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Jews and Arabs

Crisis in Israel – Autumn 2002

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?

The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers an­nounced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thou­sands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any success­ful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jew­ish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national lib­eration movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by return­ing the Jews to their ancient homeland. Rein­forced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists estab­lished a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British govern­ment, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by West­ernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that trans­formed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing be­tween Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Reli­gion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power of tran­scending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deserv­edly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their ha­tred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and pri­vate encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Pales­tinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, Arab hos­tility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.

There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nation­alist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestin­ian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Is­rael has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.

The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and sus­picion as of the incompatibility of vested in­terests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No ar­rangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Pal­estinians and Arabs want.

In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.

  • This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants as­sault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
  •  This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
  •  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotia­tions alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires re­taliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tac­tic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
  •  The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
  •  Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the east­ern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desir­able than a divided city. But the division al­ready exists.
  •  A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mu­tual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nation­alism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without de­stroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
  • Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effec­tive coalition of world powers, including Eu­rope, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.

What would be the elements of such an intervention?

  1.  America controls the process of interven­tion. The Israelis do not trust the United Na­tions and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
  2.  America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dic­tates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can jus­tify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
  3.  The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settle­ments from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspec­tions by Americans and their coalition part­ners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
  4.  Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
  5.  All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a re­duction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
  6.  Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the Euro­pean market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the Euro­pean Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.

After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Mus­lim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.

The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the De­fense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.

Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.

Being a Secular Humanistic Jew in the Diaspora

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

The word diaspora has a problem built into it. It implies that the Jewish people is a people whose extension flows out from the land of Israel, and in many respects historically that was true. But the reality of Jewish history in the twentieth century was not the way it is with most diasporas. Normally the homeland creates the diaspora. In this case the Diaspora created the homeland.

Israel often reminds me of America. In America we are always asking people where they come from. In Italy, people don’t go around saying, “Where do you come from?” But in Israel, people have their roots in the Diaspora, and that is an interesting sociological and historical development. So I start out with a very important premise: that we are a world people. If we don’t start out with that premise, then the communities in the Diaspora have a very inferior reality, and if we accept that self-image, we cannot grow, we cannot be what we want to be.

The French Revolution is one of those dramatic events that changed the nature of the Jewish people. The Jewish people started out as a nation in our own land, a territorial nation. And even when we were dispersed, we still viewed ourselves as one nation, though in reality we had become several. The Jews of Eastern Europe were not Polish or Russian; they belonged to the Ashkenazic Jewish nation. It had a language all its own called Yiddish. It was dispersed over a discrete territory. There were certain towns and villages and shtetls that were completely Yiddish-speaking. That language and culture, which developed in Eastern Europe, is very different from the culture that developed in Spain, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Arabic world, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Persian world. Each was built around a Jewish language. The language written in Hebrew letters in Israel is a testimony to what happens when all these people come together.

So, although in our consciousness we were one nation, in our experience there was diversity. And then came the French Revolution. Up until that time, we were aliens. But the French Revolution (and to some extent the American Revolution that preceded it) changed the situation of the Jew. Until then, Jews were a civilization that embraced several subnations: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Judeo-Arabs, Judeo-Persians, and so on. All of a sudden Jews had to confront a new situation. Somebody said to them, we welcome you into a secular state. Secularism altered the character of the Jewish people. Religion and culture became private matters. There are certain things that you as a citizen of the state must conform to, but your roots, your culture, and your religion are private matters.

And so, the overwhelming majority of Jews in Western Europe ceased to be a nation. The sign of losing their nationhood was that they gave up their language. Now, in North America, Jews are overwhelmingly secularized. Both Conservative and Reform Judaism are attempts to find some comfort in arbitrating between the nostalgia of Orthodoxy and the secularization of the Enlightenment.

One of the realities of life in the Diaspora is that Jewish identity is not always the primary concern of Jews. They are involved in the political, social, and economic life of their countries. In our country, in the United States of America, most people are in a sense the children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gave us reason, it gave us secularism, it gave us a loss of interest in the supernatural (though that is reviving to some extent on a personal level), and it gave us individualism. In fact, individualism, which is so pervasive in North American life, constitutes to a large degree one of the problems we have to deal with. The other is an intermarriage rate of more than 40 percent. That means that in two generations, people who identify with Judaism — and there is a fairly high rate of retention among intermarried couples — will not have the same kinds of ethnic memories (borscht and blintzes) that many of us grew up with. We’re already encountering that problem. So we’re struggling with effective ways to express our Jewish identity. Let me mention a couple of ways in which people do it.

First, people display an increasing identification with the culture of the State of Israel. That is a perfectly appropriate thing to do; the problem is that it is a vicarious experience. When the French Revolution came, the Jewish people responded in four alternative ways. One was to reject it, and that ultimately produced the foundation of ultra-Orthodoxy. One was to say, “We’re not a nation; we’re only a religious denomination.” That was Reform. But that approach ran into a problem: most Jews are secularized, so to say that God is the central idea of the Jewish experience for Reform Jews when most Reform Jews hardly talk about God obviously is foolish. The third response with which many Jews identified was socialism, and, of course, that came tumbling down. The fourth was Zionism. Part of the problem with Zionism for the Diaspora is that Zionism does not really allow for the Diaspora. The great wish of those who are committed to the Zionist movement is that ultimately all Jews who live in the Diaspora will come to the land of Israel. That relationship, therefore, creates a certain inequality. Nevertheless, one of the ways to express a secular Jewish identity — and it is very appropriate — is to increase identification with the culture of the State of Israel.

