12 July 2011

For the Sake of Heaven

E.M. Lilien
It ought to be clear to objective observers that Israel's "Boycott Law" is a mind-boggling embarrassment to organized Jewry's proud tradition of argument and dissent in matters both sacred and secular for the past three thousand years.

From teaching children a basic principle in Hebrew school that the Sages cherish disagreement for the Sake of Heaven; to welcoming converts to Judaism who are transformed by the religious notion that Asking Questions is an essential precept of faith in relationship to God history, we proudly embrace this idea of Sacred Dissent.  Is there a greater exemplar of this than the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who famously challenges God over the potential for loss of innocent life at Sodom and Gomorrah, "shall the Judge of all the Earth not rule with Justice?"  Not only do we Jews argue, we argue with God!

In the modern era, the early Zionist movement was an expression of Jewish democracy in action, spanning Jews from across Europe coming together in unity to come home, giving voice in the parliamentary political system they established to the voices across Jewish life--from the fundamentally religious to the radically secular, while also proudly extolling the equal rights of Israel's Arab citizens as well. 

These are the pillars of a certain narrative that present circumstances may be rapidly eroding.  While it's clear that this supposed objective reality gives way to a more realistic portrayal of a Jewish life and civilization--unified at times during threats to our very existence but more often than not, expressing a tenuous hold on notions of internal Jewish unity at a time of great crisis:  the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

A lack of Jewish communal unity on this very question has created the kinds of corrosive divisions that lead to such outrages like the "Boycott Law" passed by Israel's Knesset or the Jerusalem Mayor, Israeli Finance Minister and leading companies showing up to support a major Haredi economic conference while tacitly supporting the repression of women.  

For sake of argument--since this is an internal Jewish matter--we're going to leave out of this brief any justified claims against Palestinians for their own failures these last decades.  Let them clean up their house while we clean up ours.

Some rabbinic authorities burned Maimonides books; Spinoza was excommunicated; internal Zionist strife led to the assault on the Altalena, probably the most famous example of modern, internal Jewish political strife, until Yigal Amir murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in part, with the rabbinic approval of Rabbi Dov Lior, back in the news these days.

These are the ugly parts of our history--the painful, deeply damaging parts of our history--that we nonetheless face because to be "a light unto the nations" means demonstrating not only the good that God demands of us but by righting the wrongs we do as well.  Making an account of who we are for all to see.  Chosenness, if you will, comes with a price.

I'll be the first to admit the inherent contradiction in my argument; even the infuriating stance of a comfortable Diaspora Jew pronouncing on Israel's direction as a tourist, a visitor abroad.  There is no question it's an issue.  The critical mass of Diaspora Jewry that may have pushed for a more democratic Israel; that would have voted to restrict the Haredization of Israeli religious life; that would have pushed the government on the issue of stopping settlement expansion, has, for the most part, fought from the sidelines and it's undeniable how this annoys or inflames certain Israelis.  In delusional moments of hope, I dream of a mass Aliyah of progressive Diaspora Jews, taking up the justifiable position of every Prime Minister I've ever heard speak:  You want to change Israel?  Move here.

They're not wrong.

And so we in our pain and embarrassment sit here; while there, things seem to be up in smoke.

I'm against the Boycott Movement.  But in the great annoyance of having to engage it in my home neighborhood of precious Park Slope, I justify the engagement by arguing that such a dialogue at least strengthens the democratic fabric and therefore core legitimacy of the Jewish state.  Hopefully, God willing (we need all the strength in this debate about dissent we can get) the Attorney General and Supreme Court will overturn this odious law, so we can get back to arguing for the Sake of Heaven.


Anonymous said...

The boycott law is ridiculous.

But framing the Boycott Movement under a Jewish tradition of asking questions? That's not logical, either. BDS is not about dissent or argument. It is about covering one's ears and completely isolating the other side. Doubt that's what the sages had in mind.


Andy Bachman said...

David--I am not placing the Boycott Movement under Jewish dissent per se but am arguing that punishing dissent is against a core Jewish ethic.

Anonymous said...


I misunderstood.

You know more about this stuff than I do.

Either way, the law is needless and undemocratic.


Irene@jerusalem4All.info said...

thanks for the info on the economic conference , a few years back when I was in the process of going deeper into the practices of my people I dared to imagine that religious fundamentalism was not a part of my people's practices.. in truth even though I did make aliyah I was never a regular zionist for zionism as in ideology is inherently contradictory as is now becoming increasingly obvious...there is a profound difference between more Jews living in our ancient homeland and sharing the land with our neighbors and learning from them as Rav Fruman does and a Jewish state.. in my view as you know the only viable path forward is Jerusalem4ALL

Dan O. said...

"In delusional moments of hope, I dream of a mass Aliyah of progressive Diaspora Jews, taking up the justifiable position of every Prime Minister I've ever heard speak: You want to change Israel? Move here."

