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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Beinart Tries to Square the Circle

Peter Beinart has written a provocative and courageous article in which he calls on "liberal" Zionist Jews to amend their notion of Jewish identity in order to reject separation from the Palestinians and to embrace equality instead. He has timed the article with the impending though delayed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, territory seized in the 1967 war and in which Palestinians have no rights whatsoever. Annexation will formalize what Israel has become de facto in the eyes of most of the world: an apartheid state.

Kudos to Beinart for his latest step in placing justice for the Palestinians at the top of the liberal Jewish agenda. In doing so he renounces the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he had supported, in favor of some kind of single state--a binational democracy or confederation--in which Jews and Arabs live together with equal rights. As he puts it:
The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality. [Emphasis added.]
Beinart goes so far as to admonish liberal Zionists for the drawing catastrophically wrong lessons from the Nazi's attempted Judeocide:
What makes someone a Jew—not just a Jew in name, but a Jew in good standing—today? In Haredi [ultra-orthodox] circles , being a real Jew means adhering to religious law. In leftist Jewish spaces, it means championing progressive causes. But these environments are the exceptions. In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God. [Emphasis added.]
The reason is rarely spelled out, mostly because it’s considered obvious: Opposing a Jewish state means risking a second Holocaust. It puts the Jewish people in existential danger. In previous eras, excommunicated Jews were called apikorsim, unbelievers. Today, they are called kapos, Nazi collaborators. Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.
And yet for all the good Beinart does in the piece, he leaves unaddressed an intrinsic issue: does Jewishness - separation + equality = Jewishness? I don't see how. 

Beinart calls on Jews to distinguish form from essence, writing:
Jews have distinguished between form and essence at other critical junctures in our history. For roughly a thousand years, Jewish worship meant bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Then, in 70 CE, with the Temple about to fall, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai imagined an alternative. He famously asked the Roman Emperor to “Give me Yavne and its Sages.” From the academies of Yavne came a new form of worship, based on prayer and study. Animal sacrifice, it turned out, was not essential to being a Jew. Neither is supporting a Jewish state. Our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity, one that no longer equates Palestinian equality with Jewish genocide. One that sees Palestinian liberation as integral to our own. [Emphasis added.]
Note that Beinart sets equality in opposition to separation. He says: "It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality." This would free liberal Zionists, he says, to reconstitute Jewish identity: "This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten." 

What he means here is that early Zionists didn't call for a Jewish state in Palestine but only a Jewish "home," that is, a "thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world." This is untrue: many early Zionists -- though certainty not Theodor Herzl with his seminal work, The Jewish State--surely avoided the word state only because it seemed unrealizable at the time and risked alienating the imperial powers needed to get even a foothold in Palestine. Sovereignty,  if only in the distant future, was not absent from the minds of many Zionists.

What does Beinart mean by a "thriving Jewish society"? Presumably not a theocracy, so he must be thinking of a "secular Jewish state." But what is that? When people speak of secular Jewish culture, they invariably have Yiddish culture in mind. But Yiddish culture is of a particular time and place (eastern Europe) and has no relation to the secular cultures that Jews have enjoyed with their non-Jewish countrymen in other parts of Europe, the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, South America, and other places. In strictly secular terms even Israel's culture isn't Jewish--it's Israeli! In other words, a secular Jewish culture does not exist. That is why self-identifying "secular Jews" are tempted by bogus genetic/racial theories of Jewishness: there's otherwise too little to hang Jewish secularism on. (In the 1930s an interest in genetic Jewishness could get you branded an anti-Semite by Jews, although prominent Zionists embraced Jewish racialism. Today rejecting that hypothesis can result in the same branding by Jews.)

But my main question is this: can Jewish identity exist without separation, even if only as an aspiration? Is separation integral to Jewish identity? Haven't many Jewish leaders long seen assimilation as a significant threat to Judaism? The answer is yes, and the fear goes back to antiquity. 

