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I last read the following story in one of the Talmud courses I took decades ago. Tractate Avodah Zara 18b describes a rabbinic debate about whether a Jew was allowed to attend the Roman circuses, which were a pagan spectacle of blood and violence, and frowned upon by the rabbis. Most said absolutely not. But Rabbi Nathan disagreed. It was not only permissible to attend the circus, it was a moral obligation. For when the crowd was asked to determine a defeated gladiator’s fate, the Jew could raise a thumb to save a man’s life.
The verse from Hillel in the Mishna which I connect with this is: “In a place where there is no man, try to be one.”
Hillel’s teaching rang true during the Holocaust, which saw brave people defy Nazi evil to save Jews. It held true during the Rwandan genocide when Paul Rusesabagina opened the doors of Hotel Rwanda to save hunted Tutsi (he was kidnapped by dictator, Paul Kagame and now sits in prison). It held true when John Lewis braved the batons and snarling police dogs of Sheriff Bull Connor, almost dying, in the Selma March. It held true in Tiananmen Square, when a loan man stood up to a Chinese army tank.
But I’ve long despaired that a single brave soul can save anyone or be a moral example in the midst of the depravity of Israeli apartheid. Though some Israelis may try, doing the right, moral and decent thing has no meaning (except to the individual him/herself). Israel has collapsed into thuggery and depravity.
This is one of the reasons I object so strongly to the views and arguments of liberal Zionists. They harbor the illusion that individuals matter; that values and ethics matter; that Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state. Such beliefs appeal to those of us brought up to believe that democracy and liberalism will always triumph. But they are woefully out of touch with Israeli reality. It has collapsed into fascism and fetishizes racial purity.
After Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israelis this past week, thousands of Israeli troops have flooded the West Bank. Yesterday, in what seemed an act of vengeance more than a security operation, an Israeli assassination squad ambushed a Palestinian vehicle and executed the three occupants, claiming they were planning another terror attack.
A knowledgable security source characterized what transpired:
it was a “targeted killing” operation. The security services got a “hot alert” that the victims planned a shooting attack in Israel, like the one in Bnei Brak. But the Palestinians detected the Yamam [Border Police assassination squad] force coming and fired first. 4 Yamam soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously (a Lt. Col.).
As this is the holy month of Ramadan, Palestinian Muslims remember the police riots last year when they denied Muslims access to Haram al Sharif. They remember the pogroms incited by Jewish mobs which hunted Palestinians through the streets of Israeli towns. They remember the war that followed, which Israel waged on Gaza; including the 250 Palestinian dead there, including 50 children.
Last night in East Jerusalem, Palestinians gathered during Ramadan and confronted Israeli Border Police. Both sides wanted blood. A video above shows mounted Israel police racing their horses wildly down the middle of the street with the ancient walls of the Old City in the background. Mistarvim are pictured beating a Palestinian senseless on the ground as their fellow Border Police thugs brandish guns daring anyone to interfere.
They say history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. Last year was certainly tragedy. But this year is by no means farce. It’s tragedy redux. Tragedy redoubled.
There is no one in Israel who can stop this. There is no one who can stand up and raise their thumb to save life. Even if someone tried, they would be beaten into submission by the overwhelming tide of hatred and mass hysteria. The beasts are baying for blood and they will have it.
A slight correction: there is someone who can stop this. Naftali Bennett. I thought he would be smart enough not to fall into the trap Netanyahu did (perhaps a trap he deliberately set for himself). The latter actually incited the violence last year leading to the May attack on Gaza. Until the terror attacks this week, Bennett seemed intent on quiet. It seemed that Ramadan might pass without major incident.
But now that Israeli Jews have died, all bets are off. The gloves come off. And the Israeli security apparatus bears its ugly teeth and snarls, looking for its Palestinian pound of flesh. Bennett in such circumstances cannot look less tough on Palestinians than Netanyahu did. That would be suicide in a national security state. So he lets the dogs out and sics them on Palestinians. That’s what Israelis want. They want tough. They want angry. They want blood. And Bennett must give it to them. Otherwise, he’ll be perceived as weak, a peacenik, a leftist: all words that mean the death knell for an Israeli politician.
Speaking of blood: pro-Israel apologists on social media flash their moral outrage over the terror victims and call Palestinians “monstrous animals.” They justify every Israeli bloodthirsty response in defense of “Jewish life.” But they have forgotten another great Jewish moral teaching. Sanhedrin 74 a,b offers this moral discussion:
…The Gemara tells of a person who approached Rabba with the following question:
“The ruler of my village came to me and said ‘kill that person, and if you do not then I will kill you.’ Can I follow his order so that I will be able to save myself?”
“Allow yourself to be killed, but you may not kill another. Who says that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours.”
Most Israelis have determined that Jewish blood is redder than Palestinian. That their lives are worth less than a Jewish life. That they are, in fact, barely human at all. If they are human, it is only when they become a Palestinian-bowing-and-scraping version of Stepin Fetchit, the Hollywood character who acted the Black buffoon, always bowing to the white man.
American Jews: Our Moral Responsibility
American Jews have supported Israel by communal consensus since the Holocaust. We donated billions via Jewish federations and the Jewish Agency. But even more importantly we’ve thrown our muscle behind lobbying on Israel’s behalf in the halls of Congress. The Israel Lobby is hands-down the most powerful such network in Congress. As a result, hundreds of billions in foreign and military aid have been funneled into the Israeli war machine over the past 70 years.
