In my previous post, I described seven frightening trends of religious radicalism in Israel threatening women’s well-being and in some cases women’s lives. Despite this dire report, there have also been some inspiring actions by women’s groups and other social activists fighting for human rights and change in Israel. The most interesting developments are those that come from religious feminist groups, fighting for change from within the religious world. But the work of religious feminism is tremendously bolstered by social activist NGOs working on a variety of fields. Below are 10 examples of inspiring campaigns by Israeli NGOs to reclaim women’s rights in the face of religious threats:
1. Segregated buses. IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) and Kolech (The Religious Women’s Forum) led a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transport, which eventually made gender segregation on buses illegal. Today, every bus has a sign saying that women can choose to sit where they want. Bus drivers comply because they know they can be fined a month’s salary if their buses are found to have segregation. Today there are less than 50 segregated lines left, down from over 150 in 2011.
2. Women’s faces on Jerusalem streets. The campaign of an NGO called “Jerusalemites” to hang faces of women around the city forced businesses to change their policy of showing women’s faces on billboards in Jerusalem. Even the Jerusalem municipality has restored women’s faces to many of their printed materials, such as this year’s brochure for the Jerusalem marathon which showed women’s faces for the first time in several years.
3. Gender segregation on the streets. Another IRAC lawsuit is pending against the Netanya Hevra Kadisha on behalf of a woman who was excluded from delivering a eulogy at a funeral.
4. Rock throwing in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh resident Nili Phillip is leading a class-action suit against the municipality of Beit Shemesh to hold them accountable for the fact that women are being hurt by rock throwing Haredi men. It is up to the municipality, they argue, to take down signs saying women cannot be on certain streets and to protect women. The lawsuit is pending.
5. Women’s voices on the radio. Kolech and IRAC are in the midst of a 100 million NIS ($30 million U.S.) lawsuit against the broadcasting authorities to protest the practice of the Kol Berama radio station to exclude women’s speaking and singing voices. Kol Berama is at risk of losing its license. The lawsuit may also pave the way for similar actions in other areas.
6. Civil marriage and divorce in Israel. Several organizations are pushing for civil marriage and divorce in Israel—including The Center for Women’s Justice, New Family, Hiddush, and Be Free Israel, among others. The Masorti Movement is also pushing to have non-Orthodox marriages recognized as valid. Public sentiment is undoubtedly increasing in support of this movement and the possibilities are encouraging.
7. Women as directors of rabbinical courts. ICAR is also promoting a bill to change the current law that says that the executive director of the Rabbinical Courts—an administrative position, not a rabbinic one—has to be an ordained rabbi, meaning an Orthodox rabbi. This excludes women as well as non-Orthodox Jews. Changing this law would open up at least one position of authority to women.
8. Challenging the abortion panels. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) is spearheading legislation to make the abortion panels obsolete.
9. Challenging the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over conversion. The Center for Women’s Justice is awaiting a decision on their appeal to the High Court of Justice challenging the right of the rabbinical court to overturn conversions.
10. Reform in the “services” of the Religious Ministry. The Religious Ministry has responded to public pressure by beginning to institute reforms in the way the clerks of the Religious Ministry relate to the public, including allowing for some free market competition by allowing people to choose which city to register for marriage in. Although these proposed reforms contain some problematic elements as well (such as a proposal to make it an arrestable offense for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings!), the fact that there is any proposed reform on the table points to the impact of social pressure and the fact that this entire issue is arguably in the midst of major transition.
There is still much work to be done in Israel to protect women’s basic rights and to curtail the onslaught of radical religious ideas, but the work of these wonderful NGOs, especially the work of religious feminist groups, leaves me inspired.
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Women being arrested for praying out loud at the Western Wall – it’s a story so shocking that it has managed to make headlines around the world. But the Western Wall is just one piece of a larger picture of religion and gender in Israel today. In fact, the threat to women’s well-being in Israel today, which comes from an increasingly radical religious power structure, finds expression in many areas. On public streets, on buses, in the government, in the army, in the courts, and in hospitals, women’s bodies are the objects of public scrutiny, debate and even violence.
