Israel Independence Day. It Came and Went.

TJH May 1977, vol. 14, no. 9.

Israel Independence Day. It came and went. 

Twenty-nine years of Jewish independence. 

How many more? 

David’s kingdom lasted for 400 years. The Maccabees’ dominion survived for 100. What about the Third State? 

I don’t know. All I know is that it is important for Israel to survive. The destruction of the Jewish state would undermine the existence of the Jewish nation as a world people. With the center dead, the periphery would be hard put to endure. 

Zionism has been the most successful Jewish response to the age of science and secularism. In an era when theological belief and ritual practice were no longer appropriate to individual survival, Zionism shifted the basis of Jewish identity from religious activity to Hebrew secular culture.  

The state of Israel is more than a refugee center for desperate Jews. It is a place where it is possible to be Jewish without being religious. The sign of Jewishness is not a set of outmoded theological statements and absurd ceremonial rites. It is the use of the Hebrew language, the celebration of national holidays, the creation of secular poetry, music and dance. Israeli culture is a viable alternative to Talmudic culture. It can be indulged full-time within Israel or part-time in the Diaspora. 

Unlike Yiddish secular culture (the national expression of Ashkenazi Jews), it has a territorial center where the national language can be used in everyday life. And unlike classical Reform Judaism it provides specific and concrete behavior-patterns instead of vague religious cliches. 

Israeli culture is not superior to other national cultures (After all, in a technological world personal lifestyles become International). But it is linguistically and aesthetically different. 

Hebrew culture is a twentieth century expression of the Jewish collective will to live. From the humanistic point of view, it adds one more ethnic style to the universal potpourri.  

But Hebrew culture will not live unless Israel lives. Israel will not live unless she makes peace with the Arabs.  

Israel has to make peace soon. The Jewishness of the Jewish state is at stake. If the present rate of Jewish emigration from Israel continues to increase because of inflation and war anxiety, and if the overwhelming numbers of Arabs in the occupied territories continue to remain within the unofficial boundaries of Israel, the Jewish state, by default, will turn into an Arab state. Like Detroit its ethnic character will be radically transformed.  

The time for making peace is now.  

Now the Arab world is deeply divided between the Arab Left and the Arab Right. The Arab Left is led by Gaddafi’s Libya, with its oil billions. The Arab Right is led by Khalid’s Saudi Arabia with its even greater wealth. Both sides despise and fear each other more than they despise and fear Israel.  

Now the Arab Left has suffered an enormous defeat. Syria has defected to the Right. the Palestine Liberation Organization was decisively defeated in Lebanon. Algeria and Iraq have suffered loss of face because of their failure to adequately support their Palestinian allies. 

Now all the Arab states on the borders of Israel belong to the Arab Right. For the first time in Israeli history, the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are politically compatible and are able to act in unison.  

Now the Arab Right is willing to accept the reality of Israel and to recognize its political existence. This recognition is no Act of charity. The leaders of the Arab Right know that if they do not make peace with Israel, the continuing militancy will feed the terrorism which will enable the Left to underline the government of the Right.  

Now the Arab Right has tamed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat and his allies are willing, because they have no other choice, to accept a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza federated with their old arch enemy, Hussein’s Jordan. This Jordan-Palestine state is the best ultimate deal the Israelis can achieve on their eastern frontier.  

Now Israel does not have to negotiate with the Soviet Union. The Russians hold no power base on the Israeli frontier. Syria still uses Soviet arms, but it has passed over to the American camp of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  

Now American public opinion is still strongly pro-Israel. Continued energy crises may make the American public more impatient with the Middle Eastern controversy.  

The public price of the Arab Right for peace is the return of the Israelis to the 1967 frontiers. The private price may be lower.  

The risk of peace without defensible frontiers is great. But, as Sadat appropriately point outs, the concept of defensible frontiers is Irrelevant in the age of missiles.  

The risk of continued war is even greater. If the failure of the peace initiative fails, new impetus will be given to the Arab Left. And the Arab Left is unequivocally committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  

Israel needs courageous leadership now. The courage to make peace is sometimes more important than the courage to fight.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 10

Israel will be 41 years old this month. As the Jewishs state it has served the Jewish people well. The Diaspora has acquired both pride, culture and identity from its achievements. 

But all is not well.  Enormous problems confront Israel that often seem insoluble (sic).  The intifada, the Palestinian rebellions int eh West Bank and Gaza, is still strong after seventeen months.  Although its fury has somewhat abated, the Israeli reserves are still mobilized to suppress the uprising.  The cost of coping is high.  Military deficits, the wear and tear of unpopular police duty and the frustration with adverse world public opinion have taken their toll. 

The confrontation between the religious and the secular continues.  While the Who is a Jew? Issue has been temporarily defused, the fanaticism of the fundamentalists fuels new incidents.  Secularists are beginning to despair that they will ever be able to regain their primacy.  The new immigrants are mainly orthodox and their birth rate is high. 

Economic difficulties are everywhere.  Tourism has slumped because of the intifada.  Unemployment is on the rise.  There are insufficient funds to support the health and education programs that Israel needs.  In fact, the underfinanced school system is a disgrace to a Jewish state. 

The surge of Zionist idealism that gave Israel its special moral character at its inception has waned.  Old people have become cynical.  Young people have joined the ranks of the consumer culture.  Zionism has “normalized” the Jewish people to its disadvantaged (sic). 

One of the mor4e serious problems is the disintegration of the special relationship with American Jewry., the most powerful of Diaspora communities.  In the past American Jewish leaders were content to defer to the will of the Israeli government as an expression of Jewish solidarity.  The prestige of Israel was so high in Jewish eyes that this deference seemed natural.  Today rebellion is in the wings.  The connection is more abrasive. 

There are many signs of this new abrasiveness. 

American Jewish leaders have publicly expressed their reservations about Israeli government policies in the occupied territories.  Newspapers and the other media regularly report these disagreements.  In the past any conflict would have been kept secret.  The facade of unity would have been maintained. 

Advertisements by Jewish dissidents denouncing Israeli policy appear in major newspapers.  The signers are often leading intellectual and philanthropists who would formerly have never given their names or their money to such as assaultive exposure. 

Conferences of dissidents now attract thousands of participants.  Just recently, Michael Lerner, the found and the editor of the liberal magazine Tikkun (who will be speaking for us on May 22) held a major meeting of protest in New York.  He challenged the American Jewish leadership to listen to the dissenting voice in their constituency.  This challenge received wide publicity. 

Delegations of American Jewish leaders now travel to Israel to “lobby” the Knesset and the government.  During the Who is a Jew? controversy dozens of organizational heads took the time to go to Israel to express their indignation over proposed legislative changes.  Their protest was effective in undermining the conservative coalition with the orthodox. 

Many local welfare federations hage threatened to withhold their financial support from Israel unless the fundamentalists are restrained. Such threats would have been inconceivable in the past and would have been regarded as “betrayal”. 

American Jewish philanthropy has decided, independent of Israeli counsel and in direct opposition to Israeli policy, to raise millions of dollars for the absorption of thousands of ew Soviet Jewish immigrants by the United State.  The world Zionist Organization ad the Jewish Agency are fit to be tied.  They simply assumed that Israel would have prior claim to special funds raised for immigrant absorption. 

The recent unity conference called by Prime Minister Shamir in Jerusalem was less an expression of solidarity with the policies of the present administration than a show attempt to cover up the differences that everybody knows exist.  The drama of unity lacks the substance of agreement that would make it effective. 

Many factors have contributed to this new abrasiveness. 

