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Israel has shot thousands of Palestinian demonstrators on its southern border over the course of the last year while waging a calculated campaign to destroy its American and British critics through trumped up charges of antisemitism.
It is a dangerous moment for any minority because racism is on the rise everywhere.
Yet, Israel is making it harder to be Jewish, not simply because actions such as these are inspiring anti-Semitism, nor even because it is allying itself with racists groups, like the Republican Party and the leaders of Poland and Hungary, with whom they maintain a shared hatred of Muslims. Jews are, after all, an unusually well integrated minority in America and Western Europe.
Rather, Israel is making it harder to be Jewish because they are systematically destroying the openness and tolerance that once characterized Jewish culture. Jews have long been an ethnically exclusive yet cosmopolitan minority, simultaneously mercantile and socialistic, rigidly learned and eccentrically brilliant.
Jews can be a colorful bunch, falling into no easy categories—Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein, Karl Marx and George Soros, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. And it has been quite common for people on the right to respond to these ambiguities with a queasy sort of repulsion. For Jews challenge what it means to be an insider to the nation.
The slide toward militaristic fascism in Israel complicates this ambiguity, though. For it highlights the most ethnocentric elements of Jewish culture.
Jews have often been mistrusted by many on the left, who see them as capitalist elites with too much power, a privileged minority with no allegiance to the people, let us not forget. Jews have also been seen as an ethnocentric and exclusive minority that is unusually successful.
So, in hard times, Jews have often been targeted from the left and the right alike. But what we are seeing today looks a whole lot more liberal and conservative Jews in a battle for the heart of the religion.
Judaism is the oldest and, at the core of its scriptures, arguably the most ethnocentric of the major world religions.
God commands the Jews to commit genocide against other peoples no less than five times in the Torah so that they might take the Promised Land. These divine decrees were reinterpreted in the Jewish Talmud and are rarely taken at face value, but they matter in that they inspire much of the Israeli colonization of the West Bank today.
It is a project that has been with the Jews since ancient times, when God placed them above other peoples and promised to protect them in exchange for their allegiance. The link cannot be clearer to anyone who has actually taken the time to read the Torah.
But like the Western philosophical tradition, Judaism is more a series of arguments than positions. Judaism is more often than not a dialectic of scriptural interpretations, summarized in lengthy treatises like the Talmud.
Jews argue with God, they argue with one another, and they argue with their own traditions. The Jews who have challenged the injustices of their own state and people have in fact often been granted a special place, after their deaths, at the center of the Jewish tradition.
Were they alive today, it does not seem too far-fetched to imagine many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible raging against the occupation and the deliberate attacks on civilians in Gaza. After all, a substantial portion of Jewish scriptures consist of Jewish prophets railing against their own people for their ethical lapses.
Any serious perusal of Jewish history reveals a constant stream of such prophets and intellectuals, visionaries and reformers, pressing their people to be better. Jewish reformers have been arguing with their people for their moral lapses from ancient times through modernity and into postmodernity, and the arguments enriched the culture at every turn.
Judaism may often appear ethnocentric, but it has developed a multitude of institutions to preserve its ambiguity and diversity. Foremost among these is the cultural tradition of argument itself.
Sigmund Freud believed that this resistance to authority has primordial roots. According to Freud, the first Jews actually murdered Moses for his burdensome strictures and then buried the memory, passing down the trauma of the experience from generation to generation. He saw this trauma manifested in the relationship of Jews to authority and in their violence toward their own most moral leaders. Freud believed the Jews fixated on the murder of their first spiritual leader but buried the memory, excising it from scriptures and creating through oral tradition a second good Moses, whom they might revere.
But according to Freud, the suppressed memory resurfaces periodically in attacks on their leaders. And while he backs up this otherwise bizarre argument with extraordinary textual evidence, little of it has matched up with the later findings of Biblical scholars.
Like much in Freud, the retelling is best interpreted as mythological food for thought. What he is pointing to is the tortured relationship of Jews to authority and their tendency to martyr their prophets. We can see this with Jesus, with Spinoza, and with Chomsky today.
Jews educate to argue and debate, then outcaste those members of their tribe who challenge the rigid codes they have learned to debate, only to later make of them heroes. In this way, the remnant of Jews now challenging the abuses of Israel may later be looked back upon as its prophets.
If Israel fails morally, it will fail institutionally. If it fails institutionally, it will be because it did not include that part of its tradition that is now raging against its hard-heartedness, thrashing against its injustice, and throwing its heart at the wicked rigidity of an increasingly militarized state.
The cadence of my language and the moral force it seeks to harness mirror that of a longstanding prophetic tradition. It is an ancient tradition that involves casting out its own most prophetic voices, and its perennial power suggests that Jews should not be so quick to condemn opponents of the occupation. For it may be the case that future generations will look upon these fallen prophets as the true bearers of the Jewish tradition—especially if the state of Israel ultimately fails.
Freud’s theory may not have withstood the test of archeological and historiographical research, but he saw all of this coming with the foresight of a prophet.
Even as the Third Reich grew in power through the 30s, both Freud and Einstein, as well as the more esoteric Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, opposed the effort to build an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. While each of them had their own views on the matter, their general concern lay in the inevitable injustices Jews would inflict on the native Palestinians. It was a structural defect that no amount of argument could wash away.
As is the case with most human passions, Freud saw the effort in pathological terms. It appeared to him an effort to instill in Jews a mass consciousness, complete with its own imagined national identity. This, he thought, could only end in ruin, both for the native Palestinians, who would be made second class citizens in any future Jewish state, and for the Jews themselves, who would be reduced to a mass where previously they were individuals.
It is perhaps for this reason he split the founding father of Judaism into two.
Moses became both the authoritarian murdered by his own people and another kinder and more inclusive leader. As Jacqueline Rose notes, in a brilliant exploration of the inner life of Israel, The Last Resistance, right at the moment Jews were most in need of unity, Freud refused to provide it, opting instead for ambiguity and the ability to walk between worlds.
More than ever, the Jews of Israel need to learn again to walk between worlds. And the Jews of the diaspora need to remind them how it is done.
Many of the Jews most likely to challenge the abuses of Israel are secular, or else their hearts are tied to other more esoteric traditions. Many have come to feel alienated from Judaism and see no use for it in a world of increasing diversity. Many simply want no part in some group that would seek to limit their sense of self to something so shallow as their ethnicity. And because of this, it has become easy for them to be marginalized and treated as “self-hating Jews.”
Ironically, it is just these Jews who might be most needed to sustain the dialectic that has long made Judaism thrive. It is their moral and prophetic challenge that might make Judaism last. And it is their unwillingness to be a part of any religion that would only have people like themselves as members that might push Judaism once again to reinvent its traditions and adapt itself to a new age.
Judaism is less threatened by the anti-Semites on the outside than those on the inside. Jews who would equate their religion with a state, and their identity with its actions, build for themselves a house made of sand. They degrade their religion to the compromises and corruptions inherent to all states. And they cramp the Jewish identity into a box so tight it will squeeze out its most brilliant and innovative thinkers.
It is time to reclaim the secularity, the diversity, the ambiguity, and the cosmopolitanism of Judaism. It is time to imagine a future in which Jews build bridges between worlds instead of destroying infrastructure, in which the tradition of argument is deepened so as to include the other, and ultimately the world.
If you liked this article, please check out my newly released book, The Holocausts We All Deny.
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