Below are seven places where women’s bodily well-being has been threatened in Israel over the past several years because of growing religious radicalism:
(1) Public buses. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as official gender-segregated buses in Israel. The first segregated line was established in 1997 between Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, as an experimental Egged pilot to appease haredi leaders threatening to boycott Egged. In 2001, after years of pressure, Egged added another route from Ashdod as well, and stores along the gender-segregated route were pressured to change their displays, remove mannequins, avoid the central bus station to avoid ‘immodest’ signs, and play only certain radio stations. Each year more gender-segregated lines were added – 11 in 2005, 30 in 2006, by January 2011, there were 128 lines. By 2011, there were over 150 lines. And the more lines there were, the more violence against women rose, from one reported violent incident in 2004 to a Transport Ministry report that showed bullying and threats of violence on 5% of all buses.
(2) Public spaces. Signs have been erected on public streets in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, and other cities, demanding that women walk on the other side of the street. Signs excluding women have been erected in many other public locations around the country, including cemeteries, health clinics, post offices, libraries, and even public universities. University gyms have asked women to leave at the request of religious male students, women singers have been asked not to sing in cities including the avowedly secular Modi’in. In some cases, this is accompanied by violence: women in Beit Shemesh have been beaten and have had rocks thrown at them and acid poured on them by haredi thugs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(3) Municipalities. Gender-segregated municipal events have been held all around the country, including Rechovot, Safed, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, and more. Women have been disinvited from performing, including singers being asked to leave the stage or having their microphones shut off and dancers who have been forced to wear shawl-like dresses to cover their dancing costumes. Some municipalities have published materials without any photos of women, including the brochure for the Jerusalem marathon.
(4) Media. The Kol Berama radio station not only refuses to air women’s singing, but also refused to allow women to be presenters, announcers or news readers, and would not let women callers speak. The Cnaan advertising company, which places ads on public buses, does not allow women’s faces to appear on the sides of buses in Jerusalem and certain other places. Similarly, companies and organizations ranging from Honigman to organ donation created special no-women ads for Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere
(5) The Knesset and government offices. Women were disinvited from singing in the Knesset choir. The health ministry and education ministries have held all-male events – and in one case a leading female medical researcher was barred from walking on stage to accept a prestigious award from the health ministry because women were barred from the event. The Education Ministry also ran a separate ad campaign for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in which women’s faces did not appear on billboards.
(6) The IDF. As pressure mounts to induct haredi soldiers, the IDF is under pressure to keep women hidden from certain places to make the army “comfortable” for haredi men. This includes plans to build an all-male training camp. According to reports, women have been removed as instructors following complaints from religious soldiers, other soldiers refused to take orders from their female infantry instructors, discussions were being held about limiting the roles of women in tanks and armory, in the Intelligence Corps, women were asked to teach only while standing behind a desk, and more.
(7) Rabbinical courts. There is arguably no place in Israel where women’s rights are more systemically trounced upon in the name of religion than the rabbinical courts. The current system for marriage and divorce leaves all Jewish women in Israel, regardless of religiousness, lifestyle, or volition, completely at the discretion of the ultra-Orthodox state-backed rabbinical courts. This situation has been chronicled by many great activists, and there are some band-aid solutions in place. But the fundamental situation in which haredi judges can ruin women’s lives according to their own constantly radicalizing perceptions of women remains in place. And this situation makes Israel a scary place for Jewish women to get married.
In my next post (Part 2), I will share 12 remarkable ways that women are fighting back and reclaiming power over body integrity and basic human rights in Israel.
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In Iranian prison I didn’t hear the anti-Semitism that I anticipated. For months, I feared revealing my religion to guards. When I finally let on, I found that some guards were ignorant about Judaism: “Oh, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.” Others were excited to connect our common monotheism. A guard would point to me approvingly and said, “Moses” and point to my gentile friends and said, “Jesus.” Then they’d point to themselves smilingly, “Muhammad.” I’d nod awkwardly at the attempt to find common ground.