Ever since the Lebanon War American Jews no longer see Israel through the reverential glasses of earlier years.  The “moral intimidation” power of Israel has seriously declined.  Israelis no longer appear, in American Jewish eyes to (sic) be as noble as they once were. 

 A modicum of disillusionment has set in. 

The growing power of the orthodox and their strident bid for political control have frightened many American Jews, most of whom are not orthodox.  It was easier for liberal and secular Jews to identify with the “old” Israel than with the present one. 

Adverse publicity concerning the Israeli handling of the intifada fills the American media and embarrasses American Jews.  Accustomed to seeing themselves as victims of oppression the Jews of the United States are very uncomfortable in the role of military repressor.  They are ambivalent.  While they are concerned about the future security of Israel, they want the bad publicity to stop. 

The Israelis have often behaved arrogantly, counting on American Jewish support without ever consulting with American Jews or eliciting their opinions.  While claiming to be the “voice” of the Jewish people, Israel reflects only its own electorate with no real input from Jewish constituencies in the Diaspora.  The insensitivity to American feeling in the Who is a Jew? issue is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

The responses in the American community to this new dissent have varied. 

Many American Jews view it negatively.  They believe that public arguments give ammunition to our enemies, to all the antisemites who seek our destruction.  Families should not wash their “dirty laundry” in public they say (sic).  Freedom of speech yields to the need for survival. 

Many are enthusiastic.  They feel liberated from the fetters of an irrational control.  They maintain that open discussion will energize the Jewish people and lead to the new and creative solutions to problems.  They also maintain that the old leadership, attached to outmoded responses to problems, will never yield power unless publicly challenged. 

Others are simply ambivalent.  They agree with the protest.  But they are uncomfortable with Jews arguing with Jews in public.  They would prefer a quieter assault, although they are not quite sure how to engineer it. 

Which of these responses is the most valid? 

While many positive thighs can be said for solidarity it is no logger possible-either pragmatically or morally.  But dissent has to be responsible too-not simply a vehicle for a power-hungry new elite to replace a power-hungry old elite.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Four criteria ought to guide the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.                

  1. American Jews are the equals of Israeli Jews.  No special status of nobility attaches to living in the Jewish homeland. 
  1. The voice of the Jewish people is more than the voice of Israel.  When what Israel chooses to do affects the welfare of all Jews the leaders of the Diaspora must be consulted.  A regular forum or “congress” for the formulation of joint policies ought to be established. 
  1. The agenda of American Jews and Israelis are not necessarily identical.  Not every issue in Jewish life, including the disposition of Soviet immigrants, needs central control. 
  1. Publicity is no substitute for dialogue. 

Our relationship to Israel is entering a new phase.  We need guidelines. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, March 1988, Vol. XXV, Number 8

25 years ago, when the Birmingham Temple was established, the state of Israel was quite new, only 15 years old. New paragraph. It did not control the West Bank and Gaza. Its population was overwhelmingly Jewish. Its ruling Elite was overwhelmingly sector. It’s Orthodox Church few in number and politically insignificant. It’s government was liberal and open-minded. Is the Army was a Defense Force, not a police force. 

For American choose Israel was a utopian state were blond cortical cool sabra’s work the land and live the ascetic life of idealistic Pioneers. It was also the quote on Middle East who’s Brave Army has driven away Wicked Arab aggressors and whose citizens live with the memories of the Terrible Hulk cost. There was a pure moral or at Israel they had her many friends throughout the world acknowledged and admired. 

The times have changed. Israel of 1988 is not the Israel of 1963. Its population is almost half hour. Its ruling Elite pretends to be religious. Orthodox Fanatics are great number and politically powerful. It’s government is conservative and intransigent, and its Army has been turned into the police force to control civil disorder. 

American Jews are not as comfortable with the Israel 1988 with the Jewish state of the 60s. The recent riots in the West Bank and Gaza and the military regression repression of Arab descent – beatings and all I sent him medicine comfortable. Since December the news from Israel has become embarrassing. 

So how do Americans use deal with this discomfort? Do they publicly berate the government of Israel and cyst on a change of policy? Do they withdraw their financial support until the government assumes are more moral and less embarrassing pasture or, in the face of adverse public opinion, do they continue to defend and support the decisions of the rulers of Israel? 

The American Jews who counseled solidarity with Israeli government resent the following arguments. 

Number one who are we to judge Israelis on the safety of our American Haven? Israelis know best what is needed to preserve Law & Order. 

Number to Israel is not a perfect democracy. But it is far superior, in terms of personal freedom, than any Arab or Muslim state in the Middle East. Comparing Israel to America is inappropriate. Number three repression is unavoidable, since the Palestinian leadership will not recognize the right of the Tuesday to exist. You cannot negotiate with people who will not negotiate. 

Number for Israel has been at war with the Arabs in the Arab States since 1948. What is morally unacceptable in peacetime maybe come and unavoidable necessity of War. 

Number 5 Israel stands alone, with only the sport of the world Jewish people to Reliant. If America to the legions of anti-semites who seek Israel’s destruction. American Jews cannot allow the weakening of the Jewish State and the second Holocaust that would follow. 

How would we as human is to choose respond to these parking is? 

Number one the main reasons to Israeli government policy is from the Israelis himself. Thousands of years wheels of Israeli subject to the present progressive policy and have organized massive public protests. There is no single Israeli position. American Jews who support the opposition or supporting Israelis. If we judge the military repression adversely, we are only at going judgement of many citizens of Israel. 

Number to there is no doubt that is really democracy is far superior to any democracy that presently exists in the Middle East. But that democracy only applies to the Jews and Arabs of quote-unquote old is real. It does not apply to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza remain in a permit disenfranchised population. In occupied territories Palestinians are no better off than Kurds in Iraq. The government is military, not civil. New. number three it is true that the pill has not officially recognized the right of the state of Israel to exist. But, then, neither has a Jewish state recognized the right of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to have stated their own. The first will only happen if second does. The give-and-take must be neutral. 

Number for if it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians artwork, and Palestinian terrorism is Justified as an instrument of War. One cannot be at War when it is convenient and at peace when it is not. New pier number 5 American Jews who speak out against the present policy and Military Prussian status quo means by the Shamir government are not seeking to weaken Israel. They’re seeking to strengthen it. And Israel, happy hour with will ultimately be destroyed by its own internal dissension. 

Only an Israeli government brave enough to negotiate the return West Bank and Gaza to Arab hands will rescue the Jewish State. Those who truly love is real I’m not afraid to speak unpleasant truth when they survive or there for a lot of it is at stake. 

In 1988 Israel still very close to the hearts of American Jews. But is no longer the infallible Paragon of Jewish virtue. It has problems. And it needs both financial and moral help to sell them.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, April 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 9

Thirty innocent victims died in a massacre.  They were not Jews.  They were Arabs killed by a Jew. 

The Hebron disaster is one of the tragic moments in the history of Zionism and the Jewish state. Banukh Goldstein, a Jewish religious fanatic and a follower of Meir Kahane, choose to shoot into a crowd of Muslim worshipers in the name of God.  In his self-righteous ardor he imagined that he was doing the will of the Lord and saving the Jewish people.  In reality he committed a moral outrage and produced irreparable damage to the Jeiwsh people and the Jewish state. 

The image of the suffering Jew, the image of Schindler’s List, has been replaced by the image of the murdering Jew.  The peace process between Istaelis and Palestinians has been halted.  The moderate leadership of the Arab world has been discredited in the eyes of many Arabs who had initially supported the Rabin-Arafat initiative.  The forces of Arab extremism have been strengthened.  A fragile optimism has been replaced by a deep gloom.  Only people who love war in the Middle East can rejoice.  

