Whose Religion Is This, Anyway?

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column on being an Orthodox dove is up at the American Prospect:

The American Jewish filmmaker told me he was doing a documentary on possible answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one state or two — and human-rights issues. When he showed up at my Jerusalem apartment on a recent afternoon to interview me, he was wearing a beret. His wife and producer wore a maxi skirt; a scarf covered her hair. Their attire showed they were Orthodox Jews. Hers, in particular, fit the stereotyped look of the Israeli religious right, of settlers and their supporters, including some Jews abroad. I was surprised. Maybe, I thought, I was the token leftist interviewee in a project by settlement backers aimed at showing that there is no exit from the conflict and that Israel must hold the West Bank forever.

I was also painfully aware of an irony: My own skullcap identifies me, correctly, as an Orthodox Jew. Countless times, my appearance has also caused people to assume, incorrectly, that I belong to the religious right. One look has been enough for them to assign me to the camp that regards Israel’s establishment and its conquests in 1967 as part of a divine plan for final redemption and has made settlement and Israeli control of the West Bank into principles of faith. I’m weary of being prejudged and could feel the reflex was to prejudge my visitor. I gently asked him about the purpose of his project. His concern, he said, was to “see a just and equitable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Once the cameras were running, he asked if I thought the theological right was distorting Judaism. Yes, I said, realizing he’d come to record me saying what he felt himself. Afterward, I told him of my initial concern, and we laughed.

It was another reminder that being an Orthodox dove in Israel is a complicated business. The tension, I should stress, is not between my religious and political commitments. I have no doubt that the pursuit of peace is the most basic of Jewish obligations, that the first lessons of Judaism’s sacred texts is that all human beings are created in the divine image and deserve freedom. The first religious figure who inspired me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the European-born American theologian who returned from marching at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. and declared, “Our legs were praying.” That is, seeking social justice was not only a religious requirement, it was an act of worship. Heschel protested the war in Vietnam though it meant challenging the polices of the country that gave him refuge during the Holocaust. His kind of faith did not allow him to stay silent. I can’t know for sure what Heschel would be doing were he alive today, but I believe strongly that he would be working for peace in Israel.

The tension of being an Orthodox dove is partly sociological.

Read the rest here, and come back to SoJo to comment.

33 thoughts on “Whose Religion Is This, Anyway?”

  1. I see a lot of arbitrary lines being drawn here. It is stated that settling land instead of “pursuing peace” is something like “idol worship” as Leibowitz put it. But he is being arbitrary in that. The anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe said that ZIONISM is “idol worship” and so the “religious doves” and Leibowitz themselves are “idol worshipers” because they support Zionism, they and their children serve in the IDF, all of which is abhorrent to the Satmar. So who says Leibowitz is right and Satmar is wrong? Gershom draws a distinction between “settling the land” and “pursuing peace”. I reject such a distinction. I say settling the land IS bringing peace closer because it is showing the Arabs we are serious and it is not worth it for them to fight us, whereas withdrawals and capitulations like Oslo and Gush Katif show the Arabs we are weak are ready to go under. Nasrallah said this EXPLICITLY after the IDF fled southern Lebanon under “tough General” Ehud Barak. He said Israel is no stronger than a spider’s web. So the “peace process” pushes peace further away.

    I think it is presumptuous to say that all religious Jews who oppose the policies of the so-called “peace camp” are not “really” being religious. There are many scholars who support the policies of the “religous right”. It is legitimate also to oppose these policies and one can try to find backing for this in the Torah, but simply to dismiss one’s opponents in the religious world, who happen to be the large majority doesn’t make sense.