A second way is what I call “residual ritual.” You do Hanukka, you do Purim, you do Pesakh, you may do Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur. You do a series of holidays, and people feel very Jewish around the holidays, but the holidays aren’t attached to anything. They hang in limbo. And after a while, there are so many holidays coming from elsewhere in the environment that they simply fade into other holidays.

If we are going to preserve Jewish identity in the Diaspora, if we are going to remain effectively a world people, then we have to find something very intense that we can identify with. We are not, if we are Secular Humanistic Jews, ritualistic. We can create celebrations, but celebration has to be attached to something stronger and more profound.

It has been said that it is impossible to relate Jewish history without religion. Part of the problem — and certainly Zionism has added to that problem because of its great attachment to the Tanakh — is that we cannot distinguish between the story of the Jewish experience and the Jewish experience. The events that occurred from the beginning of our people’s history until now constitute the Jewish experience, and it can be empirically discovered. But the first place we normally go to find out about it is to people who had a vested interest in looking at that experience; and they wrote about it from the point of view that without the cooperation and intervention of God, nothing would have happened.

I believe that the only way we can create any kind of intense commitment or intense feeling about being Jewish in the Diaspora is for people to feel they are part of an exciting world people. In fact, the reason Jews are interesting is that we are a world people. We are an interesting world people with an interesting history, and if you are going to be a Secular Humanistic Jew, you need to master the alternative history. You have to master the history of the Jewish people and of the Jewish experience from a secular humanistic point of view. Then you can tack holidays onto that if you want to.

I deliberately use the words “tack on” because people often ask me how do I do Hanukka, how do I do Pesakh, and it is not attached to anything substantial. With Orthodoxy, it is attached to a faith, and then it is an expression of that faith. For us, if it only floats with how we invent this little ceremony or that little ceremony, it won’t last. I feel very intensely Jewish because I identify with the world Jewish experience, and I try to transmit that intensity to other people. When I celebrate a holiday, it is because it expresses some aspect of that Jewish experience.

In order for Jewish identity to last, people have to feel that being Jewish is significant, and the only way they can feel that being Jewish is significant is if they feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant. And the only way they can feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant is to feel identified with Jewish history and informed of that history.

But the official history we now have is absolutely inadequate, and using the documents that are the foundation of that history is inadequate. One of the reasons why Reform Judaism has a hard time fighting Orthodoxy in North America is that the sacred documents of Reform are the same as the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. And since the documents are closer to the ideology of Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy always wins out because Reform Jews are always apologizing, explaining why they don’t do this and why they don’t believe that. They are always in a negative position.

If we told the alternative story of the Jewish experience, if we created it so it doesn’t appear only in scholarly journals, somebody who was a teacher in a school in the Diaspora or even in Israel could pick it up, and there would be the story told from the other point of view. Our story would say that being a world people is significant. If Judaism is identified only with the state of Israel and its concerns and culture, then there is no reason to make a distinction between Judaism and Israelism. Judaism means that the people of the State of Israel who are Jews wish to identify with the civilization that embraces this world people.

Our alternative history would pay tribute to all the people the old history doesn’t. I was raised in a city, on streets with sidewalks, and was told all my life that my heroes were shepherds. For two thousand years we have been an urban, bourgeois people, and we are embarrassed about it; in fact, many of the early writers of the Zionist movement were embarrassed about the bourgeois character of the Jewish people. I do not mind being bourgeois. That’s what I am. My parents were bourgeois, my relatives are bourgeois, and I do not feel that the bourgeoisie are a harmful element in world civilization.

Our problem is our self-hate. We can’t write about our history because the things we did for the past two thousand years are things we are embarrassed about. What we can write about are people milking cows on kibbutzim. Just show a Jew handling soil, and all of a sudden he is real, he’s useful. All the Jews I know, the psychiatrists, the accountants, everybody, they are not real. They’re not part of Jewish history. If we wrote that alternative history, we wouldn’t be trapped by the literature of the past. As secular Jews in the Diaspora, we live (as Mordecai Kaplan said) in two civilizations. We have the American civilization and we have the Jewish civilization. My heroes consist of two sets of people. The only way we will ever give Jews in the Diaspora a sense of strong Jewish identity is if they become masters of Jewish history; but if they become masters of the old history, they will either reject it or they will not want to be secular Jews. So we have to write a new history, and all the heroes of that history are my heroes. Those heroes include Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, and David Ben-Gurion. They include the vast spectrum of people, modern, medieval, or ancient, that are part of this tradition.

Finally, we need to make a connection between humanism and Judaism. There is a universal humanism, and I subscribe to its wisdom, but my humanism is reinforced by my identification with the Jewish experience. The meaning of Jewish history is not that we are in the hands of a loving and just Providence. The meaning of Jewish history is humanism. The meaning of Jewish history, certainly during the past two thousand years, is that we live in a world in which nobody out there gives a damn whether we live or die. The meaning of it is that we have to rely on ourselves. For me, Jewish ethics does not come from somebody coming down on a mountain. I don’t care how many thunderbolts he has — that’s not authority. Ultimately the authority for ethics lies in the Jewish experience. For me, it is inconceivable that we should oppress other peoples given the history of our people, given all that we have suffered and endured.

So, we have to find a way of connecting to Jewish history that’s very intense. We have to be the masters of a second Jewish history, and then we can attach whatever cultural items we want to that. Then we can live in a world that is multilingual and multinational as a world Jewish people. Unless we can achieve that, we in the Diaspora will not survive; if we do, then we will.