In the 1970s Golda Meir, while prime minister of Israel, told an American Jewish audience, "Can Jewishness flourish in free societies? We now see that not only through hatred and oppression can the number of Jews be diminished, but also through love and freedom." She had intermarriage in mind. ("Meir Warns American Jews of Dangers of Assimilation," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 17, 1972.)

Aren't Beinart's Zionist critics on firm ground when they accuse him of trying to denature Jewishness, not to mention Zionism? (David M. Weinberg called him "a shill for Israel’s enemies" in a Jerusalem Post titled "Peter Beinhart's betrayal of Liberal Zionism and Israel." Beinart's journey, Weinberg writes, "tells us something frightening about the intellectual journey towards anti-Zionism and self-immolation that is underway on the American Jewish Left.... This is an evil effort to strip the Jewish People of a proud self-identity and glorious history." Daniel Gordis told Jewish Insider, "Ultimately, what Beinart’s suggestion [that we give up on Jewish statehood] shows is how much more American are his instincts than Jewish.”)

We do not have to go far to find endorsements of separation and its concomitant,  exceptionalism, at the very heart of Judaism. Note this passage from Haggadah, the text based on the book of Exodus and read each year at the Passover dinners (seder):
Blessed are You, God, our God, King of the universe, who makes a distinction between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six work-days. You have made a distinction between the holiness of the Shabbat and the holiness of the festival, and You have sanctified the seventh day above the six work-days. You have set apart and made holy Your people Israel with Your holiness. Blessed are You, God, who makes a distinction between holy and holy. [Emphasis added.]
Passover of course is the festival that celebrates the Israelite liberation from slavery in Egypt via the exodus through the Red Sea and across the Sinai desert -- where the Israelites were singled out to receive God's Torah (commandments)-- en route to the Promised Land, where Joshua perpetrated God-mandated genocide. That story has been the key to Jewish identity -- even "secular" Jewish identity -- but (fortunately) none of it actually happened and Moses is a fiction, according to most archaeologists and historians. (The Israelites were Canaanites, not outsiders, and Canaan was a district of the Egyptian empire.) That being the case, what does that mean for Jewish identity, especially since the archaeologists and historians also question the historicity of Abraham, the other patriarchs, and thus the sacred covenant?

Then there's Deuteronomy, chapter 7: "thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth."

Chosenness and separation, including injunctions against intermarriage and religious liberalism (for example, polytheism), are at the core of the stories in the Hebrew Bible and thus Jewish identity, despite passages, mostly from the prophets, that seem more cosmopolitan. (We must distinguish the Israelite ruling elite and prophets from the masses, who like other people usually ignored admonitions from on high and did what they pleased, including worshiping more than one god.) And later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Reform Judaism, particularly in America, heroically tried to make the universalism of the prophets the dominant element, explicitly rejecting separation and Zionism, but it did not carry the day; eventually it became pro-Israel (though there are still holdouts). One of its shortcomings was that, having accepted the Bible as the word of God as dictated to Moses, Reform rabbis redefined chosenness and did not reject it.

Jewish identification through chosenness and separation was certainly the core of my Jewish education (before my self-excommunication), and devotion to Israel as the Jewish state was the core of Jewish identity. (Reclaiming an alleged ancestral homeland is clearly not a universalizable principle, but making an exception for the "Jewish people" obviously presents no problem for many Jews and gentiles.)

So--can Jewish identity really exist without exceptionalism, without separation, politically and culturally if not fully geographically? Can the circle be squared? I don't see how--what Beinart calls "form" looks a lot like "essence" to me and others.

If I am right and Beinart is wrong, then what's left? Shlomo Sand questions the legitimacy of Jewish "essentialism." (A Jewish essentialist is someone who believes the atheist and excommunicated Spinoza remained a Jew until the day he died.) Of course, the right to worship Yahweh (if that's what people want to do) and to practice Jewish rituals should be everywhere inviolate--that is nonnegotiable. But must "being a Jew" refer to what one is rather than to what one does and believes? Isn't it enough simply to be a good, just, and rational human being?


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