That’s not to say there was nothing to be offended by – especially on Iranian government-run television. However, the most pernicious stereotype occurred at my hearing when the judge sentenced me to eight years. He equated Jewishness with Israelis, and Israelis with mortal enemies. Hence, by association, I was guilty of espionage. The prosecutor and the judge contradicted the consensus among the guards: “Jew – no problem. Israel – problem.”
One day, when I was eleven years old, I was playing roller hockey in the parking lot of St. James Church with a bunch of Jewish friends. When a group of peers left the school building attached to the church we interrupted our own game and skated circles around them. I never met those kids before, we usually played at Kenneth Israel down the road. We started spontaneously asking the Catholic school boys questions: what did you learn in school today? Do you think the Jews killed Jesus? Jews are stingy – don’t you think? The Catholic boys looked confused, but eventually one made the anti-Semitic comments we were looking for.
Unaware of this pre-pubescent incident, St. James Church put me on their prayer roll and held events and vigils for my freedom. In solitary confinement, I lambasted my childish behavior, adding fuel to my ongoing battle against a rapacious self-hatred. When my friend was allowed to move into my cell, we shared everything, and when Christmas came I celebrated for my first time in my life.
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My recently-published memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, chronicles the story of my reconciliation with the family of the bomber who perpetrated the 2002 Hebrew University terror attack – an attack which injured my wife and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
It is the story of how, suffering from PTSD-like symptoms in the attack’s wake, I sought a meeting with the Hamas bomber upon learning that he had unprecedentedly expressed remorse to Israeli authorities upon his capture.
It was a meeting I sought not out of revenge, but out of desperation.
To some, my story is a dangerous one – that is, if you view stories of peace and reconciliation, stories that humanize both Palestinians and Jews, as existential threats to Israel’s survival. Apparently, some do. Which is why, when the New York Post recently named my memoir as a “must-read,” a blogger for The Times of Israel penned an article entitled, “Is the New York Post Supporting the End of Israel?”
Within the article, I am characterized as an anti-Semite whose writing could come from “Hamas’ Editorial Team” because, apparently, any writing that critiques Israel and humanizes Palestinians is championing Israel’s destruction.
For those who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game, in which only one side can emerge victorious, my book is indeed dangerous. It’s threatening. Even terrifying. Which is why it has inspired writers like the one at TOI to levy the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge against me – a charge meant to shut down political dialogue and debate on a most important issue.
Unfortunately, when the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge is employed in this way, it means little more than this: I disagree with your politics. And this usage, which is nothing more than a scare tactic, actually dilutes what is a very real and dangerous prejudice which continues to persist globally.
In truth, it’s not so different from what the Tea Party did recently during the government shutdown. In that case, you had politicians willing to leverage damaging the United States in order to promote their extremist, unsustainable demands. It was nothing but a destructive tantrum which, in the end, cost the U.S. economy $24 billion and .5 percent GDP in projected growth.
So too are misplaced charges of anti-Semitism by American Jews who stand outside the mainstream. They are nothing more than political tantrums intended to destroy reputations and silence debate on an issue that needs to be discussed: how to peacefully resolve a conflict which must end so that each side emerges ‘victorious.’
How to bring resolution so that each people, both deserving self-determination, can live in a country of their own?
An anti-Semitic notion, no?
Below, D. A. Mishani continues where he left off yesterday: wondering about the evolution of popular literary genres in Israel and why powerful people didn’t want “the detective” written at all.
Here is, for example, an important piece of evidence I found during my investigation: a fierce article written on detective fiction in a Hebrew newspaper in Palestine in the 1930’s, when the first translations of detective fiction to Hebrew were made (mainly to Sherlock Holmes stories) and the first original detective stories in Hebrew were written:
“Who is it that poisons the soul of our children with this so-called literature – arouses in them the most savage and hideous feelings? All over the Diaspora, songs are being sung for the children of the Land of Israel (Palestine) and their complete, healthy souls – and who is this that dares to damage them, to damage the pure and the innocent within them? And why isn’t there any public punishment for them? Aren’t we going to finally put an end to this filthy commerce, commerce in the souls of our children?”