The Hebron disaster has highlighted many powerful realities.  It demonstrated the fragility of the whole peace process.  It now hangs on a thread which may break at any moment.  It exposed the vulnerability of Jewish and Arab moderates to the schemes of small numbers of extremists.  Above all, it revealed the danger of Jewish religious extremism. 

For so long, our focus was on the danger of Arab extremism and Arab fundamentalists.  Terror was something that Arabs did.  The victims were Jews, innocent men, women and children assaulted by Arab fanatics.  Ever since l967 Palestinian terrorism provided the moral justification for the Jewish resistance to making any concessions.  We had the moral high ground.  Arabs alone were murders (sic). 

But that illusion has now been shattered.  Yes, there is Arab religious extremism.  But there is also Jewish religious extremism.  And it is just as dangerous to the Jewish people. 

Jewish religious extremism is very old.  It is as old as the Messianic movements which began in Judea over two thousand years ago  The Jewish Messianists believed that they were the chosen people of God, that all other people were sinners and doomed, that the final Judgment Day was imminent, that in the final battle all the wicked would be punished, that the power of God would sustain the small band of the saved against their enemies.  Like the author of Deuteronomy 7 they envisioned a world purified of non-believers.  Only violence against the chosen people is morally wrong.  Violence against infidels is exactly what they deserve.  There are dozens of quotations from both the Bible and the Talmud, which reflect this mind-set.  They are an embarrassment to the Jews.  We generally choose to ignore them.  Christian and Muslim fanatics are  eirs to this legacy. 

While, for many Jews, Jewish persecution and suffering provided an emotional foundation for a morality of compassion and empathy with the suffering of others, for others the pain of antisemitism only reinforced hatred of the outside word, paranoia and dream of vengeance.  In the tight world of ultra Orthodoxy these dreams were strengthened by religious faith.  The one positive side to this self-righteousness was that these people were never successful, after the destruction of the Jewish state, in achieving political power. 

For most of these people, Zionism was anathema.  In their eyes the Zionists were secular Jews who had rejected divine help and divine guidance and who were seeking to establish a Jewish state without the Torah as the constitution.  Zionists were worse than Gentile non-believers because they were Jews who had abandoned the true faith and who were seeking to lure vulnerable Jews away from their ancestral faith.  Until 1967 they wanted nothing at all to do with the state of Israel or the Zionist enterprise. 

But the Six Day War changed everything.  The easy victory of the Israelis and the capture of the sacred sites of historic Judaism, from the Western Wall to the Cave of Machpelah, seemed like a divine miracle.  Many extremists made a turnaround, embraced the Jewish state, and vowed to keep its sacred soil forever in Jewish hands. 

After 1967 the “believers” of Brooklyn began to leave Mecca and to immigrate to Israel  They were entirely different from the Zionist pioneers.  They were fiercely Orthodox, Messianic in their thinking, and contemptuous of a modern liberal secular state.  They did not want to settle in secular Israel.  They wanted to settle in their own tight communities,, preferably in the West Bank where they could be near the ancient shrine of the Jewish People.  Many found their way to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall.  Others established their home near Shekhem (Neblus) or the Cave of Machpelah (Hebron).  They were indifferent to Arab hostility.  In a short while their initiative and courage would prod God to send his Messiah  The End of Days would come and the Jewish people would be glorified. 

Fanatic leaders like Rabbi Moshe Leinnger and fanatic movements like Gash Emunim arose and captured the imagination and devotion of the “believers.”  For those who are more extreme, the fiery words of Mier Kahane, calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from the Holy Land, were ˆsicˆ)welcomed. 

The Likud government of Menachim Begin and Yitshak Shamir paid for them to settle down in the midst of the Palestinians.  It gave them arms to defend themselves against attack and to intimidate their “enemies.”  Even though many of the leaders of the Likud were secular, they saw these religious extremists as allies in their determination to keep the West Bank. 

Secular Israelis and moderate religionists-discovered to their chagrin that there was now a determined minority of religious rightwingers who did not believe in a democratic and pluralistic state, who wanted to lead the nation into a murderous confrontation with the Palestinians.  Neither the intifada nor the possibility of a peace through compromise diminished their ardor.  All who were opposed to holding the West Bank through force were designated traitors 

In America these fanatics were supported by ambivalent American Jews, who felt guilty over their assimilation to Jewish culture and their unwillingness to immigrate to Israel.  Many American Jews who were neither religious nor Orthodox saw them as instruments of Jewish survival and determination.  The fanatics cultivated their ambivalence. 

What are we, the rational Jews who support a secular and democratic state, who embrace the historic Zionist vision, going to do about these extremists in our midst?  How are we, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people, a majority which repudiates religious fanaticism going to deal with this embarrassing internal plague?  What must the government and people of Israel do with this group of self-appointed prophets of God? 

The Hebron massacre makes a strong response necessary. 

In America we need to publicly repudiate their message and resist their entry into positions of power and authority in our community. 

In Israel our Jewish brothers and sisters need to outlaw, restrain, remove and deport all those who advocate violence against the Arabs.  At the minimum they need to disarm Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  Let the Israeli army protect both Jews and Arabs. 

The future of Israel and the Jewish people is (sic) at stake. 

Zionism and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer 1979, Vol. VII, Number II

The state of Israel. 

No expression of Judaism can be complete unless it deals with this reality and with the political movement that spawned it. 

Zionism is the most successful and the most dramatic Jewish movement of the twentieth century. It is also the most universal. Theology and ritual divide Jews. But loyalty to the state of Israel unites them. The religious and the secular can be comfortable with Zionism. Although anti-Zionism was, at one time, powerful, it now condemns its devotees to the role of the peripheral and the pariah. 

Zionism, as a political movement, seeks to establish and to maintain a Jewish state in Israel. Zionism, as a cultural movement, strives to promote Hebrew speaking culture among Jews. 

The roots of Zionism are both ancient and contemporary. Throughout Jewish history the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur and the folk literature preserved the memory of a Jewish territorial nation. Jews living in lands other than Israel believed that they were residing in Exile. They believed that, in the future, they would be rescued by the Messiah and would be returned to their homeland.  

The modern source of Zionism was a sense of nationhood which Western Ashkenazic Jews experienced in Central and Eastern Europe. United by folk memories and the Yiddish language, the Russian and Polish Jew saw himself as neither Russian nor Polish. He viewed himself as a national Jew, with a language and culture all his own. This ethnic self-awareness was reinforced by the rising power of nationalism in Europe. Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romanians were beginning to feel more German, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Romanian. One of the devices they used to create greater internal solidarity was to invent an external enemy. Antisemitism turned the Jews into the national enemy, excluded them, and made them, ironically, feel more Jewish. 

If the Jews were indeed a distinct nation, they required a territory of their own, like every other nation. Since the Europeans were not prepared to surrender a piece of their own national territories, the Jews would have to look elsewhere. Nostalgia and the desire for territorial roots offered no alternative but Palestine. Uganda was a possibility that no one ever took seriously. 

Since Zionism is a political ideology, it comes in many varieties. Bourgeois or General Zionism wants Israel to be a free enterprise capitalist state. Labor Zionism prefers a socialist Israel where the workers control. Revisionist Zionism, the choice of Menahem Began, advocates a Jewish nation that is well-trained in military virtue. Religious Zionism wants a Jewish state where God rules and where the constitution is the Torah. 

But, regardless of the differences, all Zionists agree on ten principles. 

