Yes To Jewish Autonomy, No To Statehood

Quick catch-up: I’ve been arguing that a Jewish state can serve as a catalyst for Jewish renewal, but that all of the dominant ideologies in Israel miss this point. We have seen that secular nationalists thought that the state could replace the Jewish community with a civil community and that religious anti-nationalist imagined that a Jewish state would have no effect – or negative effect – on Judaism. Now let’s consider the case of religious nationalists.

Religious nationalists had to contend above all with a proposition regarding which secular nationalists and religious anti-nationalists were in full agreement: that religion and nationalism were incompatible. In particular, as we have seen, the founding of a viable modern state would necessarily entail fundamental changes in the traditional Jewish ethos. Jews would need to assume more positive attitudes towards political authority and towards military culture and the scope of halakhah would need to expand to incorporate (at least some) national affairs.

Early religious nationalists, such as Rav Yaakov Reines took a pragmatic approach to the opportunities and dangers: they considered the trade-offs and decided that, given the Jews’ precarious political situation, the package was worthwhile. For most religious Jews who embraced the nationalist movement, however, the millennial significance of a return to Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael was too momentous an event to frame in terms of pragmatic trade-offs. To them, it seemed more appropriate to reinterpret the challenges presented by secular nationalism as essential components of a Grand Plan.

Thus, the new definition of national power was embraced. The necessary tools of state-building – agriculture, military, industrial – were not simply necessary burdens but sacred endeavors worthy of the kind of veneration earlier reserved for matters of the spirit. Army uniforms were the new priestly garments. Furthermore, political subversiveness was replaced by its polar opposite, mamlachtiut: the doctrine that whatever apparent flaws the products of this redemptive process – the state and its institutions – might suffer from, they and their proximate agents should be regarded as endowed with a divine imprimatur. Finally, the state was designated as the appropriate authority for deciding and regulating religious matters. The state would appoint rabbanim, enforce religious legislation and fund religious services. Voluntary religious community organizations would be upgraded to state institutions. Secular officials, by virtue of being agents of the state and hence the bearers of profound religious longings of which they might be unaware, could be trusted to manage religious affairs.

In this view, the anticipated Jewish state would not replace religion, as secular nationalists anticipated, but rather would upgrade and subsume it. This optimistic view envisioned a mythical state different than the one anticipated by the bulk of Israel’s founders and, indeed, different than the one that actually exists. The actual state of Israel is a civil democracy in which political rights are grounded in citizenship, which is influenced by, but not determined by, ethnicity or religious commitment and in which laws are influenced by, but not determined by, Jewish tradition. To imagine that it could have been otherwise, that it is otherwise or that it will be otherwise in the foreseeable future is to live in a fantasy world.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the yawning gap between the mythical state envisioned by religious nationalists – the one that is yesod kisei hashem ba-olam – and the actual civil state – many of the institutions of which are structurally anti-religious – prevents religious nationalists from comprehending political events and, hence, from reacting to them in a rational manner. In the mythical state, the millennial narrative unfolds slowly but inevitably, guided along by the government and its representatives. As God’s chosen agents on earth, the Labor party commanded both the loyalty and the fawning admiration of religious nationalists from before the founding of the state until God elected the Likud in 1977. The courts, the army, the rabbanut and other state agencies were all playing their roles in the entirely deterministic unfolding of redemption and as such they too commanded the loyalty of religious nationalists. To criticize them was to rebel against God’s representatives on earth.

Among the silly policies this mindset encourages are two that we considered earlier. The first is nanny state socialism. In the religious nationalist view, Jewish Government is good, so Big Jewish Government is even better. If the state was meant to assume all the roles of pre-state communities, then, in particular, it ought to gather under its benevolent wing all communal righteousness. Never mind that welfare and assorted social benefits mostly serve as a mechanism for massive subsidization of Arabs by Jews, encourage the dissolution of families and discourage actual charity. Actual consequences in the actual state are of less importance to religious nationalists than that the state, as a symbol, be seen to be righteous.

Similarly, in this view, one of the state’s main purposes is to subsidize, and hence regulate, religion. In the actual state, as opposed to the mythic one, state subsidization of religion results in market distortions that produce unmotivated state-appointed rabbanim. And regulation invites state agencies, especially courts, that are indifferent – if not hostile – to religion, to weigh in on religious matters. Religious nationalists often seem completely blind to the damage such intervention causes. In fact, when the rabbanut ruled against the views of many religious nationalists regarding conversions and shemittah, religious nationalists themselves turned to the secular courts to force the rabbanut to recant.

The divergence of religious nationalists’ mythical state and the actual state of Israel has become so great that the myth is becoming unsustainable. The Labor party and the Supreme Court long ago adopted the agenda of the unaffiliateds, the rabbanut has been infiltrated by anti-nationalists and even the army played a leading role in the “disengagement”. In short, the main actors in this drama seem to have lost the script. What is one to do? The die-hard mamlachtimquibble among themselves about which inconvenient events are mere plot twists, which are produced by rogue actors and who are the rogue actors. It is a sad spectacle.

But quietly, young religious nationalists are rejecting the worst ideological excesses of religious nationalism.

From Ben Chorin, here.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.