Sunday, February 27, 2011

As had happened many times before in Jewish history, many European Jews in the late 19th century found themselves in a quandary. They no longer identified fully with the code and narrative of Judaism, some because the communities they belonged to were too provincial and others because the communities they belonged to were too acculturated. But, they felt themselves part of the Jewish nation and, in the spirit of the time, they had national aspirations that they sought to realize through the establishment of a Jewish state. For others, who did initially identify with Judaism as a moral system, nationalist yearnings drew them away from certain traditionalist attitudes. A nationalist awakening entailed overcoming traditions of quietism and passive forbearance. Inevitably, it replaced the authority of elders and sages with that of the young and vital who could tame the Land that they wished to redeem. They sought a new kind of power, political and physical, different than that which Jews had cultivated for almost two millennia. Nothing short of a rebellion would do.

It wasn't only the code that had to change. The narrative had to change as well. Indeed, the young nationalists carried with them many elements of the classic Jewish narrative. They "recalled" a glorious Jewish past and they viewed the return to the Land to which they aspired in millennial terms. But the past glories which they wished to revive were defined in political terms, not moral terms. As a result, a critical link in the narrative was missing: the past glories and the anticipated future ones were not mediated by a continuous tradition, as they were in the traditionalist narrative. In the nationalist narrative, nothing short of revolutionary means could overcome thousands of years of history that were, by this account, essentially wasted.

Some, following the ex-chassidic writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, saw Judaism as it had evolved in Europe as irredeemably desiccated. Ma tzarim oholecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, Berdichevsky railed. How narrow are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel. Others, following the ex-chassidic writer Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginsberg), held that the nationalist movement needed to maintain cultural continuity with contemporary Judaism, but needed to strip that culture of its specifically religious elements.

The obvious question is whether a form of Judaism truncated to serve the, wholly or partially, revolutionary specifications of non-religious nationalism is sustainable in the long term. The best way to form an optimistic view on the matter is to read a writer like Berdichevsky. His masterful Hebrew, his command of rabbinic sources and ability to use them to undercut their own intended message testify to the astonishing creativity unleashed by the nationalist revolution. Unfortunately, while the creativity is genuine, the effect is like being whacked over the head by an optical illusion. This creativity is not a product of the culture created by the revolution but rather it is a product of the culture replaced by the revolution. To live in a world of tradition with few outlets for creativity is to be like a rubber band twisted tighter and tighter; to abandon that world is to convert all that potential energy into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is dazzling, but it's non-transferable. Those who come after the revolution haven't stored enough potential energy to be very interesting.

In any event, the generation that came of age in 1948 found its identity not in a truncated Judaism but rather in the newly-established state. The moral system to which they gave their sole allegiance was that of the laws of the state; the community membership they valued was citizenship. Citizenship in Israel is no trifling matter; it has always entailed significant commitment and sacrifice. But to simply be a citizen of Israel is not enough; citizenship is orthogonal to membership in a Jewish moral community, or in fact in any moral community. Recall that moral systems evolve and moral communities retain their homogeneity through shifting membership; those who don't identify with the code and narrative as understood by a given community, cease to have influence within the community. That is the nature of voluntary communities. Citizenship doesn't work that way. It imposes rights and obligations (approximately) equally on all those within its geographic scope, so that membership lacks the necessary elasticity to sustain homogeneity.

The unhappy result is that secular nationalism undermines itself in short order. Ultimately an identity rooted in nothing more than citizenship is like having no affiliation with any sustainable moral system, so that many of those who identify as Israelis but not as Jews eventually assume the characteristics of the unaffiliateds we discussed earlier. In particular, as we have seen earlier, the logic of unaffiliatedness – in particular, the quest for equality at ever greater scale – leads to internationalism. Thus, nationalism leads to statism and statism leads to internationalism.

In communities of unaffiliateds in Europe or on American campuses, one of the signaling methods members use to identify themselves as loyal is the espousal of what I like to call "silly politics". In such communities, the normal obligations of growing up – earning a living, defending the territory, raising children – are deferred indefinitely. To signal that one doesn't intend to defect, one can declare oneself to be not merely temporarily shirking such duties but implacably opposed to them in principle: by advocating unlimited entitlements, by opposing all military activities of one's own country as unprovoked aggression and by insisting on the equal legitimacy of every romantic permutation. The point is not for the espoused view to make sense; the point is for it to be public enough and silly enough to work as a bridge-burning signal.

Every aspect of silly politics makes its way to Israel's unaffiliateds. But while opposing military activities in Europe or the United States is a luxury Europeans and American students can afford, mainly because the rest of America has their backs, silly politics is a luxury Israelis cannot afford. It isn't the few flaming anarchists that are the problem. The problem is the mainstream politicians and other machers who are too dim and/or lacking in character to resist sliding into a European mindset in which savages are forgiven everything and the virtuous are forgiven nothing.

The soft anti-nationalism of the gormless is the legacy of anti-religious nationalism. It was a nationalism that asked for too much. It didn't seek to catalyze change in religion, it sought to replace religion. Its proponents were very possibly right in assessing that, under the conditions of the times, there was no alternative. But, tragically, undercutting religion also undercut the basis for a sustainable moral system that could command ongoing loyalty. Note, though, that this is not the end of the story. Unlike in galus, the inheritors of the secular nationalist legacy have not assimilated and have adequate tools to seek a broader and more sustainable basis for identity. There is a loud and influential minority that is doubling down on a bad bet and getting more than its fair share of attention. But it's the silent majority that is doing some interesting things who are the real story and we'll get to it.

In case you're thinking that this post is just a partisan potshot, I'll get to religious nationalism and religious anti-nationalism in my next two posts and they will make this one seem sympathetic by comparison.

4 Comments:

Anonymous steve said...

blah blah you are really living in your own world

4:34 AM  
Anonymous shachar ha'amim said...

I assume that by "religious anti-nationalism" you mean the Agudist/Haredi/Old Yishuv type.
It would actually be interesting to hear your thoughts on the religious "zionists" who have clearly assumed the characteristics of the "unaffiliateds" in Israel

12:38 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

SH,
I'm avoiding the word Zionist precisely for the reason you put it in scare quotes. But while I intend to criticize the group you refer to, I don't really get your last remark. Maybe you could add a sentence.

12:47 PM  
Anonymous shachar ha'amim said...

Religious people who have adopted the views of the "unaffliateds".
Avrum Burg might be an extreme example. Certain religious "leftists" come to mind.
You have have others who are clearly still nationalists, but when it comes to issues of religion and state, they have clearly parked themselves in the camp of the "unaffiliateds" - and not because they believe in "separation of church and state". Simply because they believe that Aron Barak is a "gadol hador" and what he says on these issues is what goes.

2:04 PM  

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