1. The Jews are a nation. more than a religious group, more than a theological fraternity, more than a cultural entity. Jews are Jewish the same way that Frenchman are French. 

2.  Every nation, including the Jewish nation, needs a territory all its own. A unique territory allows the nation to cultivate its own language, promote its own customs, and be the master of its own destiny. 

3. For the past two thousand years Jews have been abnormal. Until 1948 they were a nation without a territory. They will only be normal again when the majority of the Jews of the world return to their homeland. 

4. Israel is the only feasible Jewish homeland. The personality of a nation cannot be separated from its memories, and from the territory where it evolved. 

5. Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. English is too universal. Jewish Yiddish is too parochial. A unique language becomes the cultural bond of both secular and religious Jews. 

6. immigrating to Israel is more virtuous than staying in the Diaspora. If Jews refuse to move to Israel, there will be no viable Jewish state. Jewish life in a Jewish state is qualitatively better than Jewish life in the midst of a Gentile nation. 

7. The establishment of a Jewish state will reduce antisemitism. If Gentiles can see Jews as members of a normal nation, they will no longer fear them. If Jews leave the countries where they arouse hostility, antisemites will have to find other scapegoats for their envy and hatred.  

8. Jews who remain in the Diaspora will ultimately assimilate to the majority culture of their host nations. Since modern urban industrial culture is essentially secular, assimilation involves no formal conversion. It is the gradual assumption of a new patriotism. Jews can only remain Jews where they can be Jewishly patriotic. 

9. Israel is the viable solution to the problem of Jewish survival. In an age when ritual segregation is rejected by most Jews, territorial segregation is the only feasible means to insure group Integrity. 

10. For every Jew, his primary identity is his Jewish identity. He must be prepared to do first what is necessary to insure Jewish community survival. Aliya (moving to Israel) is a primary mitsvah. 

How does Humanistic Judaism relate to these ten principles? 

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that the Jews are a nation. Like the Zionist, he makes a distinvtion between citizenship and nationality. It is quite reasonable to describe oneself as an American citizen of Jewish nationality. Because of the Jewish fear that such a statement may be construed by modern governments as an act of dual loyalty, the word ‘people’ is usually substituted for the word ‘nation’. But, in essence, it means the same thing.  

The Humanistic jew accepts the fact that, in the past, a nation needed a specific territory in order to remain a nation. But, in the age of industrial technology, this requirement no longer applies. Today the time it takes to fly from New York to Tel Aviv is far less than the time a traveller took to donkey from Jaffa to Jerusalem a century ago. In former times, isolation from a nation’s territory meant isolation and ultimate assimilation to the host culture. In modern times, both literacy and advanced communication and transportation make it possible for a dispersed nation to preserve its sense of community. The Greeks, the Armenjians and the Irish know that, as well as Jews. 

The Humanistic jew recognizes that many people regarded the Jew as peculiar and abnormal because he had no territorial base. But what was Jewishly abnormal is now rapidly becoming humanly normal. In the age of labor mobility an inaternation nation is no longer bizarre. It is avant gard (sic). Territorial nations are becoming territorial states. A territorial state is a political entity where people of different nationalities discover that they must share the same piece of land. The connections among the inhabitants are geographic and economic rather than ethnic. America is no longer an Anglo-saxon nation. And Israel is one-third Arab. 

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that Israel is the Jewish homeland. As the mother country of the Jewish nation it is the appropriate headquarters and center of that international corporation. Memories cannot be manufactured. Like nations, they develop their power over long periods of time. New Yrok may have more Jews than Jerusalem. But Jerusalem includes the armies of the faithful dead, not just the living. 

The Humanistic Jew values the Hebrew language. It is the unique Jewish alternative to traditional ritual. Every viable ethnic community that is not racially distinct cultivates its own language. The greatest of all the Zionist achievements was the revival of the Hebrew language as the spoken tongue of the masses. Since Hebrew is not a world language like English, it requires for its survival a special territory where a majority of the inhabitants use it for their daily speech. One of the major reasons for the preservation of the state of Israel is the maintenance of Hebrew speaking culture. With Israel as the Hebrew center, the language becomes available to the world Jewish community as a resource for community expression. 

The Humanistic Jew understands that Israel cannot accommodate the majority of the Jewish people. The reason is not only that Israel is too small, it is also that Israel cannot suitably employ the members of a nation, the overwhelming majority of whom now belong to the managerial class. The Jews of both America and Russia would have to lower their professional sights if they immigrated to Israel en masse. Israel does not need more lawyers, accountants and psychiatrists. She needs farmers, porters and construction workers. The only people willing to do this work are Oriental Jews (none of whom is available any more in the Diaspora) and Arabs. The continuing migration of Ashkenazic Jews from Israel is a continuing testimony to this reality. Immigrating to Israel is a virtue if the immigrant’s talents will be fully utilized in that environment. To waste managerial potential is a waste not only for the world Jewish community but also for the human community. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe naively that the creation of the state of Israel will reduce antisemitism. In the Middle East, Zionism has increased anti-Jewish feeling. In Europe and America loyalty to Israel reminds many people of the multiple attachments that they suspect that all Jews have. Above all, Zionism does not strike at the heart of modern antisemitism. The very reason why most Jews cannot be accommodated by Israel is the very source of Anti-Jewish feeling. Jews are hated because they are conspicuously successful in an urban industrial society-out of proportion to their numbers. If all Jews would abandon the managerial and professional class and consent to become skilled peasants, Israel could provide for their needs and antisemitism would fade away. A small Jewish state ironically depends for survival on the power of Jewish success in the Diaspora. Israel needs the very power out of which antisemitism grows. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe that living in the Diaspora means ultimate assimilation. Since Jewish communities are no longer isolated from each other and can maintain effective contact with the Israeli center, Jewish self-awareness has increased, not declined. Moreover, it is quite clear that all nations, even large territorial ones, are assimilating to a new culture. That culture is the world culture of science and technology, which has secularized most of our planet and created a world of shared work styles, shared products and shared values. In the past twenty years the Oriental Jew in Israel has experienced more assimilation than the Jew of New York. In future years, the differences among all nations will be reduced because of this shared culture. From the humanistic point of view, this shared cultural bond with all people is something good. 

The Humanistic Jew is well aware of the fact that no small territorial state is the master of its own destiny. Even large states, like America, are no longer independent because of their heavy dependence on external resources. The fate of the Jews in Israel is not separable from the fate of the Jews in America since Israel depends on America for its survival. The key to Jewish continuity remains what it was, even before Zionism. The Jews should be as widely dispersed as possible, so that the destruction of our community will not result in the destruction of all. 

The Humanistic Jew affirms the value of his Jewish identity and he works to express it within the setting of the Jewish community. But he chooses his human identity as his primary identity. A healthy Jewish community can only be realized if it sees itself as part of a larger community which has its own needs and demands. Without this transcendent ideal, Zionism becomes a cynical chauvinism. Jews and Arabs can learn to share the same territory if they have the vision to go beyond their national identity and to celebrate their shared human identity. Every intelligent person recognizes that he has more than one identity. 

Humanistic Judaism and historic Zionism share many convictions. The values of Jewish nationhood and of Hebrew culture are two common principles. 

But Humanistic Judaism finds value in the reality of the Jews as a world people and as an international nation. 

Israel as the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence is too much.Israel as the cultural homeland of a planetary people is just fine. 

