The Rabbi Writes – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.

The Rabbi Writes – The Massacre in Beirut

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

Rosh Hashana. The massacre in Beirut. Outrage. Shame.

And up all the facts have been revealed. But enough have surfaced to fill our Jewish hearts with guilt. The Defense Minister of the state of Israel has publicly admitted that he allowed the forces of the Christian Lebanese Phalange to pass through Israeli lines and to enter the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabra for the purpose of rooting out terrorists. But as every Lebanese child knows, to allow militant Christians, thirsty for revenge for the assasination of their hero leader, into an unarmed Palestinian camp is to invite murder. It is as innocent as putting a snake in a baby’s crib.

How does a humanistic Jew respond to the news that leaders of the Jewish state have sanctioned a holocaust? How do we deal with their initial refusal to allow an impartial investigation? Do we defend our Jewish leaders because they are Jewish? Do we minimize the outrage? Do we plead that greater atrocities have been committed against us? Do we claim that we are not responsible for what Israel allows?

The first thing we do is to dismiss certain harmful illusions.

It’s not my problem – is an illusion.

Whether we like it or not, all Jews are identified with the behavior of the Israeli government. As the most consuming passion of world Jewry, support for Israel cannot be dismissed when it is inconvenient or embarrassing. we cannot proudly identify with all the good achievements, and then in cowardly fashion avoid our obvious association with bad behavior. The world sees Israel and the Jewish people as one.

We buy our own behavior have created this impression. As members of the Jewish family we are implicated in the crime. We therefore have a special responsibility to let the world know how we feel.

Disunity is bad – is an illusion.

Sharon implied that Jewish protestors were giving assistance to the enemies of the Jewish people and that they were guilty of treason and antisemitism. Many of our timid community leaders who were interviewed in the Detroit Free Press obviously feel the same way. But silence is complicity. We who denounced the silence of Germans in World War II who also succumbed to appeals for unity should be hard put to swallow the Sharon argument. Perhaps Amos and Isaiah, who objected policies of their government in the face of external danger were also antisemites.

Jews are the only victims of the double standard – is an illusion.

Norman Podhoretz complains that the world allows the Gentile nations behavior that it refuses the Jews. Atrocities are committed all the time all over the world and are ignored by world opinion. Only when Israel behaves less than noble does moral outrage appear. Yet the reverse is also true. We Jews are so accustomed to being the unique victim that when other people, especially our enemies, are victimized we regard them as imposters, as unworthy of the status which we have for so long grown accustomed to claim for ourselves alone. That arrogance is also a double standard. We cannot bear to think that the Palestinian experience bears any similarity to the Jewish one.

The Holocaust gives us special privileges – is an illusion.

Many Jews including Begin, believe that Jewish suffering in the holocaust was so terrible that it justifies Jewish violence against an uncaring world. How can 500 Palestinians compare to 6 million Jewish dead? Counting casualties become the criterion for outrage. By this standard we still have over 5 million to go before the world has a right to object. No more unattractive self-righteousness can present itself.

What other people think is unimportant – is an illusion.

When hypocrites, like the Russians and the Libyans complain, who cares? But when the dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes – the ardent supporters of Israel in the American Congress and American journalism complain – the Israeli government ought to listen. The self-esteem of a nation depends on the approval of its friends and allies. Will the morale of Israel be elevated by the endorsement of South Africa and Jerry Falwell?

The Israeli military leaders had no motivation to sanction a massacre – is an illusion.

In 1948 the Irgun terrorists attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin and massacred men, women and children. The report of that massacre spread throughout the Palestinian Arab community creating panic and persuading thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. In 1980 to a similar incident in Lebanon might persuade thousands of Palestinian refugees in Israeli occupied territories to flee their camps and to cross over the Syrian lines to safety. The convenient exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1982. Both the Phalange and the Israeli military would have regarded the terrified departure of the Palestinians as good riddance.

After we have dismissed the illusions, the second thing we do is to protest. we do what 400,000 Israeli citizens did in Tel Aviv.

We protest the refusal of the leaders of the American Jewish establishment to express moral outrage.

We protest the refusal of the Israeli government to allow an objective investigation of the events until world pressure compelled them to relent.

We protest the leadership of Begin and Sharon who have brought shame to the Jewish people.