The critic’s emphasis on the word “commerce” here is not innocent. I think it refers to the stereotypes of “Old” and “New” Jew – the first, the supposedly uprooted diasporic Jew, being concerned with money making, whilst the second, the new Palestinian Jew, the Hebrew, is concerned with curing the nation, physically as well as spiritually. By that time, in the early 1920’s, popular literature in general and detective fiction in particular were already wide-spread in Yiddish. In this sense, the translations of detective stories into Hebrew in Palestine were perceived as a threat to the purity of the Zionist Cultural Revolution.
It’s interesting to see that the defenders of detective fiction in this debate, whilst rejecting the arguments against the genre, used the same national terminology in order to promote it. Their argumentation relied on the contribution of detective fiction to the national project. Their main argument for introducing detective fiction into Hebrew literature referred to the genre’s possible contribution to the revival of modern Hebrew language. They noticed the popularity of detective fiction among Jewish readers in Yiddish and argued that in order to persuade Jewish youth to learn Hebrew, it was crucial to develop Hebrew detective fiction that would attract readers.
These arguments have marked the condition of detective fiction written or translated into Hebrew from that moment on, and maybe until this very day. This is the reason for the relatively few translations of foreign crime fiction, at least until recent years, and why I found myself, at the age of 11 or 12, in front of empty library shelves.
This is also the answer to the question I asked myself: How did I come to read The Hound of the Baskervilles at the age of 8 or 9? Detective fiction, even when it was translated, was classified as children’s fiction. Thus, until recently, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories were published in Hebrew editions aimed at children – and most of the original detective fiction in Hebrew from the 1930’s until the late 1980’s was written for children or was considered children’s literature.
In fact, it was only in the late 1980’s that detective fiction really appeared in Hebrew adult fiction, namely in the form of two serial detective-novels written by two female authors, Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid. Gur’s A Saturday Morning Murder, introducing police inspector Michael Ohayon, was first published in 1988, and Lapid’s Local Paper, introducing amateur sleuth Lizi Badihi, was first published in 1989. Both gained commercial success and some critical appreciation and both revealed the second problem of writing a detective novel in Israel – that is, the problem of the Mizrahi (or Sepharadi) protagonist.
For many years the political power of Israel’s Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.
But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.
It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.
To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel’s largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.
Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel’s political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.
Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.
But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.
Perhaps after I was born, someone sneaked into the hospital nursery and instead of snatching me, stood above me and whispered, “May You Have an Interesting Life.” The motives of this person would not have been clear, nor their intention – blessing or curse. But “interesting” is pretty much a guarantee for anyone who understands early in their life that they have been born into a world that is not their world; that they will need to exit and go forth from what they have known into the babel of many other tongues, satchel on their back, at any given moment looking both forward and back. We who have done so will forever have the understanding, the language of the insider while willingly – no desperately – at all costs – wanting to be outside.
I have not yet read Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir but when I first read her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, certainly inspired by her strange and interesting life of having been adopted into a family of evangelical Christians, I felt that I had found my sister. The extraordinary writer, Kate Wheeler, whose past includes a stint as a Buddhist nun in Burma, has a magnificent short story collection entitled Not Where I Started From. That would be an apt title for a memoir, should I ever decide to write one.
Like Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander, I emerged from an Orthodox upbringing and am, in fact, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Emerging and carving my own path was certainly fraught and difficult and cost a villa in the south of France worth of therapy, but it has also provided me a certain literacy in multiple points of view and in worlds that don’t typically meet and if they do, they are not always friendly.