Secular Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1979, Vol. VII, Number I

The Workmen’s Circle-the Sholom Aleichem schools-the Peretz Shulen- the Jewish people’s Institute-The Farband-Kibbutz Artzi-  

These organizations have been around for a long time. Although they enjoy no formal unity, they do share an informal ideology which many call Secular Judaism. The word ‘secular’ expresses their strong resistance to all forms of organized religion. While some Secular Jews are avowed atheists and others are discreet agnostics or indifferent believers, all are united by their avoidance of prayer, worship and Rabbis. 

Many Secular Jews have joined humanistic congregations. Others have been hostile because they cannot comprehend how humanism and religion can be brought together. Still others have been ambivalent, availing themselves of the services of Humanistic rabbis without being able to fit them into their ideology. 

Secular Judaism used to be stronger than it is now. In the heyday of Yiddish culture it flourished among the Jewish young. Today it is an aging movement, sabotaged by the Holocaust and affluence and surviving on the fading memories of old revolutionary causes. Nevertheless, it remains an important force in the Jewish community which the Jewish establishment continues to ignore. While it is certainly as old as the Conservative movement and was at one time just as widespread, it has never conformed to the public relations (we love the Bible) image that the rulers of the Jews have wished to convey in America. 

Given the obvious humanist thrust of Secular Judaism, it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the connection of Humanistic Judaism to Secular Judaism? 

In order to answer the question, let me first describe the origins and principles of the Secular movement. There are six main sources of the Secular ideology. 

The first is the ethnic experience of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews began as a nation and until the French Revolution always conceived of themselves as a nation. Even in the Diaspora their fondest dream was the vision of national restoration in the land of Israel. Reinforced by distinct languages, unique work and religious segregation, the Jewish national experience persisted until modern times. While in Western Europe small numbers, linguistic assimilation, integration and formal citizenship persuaded many Jews to define themselves safely as only a religious group. In Eastern Europe the congestion of Jews in the settlements of Poland and Lithuania, where the economy was underdeveloped and the antisemitism was overt, the national experience persisted with great strength. In that environment atheistic Jews never doubted that they were Jewish. Nor did their Orthodox relatives ever question their Jewish identity. 

The second source of Secularism was the ethnic power of the Yiddish language. Before the French Revolution, Yiddish was the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from Riga to Trieste, Yiddish was the linguistic bond that tied together most of the Jews of Europe. It was the most distinctive sign of their unique nationality and separation. In the nineteenth century, the new strength of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism with their strong anti-semitic edges made Yiddish the vehicle for Jewish self-assertion. The folk language despised by the rabbis was elevated into the vehicle for a new popular culture. Novels, drama and even science found their home in Yiddish. Eastern European Jews who despised the yoke of traditional Judaism could drop every traditional ritual and remain intensely Jewish by doing their secular things in Yiddish. To The commonsensical observer the Yiddish speaking atheist from Warsaw was far more Jewish than the god-loving Reform Jew from Berlin.  

The third source of secular Judaism was the Enlightenment. The fashion of science and reason which began in Western Europe and spread eastward profoundly affected the Jewish communities. Jews and rationalists shared a common enemy- the Christian establishment. The clerical power had to fall before the Jews would be free to participate in a scientific capitalistic culture. In general circles, the Enlightenment fostered secularism, a belief that a modern state did not need the assistance of supernatural powers or the clergy in order to serve its citizens. In Jewish circles the Enlightenment became the Haskalah, a movement which promoted scientific attitudes, secular studies, professional advancement and hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate. Secular Jews came to believe that organized religion, with its anti-scientific bias, was the enemy of human advancement and Jewish progress. 

The fourth source of Jewish Secularism was the message of Marxism. While the successful Jewish bourgeoisie of Western Europe were embarrassed by the revolutionary ideology of Karl Marx, many Jews in Eastern Europe, angered by poverty, antisemitism, underemployment of their intellectual skills and the passivity of their rabbinic leaders turned to Marxism. Regarding religion as the tool of the bourgeois establishment to justify the oppression of the working class, Jewish Marxists were militantly atheistic. Ironically, however, their provocative Yom Kippur eve dances and feasts, with their rich Yiddish intellectual debates, seemed more Jewish than the decorous Protestant style religious services of classical Reform. 

The fifth source of Secular Judaism was antisemitism itself. Although Marx proclaimed the international solidarity of the working class and implied that a Jewish proletarian was closer to a Russian worker than to his obvious Jewish relatives who ran businesses and spoke Yiddish, Jews found that Russian workers were as antisemitic as the Russian bourgeoisie. Stunned by this rejection but unwilling to abandon Marxism, thousands of Russian Jews reluctantly discovered that they were only comfortable doing their Marxism with other Jews. 

The last source of Jewish Secularism was Zionism. Responding to the emergence of the new antisemitism in Eastern and Western Europe, Zionism sought to solve the Jewish problem by making the Jews normal again, by turning them back into a territorial nation. The new antisemitism did not despise Jews because of their religion. It despised Jews because they were viewed as economic parasites and rootless intellectuals. Many Jewish secularists were drawn to Zionism because they were the victims of antisemitism also, and because they saw Palestine as a place where Jews could become a ‘normal’ nation rooted and close to the land. 

They did not wish to restore the old Israel. They wanted to create the new Israel, which would be a shining socialist beacon to the world. Most of the founders of the agricultural settlements in Palestine were fanatic secularists who wanted nothing at all to do with organized religion, but who wanted to express their Jewishness through Hebrew culture and Jewish nationality. 

Many of the immigrants who came to America after the Russian pogroms were not Orthodox (as their grandchildren often imagine). They were secular intellectuals, secular radicals and secular Zionists. They became the most creative element in American Yiddih culture. From the Jewish Daily Forward to the Second Avenue theaters they spawned a cultural life that required neither synagogues nor rabbis to make it Jewish. In fact, the passive traditional community fed off the enthusiasm they engendered. Secular achievement, much more than the Torah lifestyle, produced New York Judaism, the power of which radiated all over the world. The American Jewish Secular experience was reinforced by the vitality of Jewish Secular life in Poland, Russia and Palestine. The ideas of Ahad Haam, Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhetlovsky, Ber Borochov, Sholom Aleichem and dozens of others became the prestigious voice of this aggressive movement. Divided on a thousand issues, it was still able to challenge the traditional forces with a dynamic Jewish alternative. 

The principles of this challenge were never clearly articulated as a consistent shared ideology. But they were always implied in Secular behavior. 

Here they are. 

  1. The Jews are not a religious community. They are a nation. 
  1. The chief manifestation of Jewish nationality is a unique language. Left-wing Marxists claimed that it was Yiddish and Yiddish alone. Zionists (because they did not wish to exclude Oriental Jews and because they wished to affirm their connection with the ancient Jewish past) claimed that it was Yiddish temporarily but Hebrew ultimately. 
  1. Religion, which is the worship of God with all its attendant traditional rituals, is superstitious and harmful. Synagogues and rabbis keep Jews from devoting their energies to practical matters. 
  1. The Jewish tradition consists of both theology and ethics. While the theology is useless, many of the ethical values are still valid. They arise out of the Jewish experience. Although values like peace and justice are universal, Jews can best understand them by relating them to their own historic experience. 
  1. Jewish holidays did not start out as commands of God. They started out as nature festivals and community celebrations which were intended to bind the Jewish people together and to give them a sense of unity. They are not religious holidays. They are folk festivals. They can easily be reinterpreted to emphasize the importance of the Jewish people as opposed to the importance of God. 
  1. The Jewish people should be preserved and Jewish identity should be promoted because cultural diversity is better than world uniformity. 

These six principles are ideas which Humanistic Jews would be comfortable with-with a few reservations. 

Here are the reservations. 