  2. Ever heard of the commandment “Thou shalt not steal”? Palestine is the property of the Palestinian people, and they are resisting the theft, just as they would if waves of Filipinos invaded Palestine and claimed it to be their ancient homeland. This legalistic argument that if land was stolen before 1948 is ok but if stolen after 1967 is not ok no longer holds water among most of the worlds citizens, who have long exceeded any moral code that judaism has. One thing Mr Leibowitz was right about was the term he is credited for coining- Judeo-Nazi. The IOF regularly puts the SS to shame

  3. Mr. Brooks, your last comment is know as “projecting.” You are clearly incapable of expressing your criticism without descending to the level of wholesale slurs against Jews as a whole, and without using depressingly ignorant Nazi comparisons. The only reason I both to address you at all is to express my disgust. I do not, however, expect you to rise to the occasion with an intelligent response.

  4. It’s become impossible to comment on this blog. We have YBD who says the exact same thing in response to every post, and then we have the anti-semites who make the Jews=Nazis comparison immediately. There’s no one to talk to here. I like the blog but I’m bidding adieu to the comments.

  5. Some random comments:

    The “driver’s seat” myth has to be refuted over and over, and I’m glad to see it refuted here again. The territories are occupied because the nonreligious majority wants the occuptation to continue. The moment that majority changes its opinion, the occupation will end, regardless of what the religious have to say.

    Leibowitz seems more like a Puritan than a rationalist. I’ve always despised that guy.

    This astonishing statement – most Israelis who share my politics do not understand why I enter a synagogue – says a lot about the Zionist left. Even I’m amazed that they can be that brazenly stupid.

    On the “in God’s image” thing, is the interpretation here the rabbinic interpretation? I think that the critical-scholarly consensus is that it means that mankind is given dominion over the earth, as God’s authorized viceroy. Cognate forms of the phrase exist in other Semitic languages giving the king the authority some god to rule. It seems pretty forced to interpret it out of context as meaning that you shouldn’t mistreat others, even if that’s been the traditional interpretation.

  6. Bloix, don’t you think it’s up to people like yourself whether the comments section stays worthwhile? It hasn’t quite deteriorated to the level of Israeli newspaper talkback sections after all. You can always comment on the original article, and ignore the idiots from both the right and the right.

  7. Gershom writes: “the religious right has created a dangerous synthesis: It has adopted Labor’s settlement ethos and the secular right’s intransigence and transformed them into theological principles.”

    Of course, within those parameters we could suggest that elements in the Labour party and even Mapam that join the Land of Israel Movement in 1967 adopted the ethos of the religious commitment to the paramount importance of the Land of Israel as a matter of sanctity.

    Depends how one views the development of Zionism, linear (from religion to culture to security to who cares universalism) or circular (from religion [see Schweid’s book on Eretz Moledet] to secular nationalism to religion), etc.

  8. The title of this is key ” Whose Religion is This Anyway?” This is really about what Judaism is and means, how it is practiced. Is Judaism ( as is inferred) merely about the acquisition of land, identifying enemies and smiting them mercilessly or about some thing more spiritual: moving towards loving and embracing? There are Jews who feel that they do not want to be a part of the former: if that is Judaism, then they are not a part of it. People like Gershom are fighting for the soul of the religion, legitmately and (also) out of love for it….. People like Gershom may help hold onto people like me and others, hanging by a thread.

  9. Anyone who has spent time in the Jewish communities of Judea & Samaria, as I have this summer, know that the Judaism that is flourishing is vibrant, full of Torah study, arts, social justice and warmth. While demonizing them and smearing their Judaism as being *only*about the conflict plays well in secular leftist circles, it’s simply propaganda. Suzanne, you set up a phony choice as if Judaism has only a militarist or pacifist expression. It’s no wonder you’re hanging by a thread. Have you really explored the depth and multifaceted kalaidescope of Judaism – or are you accepting wholesale leftist Orthodoxies that demonize Orthodox Jews? Would you only have the same attitude toward Jews that many leftist Jews have towards the Muslim and Rab-non-Jewish communities….respect and honor. Finally, regarding “Philip Brooks”, yes his posts are anti-Semitic in tone and in content…but there is little daylight between him and many leftist Jews, yes even Orthodox ones, regarding their internalized self-doubt and hatred directed towards themselves or at least other Jews. Somewhere gnawing in the belly of most leftist Jews is that while all violence and terror should be condemned on all sides, and that the sanctity and higher value of human life is paramount, however, Jews need to sacrifice more, there can be 56 Muslim countries, but Jews need to give up it’s tiny sliver of a country and that Jews (and no other population in the world) must be ethnically cleansed in Judea and Samaria for the sake of “peace.” The guilt and shame of being Jewish has been internalized after centuries of pogroms and oppression and racism and discrimination that we’re plagued with the residual ugly self-hate and hatred that has so grabbed hold of what’s left of the crumbling Left in Israel. We should strive and work for warm relations with Arabs and Muslims and all other people in the world. But not from a position that requires self-abnigation, weakness, and distorting the truth and demonizing our own. I should hope real peace whether your Orthodox Jewish or Orthodox Sunni should not require that.

