Thursday, June 8, 2017

Trading the mythology of Judaism for a Muscular, Racist, Secure Nation State: Good Deal or Bad?

A view from Mt. Nebo/Wikicommons
That is essentially the question Yehuda Kurtzer asks himself in a very interesting essay, Unsettled, published in Tablet Magazine to commemorate the June 1967 Six Day War. Kurtzer seems to come down on the side of "worth it!" but with reservations. "For the Jewish people," he says, "(if) the Six-Day War entailed a trade of mythology for security—well, that is a choice most Jews who live in and care about the State of Israel would happily make over and over again."

What is this trade-off?  The canonical stories of Judaism, says Kurtzer, are stories of wandering and dislocation, praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers. He recently observed this Jewish story reflected back at him in a Palestinian novel,  Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan. Alyan's story describes the Palestinian people as on a journey to become A People, forming a collective consciousness, and pining for a return to the land inspite of political circumstances. The land has taken on symbolic power for these people too; these people also have anxiety about assimilation and a sense of incompleteness in diaspora.

The success of Zionism has cost Jews this central mythology. "We gave it as a pyrrhic concessionary gift to the Palestinians," says Kurtzer.

The Jews traded their 2000 year old mythology for security. [How much security, of course, is uncertain] The muscular Zionism that established the Jewish state, suggests Kurtzer, asks of Jews that the Judaism of wandering that is such a central part of their tradition and history come to an end. Now that the stories of wandering and dislocation, of praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers are at an end, now what?

Kurtzer says he would not trade the Zionism that comes with winning wars for the nostalgia of the older, better Jewish story, but he worries that something has been lost. There is something deeply lacking in the new story of a muscular, racist, and secure nation state. The Temple Mount is "[i]n our hands! The end of our brokenness, the end of our history is in our hands!" says Kurtzer.  "And now, once in our hands, how sometimes very small it actually seems."

Kurtzer is being poetic, but what does this smallness actually mean? Kurtzer suggests Jews are left with two competing visions of Zionism: (1) a religious Zionism that wants to bridge the traditional, lived Judaism to the modern political Zionism by "correcting" Judaism; and (2) a second-chance Zionism that holds out the possibility of the fulfillment of a story that the Jewish people never got right the first time around.

Kurtzer does not explain here what this second-chance Zionism might mean for the state of Israel, much less Judaism.  I infer he is thinking of the Jewish state as a kinder gentler Jewish ethnocracy--one with liberal democratic values, due process of law, and a sense of equal rights for all its citizens; a state that does not occupy another people.

Kurtzer does not admit that a muscular, secure, Jewish nation state must of necessity (by definition) be racist. Not even after 50 years of occupation over another people without granting them political or legal rights. There was a "Shitshow" that  immediately followed the first Jewish state--after the Davidic kings--is as much as he allows. But his implication is clear: what has followed the Six Day War is its own Shitshow. The "correction" of Judaism that religious Zionism offers is to accept the concretization of prayers answered; to correct Judaism by accommodating it to this permanent occupation of another People.  Kurtzer would prefer to see a correction of Zionism that mitigates the Shitshow, but that keeps the canonical stories of Judaism intact.

But Zionism seems incompatible with keeping the stories of rabbinic Judaism intact. Kurtzer admits as much when he says "I wouldn’t trade the Zionism that comes with winning the war for the nostalgia of the older and better Jewish story." These old stories of Judaism are "nostalgia" today only because they have been obliterated by Zionism. They were not "nostalgia" in 1900.

Kurtzer worries that "this new story that has replaced the old mythology of journey is deeply lacking." He is admitting that Judaism cannot have its Zionist cake and eat it too. . . .

There is a choice to be made between a Zionism that swallows Judaism (and its stories of wandering and dislocation and praying for a return to Jerusalem) whole by embracing the Shitshow, or a Judaism that preserves the older, better stories by rejecting Zionism.  Both of these choices represents an upheaval of Judaism that Jews have only begun to grapple with.

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