In Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism, Yaacov Yadgar explores the ways in which Zionist thought and Israel as a state cope with Jewish traditions that preceded them. Jewish sovereignty shapes Jewish identity in Israel, with profound implications for non-Jews in Israel, and for the identity of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
Jewish Identity Pre-Religion
“Religion”—as something internal and private—is a concept that emerged during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the “nation state” and the “secular,” says Yadgar. (For a bit more on this, see my previous post here). During most of Jewish existence, Judaism was public and political, not religious and private in the modern sense.
When we think of the sacrificial cult of the Israelites centered on the temple in Eretz Yisrael, we see a practice that was public, communal, and political. During the rise of Ashkenaz (500 – 1,000 CE), says Norman Cantor, we see a Jewish community that grew wealthy and powerful and that mixed peoplehood, observance of Jewish law, and politics. For 500 years, Jews had a virtual monopoly on banking and credit in Western Europe. Jews became the great merchant traders and financiers of the early Middle Ages. This Jewish community was ruled by a narrow, capitalist-rabbinic elite, says Cantor. Wealthy banking and merchant families intermarried with prestigious rabbinic families, and together this elite imposed Jewish law on the Jewish community. What was the identity of these early Middle Age Ashkenaz Jews? They looked to their local community as their polity, they kept (and were kept) separate from surrounding Christendom, and they were led by a capitalist-rabbinic elite. At the same time, they must have felt connected to other, similar communities around Western Europe, and around the Mediterranean basin, all observing the same Jewish law (halakha), and linked through a vast international network of trade and rabbinic regulation. Judaism in the Middle Ages was public and political, not a matter of individual, private faith.
The public, political, and communal quality of Judaism only strengthened as Jews lost their monopoly in finance and banking in the 11th century and Jewish fortunes declined in a great upsurge of Christian anti-Semitism. Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1657; they were expelled from France in 1306; from Spain and Portugal in 1492.
And as Jews moved to Germany and then to the eastern lands of Poland, Lithuania, and Galicia, Yiddish became their common language. The isolation and separation from surrounding Christian communities, as well as the observance of Jewish law, intensified. The bond of peoplehood was strengthened.
In the Talmud (Ketubot 100b-111a), says Yadgar, the rabbis relate that, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, God commanded His people to accept life in exile and to obediently submit to living under foreign sovereignty. The absence of sovereignty became a cornerstone of Jewish political thought. This exilic rabbinic tradition highlighted Jewish law as the foundation of Jewish identity: law, which governs every aspect of the individual’s and the community’s life.
Throughout the Middle Ages this communal, political-but-not-sovereign, identity based on observance of halakha, and an increasingly shared Yiddish language and culture, served as the collective Jewish identity.
The Challenge of the Enlightenment
Beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, Western Europe saw a great revival of Aristotelian philosophy and science that eventually flowered into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. A century of religious wars sparked by the Reformation ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, ushering in the modern nation state and the idea of territorial sovereignty.
The concept of the modern European nation-state, “beyond asserting the state’s monopoly over the use of violence and its status above the law,” says Yadgar, strives to create and preserve “an absolute identification between sovereignty, territory, and identity.” People living within the borders of the state became citizens, and their identity became wrapped up with the state.
In order to accomplish this blending of sovereignty, territory and identity, the state was made secular and the church subordinate to the state. Christianity was turned into a “religion:” something private and internal, an impulse separate and distinct from the secular pursuits of politics and economics. The essence of this religion is belief. It allowed people to be Catholics or Protestants (and by now Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccan witches, or atheists) and yet be loyal Frenchmen, Englishwomen, Germans or Americans at the same time.
Jewish identity, based on its cornerstone of halakha, and loyalty to tribe governed by a capitalist-rabbinic elite, was not readily adaptable to this modern nation state with its trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity.