  10. I’m an American whose family on my mother’s side are Christians from Palestine (Nablus and Jaffa, primarily).

    I generally feel that no state is born without blood on its hands. The creation of the United States involved dispossession and death on a tremendous scale, but I don’t think that this terrible history prevents the USA from being a good and moral place today (not that we always are, but rather that our past doesn’t preclude us from it).

    Similarly, I think the creation of Israel in 1948 was unjust. The land was stolen. There is data from the UN and I believe from the British describing the division of land ownership in Mandatory Palestine between Jews, Muslims, and others prior to 1948. The amount of land Israel was to be assigned under the UN Partition Plan was far in excess of the amount of land legitimately purchased by Jewish people. Ultimately, it was the ’48 war, not the UN partition, that determined the boundaries, but there can be no question that the land was stolen.

    At best one can say it was paid for in blood.

    That said, I doubt that *any* state has been created without violence. Israel is not unique in this regard.

    The question is, how should Israel behave now.

    To that question, I think the first answer must be to treat the people under its sovereign power equally. And it is clear that the Palestinians do not get equal treatment. It is clear that they are oppressed.

    To my mind, this is not a question about Jews vs. Arabs or Muslims. I think it is silly to complain that there are so many Muslim countries in the world and why can’t there be just one Jewish one. Who are such appeals directed towards? Some all-powerful arbiter of equity in the distribution of countries among religions?

    No religion has a *right* to have a country, or even 56 countries. PEOPLE, who practice religions, have rights that governments exist to protect.

    As such, Jewish people living in Israel/Palestine have rights to representative government. They have the rights to practice their religion.

    And so do the Palestinians.

    The obligation to protect people’s rights falls on the sovereign power in control of the territory — in this case, whether the territory is Israel proper or the West Bank (and sometimes even Gaza), the sovereign power is clearly Israel.

    The rights of the individual Palestinians living under Israel’s control are not affected in the slightest by the fact that some other human beings elsewhere in the world live in countries with Muslim majorities. How does the fact that Syria or Lebanon exist have anything to do with whether an individual living in Nablus is routinely denied rights to liberty and property?

    Their rights are inherent in their humanity.

    Israel’s shame is that it is denying the Palestinians their rights, and has been doing so, daily, for decades.

    Israel is not unique. Arab and Muslim countries violate the rights of their citizens. So does China. So do countries in the “West.”

    But people who are about Israel can justly focus on the wrongs that it is committing.

  11. Jen: agreed about the warmth and spiritual creativity found in the religious nationalist world in Israel. I personally think it is historically significant as we’ve had a long time as a people without religious art.

    But Gershom’s comments about the love of land (and the typically harsh Leibowitz’ description of it as idolitary) whilst not giving the whole picture – do raise a valid point.

    There is a certain emptiness in religious nationalism — any nationalism for that matter — and whilst the warmth you talk about is there, I’m not sure its enough to pass on from one genration to the next.

