Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Throwing in the Towel on Universal Democratic Values

This post has been updated and corrected to correct my initial misreading of Prof. Yaacov Yadgar's tone. I have had an email exchange with Prof. Yadgar wherein he brought to my attention that he is not in any way advocating for or supporting the state's implicit abandonment of universal democratic values that he describes. He believes that the state, for the historical reasons he details, has misappropriated Jewish traditions to privilege Jewish citizens of the State of Israel over others. I reiterate my apology to him for my initial misreading of his intent (and inappropriately imputing that view to Bar Ilan as an institution)


The key political values in the United States are freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, equal rights and protection under the law irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.  These values commit us, as a matter of necessity, to a clear separation of church and state and to a strong and independent judiciary.  When push comes to shove, these are the values we'll fight and die for.

Our Enlightenment Heritage

These political ideas arose from the Enlightenment and were enshrined by our founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution.  The American example, in turn, inspired the French revolution, the French declaration of the Rights of Man, and the foundation of modern nation states in general.

We believe these democratic values to be universal.

The Chinese don't subscribe to these Enlightenment values. They think it's o.k. to suppress freedom of speech, to privilege party insiders to be in charge of major industries and enterprises (and to enrich themselves accordingly), for party insiders to control the courts, the army, the security services. And due process, who needs it? We don't get that. We fail to understand the theoretical model for what the Chinese are doing. [And for any of you Chinese censors reading this, feel free to think about it and email me an explanation]

We look at the nascent Islamic State. To the extent this monstrosity embodies any political values, those values trace back to a misguided conception of the divine.  We reject the divine as a basis for forming a nation state.

Can we get our head around the notion of a "Jewish state?"

Zionism and "Two States"

Zionism presents an interesting case. The founders of the modern state of Israel, by and large, have subscribed to the Enlightenment principles of universal democratic values. Israel likes to think of itself as the only modern democracy in the Middle East. But in practice these Enlightenment values are hard to shoehorn into a Jewish State run by and for Jews when there is a 25% non-Jewish minority (within the '48 borders), a 40% non-Jewish minority if we include the West Bank, and a 50/50 split if we include all of Greater Israel.

Liberal Zionism has its theorists. Bernard Avishai argues for a Hebrew Republic that must be "brought up to code" with the political values of a fully modern nation state (separation of church and state, universal citizenship, and equal rights and protection for all citizens) while preserving a Hebrew culture. Avishai envisions this can be done consistent with universal democratic values, in a manner like Quebec preserves and privileges French culture.  Alan Dershowitz and Peter Beinart subscribe to some version of this. The folks at +972 Magazine subscribe to some version of this.

Privileging Hebrew culture for the state as a whole in a framework of universal democratic values, however, requires a strong majority of Hebrew speakers. Quebec has 5.1 million native French speakers and 1.6 million native English speakers.  Israel has a strong majority of Hebrew speakers within the 1948 borders, but this majority is greatly reduced if the West Bank were annexed and everyone granted citizenship, as Rueven Rivlin (Israel's President) advocates. If the people of Gaza are also included, the majority is gone.

The need for a strong Jewish demographic majority is what drives the need for a two state solution. Israel continues to pay lip service to it. The settler's not so much. Abbas continues to hold out for a Palestinian state on all of the territory occupied in 1967, with a capital in Al-Quds (Jerusalem). Hamas, not so much.  And nobody who matters in Israel is acting to bring about two states. The two state solution appears politically impossible to achieve.

The fall-back position as a matter of political theory, appears to be a state with universal democratic values.  This means Jews cannot be privileged over non-Jews. Jewish control over the state would be reduced, even if a space is carved out for the protection of Jewish culture alongside a protected space for Arab culture.  Power would have to be shared. This type of power sharing should be possible in theory.  In practice, the stalemate may become very bloody.

Giving up on the Enlightenment?

Professor Yaacov Yadgar, is a tenured Senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University. He has an interesting article in the Journal of Religion and Society, The Kriptke Center (Vol. 16, 2014)(Overcoming the 'Religion and Politics' Discourse: A New Interpretation of the Israeli Case) in which he contends that religion and politics in Israel have evolved in a manner that radically departs from Enlightenment democratic values.

Yaacov Yadgar
Professor Yadgar obtained a BA there (1996), a  PhD (2000), he was a lecturer 2001-2004, and he has been a tenured senior lecturer since  2004.  Professor Yadgar has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, UC Berkeley, Rutgers, and Hebrew University.

The concept of separation of church and state, says Yadgar, is "foreign to Jewish traditions." Jewish traditions have historically served both secular state functions and religious functions. The concept of Judaism as a "religion" separate from politics, he explains, was the result of Germany, France, and England beginning to define themselves in secular terms.  Jews in these places wanted to see themselves as loyal subjects of the secular state, while still faithful adherents of the Jewish religion.   The keepers of religion and politics in Israel today might say "this is just so Diaspora!"

In this Enlightenment context, Zionism envisioned that Judaism (as religion) was just a personal, apolitical matter of 'spirituality.' This religious Judaism was not a nationality. What Zionists needed was a nationality, not  a religion. Although Jewish religion has been part of the history of the Jewish nation, Zionists asserted that it is Jewish nationality, not religion, which defines the people.  This idea, says Yadgar, stands at the core of the founding Zionists' conception of the State of Israel as a secular state of the Jewish nation.