Turning Judaism into a Religion
The German haskala (or enlightenment), says Yadgar, sought to resolve this tension between adherence to Jewish law and loyalty to the nation state by reconstructing Judaism as an apolitical private, personal matter that does not touch upon the public sphere. Moses Mendelssohn re-cast Jewish law as a religion. The state, he argued, is by definition the party that deals with power and violence, while religion, in the true sense of the term, does not. Since Judaism does not deal with power, said Mendelssohn, it does not inhibit loyalty to the state. By turning Judaism into a religion, Mendelssohn paved the way for the successful assimilation of Jews into the non-Jewish, modern, secular European nation-states.
The Jewish Reform movement in Germany, and later in the United States, notes Yadgar, resolved any tension between commitment to Jewish law and commitment to the secular nation state by giving up, in practical terms, on Jewish law. Staunchly loyal to the nation state, the Reform movement reinterpreted Judaism as a spiritual achievement whose essence is the apolitical, the religious.
Orthodoxy was a reaction. Nevertheless, says Yadgar, Orthodoxy accepts Mendelssohn’s basic premise that Judaism is a religion that in no way conflicts with the modern nation state. Orthodoxy emphasizes Judaism’s all-encompassing nature; nevertheless, it also accepts that Judaism, and especially Jewish law, are by definition not political. Orthodoxy agrees with Mendelssohn that Jewish religion is not coercive and concerns only the heart and mind.
But Orthodoxy, unlike Reform, is anti-assimilation. Its self-imposed sense of separation from the larger world of Jewish identities—not to mention the secular world—is based on a distinctly Christian, Western conceptual framework, one constituted on notions of ‘belief’, ‘spirituality’, and a distinction between ‘theology’ and ‘politics.’ “Orthodoxy is in a certain sense the most modern of modern Judaisms in viewing itself as a religion on the German Protestant model,” claims Yadgar (citing Batnitzki).
Zionism as the New Judaism
If the Haskala took Jewish identity and turned it into a religion in order to assimilate into modern European nation states, Zionism took this religion and turned it into a tool of the (modern) nation state of the Jews.
Consider this contention by Shlomo Avineri and see if it resonates:
“Zionism … substituted a secular self-identity of the Jews as a nation for the traditional and Orthodox self-identity in religious terms. Zionism is not just a reaction of people to persecution. It is a quest for self-determination and liberation under the modern conditions of secularization and liberalism.”
We take for granted, says Yadgar, that Zionism is a revolution in Jewish identity. The early Zionists who settled the land and built Israel were militantly secular. Secularism, in their view, was a natural development of the human race toward reason, rationality, and enlightenment. But Zionism was their new religion.
And indeed, as we look around, we see that most Jews in the United States perceive their Judaism more as a matter of culture and ancestry than religion; two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish; a strong minority doesn’t believe in God; and most do not observe halakha in any meaningful sense. See Pew (2013). Israeli Jews are not significantly different (Pew 2016). This undermines any notion of a shared observance of a God-given Jewish law as the touchstone of Jewish identity. Israel, and the holocaust as its justification, has become the new touchstone of Judaism.
With secularization, says Yadgar, Jewish identity lost its normative and public standing. Observance of law and kehilla (Jewish Community), which served as the normative focus of Jewish existence, could no longer do so post-Emancipation and the Haskala. Once Jews were liberated, at least in part, from the traditional religious framework in matters of practice [mitzvoth and belief], they were compelled to instill new public meaning in their being.
Zionism provided such meaning by building a secular alternative to Jewish collectivity in the form of the Jewish nation-state. As Avineri put it:
“The state of Israel put the public, normative dimension back into Jewish life. Without this having ever been defined, and maybe it cannot be defined, it can be said that to be Jewish means—more than anything else—feeling attachment to the State of Israel.”
Today, noted Avineri, there is not one idea or one institution “around which all Jewish people can and do unite, except Israel.” The state emerges at the very heart of the Jewish people’s existence, notes Yadgar, as the only agent instilling a meaningful content into Jewish collectivity, and enabling Jews to remain a cohesive “people.” Jewish unity emerges as dependent upon the State of Israel. But it’s a perversion of Judaism.