  1. The Jews are indeed an international recognition. With the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the drive of secular Jews to achieve this recognition was subverted. What remained was a regretful nostalgia for a world that no longer existed. Neither proletarian solidarity nor Yiddish sentimentalism are appropriate to the affluent Jewish bourgeoisie who are part of the managerial class. 
  1. Yiddish has died and Hebrew is the language of only one-fifth of the Jewish people. English is spoken by more Jews than any other language. While language is still an important sign of Jewish identity, it cannot be the most important sign. The celebration of national holidays and cooperation for mutual defense now replace them. 
  1. Religion is not essentially the worship of God. It is the way (as the Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out) tribes and nations celebrate their immortality. The Jewish community transcends the life of any individual Jew and gives him continuity. A secular religion is not a contradiction in terms. It is (as the French humanist August Comte implied) simply describing in natural terms what tradition described in supernatural terms (by turning the community and its ancestors into God). 
  1. Jewish ethics require Jewish teachers. Secular Jews always relied on Yiddish linguists, renegade scholars and practical leaders to serve the teaching function Since they associated rabbis with religion, they could never conceive of a secular rabbi. This limitation has left them without professional leadership. The old informal ethical leadership has disappeared. And no real provision was made for the training of secular professionals who would serve as ethical guides, cultural scholars, creators of new materials, philosophical counselors and community leaders. Secular Judaism has to rely on inadequately trained leadership, which receives neither (sic) recognition from its own community, the Jewish community or the general public.  They need secular rabbis. 
  1. Since the Marxist debacle, secular Jews have lost their sense of being more than Jews, of belonging to a larger human community. Humanism is the religious celebration of the unity of the world community. Jewish holidays are necessary. But they are not enough. Secular Judaism has become parochial. It has lost the transcendent and universal thrust that the old May Day celebration had. As bourgeois and managerials Jews, Secular Jews have not yet figured out how to integrate their Jewishness with their humanistic loyalties. 
  1. Cultural diversity is important. But in the ‘global village’ national cultures tend to become less different and to conform to an emerging world culture of shared technology. Strident affirmations of national difference are less realistic than viewing national culture as an aesthetic option in certain areas of our lives. Otherwise our behavior will never fit our propaganda. 

Despite these reservations, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Judaism share unities that are far stronger than differences. 

We have every reason to cooperate and to help each other. 

The Future of Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 27, No 3, Summer 1999

Netanyahu is out. Barak is in. What does it all mean? 

The Jewish state is fifty-one years old. For the first thirty years of its history it was governed by the socialism Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state. Members of this establishment dominated the government, the media, the army, the state industries, the labor unions, and the arts. They defined what it meant to be Israeli. The 1967 war brought them to the height of their power.  

In 1977 renegade Ashkenazim, led by Menahem Begin, came to power. They emerged from the same secular Eastern Europe background, but they repudiated socialism and embraced an expansionist nationalism. Their victory was made possible by cultivating the outsiders who hated the establishment: Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, who were growing in number, and Sephardim, who by then constituted one-half of the Israeli population. The irony of the new government was that it was essentially a Sephardic protest movement led by secular Ashkenazim. 

The “protest” government stayed in power by cultivating every new group that hated or resented the old establishment. Almost one million resentful Russian immigrants were available for the picking. But the intifada, the Arab rebellion, undermined the credibility of the Likud, the party of Begin. The Labor establishment returned to power by promising peace. When the assassination of Rabin made the colorless Peres prime minister, the establishment lost again. The “protesters” returned under a new charismatic upstart leader, Bibi Netanyahu. 

The Netanyahu government was united by one compelling bond: hatred of the Labor establishment. This establishment had long since abandoned socialism and had become the heart of the wealthy bourgeois and professional class. Netanyahu cultivated this hatred, bringing together in one cabinet many parties with incompatible agendas and mutual hostilities. Secular Russians and the Sephardic Orthodoxy both hated Labor, but they also disliked each other. Netanyahu remained the Ashkenazic kingpin of a largely non-Ashkenazic constituency. 

In the end Netanyahu’s arrogance, sleaziness, and inept opportunism brought down his government. Abandoned by the Russians and die-hard Ashkenazi nationalists, he lost to Barak. The Labor establishment has returned to power, again with the promise of peace. But the Israel it will be governing is vastly different from the Israel it created. 

There is a prevailing misconception that the ascension of Barak to power will tame the Orthodox and will secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But the Barak government of necessity includes both Orthodox and nationalist leaders who are wary of the peace process. The stunning victory of Barak in the race for prime minister was not matched by an equally significant victory in the Knesset. The Labor party, like the Likud, lost votes. Many new, small parties have emerged. The establishment could have governed without the Orthodox and the nationalists only by accepting the support of the Arab parties. But the Jewish public would not make concessions to the Palestinians if there were Palestinians in the government. 

Barak’s problem is that Israel today is divided into six rival communities, none of which has a clear majority. There is the old Labor establishment filled with liberals, peaceniks, and civil rights advocates. Most of the well-known writers and intellectuals belong to this constituency. There is the rival Ashkenazic community of renegade nationalists who established the Likud party. There is the militant union of Ashkenazic Orthodox Israelis who represent the fanatic settlers of the West Bank. There is the Sephardic or Oriental community, now represented increasingly by the Sephardic Orthodox party called Shas, which received wide support in the recent election. There is the Russian community, which has developed its own political parties to defend its own interests. There is the Arab community, twenty percent of the Israeli population, which has created Arab parties to give it representation. The old system of two major parties is gone. Each constituency has its own little party to give voice to its demands and grievances. 

Barak needed to paste together enough constituencies to make his government viable. If he is going to make peace with the Arab world, he needs the support of a large majority. A narrow majority of secularists and Arabs would only trigger violent resistance. As long as the peace issue is the dominant one, the conflict between the religious and the secularists will have to wait for resolution. The secular establishment is no longer large enough to have its way. 

Peace will not be easy to achieve. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are now in favor of territorial concessions, most of them do not want to concede very much. The current Palestinian entity in the West Bank consists of eight urban “doughut holes” surrounded by the Israeli army and militant settlers. Giving the whole West Bank to the emerging Palestinian state is unacceptable to most of the Israeli electorate. Giving any part of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority is even more unacceptable. Making a deal with Syria is now popular. But abandoning the Lebanon enclave is less popular, and giving up the Golan Heights even less so. Without the surrender of the Golan Heights no peace with Syria is possible. The maximum concessions the Israelis are willing to make do not even touch the minimum demands of the Palestinians and other Arabs. 

There is no doubt that the recent election mobilized secular Jews with a greater passion than ever before. The hatred of Orthodox intrusion and coercion, aggravated by the continuous provocations, is very intense. While the Meretz party, the old secular voice, grew stronger, a new, more militant secular party called Shinui burst on the scene with six Knesset seats. Shinui, led by a famous and controversial antireligious television personality, is a sign that the formerly passive secular constituency is now prepared to resist. But a combined sixteen votes in the Knesset is less than what the Sephardic Orthodox have. Barak is confronted by a country that is on the whole ambivalent on the religious issue. Most Israelis hate the greedy fundamentalists, but they are not comfortable with secular militancy either. Even the Reform and Conservative movements, which are ironically viewed as secular in Israel, have not won wide support among the Israeli public. They tend to be seen as North American imports. 

The setting for all these controversies is the Israeli economic recovery. Market capitalism is triumphant. State enterprises are being privatized. The welfare state is shrinking. The American-style consumer culture has replaced socialist asceticism. The old textile industries are closing in the face of world competition. The new high-tech industries are thriving, laying a good foundation for Israel’s economic future. Israeli aggressiveness is enhanced by the new competitive environment and the rise in personal expectations. Israel has been normalized as a successful first-world country with an American edge. While poverty and unemployment linger among the Sephardim, the Ashkenazic establishment has enough money to plant trees in America. 