  12. The lesson of South Africa can not be lost on the Israelis who demographically are going to displaced just as the Afrikaners were. As you remember the Afrikaners had all the military power that any government could ever want to suppress the native population..But world opinion and ANC resistance paid off. The same type of arguments that Y puts forth, and with the same zeal and moral outrage ,were expressed by the Afrikaners. Remember that Apartheid begame the law of the land in South Africa in 1948 and from what I observed when I was inIsrael 2 years ago there are some nasty comparisons. Israel unfortunately is being identified with the”bully boys” not the average citizen

  13. I agree with Jim that the land was stolen from the Palestinians by a people with no historic claim to it. Real estate agent Hertzel knew that this land was holy to Islam and Christianity and said location, location, location. The final solution to this problem is for all the land to be returned to its owners. Justice in other nations can only be pursued once the mother of injustice has been solved. I have read Lisa Goldmans blog and the essence of it is yes, we stole the land, but we have a great night life, so we get to keep it. Our maintenance of these night clubs and restaurants have prevented us from solving major humanitarian problems like Congo ,Darfuer, etc. So NO to zionist night clubs-we cant afford them

  14. Jen: “While demonizing them and smearing their Judaism as being *only*about the conflict plays well in secular leftist circles, it’s simply propaganda. Suzanne, you set up a phony choice as if Judaism has only a militarist or pacifist expression. It’s no wonder you’re hanging by a thread. Have you really explored the depth and multifaceted kalaidescope of Judaism – or are you accepting wholesale leftist Orthodoxies that demonize Orthodox Jews?

    I come from an orthodox family and I am familiar enough with what is admirable. I don’t wholesale demonize orthodox Jews. But I also see and have come to know well what to me seems like something I want to turn away from and it has to do with ( simply put) being for or against coexistence with others. it is about a militarist or pacifist approach in the end. You are one or the other. It has to do with, as I said, open to loving and embracing as opposed to being closed, hateful and fearful. Each begets results accordingly in my experience ( which is all I have to go on).

  15. Suzanne – the residents of Judea and Samaria seem to be more willing to coexist with Arab Muslims in the region than Arab Muslims want to coexist with Jews and Israelis. it takes two to tango, though I do realize the reprecussions and risks of blaming Israel and Orthodox Jews pale in comparison to taking a stand against Fatah and it’s supporters (and frankly, these days, Hamas too, which is currently being whitewashed as “moderate” because it butchered a few dozen members of Al Qaeda and their leader in Gaza) .

  16. Jen- If the orthodox, or not so orthodox in the occupied territories seem to you more willing to coexist with Arab Muslims ( and there are also stories to the contrary of what you say) that only expresses a one-sided wish which I would bet you can elicit equally from some Arab Muslims on the other side. What you are saying is we want to live peacefully with them, but they don’t want to live peacefully with us. I don’t buy that. Also -take away the irritants. “Judea and Samaria” is one.

  17. Suzanne-
    You say “Judea/Samaria” is an irritant to the Arabs? Well, “Palestine” is to the Jews.
    And so is their usurping OUR holy site in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. Okay, we are willing to share it with them, to allow both peoples to pray there, but THEY adamantly refuse to allow it and the Israeli gov’t won’t allow Jews to pray there. Really an “irritant”.

  18. Y. B-D,

    If you want to make this into a holy war over holy sites- go ahead and dance this death tune with other who feel the same on your side, on their side. This is exactly what I want to dissociate myself from and what I feel is a distortion of Judaism or what Judaism (or ANY religion for that matter) should be about. The Temple Mount and Al Aksa are symbols. When you are in a “holy place” you are suppose to elevate your spirit. How can you or any others so focussed on this one point on earth want to kill for it- to pray for peace?. This is a contest about whose fanatics are more off the path. Listen to yourself at war.

  19. Mr. Gorenberg,

    I’m not here to respond to every post, regardless of it’s content, with claims and criticisms about land theft and so on; I can do that elsewhere.

    What I want to say is that your position, as an Orthodox Jew not part of the religious right, and the tension it creates is really interesting. I find that your citing of Rabbi Heschel and your closing paragraph are inspiring and well-reasoned. It might be possible that the trope of fearing the “corruption of the state but also the corruption of Judaism” can be applied to a number of different state/religion situations, too.