Not Just a Secular State: Abandoning the Trinity of Sovereignty, Territory, and Identity
In building the state of Israel, Zionism has deviated from the Enlightenment trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity: in Israel sovereignty and territory are not co-extensive with identity.
The Israeli state has forged a Jewish national identity, not an Israeli national identity. It has done so, in part, by maintaining a population registry that records “Jewish” as a “nationality.” The Israeli Supreme Court has taken up the challenge of Jewish citizens who desired to have their nationality listed as “Israeli,” and the court concluded that there is no such thing as an “Israeli nation.” In other words, Israel self-identifies as the state of Jews, not of Israelis. The dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, suggests Yadgar, is intimately linked with this Zionist project. The state asserts its sovereignty over all Israelis, and over the territory, but only some Israelis (Jews) are true nationals of this state.
The registry, says Yadgar, makes the ideological point that Judaism is not just a religion, but primarily a nationality. This Jewish nationality is separate from, and superior to, “religious” Jewish belonging. The registry allows the state to distinguish Jews from non-Jews, and to put in practice a preference of the former over the latter. It leaves 20% of non-Jewish Israeli citizens—not to mention 4.3 million Palestinians living under occupation—alienated from the national character of the state.
The state maintains its Jewish identity by using symbols, national holidays, Shabbat, education, advertising, media, and the army as socializing agents. Palestinians are systematically excluded from this socialization. Orthodox rabbinic control over life cycle events, kosher laws, immigration, and conversion, further helps to preclude the formation of a national identity for non-Jews.
The degree to which the state has succeeded with its socialization is evident in the Pew polling. The Pew study of Israeli Jews (3/16) reveals that 79 percent of Israeli Jews say Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. Israeli Jews universally report (97%) they would be uncomfortable if their child married an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel. Nearly half (48%) “strongly agree” that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel. These views are not unfortunate accidents of transitory right wing politics. They reflect the degree to which Israel has strayed from the Enlightenment trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity.
It’s a perversion of the modern nation state.
Statist Judaism and Statist Jews
A corollary of the state maintaining a Jewish character, notes Yadgar, is that Jews who are essentially liberated from the authority of Jewish tradition, who are comfortably ignorant of that tradition, and indifferent towards it, are nevertheless able to maintain a strong Jewish identity through an allegiance to Israel as “the state of the Jews.” By raising high the flag of nationalism, secular Jews can feel themselves part of the people, suggested Ahad Ha’am. This holds true for Israeli Jews as well as Diaspora Jews, and it may explain why Israel-focused non-profit groups are the largest recipients of American Jewish philanthropy.
The state of Israel, suggests Yadgar, adopted a national theology based on an ethnic myth (type-J blood and ancestry) as a substitute for the traditional mythology of Jewish peoplehood based on a covenant with God. It’s no accident that Richard Spencer—a spokesperson for the American alt-Right movement—has looked with admiration on Israel’s example.
The prominent Israeli essayist and novelist, A.B. Yehoshua has said that “a Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel does not belong only to its citizens, but to the Jewish people in its entirety.” You don’t have to observe mitzvoth, or believe in God, or know anything about the Jewish tradition to belong to this Zionist Judaism. Under the extraordinarily broad Law of Return, you too can be granted citizenship upon landing in Israel if you are a Jew (born of a Jewish mother) or are the child or grandchild of a Jew, or the spouse of any of these. Come, “because you are only half a Jew in diaspora,” said Yehoshua, and upon arrival, the state will provide the content of your Judaism on a silver platter. You don’t need to lift a finger.
The state, by maintaining an Orthodox-officiated Jewish character, serves the same role as the temple priests of old: Jews bring their sacrifices to the temple priests, and they take care of the rest. But in the case of the modern state of Israel, the sacrifices brought by otherwise perfectly liberal Jews are the political rights, civil rights, and human rights of the Palestinians who are denied an equal stake in this state, and who are denied a national identity in this state.
This post first appeared on Roland Nikles’s blog earlier this month.