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Politicized Judaism: The Eclipse of Spirituality

This is not about the belief, or nonbelief, in God, a matter of conscience which is, or should be, the free choice of every individual; rather, it is about the vulgarization of religion itself when, on the believer side of the spectrum over this question, policies and actions in the name of religion have totalitarian/fascistic consequences altogether negating the moral-ethical-spiritual core of the belief system. This is what has happened, or is happening, to Judaism under the influence of an all but wholly uncritical allegiance to Israel, which in its actions and the preponderant will of its people offer a direct attack on the basis of Jewish faith. Ironically, a world religion that had been in the vanguard of tolerance, learning, and radicalism, and for that had suffered the worst possible punishment of genocidal mass extermination in the Holocaust, has become a bastion of global reaction which practices its mini-holocaust over the lives of the Palestinians.

World Jewry, including the United States, applauds or the very least is complicit in the moral destruction of Judaism, its spirituality (Latin, spiritualis, of breathing) that which defines the essence of conduct as well as belief to embrace higher principles of moral truth, is shattered on the rocks of militarism, arrogance, obsessive hegemonic claims (all usually directed against the weak) characterizing the Israel of modern times. Every child beaten or murdered by settlers’ anger and IDF forces in the demand for ironclad subordination of another people, spits in the face of Torah … and insults the memory of the holocaust Victims. The pitiable sight of the way American Jews rally to Israel’s side, instead of expressing shame of its human-rights record, and demanding a fundamental change of policy and moral direction, raises for me the question: Is there longer because of Israel’s record of betraying Jewish humanism an existential foundation for faith? Is God DEAD?

These dark thoughts are prompted most recently by Netanyahu’s appointment of Ran Baratz as his chief of public diplomacy, not that sufficient provocation hasn’t existed for some decades on how Israel, fully militarized, nuclear armed, boastful of its might, has acted toward Palestinians and on the regional and global scene. Flaunt it, baby (or rather, Bibi), never look back, always a steely-eyed attitude shifting progressively rightward through time, contemptuous of the UN as well as world opinion, brazen in a disregard for the brutality of Occupation, self-righteous about the alleged necessity for exercising dominance (aka, ethnic cleansing) on a permanent footing, as when leading Israeli government officials openly declare their rejection of a Palestinian state. Yet beyond all this, there is the unrelieved hatred boiling up from the Israeli psyche and ethos, which is not explainable by a realistic assessment of context (Israel does not face annihilation!) but the twisted mindset, perhaps a form of self-hatred, borne of exercising domination itself. Sadly, the disease is infectious, affecting Jews everywhere. Simply, the Jewish people will not be free until Israel has been democratized, shorn of its societal poisons.

On Baratz, an instructive example, let me turn to an Associated Press article in the New York Times entitled, “Netanyahu Appointment Casts Cloud Over US Visit,” (10-5), in which my first thought upon reading about Baratz is that it is a shame that religion is being used as a cover for societal persecution, and my second, that, yes, one case cannot be used to generalize about the whole, but still he is archetypal and, more important, fits into Netanyahu’s political strategy and personal conviction about pushing the goal posts to make extremism ever more moderate-appearing and acceptable. Netanyahu may yet fire Baratz before meeting with Obama, or shortly after, but the purpose of the appointment has been served—flaunt it, baby, stick it to the world community that Fortress Israel is capable of defending itself against all comers, and for that reason can also act with impunity in doing whatever it chooses—even tweaking the nose of its patron, the United States.

We learn here that Baratz has made some inexpedient comments before Netanyahu’s visit to Washington (singularly, the appointment was made only days before the trip, sending a signal of Israel’s position which, though an apology followed, has all the earmarks of a planned insult). The account notes: “Netanyahu announced Baratz’s appointment as his chief spokesman late Wednesday, and soon after, old Facebook posts had emerged in which Baratz suggested that Obama is anti-Semitic and Kerry cannot be taken seriously. He also derided Israel’s popular president as ‘marginal.’” Netanyahu claims ignorance of the posts, but his appointments hardly justify confidence: Ron Dermer as ambassador to Washington, Danny Danon as ambassador to the UN, one opposed to “the nuclear deal with Iran,” the other “a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an equally fervent opponent of a Palestinian state, putting him at odds with the international community.” No, Baratz was no accident, stating Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was an example of “’modern anti-Semitism in liberal Western states,’” and as for Kerry, “a stand-up comedian, insinuating his speeches are laughable.” He also went after Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, in cutting remarks.

Then, also in The Times, Jodi Rudoren’s earlier article, “Netanyahu Quiets Deputy Who Said She Dreamed of Israeli Flag Over Jerusalem Holy Site,” (9-27), provides further indication of a trend increasingly toward a hardened Right, in which all three, Baratz, Dermer, Danon, and now, Tzipi Hotovely, as deputy foreign minister (Netanyahu being his own foreign minister), are by intent provocative appointments to show the world Israel’s complete unconcern about global opinion. When she said recently, “’It is my dream to see the Israeli flag’” flying over the Old City holy sites, once more one senses an orchestrated theme of defiance, Netanyahu’s calculated denial, and, with the upcoming meeting, in which Israel is asking for billions in military spending over the next ten years, a hubristic assertion of moral superiority at one with its policy of repression at home. (For what else the huge military outlays?) Rudoren points out that in Netanyahu’s assembled coalition, one “with the slimmest possible parliamentary majority and with many members who are to his right on the political spectrum,” he somehow emerges for that reason as a centrist figure, is of course nonsense. It also reveals how far down and popular semi-fascist values and beliefs have sunk into Israeli consciousness.

No sign yet that the resignation of Baratz and Hotovely has been demanded, and even if so this does not alter the broader picture, many others perfectly capable of stepping into their shoes. Netanyahu looks good when compared with those around him, in effect, a self-devouring Right that can do no wrong. I was struck by Gadi Wolfsfeld’s (a professor of communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya) observation: “’ He [Netanyahu] becomes the responsible adult—he is saying, I know you think I’m right wing, I know you think I’m radical, but these people are much worse. It [the argument] serves both sides. It serves Netanyahu’s side to tell the world that if you don’t depend on him, you have the other crazies coming in, and it serves the crazies, because when they say what they say, all their constituents stand up and applaud.’”

There are plenty of crazies to go around in Israel, even those claiming moderation meeting that standard. Hotovely, in “her opening speech to Foreign Ministry appointees suggested that they invoke the Talmud to buttress arguments for Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank,” is a perfect illustration of zealotry run wild, as also when she told “European diplomats—who reported her comment to Washington—that the government would never evacuate West Bank settlements” part of the orchestration of the hardline message, designedly, I suggest, on the assumption that claims to power breed respect. Finally, let’s look again at Baratz’s statement, as reported in William Booth’s article in the Washington Post, “Netanyahu’s new top media adviser called Obama an anti-semite, (10-5), slightly different from the quotation above, and more biting in tone: “’Looks like a modern anti-Semitism [the Iranian nuclear negotiations] disguised as Western liberalism. It comes of course with lots of tolerance and understanding of Islamic anti-Semitism; so much tolerance and understanding that they are willing to give them the atom.’” It’s my way, or the highway (of death and destruction), Palestinians as perhaps a surrogate for Iranians, Iranians as a surrogate for—the chain of reasoning never stops, as the seething cauldron of hatred boils over.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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