  20. Suzanne-
    I see you have bought into Muslim narrative. Jewish rights means SHARING the Temple Mount, Muslim rights means JEWS BEING DRIVEN OFF the Temple Mount. Yet you catagorize ME as the “fanatic”, not them.
    To you “Judaism” means “turning the other cheek” and letting them push us around. Where did you come up with this distortion?
    Do you know what kind of “spiritual elevation” their preachers rant in their Mosques there on the Temple Mount….week after week, month after month, year after year…about how the Jews are sons of monkeys and pigs, how the Jews supposedly betrayed Muhammed, how the Jews are the eternal enemies of Islam, etc, etc. This on their “elevated” holy site.

  21. Y. B-D this is perhaps hopeless. You have distorted what I said. I have not bought any one narrative, not yours not theirs.

    I did not call you a fanatic- but maybe you are.

    I am just saying that putting the Temple Mount before all else ( on the Jewish side) and putting Al Aksa before all else ( on the Muslim side) is out of whack with spiritual elevation which is what religion is supposed to be about. These places are not unimportant and I am sure that both sides will have access should there ever be an agreement.

    You repeat the words, the worst you can find on the Muslim side, to get your chemistry going and possibly mine. And those on the Muslim side have ears only to hear similar things from fanatic Rabbi’s. And so it goes, locked into a self- reenforcing hellish loop.

  22. Suzanne-
    You are correct, I did partially misinterpret what you said. But how do you suggest “breaking the loop” other than just having us Jews back down all the time? And do you believe having us back down all the time will make the Muslim side more ready to compromise.

  23. Suzanne
    leave YBD alone. He is a confirmed zioracist incapable of change. You had mentioned that your judaism is hanging by a thread-that means there is hope for you. Break the thread and join humanity instead.

  24. Y. B-D- Thank goodness for your partial understanding. One way to break the loop is, as with every other problem, understanding it more deeply. People have to look within themselves and their side, to see their own participation in the loop, their own hate. You can’t do it for the next guy, only for yourself. When people pray they should look within for some real holiness instead of out there expecting others to exhibit it. You decide whether you are going to participate in generating or spreading what you know is hateful bad stuff.

    Every time you quote those preachers ranting in mosques inciting with that language, you make things worse. Each side plays on the others insecurities and the need to fight back. This is the loop.

    In your post, when you say “having us back down all the time”- you are talking about winning, not allowing THEM to do to Jews what Jews are doing to them. There is no winning this. yet Israeli policy ( and your remark) seems geared to making them surrender. I have heard from Jewish supporters of this policy “all we do is give give give, and what do we get?” when in fact Israel is actually taking away, little by little, what is to be theirs ( by international consensus)

    This view of the situation comes from an insecurity- which I don’t say only exists on one side– and I admit with all good reason. But all the reasons to feel the way you and others do, going back in history as we do here and elsewhere, don’t contribute to the solution, but exert a drag on going forward. In the end, an observer more neutral, or anyone on either side that can let go, has to come to the conclusion that both sides have to let go enough to come together. Otherwise both are doomed… and frankly I don’t want to participate.

    Many others, Jews and Arab Palestinians, others in the world, are tired of it, don’t want to participate either. So in the end, if this continues, the conflict will be fanatics in a religious war- everyone else with some sense will leave. It’s happening. And you both can have the bloody “holy land” to kill each other for.

    What a shame. Such a beautiful land, with so much history, a place of so much spirituality historically, and yet also a place where various paths to the same God of all don’t seem to be able to overcome their lower natures enough to live in peace. It is indeed ground zero.

  25. Interviewer: “There are plots against this [Western] Wall that seek to harm the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and there is an attack on history, theft of culture, falsification of facts, erasure of the truth, and Judaization of the place . . ..”

    Shamekh Alawneh: “The [Jews’] goal in giving the name ‘Wailing Wall’ to this [Western] Wall is political. . . The Jewish Zionists had no choice but to invent an excuse [about Jerusalem] to spread among the Zionists or the Jews in Europe, to connect to something concrete from the past about Jerusalem. They made false claims and called the ‘Al-Burak Wall’ the ‘Wailing Wall.'”