For starters, we were Ashkenazic and my father was rabbi of a Sephardic shul. And so I grew up with a foot in each world and the very different values and priorities of those two worlds played out in my life in various ways. As a child, I knew Meir Kahana personally (he was married to my mother’s first cousin) but only a few years into adulthood, in Israel, ended up working for a left wing member of Knesset. I found myself coming to feel strongly about territorial compromise and a two-state solution while being intimate with the world of settlers. Three years ago, when my son was sixteen, I took him to Israel for his first time. I didn’t relish a trip to the West Bank, where my relatives lived, and so my sister-in-law, whom I love and respect very much despite our divergent views, concocted a five-day trip through the north of Israel. I should stop here and let you know that my brother was killed in the first week of the second Intifada and that my sister-in-law has spent the years since single-handedly raising seven kids. She told me that all of the kids, including my two married nieces’ husbands, would be coming. I assured her that I had brought my most modest bathing suit.
“Bathing suit?” she said and laughed.
The first day of our trip, my relatives made a point of finding banks of the Kinneret that were deserted, and hidden pools and parts of the Jordan river where we could pretty much be on our own. In blazing heat by the Kinneret I watched as she and all the girls meandered into the water in their clothes. (There was apparently no such restriction on the men!!!) There was no choice. I could remain outside and bake or cool off in my skirt and top. After three days of swimming in my clothes (I will state what some of you are thinking – yes there is an absurdity as clinging wet clothes are not exactly modest), I got used to it. One day a secular couple wandered into the area where we were swimming. The woman was pale and in a bikini and it stopped me. All that skin suddenly seemed superfluous. Distracting.
While I glibly tossed around story titles in my head like “My Vacation with Extremists,” on another level, what I was coming to understand was the embarrassment of riches I’ve been given in terms of a passport to cross the borders of such radically divergent worlds.
In my last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.
But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.
So I decided that I needed to include a chapter towards the end of The Promise of Israel to address this. I needed to remind them that Israel isn’t just a homeland far away, but it’s actually the generator that provides an enormous portion of the energy for the American Jewish community. Sans Israel, I decided to argue, American Jews would find themselves without perhaps the one issue that truly motivates and energizes their community. Without Israel, after all, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long-since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel shame, or anger, or exhilaration? What else in Jewish life evokes the same intensity of emotion? It’s actually hard to think of examples.
When JCC’s discuss whether or not they should be open on Shabbat, do people get exercised? Not really. When a Jewish home for the aging decides to cease offering kosher food, does the issue bring out the masses? In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco that both saw Jews at the forefront and had clear anti-Semitic overtones; but did it provoke a stir anywhere near as powerful as what happened after an Israeli naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before? Not at all!
When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why, though? Sometimes, it seems that American Jews get much more worked up about what Israeli rabbis who are not of their denomination say than they do when their own local rabbis speak!
We should not ignore this peculiar phenomenon, because it speaks to something very deep inside us. When we think about it, we understand that on some level, we intuit that a People without a state is missing something critical. We can’t articulate precisely why, but we know it’s true. American Jews, secure and confident though they are, need Israel because whether we want to admit it or not, even in the Diaspora, Israel is key to making the Jewish experience whole.
That is why issues in issue electrify American Jews in ways that many “domestic” Jewish issues don’t. This, too, is a conversation that I hope that The Promise of Israel will help to foster.
In my previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that The Promise of Israel might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.
In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere twenty-seven years later. John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, and fifty-two years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.
Ideas do matter. They shape history. It is ideas, even more than territory or money, over which people go to war. Witness the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world today. That conflict, one of the gravest dangers facing our world, is really about ideas. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists do not seek the West’s wealth. What they are doing is attacking the West’s culture and ideas.
Israel, I wanted my book to argue, can be our way of fighting back. For Israel is not just about borders or an army, great universities and world class medical care. It’s a story, and even more than that, Israel is the platform from which the Jewish People says something to the world about the ideas that we have been cultivating for millennia.
Jews have never bought into post-ethnic, post-identity ethos so in vogue in today’s discourse. We’ve always believed it was good that people were different, that we could learn from each other precisely because we were not the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile, more than a century before Theodor Herzl began his campaign for a Jewish State, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” Well, now we have that state. Our responsibility, I think, is to make sure that we’re speaking not only about borders and security, but about the very ideas that lie at the core of Israel, and that hopefully, the world will come to understand that it needs to hear.
People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.
The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
So I decided that what we really need to being speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.
The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.