“The Disaster that Judaism Won’t Survive” – A Response to Haaretz Op-Ed

May 6, 2015

Tomer Persico is an Israeli intellectual, a popular blogger on religion and spirituality, an advocate for freedom of religion, and a serious observer of Israel’s religious life. When he writes, Israelis take him seriously.

Persico has concluded in a recent Haaretz op-ed (“The Disaster that Judaism Won’t Survive,” April 25  http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.653125) that after the shelving of the vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Israel will not be able to continue being both Jewish and democratic.” He is alarmed that Judaism in Israel is increasingly being equated with autocratic despotism and oppression, and this turn away from both democracy and liberal Judaism to extremism will eventually lead to disaster for the Jewish people and state of Israel:

“When our best friends, the countries with which we like to boast that we share values, increasingly perceive Israel’s Judaism as an antithesis to the state’s democratic character and a threat to the liberal approach and equality of rights to which Israel committed itself in its Declaration of Independence – it appears that we are closer than ever to having the Jewish tradition relegated to the abhorrent status of Communism in the past and of Salafi Islam in the present. We are witnessing Judaism being tarred-and-feathered, and the charges will stick to it more than any anti-Semitic calumny in the past, simply because this time no blood libel will be involved.”

For an increasing number of Israelis, Persico says, Judaism is regarded as inconsistent with democratic values and when asked to choose one over the other, they prefer Judaism over democracy. He worries that when western Diaspora Jews fully understand what has happened in Israel they will separate their practice of Judaism from the state of Israel and turn their backs on Zionism and the Jewish state.

Based on data collected by the Israel Democracy Institute, he reports: “If in 2010, 48.1 percent of Jewish citizens replied that the two elements [Judaism and democracy] are equally important to them, in 2012 this fell to 41.9 percent, and in 2014, it was 24.5 percent. At the same time, the proportion of Israeli Jews for whom the Jewish element is the most important rose to as high as 38.9 percent; 33.5 percent of the respondents opted for democracy as most important.”

Despite these disturbing trends, I believe that Persico’s fears are overheated, exaggerated and misleading. Non-Orthodox liberal Judaism and interest in the study of classic Jewish texts are being embraced by significant numbers of Israelis who seek meaning in Jewish life-cycle and holiday celebration outside of Orthodoxy. These Israelis are western and liberal in outlook and they highly value the life that democratic institutions support. Nevertheless, Persico’s alarming conclusions have to be taken seriously because so many Israelis, fed by the settler movement, extreme right-wing orthodoxy, and the politics of fear, believe today that democracy and Judaism cannot co-exist.

The original sin leading to this polarized view was committed by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who gave a monopoly of control over Jewish religious life to a then very small right-wing orthodox community. Successive Israeli governments have allowed the polarization to continue over the entire 67 years of statehood because of pragmatic coalition politics and the ruling party's need to secure a majority of mandates in the Knesset.

The second sin was committed after Israel conquered the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Days War. Then Israeli right-wing religious nationalists, seeing God’s hand behind the redemption of Judea and Samaria into Israel proper, conflated Judaism with the Greater Israel movement thus morally justifying Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and giving the settlement movement religious and national credibility.

Historically, there has always been tension in Jewish tradition between tribal and universal impulses and values. However, we Jews need not have to choose between being patriotic to the Jewish state or being universal humanitarians concerned about justice for Palestinians and other peoples. We can be both. Each trend ought to be a check against the other’s excesses, and though Persico is right in his worry that the two-state vision has been shelved after the Kerry mission, the two-state solution is still the only concrete assurance that Israel can remain Jewish, democratic, just, peaceful, secure, and part of the family of nations.

It must be said that Judaism as a whole embraces both orthodoxy and liberalism. It’s neither a fair demand that all Jews be either liberal or orthodox. It’s also inaccurate to claim that Judaism can survive only if Jews become right-wing extremist nationalists or live in consonance with the left's worldview as expressed regularly in Haaretz.

What is, I believe, a certain threat to the Zionist enterprise, arguably the greatest single achievement of the Jewish people in two millennia, is the pitting of Israel’s Judaism against democracy and the continuing monopoly over Jewish life by the ultra-Orthodox political parties and rabbis.

The only way to buttress democracy in Israel is first and foremost to support the two-state solution, and at the same time encourage all efforts to separate church from state because that will also support the health and vitality of Judaism and Jewish life.

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