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.


Anonymous said...

Shalom Bernard Avishai:

Is it true, as I've heard that the Haredi (I don't know if Haredi is the same as hasidic) started in Poland about six hundred years ago?

In the Bronx the Black kids used to laugh and say "Hasidim but I don't believe 'em."

Anyway, if my first paragraph is correct how did they come to turn all of Judaism on its head? Who gave them the keys to the car?

I'm a 67 year old male who was making aliyah on May 31st. Yes, I have my visa, I had my seat on United from LAX to Newark, and my seat on El Al from Newark to Ben Gurion, landing on June 1st. But I put my aliyah on hold for a while.

I read Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post and I get Ynet and I love the "talk-backs." I love open debate and in Israel it is wide-open debate. The things people say about each other are positively primative, and everyone stands their ground. No one budges, no one ever gets convinced of anything.

I could not believe that the Ashkenazi Haredi don't consider the Sephardic Haredi worthy of attending the same schools. The Supreme Court handed down the correct ruling for a democracy, but the Ashkenazi Haredi would not accept the ruling claiming to be above the civil law.

That's when it started to get a little hairy for me as I love the law. I'm not a lawyer but order is nice. One law for all.

When I was eight, I used to march up and down Jesup Avenue in the Bronx with my grandfather's forty-eight star American Flag. I've always had a lot of red, white, and blue in my blood, so when lovable Joe Biden is in Israel talking passionately about how there is no light between Israel and the US, how Americans love Israel, and on that same day the housing authority announces 1600 new units in East Jerusalem I yelled "ARE THEY CRAZY?"

I want to say more, and there's plenty to say but you've heard it already.

Something isn't kosher in Israel and I'm going to wait a while to see if I want to live and die there.

Sorry to be verbose.

I enjoy reading your blog.
Thank you.
Be well,
Michael Schloss
aka micki SCHLOSS (preferred)

Y. Ben-David said...

Not coming to Israel IS A MISTAKE!
All Jews have a place in Israel. I disagree with almost everything Bernie says but I am glad he is here in Israel with the rest of us, and I respect him for it. As I understand it, he came during the height of the suicide bomber campaign. That takes guts.

The vast majority of Israelis get along fine with each other, including Haredim, secularists, settlers. I would add the Israeli Arabs to the list as well. Do not assume the media gives an accurate picture of the day-to-day life we have here.

Israel particularly needs more American olim....Israel was founded by people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East and their understanding of true democracy is incomplete, as Bernie is constantly pointing out, correctly. You can make a difference. So get on that plane!

Joel A. Levitt said...

The Hasmoneans (Mattathias, Judah and his brothers) wanted to preserve their power and that of their party, even if it took killing people to do it. They succeeded. Then, having captured the priesthood, they felt it less and less necessary to disguise their constantly increasing corruption at the expense of the People of Israel, leading inexorably to our exile.

The Haredi rabbinate, allied with Yisrael Beiteinu, is attempting to follow the Hasmoneans’ example. Perhaps, the outrage being expressed in the Diaspora will stop them, but don’t bet on it. The 7/20/10 issue of Haaretz (“Clash of the titans - Postponing the inevitable” By Aluf Benn) reports that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman [have] decided … [t]he coalition will survive in its current make-up and will find a solution that will allow for the burial of the conversion legislation, so that a rift with American Jewry will be prevented without a need to break up the government.” But, the legislation is not abandoned. In order to stay in office, Netanyahu and Lieberman agree that the legislation “is only postponed.”

The outrage of Diaspora Jewry is to be contrasted with their lack of outrage about Israelis beating Palestinians, destroying their homes and their crops, and stealing their land. There is, also, no outrage about the demand that before negotiating a peace the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, subordinating Israeli Arabs to second class citizens, or about the loyalty oath legislation moving through the Knesset despite the fact, as Shulamit Aloni explained on YNET (“Jewish and democratic?” 7/19/10), that requiring Israeli Arabs to swear such an oath violates Israel’s Basic Law. Diaspora Jews are outraged because Israeli factions are denying they are authentic Jews. Perhaps, the Jews of the Diaspora have doubts about their authenticity themselves. Perhaps, they should.

Andy Bachman said...

Bernard--I think you do a disservice to Alana's argument. She clearly addressed the conversion bill in her Times op-ed, not the overall nature of Israeli democracy (it's strengths and its failures) which is certainly an argument worth having.

Anonymous said...

To Micki Schloss,
Thanks for your letter, I would not say it better. Although I consider myself pro-Israel Jew, I do not consider myself Zionist (Nationalist)in the sense of tribal Jewish state. As Bernard wrote in one of his blogs ... original concept had been national Jewish home. Country where Jews of all stripes could feel safe.
Like you I am over 60 years old and have a emotional attachment to Israel but what is coming out of there is scaring me.

Stan Racansky
Ibn Verga - (traveling Jew)

Potter said...

Micki thanks. I grew up in the Bronx. .. for a time not too far from Jesup Av. (Walton Av) and I too carried a flag with 48 stars -to the parades on the Grand Concourse. That was right after WW2 and we were waiting for my uncle in his uniform, to pass by. It was a heady time emotionally. Also our support ( my parents, aunts and uncles) for Israel at that time was very high.

Fast forward. Just heard the news that a member (this one decidely not orthodox) of our extended family in Israel is planning to get married. The couple will go abroad for a civil ceremony.

There seem to be multiple splits, or rather as BA says, splinters, between the various Israeli Jews, between diaspora and Israeli Jews, not only between Jews and Arabs and Arabs and Arabs within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. So I wonder if this is a very serious time for Judaism, akin to say the Protestant Reformation, or no, maybe more-so, the Counter Reformation. Maybe all this could only happen now in what aims to be, or is, a "Jewish state" - a last ditch attempt to hold back spiritual progress.

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