Privileging Jews over non-Jews

By building up a secular Jewish state, says Yadgar, the early Zionist leaders were then confronted with how to define the Jewish nation.  How would Zionism relate to the tradition and how would it build up a national narrative that was not "besmirched with the stain of religiosity?"
Several Zionist leaders and thinkers chose largely to ignore this question, focusing instead on the notion of Jewish political power by way of imagining the 'Jews' State' as a sort of European nation-state...that is ruled by Europeans of Jewish descent. Others ... viewed the Zionist project as primarily obligated to 'secularize' Judaism, that is to reinterpret Jewish traditions so as to make them consistent with a rationalist, modernist, utilitarian world view, which will be the basis of the (secular) nation-state of the Jews.
Early Zionists got away with this, says Yadgar, only because they were all steeped in the tradition. They rebelled against the tradition, but they knew who they were, and they knew what they were rebelling against. Their start-up nation children and grandchildren, by contrast, were largely ignorant of the content of the religion and what the previous generations had rebelled against. Netanyahu and his generation ran into a problem: if the Jewish state is a matter of nationality, and not religion, what positive attributes define that nationality?

[Enlightenment values would say--Duh! If you live there, or if you're born there, you're in, you're part of the nationality. But this doesn't work for Zionism trying to preserve the idea of a "Jewish state"]

So, here's how Yadgar says the state resolved this issue:
"At the end, the state seems to have chosen to focus primarily on the constitution of a Jewish majority--a matter of 'demography'--as the principal condition for its existence as the state of the Jewish People; it put relatively few resources into answering the questions of how to converse with, and reinterpret, the Jewish traditions of the communities that constitute this majority. In the famous contest between two possible translations of Theodor Herzl's Judenstaat, the state's political elite has chosen to focus on the establishment of a "State of Jews," not necessarily on the constitution of a "Jewish State." Indeed this seems to be the core understanding of the meaning of Israel's being a Jewish nation-state among liberal, secularist Zionist circles, such as Haaretz's editorial board, which clearly states-- 'Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state: a refuge for members of the Jewish people, not a state with an official religion like Muslim Saudi Arabia. The Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one. On Israeli identity cards, 'Jewish' describes a nationality (May 22, 2013).' 
"But even such a limited understanding of Jewish politics... [as] politics run by people of Jewish origins--is required to address certain issues of Jewish identity in order to run a nation-state that identifies as the state of the Jews. Primarily, the state is required to decide who counts as a Jew and who does not.
The state opted to outsource this determination of who counts as a Jew to the "rabbis and politicians who adhere to a conservative, orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition."  Among other things, it granted to these official representatives of the religion the authority to oversee marriage laws, "essentially preventing marriages between Jews and non-Jews, thus preserving the distinction" between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state.

As a result, says Yadgar, the State of Israel "has never attempted to genuinely build an Israeli national identity that would be 'liberated,' so to speak, from Jewish 'religion' and would naturally include the non-Jewish citizens of the state." This is illustrated, for example, when the Israeli Supreme Court refused to permit citizens to be registered as "Israeli" rather than "Jewish." The State, Yadgar says, "has been fostering a de-facto identification between Israeliness and Jewishness."  Although the meaning of this Jewish identity is vague, it "is distinct in one critical respect: it is a national identity reserved for Jews only."

The problem here, of course, is this leaves 25% of the population out in the cold if we're talking about citizens, and it leaves 40% of the population out in the cold if we include the West Bank, and it leaves 50% of the population out in the cold if we include all of Greater Israel.

Yadgar continues:  Although the state still nominally espouses a distinction between "religion" and "nationality," the fact that the state defines its national identity as "reserved for Jews only" means that the two concepts are essentially identical. This idea that Jewish religion and Jewish nationality are identical "stands at the core of the national school curriculum," and it accounts for a series of laws with a notoriously narrow interpretation of Jewish tradition. These narrowly religiously orthodox interpretations, and the religious coercion that goes with it, serves the secular Jewish majority, says Yadgar, because it is "what secures the maintenance and preservation" of the secular majority's identity "in a nation state that identifies as the state of the Jews."

Here's the troubling upshot from an Enlightenment universal democratic values point of view that Yadgar points out:
"Being a Jew in Israel means belonging to the majority, which enjoys a privileged position in every aspect of life; whoever is Jewish enjoys a political, symbolic, and cultural capital that is reserved for Jews only. ...The state... enforces 'religion' on the public sphere, through the 'status quo' arrangements among other ways, and guarantees by this the distinction between Jews and non-Jews, as well as the privileging of the former over the latter."   

Justifying the Occupation?

But if the State of Israel defines itself as existing for the purpose of granting a privileged position to Jews over non-Jews "in every aspect of life," as Yadgar suggests is the case, why would the state care about a majority?  If non-Jews are chopped liver, why should it matter whether they constitute 25% of the population, 40% of the population, or 51% of the population?

As soon as the state is willing to cross that threshold and is willing to privilege Jews over non-Jews "in every aspect of life," where does it draw the line? And on what basis?

The separation of Church and state came about for a reason: it is a necessary pre-condition for a state based on universal democratic values. Yadgar suggests that the state's guardians of what is Jewish and who counts as a member of the Jewish nation state have misappropriated Jewish traditions in order to define this national identity for Jews only, and in the process they have thrown in the towel on universal democratic values.

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