We protest, not only to be heard, but also to clear our conscience. Silence is complicity.

The Rabbi Writes – The Israel Connection

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

The Israel connection.

For North American Humanistic Jews, it is very important.

This July, 300 delegates from the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Argentina and Israel met in Jerusalem in the Truman Auditorium of Hebrew University to establish the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This school is the first institution of higher learning which has been created for the specific purpose of promoting a humanistic approach to Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

With a part-time faculty of thirty scholars, academicians and teachers, the Institute intends to publish literature in Hebrew, English and other useful “Jewish” languages – literature which can be used for educational and inspirational purposes by secular Jewish communities. It intends to train professional leaders, lectures and spokes people to provide scholarly and popular answers to important Jewish questions and to service a focal point for a federation of humanistic Jewish societies throughout the world.

Haim Cohen, The civil libertarian, legal scholar and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel will serve as the Honorary President. Yehuda Bauer, The world-renowned scholar-expert on antisemitism and Holocaust studies, will serve as the president.

Also this July, 11 young people from the Birmingham Temple – ages made a summer “pilgrimage” to Israel to attend the opening seminar of the Institute and to spend six weeks in a special training program for secular humanistic youth. This trip was the first of, hopefully, many “pilgrimages“ which will be available to all 10th grade graduates who are affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism. We hope that this summer adventure will take its place alongside the Mitsva and Confirmation ceremonies as one of the rites of passage in growing up as a Humanistic Jew.

Why this special emphasis on the Israel connection?

Israel is the Drammatic embodiment of our view of Jewish identity. The Zionist state is a living testimony to the fact that the Jews are more than a religious denomination. We are a historic nation with a national culture, A culture brought enough to include both religious and secular Jews. Because of Israel it is no longer easy to pretend that the Jews are only at theological fraternity.

Israel is also a dramatic embodiment of our view of human power. Against  orthodox passivity and Messianic waiting, the Zionist pioneers proceeded to take Jewish “destiny“ into their own hands into mold the Jewish future instead of resigning themselves to it. The Zionist venture was – and still remains – a revolutionary break with the mood of the old religious tradition.

Israel is the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. The reason is not immigration; it is birth rate. Because of a declining Jewish birth rate, the Diaspora communities are shrinking. In 1985, 25% of the world Jewish population resides in Israel. Into thousand 40% of world Jewry will live in the Jewish state. Time goes on, Israel will increasingly become the center of Jewish identity.

 Israel is the only state where Jewish culture can function as a majority culture. The Jewish language is the national language. Jewish holidays are national holidays. Jewish heroes are national heroes. Therefore, the Jewish creative potential of Israel is far greater than that of Diaspora communities where an uphill battle will always be fought against the attractiveness of the dominant culture. Less effort has to be exerted in Israel to remain Jewish. More effort can be devoted to more positive enterprises.

Israel is the home of the largest body of self-proclaimed secular Jews in the world.

Just as Reform was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century founders of the American Jewish community – making it, In the American context, older and more prestigious than Orthodoxy – so what is humanism the dominant belief of the Zionist founders of the Jewish state. From the labor movement to the kibbutzim, From the universities to the newspapers, the secular point of view prevailed. In the same sense as in America, Orthodoxy is “newer“ than secularism. It’s recent victories are in assault on the “establishment“.

Israel is the home of the largest body of scholars, academicians and teachers who identify themselves as secular and Humanistic Jews. No where else is it possible to assemble a working faculty for an institute of Humanistic Judaism. While the new school will be international, with branch offices in North America and western Europe, the center must remain in Jerusalem where the intellectual resources are more available.

The Israel connection is indeed very important. In an age of technological revolutions where traveling from Detroit to Jerusalem is far easier now than moving from Detroit to Toledo was 150 years ago, maintaining the is real connection may become a far simpler project than we imagine.

The Rabbi Writes – Jerusalem, October 1992

Volume 29, No. 5, December 1992

The Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

It was a memorable event. Delegates from nine countries assembled in the Khan theater to proclaim the commitment to a cultural Judaism without God. It was obvious that progress had been made during the last six years, ever since our first meeting in Detroit in 1986. We had increased in number. We had defined our ideology. We had elevated our visibility in the Jewish world. We had created an international Institute to train the leaders and educators we so desperately needed.

