Sunday, July 18, 2010

'future historians will inevitably wonder'

"If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews."

So writes Alana Newhouse, the gifted editor of Tablet, in the New York Times, responding to the conversion bill currently snaking itself through the Knesset; a bill that will, in effect, return Israel to a state in which only the orthodox rabbinate will be able to perform legally recognized conversions to Judaism, thus stripping legitimacy from Reform and Conservative rabbis.

But is this really what future historians will wonder about? Have organised American Jews, even the hippest among them, entirely lost their ability to distinguish between an argument about political rights in a democratic state and the question of who gets to come to Camp Ramah? Will future historians not wonder how a democratic state--any democratic state--should presume to define or legally designate what a "Jew" is, or a "Christian," for that matter, or award material privileges to individuals based on this legal designation, especially a state with a 20% (and growing) non-Jewish minority?

The Jewish state began as a Jewish national home, distinctive for its Hebrew language and thick cultural soup, in which individual poets, politicians, etc., made individual choices about identity and voluntarily joined associations and movements inspired by what of Jewish civilization mattered to them. Even schlock Diaspora writers got the point. Nowhere in the 640 pages of Leon Uris's Exodus do Ari Ben Canaan and his English girlfriend, Kitty, speak about her conversion. As far as the new state was concerned, was not the new Jew anyone speaking Hebrew, slinging a rifle over her shoulder, living in the Jezreel Valley, and fucking Ari Ben Canaan?

And will historians not wonder how this inclusive, democratic spirit--this great cultural adventure--would become so debased and over-shadowed during three generations, such that even American literary critics like Alana Newhouse, who on Monday will pronounce knowingly on Herman Wouk and Philip Roth, will, on Friday, think the problem is which rabbis have the right to make people into Jews, so that other made Jews would have the "right to marry" them? Will historians not wonder about a country, any country, where Newhouse does not have the right to marry anyone-the-hell she wants, Jew, Arab, or brunette fetishist? Particularly about a country that depends not only on the goodwill of the Jewish Diaspora, but the goodwill of all the Western democracies where the right to civil marriage has become boring?

I know that Newhouse, who is brilliant and sassy (and, I can state from experience, treats writers perfectly) thinks she is making a case for pluralism. But she is not, except in the suffocating sense that Sophie Portnoy made the case for hygiene. Imagine that Quebec had actually voted for independence in 1995, and that Canada could do nothing about it. Imagine that, by 2005, the new state passed all kinds of laws that privileged people legally define as Quebecois--access to land in the Laurentians, for example--and that one feature of being Quebecios was being a member of the Catholic Church. Imagine, then, that political leaders in the St. Jean Baptiste Society, which had won the national election, began debating whether Hans K√ľng, or liberation theologians in Latin America, had the right to convert you to Catholicism. Now imagine you were a Montreal Jew like Mordechai Richler, or a Frenchman like Camus, for that matter, and what you would think of this debate--or, indeed, think about Catholic intellectuals in Paris who thought this was a serious question about pluralism?

"Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities — a dystopian possibility that, if this bill passes, could materialize frightfully soon," she writes. I see. Dystopia is an Israeli law that "splits," not a legal system that fails to protect the splinters. Anyway, I suspect future historians will have better things to do than wonder about the narcissism of people who think that their "people" is the only people in the world.