The future of Israel is considerably different from the vision of the secular kibbutzim. It has an ambiguous character. Israel is a Hebrew state with a large Arab minority. It is a Western nation with a large Eastern population. It is a secularized people with strong nostalgia for tradition. It is a consumer culture filled with fundamentalist protestors, symbolized by Planet Hollywood on the one hand and yeshivot on the other. Barak has to manage this ambiguity, not some theoretical body of liberal democrats. 

Humanistic Jews should be heartened by the Barak victory. The peace initiative will be resumed. The Orthodox will be restrained. Secularism is taking on a life of its own. But our expectations should be tempered by reality. There is no simple Israeli agenda. There are six of them, all of them mutually incompatible. 

Israel: How It Has Changed

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 26, No 3, Summer 1998

Israel is fifty years old. In some respects it is the same state as in 1948. In many respects it is very different. 

There is an ethnic difference. Zionism was created by Ashkenazic Jews to solve the problem of European anti-Semitism. The first Zionist immigrants were Russian Jews. Until 1949 the new arrivals were overwhelmingly European. Like most European Ashkenazim, they had experienced the capitalist revolution and its secular aftermath. In 1949 new immigrants from the Eastern world began to arrive, the beginning of a large wave of Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world. They were the substitutes for the Russian Jews who could not come and the American Jews who would not come. Since they were dark and racially distinct from Ashkenazic Jews, they faced racial bigotry on the part of their European brothers and sisters. The pioneers and the new immigrants did not mix. Contempt and resentment kept them separate. In time the barriers broke down. Intermarriage grew. A blending of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews began. Today that blending is turning into a new Jewish ethnicity. A unique Israeli gene pool is emerging. In time Ashkenazim and Sephardim will be absorbed into this new creation. Within fifty years most Israelis will be darker than Europeans and lighter than Iraqis and Moroccans. 

How else is Israel different? There is the economic difference. The Zionist pioneers who claimed the land and built the cities were overwhelmingly socialists. Some were romantic socialists, and some were Marxist socialists, but they were strong believers in collectivist economies. The kibbutz is a popular example of their creativity and success. At the beginning socialism worked. There were no grand capitalist investors. The labor unions had to develop their own industries, representing both management and workers. In time these industries became public, state-subsidized enterprises. 

But economic reality intervened. Socialism cannot produce a dynamic economy. The United States and Western Europe were setting the pace. The strengthening of the American alliance sealed the fate of socialist Israel. The Labor Party, the leftist party of the Ashkenazic pioneers, abandoned its socialist program and opened the economy to capitalist development. When the opposition Likud came to power in 1977, the capitalist culture arrived. Money and pleasure became Israeli goals, and the dichotomy between winners and losers sharpened. In time, even the welfare system was assaulted. Ironically, the chief beneficiaries of the new economy are the Ashkenazic elite, the supporters of the Labor party and the Russian immigrants who have tuned into high technology. The chief losers are the underskilled Sephardim, who are supporters of the Likud. Their patriotic agenda and their economic agenda do not coincide. Today, Israel is a first-world economic power with a big foot in the burgeoning high-tech industries. The agricultural sector is shrinking. The kibbutzim are turning into private corporations, which are becoming an intrinsic part of the Israeli way of life. 

How else is Israel different? There is a religious difference. The Zionist founders were overwhelmingly secular. They saw religion as a reactionary force inhibiting the progressive development of Jewish nationalism. The hostility to Zionism in most of the Orthodox world reinforced the Zionist disdain of religion. Zionists saw Hebrew nationalism as a vital alternative to religious identity. The first leaders of the Jewish state openly flouted Orthodox law and avoided yarmulkes as though they were the Arab enemy. The Six Day War changed everything. The victory won the allegiance of many Orthodox Jews, especially because the Israeli army had conquered the West Bank. This territory contained most of the holy sites of traditional Judaism, the most important of which was East Jerusalem. In time Orthodox immigration increased. The Lubavitcher rebbe publicly supported the Jewish state. A vast array of new yeshivas arose. Orthodox settlers organized new settlements in the West Bank. Aggressive missionary activity recruited thousands of Sephardim to fundamentalism and religious militancy. An alliance of convenience between Likud and Orthodoxy in the Knesset produced state subsidies for the yeshiva world and state support for religious intrusion. Yarmulkes were “in.” The state schools and the army were opened to Orthdodox indoctrination. 

The secular resistance to this development was paralyzed by smugness and the continuing diversion of war with the Arabs. A new majority was arising in Israel, an odd combination of ambivalent secularists, aggressive Orthodox, disgruntled Russian Jews, and angry Sephardim. Whatever religious opposition to Orthodoxy existed was ineffective. Reform and Conservative were dismissed as American imports. The only new grassroots religious development, the spirituality movement with its Judaism connection, had no political agenda. The Orthodox sector, reinforced by a mind-boggling birth rate, grows stronger and more demanding. Even if Netanyahu should fall from power, any subsequent government, even a Labor one, would have to make peace with the Orthodox. More and more of the Israeli urban environment and more and more of Israeli life is being religionized. Secular Jews are on the defensive. 

How else is Israel different? There is a military difference. The Israeli army is not what it used to be. Its former strength lay in pioneer idealism and a bold officer corps. This elite officer corps was drawn from the kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements. This source of leadership is now fading away. The present army rests on pampered recruits from the urban consumer culture.Their idealism and openness to sacrifice are no greater than those of their counterparts in America and Western Europe. Today, thousands of soldiers are Orthodox. The kippa has become a familiar part of military dress. The political agenda of Orthodox recruits is different from that of the old officer corps. The unity of the army is compromised by religious fanaticism. The Orthodox assassin of Rabin was a patriotic soldier. One of the reasons that the collapse of the peace process is dangerous is that the Israeli army is not prepared for another major war. 

What are the implications of all those changes for Israel’s future? 

If war does not come, Israel will emerge as a significant economic power. The sector of the economy that is high-tech will flourish, fueled by Israeli brainpower. There will be a continuing internal war between the secular and the religious. Many secularists will abandon Jerusalem for more secular Tel Aviv and Haifa. Political considerations will make it difficult for secularists to expel Orthodox influence from the centers of power. The new blending of Western and Eastern Jews will be less hostile to Orthodox intrusion than the old Ashkenazic establishment. Reform and Conservatism will remain on the periphery. New Age spirituality will flourish. 

Given the new majority, a true peace with the Arab world is unlikely. Israel will remain isolated in its region. It will function as a European island in a Muslim sea, defended by its continuing alliance with the United States and with enemies of the Arab world, such as Turkey and India. The next fifty years will be both similar to and very different from the first and fifty years. 

Perspective: Zionism – Peoplehood, Not Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Summer, Volume 10, No. 2, 1982

There are many Jewish roots of Jewish humanism.

As a non-establishment Jewish tradition, humanism has been embraced by many Jews throughout Jewish history. But not until the age of science and the secular state did Jewish humanists feel free to announce themselves publicly. In the last two centuries, humanism has become an open viable alternative in Jewish life.

The most successful movement of the twentieth century was a humanistic one. We call it the Zionist Movement.

In the narrow sense, Zionism is about the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the return of the Jews to Hebrew speaking Israel. But, in the broader sense, Zionism is a new way of affirming Jewish existence in the Diaspora as well.