    Interviewer: “Can we understand that this term [the ‘Wailing Wall’] and this strange [Jewish] interest concerning this place are new, with no historical roots?”

    Alawneh: “Absolutely. It has no historical roots. This is political terminology to win the hearts and the support of the Zionists in Europe, so they would emigrate and come to Palestine. Nothing more!”

  26. “Why Israel’s left has disappeared” by Carlo Stenger in Haaretz:

    The Israeli left’s thinking is governed by what I call SLES (Standard Left Explanatory System). This intellectual construct gained popularity in Europe and the United States in the 1960s after the demise of European colonialism. The basic principle of SLES is simple: Always support the underdog, particularly when non-Western, and always accuse Western powers, preferably the United States and its allies, for what the underdog does. Anything aggressive or destructive a non-Western group says or does must be explained by Western dominance or oppression. This ranges from the emergence of Al-Qaida, which is blamed on the United States’ dropping of its support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled, to corruption and violence in Africa, which is blamed on the aftereffects of European colonialism.

    SLES is built on very questionable psychology: It assumes that if you are nice to people, all conflicts will disappear. It simply disregards the human desire for dominance, power and a belief system that gives them self-respect. As a result, SLES, under the guise of humanitarianism, assumes that non-Western groups don’t have a will of their own; that all they do, feel or want is purely reactive to the West. It is also devoid of respect for non-Western groups: It assumes that they are not responsible for their deeds, and that all they do must be explained by victimization by the West.

    If you listen to the left’s explanations of Palestinian behavior, you might easily conclude that Israel is omnipotent and that Palestinians have no self will. In conversations with Palestinians I have heard more than once that they feel that the right wing respects them more than the left because the left always presumes to know what the Palestinians really want.

  27. Jim, you rock. I mean, I have never heard it put that way. Humanity needs more like you.

    Gershom, I admire you. I volunteered at Maaleh Gilboa in 1979. I was getting more and more interested in mitzva observance, when one night, I was in the home of the Volunteer Coordinator, looking out the window at the (lights of the) Arab communities below. The VC said, “Yes, those are our neighbors. So primitive”. I thought, “Am I required to be bigoted in order to be Orthodox or be a part of a community like this one?” I looked into the future and saw my kids going to school with this woman’s kids and knew I couldn’t be a part of it. Today I do know a few — very few — left-wing mitzva-observant Jews, and I do admire you. You also write a mean blog.

    Ploni: What’s the Driver’s Seat Theory? That the Orthodox right is “piloting this ship”?

    Jen, I find it ironic that many settlers are engaged in organic farming, not disrupting the harmony of nature, etc. but appear indifferent to the fact that their Pali neighbors have no water, no rights, etc. Not very warm and fuzzy to me.

  28. I take as my text: “There are too many settlements; Israeli withdrawal is impossible.”

    Certainly, there are too many settlements for those, like me, who think there should be none. Indeed, I think they are illegal (while the occupation persists) and should be removed because they are illegal

    But “Israeli withdrawal is impossible” only makes sense within a mid-set which sees Israeli action as a result solely of intra-Israeli political pressures.

    If the international community (which, alone, can “give” international law or, nowadays, re-invigorate it) were to put pressure on Israel (for example by economic and social boycotts), Israeli actions would (Hey, Presto!) result from both intra-Israeli and from extra-Israeli political pressures. Change the “parameters” and you change the equation and its possible solutions. so to speak. so, no, “There are too many settlements; Israeli withdrawal is impossible” is merely an expression of the fact that, for the long moment (from 1967 til today), the international community has not exerted itself in this manner.

    Israelis, surely there must be some?, interested in using the Rule of Law as a lever to end the occupation and achieve peace should be leading the (still rather small) international clamor in favor of removal of the settlers and wall (both declared illegal by the ICJ in July 2004). Perhaps such views are suppressed in Israel as, in large measure, they are in the US.

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