Galilee Diary: Jewish Values
[Jeremiah] spoke to King Zedekiah…: Put your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and live! (for this is Israel’s punishment for injustice and idolatry)
– Jeremiah 27:12
…The prophet Hananiah son of Azzur…said: Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I hereby break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (for God will protect and support Israel unconditionally)
– Jeremiah 28:1-2
I recently attended a demonstration of the “Light Tag” coalition, in front of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence. We were about 500, with many familiar faces, especially from the Reform and Conservative movements (though the outstanding speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, Benjamin Lau). “Light Tag” (tag me’ir) is a pun on the name of the phenomenon it opposes: “Price Tag” (tag mechir) – the name given to the recent spate of Jewish hate crimes. It seems that some of the more extreme elements of the settler youth – and supporters and copy-cats from elsewhere – have taken it upon themselves to exact a “price” for the government’s conciliatory (?) moves toward the Palestinians, by torching mosques, vandalizing churches, spitting on priests on the street, violent attacks against random Arabs, puncturing Arabs’ tires, etc., throughout Israel. There have been proposals (by the minister of police) to label these activists as “terrorists,” which would give the police additional tools to deal with them. But such a decision keeps getting put off. It is interesting, as many speakers pointed out at the demonstration, that the security services, who can find and detain every 11-year old Arab kid who ever throws a stone, seem helpless against this current “plague.” It is hard to avoid the feeling that there are leaders in the political and religious spheres – and lots of people on the street – who don’t see these actions as such a big deal, or who even sympathize with them. When popular author Amos Oz recently called the perpetrators “Jewish neo-nazis,” he aroused a public outcry on the left as well as the right.
There are amusing anecdotes from the early years of the state, when Jews expressed pride and gratification at the normalization of the Jewish people: Finally, we had a real state, meaning we had Jewish police and Jewish prisons – and Jewish criminals and Jewish prostitutes – just like everyone else. Alas, the cuteness has worn off, as we see our former president in jail for rape, our former prime minister sentenced to jail for bribery, and a daily dose of reports on hate crimes against non-Jewish religious leaders and institutions (and against liberal Jewish institutions too). Normalization sounded like a good idea, but did we really mean it “all the way?”
Many of us in the liberal wing of Judaism are wont to declare that a Jewish state needs to be a state that exemplifies Jewish values. In this respect we are like the nationalist Orthodox school, who argue that normalization is not our ideal: our destiny is not to be just like everyone else, but to be exceptional, to be a state that implements the values of the Torah in real life. The problem is, of course, that we have not achieved consensus on just what “Jewish values” are, and on who gets to decide. In recent years a number of publications by nationalist Orthodox rabbis have gotten a lot of attention – bringing proof from traditional sources to support discrimination and violence against non-Jews. When we liberals object, they tell us that “the halachah is not pretty,” and that we are distorting Judaism to fit our western liberal values; then we bring our proof-texts to show that their view is a distortion of Judaism. If we didn’t have a Jewish state with an army and a police force, this could be a philosophical discussion, as it was for centuries. We could happily be pluralists and agree to disagree. However, in our time, we cannot escape the challenge of having to implement our values, using real power in a real state. So we cannot really afford to be pluralists about our beliefs in this sphere.
It seems we’re in a culture war, similar to the one in Jeremiah’s day. That time the good guys lost, and we are still mourning the outcome.