As Jonathan noted, Walker also has a long history of anti-Israel activism: Last year, she famously refused to let The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew, to protest what she termed Israel’s “apartheid.”

Across the ocean, over in BDS Central (aka Great Britain), we had the lowbrow riposte, when boycott, divestment and sanctions activists tried to persuade the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys to cancel their planned appearance in Israel this weekend. That the group, considered “the most successful duo in UK music history,” rejected the activists’ demand isn’t in itself anything extraordinary: For all the publicity BDS activists receive whenever they do manage to get some performer to cancel an Israel gig, the vast majority of artists refuse.

What was extraordinary, however, was the reason the duo gave. Usually, performers offer some perfectly valid but neutral explanation, such as that boycotts are antithetical to art, or that boycotts impede efforts for peace. But Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist, Neil Tennant, chose instead to challenge the “apartheid” canard head-on. In a statement posted on the group’s website, he wrote:

I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa. It’s a caricature. Israel has (in my opinion) some crude and cruel policies based on defence; it also has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.

I might quibble with the “crude and cruel,” but other than that, you couldn’t find a clearer and more succinct explanation of the essential difference between democratic Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.

As George Orwell once wrote of a previous intellectual fad, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Unfortunately, the “Israeli apartheid” canard appears set to become yet another example of this truth: It is increasingly becoming the bon ton among the global intelligentsia.

That makes it all the more important for the “ordinary man” to speak out against it. And Pet Shop Boys has just provided a welcome example of how to do so.

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

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.

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