Against the Reformers who claimed that the Jews were only a religious denomination, against the Orthodox who maintained that Jewish identity was inseparable from piety, The Zionist pioneers proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Jews were a secular people- a nation without territory, but nevertheless a nation.

Zionism is the boldest attempt in modern times to take the definition of Jewishness away from the religious establishment and to create a new sense of Jewish self-awareness. The socialist Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe was less successful and was ultimately destroyed in the trauma of the Holocaust.

There are two kinds of Zionism. The first is ‘theoretical’ Zionism. It found no value in the Diaspora and hoped for its disappearance. The second is ‘pragmatic’ Zionism. It’s drove for the Jewish state. But it accepted the reality that most Jews, even though they valued the Israel connection, would choose to live outside of Israel. For the pragmatist of the test of Zionism is not merely aliyah but also the affirmation of Jewish nationhood and Jewish peoplehood.

A people is a disbursed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, Families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of the unique language or culture. Most nations have a territorial base which they call their homeland. Most independent states are attached to a nation. But some states, like Belgium, Canada and the Soviet Union, are collections of nations. And others, like the United States, feature ethnic loyalties in addition to the dominant Anglosaxon culture.

For a long while we Jews had no independent territorial homeland. We had no secular rulers. We gave a little attention to secular culture. The Zionist pioneers created the revolution that altered this reality. They gave us an independent territorial homeland. They trained secular rulers. They produced a secular Hebrew culture.

In order to understand that our humanistic Jewish roots we have to understand the history of Zionism, its problems, it’s achievements in its failures.

NATIONALISM

We Jews have always experienced ourselves as a nation. The authors of the Bible in the Talmud saw us that way.Our friends and enemies never doubted our ethnicity. Even our religious leaders taught us to pray for a national restoration. No force in Jewish or Gentile life before the emergence of the reform movement ever viewed the Jews as merely a religious phenomenon.

Jewish nationhood was continuous. Even when our ancestors departed the land of his real, they did not lose their sense of national identity. Their dispersed communities were ethnic enclaves. Their religious leaders were also national leaders.

Modern Zionism was the expression of the liberation and renewal of the Ashkenazic Jewish nation in Central and Eastern Europe. This Yiddish speaking people lived with Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. They shared governments with their neighbors. But they saw themselves as distinct and separate.

In the nineteenth century, in the age of the Enlightenment and secular Emancipation, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe substituted territorial nationalism for religion as their reigning passion. The Germans, Hungarians and Russians unified their peoples. The Romanians liberated part of their nation. And the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians strove to expel foreign oppressors.

The Jews were also cut up in this nationalistic fervor. But they suffered a major deficiency. All the territory they inhabited was claimed by other nations. And their smaller numbers and dispersion prevented them from claiming their share of land. Had Ashkenazic Jewry been able to establish an independent European territorial center, the Zionist Movement, as we know it, would never have emerged.

But Jewish nationalism was assaulted by many hostile forces. Racial antisemitism was the worst. Unlike religious hatred it’s focused on the ethnicity of the Jew. Birth, not belief, became the criterion for identifying the enemy. The Jews became ethnic intruders who were threatening the racial integrity of their host nation by their mere presence. Antisemitism became a convenient nationalistic tool for mobilizing the masses to display the patriotic fervor.

When Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State in 1986, a territorial haven for Jews, Away from Europe, had become a necessity. Palestine was the obvious alternative.

The land needed to be found. The state needed to be created. But the nation, the Jewish nation, already existed.

ROMANTICISM

Modern humanism divided early into two camps. In the first camp were the Rationalists. They valued human reason and envisioned a new social order dominated by science, emotional moderation and cosmopolitan taste. Voltaire, Paine and Comte were their heroes. In the second camp were the Romantics. They valued human will and imagined a New World of personal freedom and passionate autonomy in which creativity would replace tradition as the guide to living. Goethe and Nietzsche were their heroes.

Both Rationalists and Romantics were opposed to the old religious order. But they disliked it for different reasons. For the Rationalists it was superstitious. For the Romantics it was authoritarian.

Jewish humanists who were disciples of the Enlightenment and who emphasized the rational and the universal found both religion and nationalism boring. But Jewish humanists who admired Nietzche and his boldness of spirit found nationalism romantic. The task of rescuing oppressed people, taking charge of one’s own destiny against overwhelming odds, and creating a new state was an appealing arrogance and an exciting act of will. Micah Berdichevski, One of the first Zionist writers, articulated this mood when he proposed to reject the passivity of Diaspora history.

Romantic humanism, much more than its Rationalist counterpart, was the parent of the Zionist spirit. Zionism, as Ben Gurion pointed out, was a ‘revolution’ in Jewish attitude and Jewish emotion. It was the  herald of the ‘new Jew’ who abandoned passive piety for boldness, daring and courage and who also rejected rational arguments for caution and practicality. As Herzl implied, “If we want something hard enough, it will be no dream.”

Peoplehood and romanticism have been part of the Jewish experience for a long time. Zionism dramatized them.

PROBLEMS

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise Zionists disagreed one with the other. These arguments reflected the difficulty of translating the ideal of romantic peoplehood into a practical project.

If Palestine is not available as a Jewish homeland, will Uganda do? After all, the task is one of rescuing the nation, not a particular piece of sacred territory.

Does the territorial Jewish nation need to be independent? Would a secular Jewish cultural center be more feasible and less cumbersome?

What shall be the language of the Jewish state? Yiddish is the living language of the living people. Hebrew is shared by the Sephardim. But it is only the language of scholars.

What shall be the economic structure of the new state? Is capitalism compatible with humanism?

Can religion be separated from Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationhood? Is a secular state possible for Jews?

How shall Jews defend themselves against their Arab enemies? Is the development of military virtue consistent with humanistic ideals?

Do the Arabs of Palestine have a right to be a nation in their own land? Is a binational state desirable and possible in Israel?

Should a Jewish state be morally superior to other states, and ethical example to other nations? Or are the Jews entitled to normality?

The conflicting answers to these questions continue to divide the secular Zionist world. And the ultimate acceptance of the Zionist enterprise by religious and Orthodox elements has added even more controversy to the debate.

In the midst of these continuing arguments Zionism has scored some incredible success. It has reconstituted 3 million Jews as a territorial nation. It has established an independent Jewish state capable of defending its own survival. It has revived a ‘dead’ scholarly language and made Hebrew the language of the Israeli masses. It has experimented in new forms of social experimentation and has produced the only free socialist communes in the world. It has brought together the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish people into a single national effort. It has made Israel the center of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the most compelling Jewish concern of the Jewish world.

But, from the humanistic point of view, it has failed in other areas. It has failed to create a secular Jewish state where religious and non-religious liberty is guaranteed.It has failed to Grant equal rights and equal privileges to the Arabs who reside within its borders. It has failed to provide peace and security for the Jews who chose to be Israelis. Above all, it has failed to define a successful relationship of equality with the Diaspora. Although Israel is the only territorial state in the world created by its own Diaspora, and although its significance derived from its connection with world Jewry, secular Israelis still regard Diaspora life as an inferior Jewish existence.

SIGNIFICANCE

As one of the important roots of a viable Jewish humanism and in the face of all its problems, successes and failures- what is the significance of zionism to a humanistic outlook?

Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture.

Zionism is the most dramatic manifestation of the humanist revolution in Jewish life- the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate- and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs.

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people and is the unifying focus of the Diaspora.

Humanistic Judaism and a pragmatic Zionism go hand-in-hand. Jewish humanists can help to keep Zionism secular. Zionism can help to keep a humanistic Judaism Jewish.

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.