Why even hope for that? There's a good argument that the politics of Israel are so dysfunctional because of the sporadic massive influxes of people into Israel. This bill has Yisrael Beteinu, with all its post-Soviet totalitarian tendencies written all over it. That would just pile dysfunction on top of dysfunction.

Besides what good would a mass influx of progressive, non-Hebrew speakers do for Israel besides increasing political polarization? Add English-speaking liberal arts educated people onto the welfare rolls alongside the Haredim? Swell the ranks of the elderly who don't have enough extended family to help care for them?

Please don't give that lame chosen of the chosen argument the credit it deserves. These right wingers consider their own progressives as foreign interlopers, which is why my Israeli extended family is bit-by-bit following my mother in leaving Tel Aviv for the good 'ol progressive northeast United States.

Am I to believe that they are shirking their duty to the Jewish people? It's as nonsensical as the right-wing argument that the diaspora can say nothing about Israel. Because as far as the right-wing is concerned, Israeli progressives must say nothing. (Isn't that what this bill is about?) Let's not pretend that is reasonable.

Andy Bachman said...

Dan--Thanks for writing. It sounds to me like you're arguing for giving up on the Zionist Project, an option I'm not willing to choose. Or have I misinterpreted you?

Dan O. said...

Rabbi -

That's a pretty glib response.

I'm arguing against the "shut up or migrate" argument I hear from Israeli right-wingers. I'm saying that they're driving out their own progressive countrymen with the way they treat them. It's bullshit. What do you think this law is about other than Israelis telling other Israelis to shut up? In the diaspora, we should ignore the righties, shout loudly, and be thankful that this ridiculous law can't touch us.

I said that Israel's politics are going wrong, and it's being dragged there by Yisrael Beiteinu, a party that is a symptom of Israel's difficulty absorbing a large migration. Does this make me pessimistic? A bit. But I don't know what's going to happen next.

It does seem to me that a migration of progressive Jews from America is hardly going to make a difference. It's not like when they show up, they'll have any more political credibility. There's no magic bullet. We in the diaspora have to ignore the righties, and maintain an interest in Israel despite their claims that we cannot. I do not like the idea of even sounding like caving to the "shut up or migrate" mentality. And, yeah, to me you sounded like you want to fold. As if where you live determines how much moral authority you have, and "precious" Park Slope just isn't good enough.

If this sounds to you like someone who is giving up on the Zionist Project, I don't know what to tell you. I'm only giving up on the Bibi Netanyahu/Avigdor Lieberman project. It's a dead end, and I don't have to move to Israel to say it.

Andy Bachman said...

Dan--I asked if I misinterpreted you; I wasn't being glib. And you have clarified your remarks, so that's good since I understand you better.

I agree with you that the right speaks with disdain toward progressive Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. My point about migration is that if politics is a numbers game, more progressives in Israel who vote for their causes goes a longer way in achieving long-term results than advice or protest that we can convey from the diaspora. You don't have to move to Israel to say that the Bibi/Lieberman way is a dead end. But it's hard to argue with the fact that unless larger numbers of people vote against them, they're going to continue to rule.

So to be clear, I'm not saying "Shut up or migrate." I'm saying that criticism from any place we live is a right we all have; I merely believe that the criticism carries more weight if there are greater numbers of people here on the ground in Israel making it happen with the ballot.

Dan O. said...

Rabbi -

Thank you for your response. I'm sorry for being emotional. In explanation, I feel it's becoming pretty well acceptable to call people with my point of view anti-Zionist, and I don't like that. I'm glad to know that you didn't intend to do so.

Now that we're over misunderstandings each way, here's one way of illustrating my point. Progressive Jews in the U.S., who are representative of a stalemated half of a polarized political spectrum in the US don't want to send their children to fight in wars for politically polarized Israel where they'll be in the distinct minority. The way Israel is using military power to support the settlements has fundamentally changed. And the way in which an Israeli parent contributes to that is far less abstract in Israel than it is here in the U.S. (although how the US uses its military power should be no less troubling).

In the unrealistic scenario that a massive number of Progressive Jews were to move to Israel for political clout, doesn't this law indicate that the right wing would consider this an invasion? I don't believe the right in Israel would be as sanguine in giving up political power through mass immigration as the dovish left proved to be. They're proving a bit too Putinesque for that, don't you think?

The only way progressives can move to Israel is if Israel listens to progressives in the diaspora. This is possible. After all, back in the '80s and '90s relatively-dovish Israel (compared to now) listened to the drumbeats coming from militant American Jews. Unless my experience was totally unrepresentative, I assume you overheard and recoiled from similar conversations about how Rabin's death was a good thing - that someone had to stop him from giving Israel away, bit by bit. It wasn't just the radicals.

I know it sounds lame to some, but that's why I loudly support J-Street. And I think it's more realistic (and useful) to encourage other progressive Jews to do the same. Is it a cowardly option compared to moving to Israel? Sure. But I'd rather be called a coward then send my child to the IDF in the current climate. Besides, my Israeli mother who lost her brother in a tank in 1972, would call me far worse than 'coward' were I to move her grandkids to Israel.