“On the way“ to Jerusalem we had met in Brussels in 1988 and in Chicago in 1990. At each of these events we sought to reinforce the purpose of the Federation. We wanted to bring together all the secular and humanistic Jews in the world and make them part of one movement. We wanted our voice and our presence to be recognized and acknowledged. We wanted to do together what we would not be able to do alone.

There were many highlights of the conference.

There was the Khan Theater, a Jerusalem landmark, Filled with people, many of them young, eager to identify with the cause of a cultural Judaism.

There was the babble of tongues – Hebrew, English, Russian, French and Italian – that made you feel the truly international character of our movement and gave the moment the excitement of diversity.

There was Naomi Hazzan, Member of Parliament, friend of Shulamit Aloni, fiery defender of the separation of religion and government, calling for the end to the wicked regime of Orthodox control over Israeli life.

There was Yizhar Smilansky, Famous poet and writer, tall, white- haired and charismatic delivering his impassioned denunciation of racism and militarism by rewriting the book of Joshua and reciting the text in staccato and relentless outbursts.

There was Haim Cohn, former senior judge of the Israeli Supreme Court, revered jurist and civil libertarian, Honorary president of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, receiving his award as our role model Humanistic Jew and offering a clear and unequivocal call for rational enlightenment in Jewish life.

There was the arrival of the delegates from the former Soviet Union, pioneers of Humanistic Judaism in the secular Jewish world of Eurasia, sharing with the crowd at the incredible success of their efforts in towns and cities of Russia and the Ukraine, speaking of the amazing possibilities for our movement in these newly opened lands.

There was the meeting with the Russian immigrants who have come to Israel, hundreds of them, who have found an intellectual and spiritual home and Humanistic Judaism, Who were filled with endless questions about what we do in North America.

There was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yekutieli, descendent of a prominent Iraqi family and militant secularist, who told us about his victories against Orthodox intimidation in his city of yeshivas and about how it was possible for determined humanists to mobilize their followers successfully in defence of their civil rights.

There was Danny Garbarz of Paris, university student and leader of the French youth movement for Humanistic Judaism, Energetic and brilliant, who shared with us his plans to mobilize Jewish young people all over the world for a secular commitment to Jewish identity.

There was Meron Benvenisti, Controversial writer, intellectual and former political leader, who boldly proclaimed at a celebration luncheon for the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem that there was nothing to celebrate, that Jerusalem remained hopelessly divided between Jews and Arabs and that only a piece which involved ethnic equality, mutual respect and the sharing of land would really work.

There was the intimate closing session when we explored together the texts of the new Secular Humanistic Anthology, tasting the words of Spinoza, Einstein and Tchersiklovsky and experiencing the excitement of finding our place and the tradition of Jewish inspiration.

There was the special moment in the kibbutz library of Aryeh Ben Gurion, Nephew of the first prime minister of the Jewish state, all of us standing before the documents and books which represented eighty years of secular Jewish celebration in the world of kibbutz life, And realizing the vast wealth of Jewish creativity that lay at the foundation of our movement.

There were too many high points to record. But all of them were part of a significant series of events that made up this conference.

For the first time Secular Humanistic Judaism received considerable attention from the Israeli press and media. The visibility of the movement took a quantum jump before the eyes of the Israeli public.

For the first time the vast region of Eurasia entered our movement. The Jews of the former Soviet Union, by virtue of 75 years of secular education, are an enormous pool of potential members and workers for our movement. Many Jews will leave the area. But most will stay. And if they want to be Jewish, Humanistic Judaism is the best and most honest way for them to express their Jewish identity. The Federation published a statement to that effect.

For the first time the Federation held a meeting in an Israel which was no longer under the control of a government beholden to the orthodox fundamentalists. Rabin is in power. And two of the founding members of the Israeli Humanistic Jewish movement, Shulamit Aloni and Yair Tsaban now hold important posts in the government. Their enemies have made an issue of their secularism. But they are determined to use their influence to resist the forces of religious reaction and self-ghettoization in the Jewish state.

We have every reason to feel optimistic about our movement, despite the power and determination of our opposition. Hopefully, the Spirit of the Jerusalem conference will serve to make us bolder and more assertive. WE have an important message for the Jewish world. Our solidarity with Humanistic Jews around the world will make it louder and clearer.