This sense of common destiny derives from our tradition, which tells us “all of Israel is responsible, one for the other.” But just how far does this go? Can you say that while you are responsible for Israeli needs and welfare; you are not responsible for Israel’s crimes? If Israel sins and we do nothing, are we not culpable as well? In fact, over the decades we have stood back while Israel turned itself into an apartheid state, turning Palestinians into virtual serfs.
We have urged, begged, wheedled as we tried to get Israeli governments to be kinder and gentler. Our communal leaders went to Israel hat in hand and beseeched our brethren. They were offered warm words and little else. Whatever promises were made were easily broken. Despite such benign neglect, these leaders never wavered in their support for Israel. How could they? Their jobs and salaries were dependent on this pro-Israel model. To strike out on a new path would require more stamina and vision than they possessed.
We American Jews attempted to inculcate our liberal Zionist values in Israel, even as the socialist, humanistic values of the kibbutz and social welfare state were dismantled. We wanted Israel to be not just a Jewish state, but a democratic one as well. We could not understand why both weren’t possible. In fact, it was presumptuous, even delusional to expect that Israel could be what we wanted it to be, when Israelis had other things in mind.
Israel wasn’t interested in liberal values and similar niceties. It took our money but told us to leave our values at the door. Instead, it ran head-long into the arms of ultra-nationalism. It became a national security state, a garrison regime at perpetual war with its neighbors; a Judeo-supremacist, racist state, offering rights to Jews, while it barely tolerated its (non-Jewish) Palestinian citizens. Instead of the prophetic vision: “Not by right and not by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts,” Israel became a state based on naked power and control. Judaism as practiced in Israel became religion in service to the State. The two were fused into a single entity.
It is “stones and bones” Judaism; pagan idolatry; the worship of temples and the land the ancestors trod; the worship of physical things, not values. This is religion based on control; the notion that God bestowed these physical objects (land, temples, etc) for our benefit; that we must guard them and prevent non-Jews from access to them. It is a religion of exclusion and separation from the rest of the world. This is not Judaism as we in the Diaspora know it. But it is a muscular version of religion appealing, in light of the history of Jewish suffering, to many both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
We must decide what Judaism we choose: one of the spirit, or one of power. You can’t have both. Today, our religious identity is inextricably bound up in Israel. American Judaism is not an authentic expression of American Jewish life. Instead, it is subordinated to Israel, an appendage of Israel. This might not be as critical an issue were it not for what Israeli Judaism has become: a fundamentalist, intolerant sect infused with the zeal of religious settler colonists. Religion in Israel is a form of Judeo-triumphalism. It serves as the foundation for a maximalist politics and a messianic vision more akin to Blood and Soil than the God of the spirit mentioned above.
Those concerned about the future of American Jewry must ask what sort of Judaism are they bequeathing to their youth? If they offer only the current stale version, why should these young people care? What will fire their passion for Judaism? A state awash in hate and racism; or a religion based on prophetic values?
It was not always so. In the 1960s, I attended a summer camp, Camp Ramah, whose teachers were college students grappling with the injustice of American society; and active participants in the civil rights and anti-war movements. They taught us to integrate Jewish values with these social justice movements. This is a vision which fired our souls and made me the Jew I am.
But what are we offering our youth today? Birthright, JNF pushkes, aliyah, Israel Independence Day, shlihim and Prayers for Israel. What are we offering that is authentic to us? That reflects the best of us as American Jews?
Demographic surveys show that the American Jewish population continues to rise. But the same is not true of our religious denominations. The Orthodox are growing at the fastest rate, though still around 9% of the population. The Reform movement shows less growth and the Conservative movement is in the weakest position of all. But there are other alarming indicators like the number of students enrolling in rabbinical schools. Facing a severe drop in enrollment, some schools are merging or closing. This signals trouble and raises doubts about the future leadership of our synagogues and temples.
Not to mention that the majority of Jews belong to no denomination or communal organization at all. They are disaffiliated, at least in part because they either want no part of religion or dislike the insular communal politics. All of this bodes ill for the long-term health of American Judaism.
Contrary to the 1960s, today’s Jews can only make common cause with groups and causes that are kosher, that don’t rock the boat, that don’t threaten our pro-Israel ties. That rules out Black Lives Matter and other intersectional movements considered anathema for their so-called anti-Israel stances. Others go so far as to accuse racial justice movements of anti-Semitism, which reveals more about the prejudices of the accusers than of the accused. So while we can find allies on issues like immigration, refugees and reproductive rights, we cannot support our Black brothers and sisters struggling against racism and police brutality; because Israeli police inflict the same suffering on Palestinians. Even our support for LGBTQ rights is truncated when gay oppression is linked to Palestinian oppression.
We must break with Israel and its Jewish sectarianism. Let our two Judaisms go their separate ways. Let Israel go its separate way. This is not an anti-Israel position. It is simply a recognition that if Israel chooses to take a path that is anathema to us, we have an obligation to protect and uphold our own values. We have no obligation to become facilitators for Israel. Anything short of this will make us accomplices in the evils Israel inflicts on Palestinians.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.