In today’s NY Times there appeared an article by Omri Boehm, who’s identified a philosopher, who teaches at the New School and is a specialist in early modern philosophy. Entitled “Did Israel Just Stop Trying to Be a Democracy?”Boehm argues that the primary function of the new Nation-State law “is to build a formal foundation for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — and for a Jewish state eventually to stretch over the whole of Palestine.”
About this, I wish to make two points, one about the law itself, the other about the New York Times and the letters that follow upon any Israel article.
In my last post, I quoted Professor Emmanuel Navon who teaches at Tel Aviv University. In an article in the JPost, he argues that the main reason for the law is to balance the dialectic between the “Jewish” aspect of Israel and the “Democratic” part. In his article he notes that in 1992, the Israeli High Court under Aharon Barak made a decision regarding the use of the term “Jewish” in adjudicating cases brought before the Court, “In case of a conflict, the word “Jewish” shall be interpreted by the court “with the highest level of abstraction.” In other words, it shall be ignored.”
I couldn’t immediately see how the phrase “with the highest level of abstraction” could mean ignoring the Jewishness side of any equation. So I wrote to Prof. Navon and this is how he answered me (knowing I would quote him): “My point is that Barak tried to solve cases of contradiction between Jewish and democratic values by interpreting the word “Jewish” so as to make democratic values always prevail. “The most abstract” level of interpretation is, in fact, a way of having democratic values always prevail over Jewish ones and, thefore (sic), to ignore the latter.”
This seems eminently arguable, and, indeed, is likely the divide between left and right on this matter in Israel. The framers of the law feared the diminution of the “Jewish” side of the equation in the Jewish-democracy dialectic that Israel has always faced, and the Nation-State law wrote in protections against that possibility. How the law can be used to prepare the ground for eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is unclear to me. I am not persuaded by Boehm’s argument. How this law unpacks in the near and more remote future, we can only wait and see. But as I wrote in my last post, it’s difficult for me to see in the wording of the law itself all of those claims about the erosion of democracy, racism, and now final conquest emerges immediately from the actual text.
But I have another fish in the frying pan I wish to serve up.
When an article about Israel appears in the Times it is predictably followed by a swamp load of letters, all vetted. (By contrast, the Wall Street Journal does not vet letters.) And, indeed, there is at the very least a modicum of civility in these letters I presume assured by the vetters. Alas, “modicum” cannot be applied to the intelligence of so many of the authors whose letters accompany an Israel article. Terms and ideas get tossed about that indicate the writer is thoroughly ignorant of the country they are loudly complaining about. I have four examples.
One Gordon Hall wrote, “Thank you for writing this! As an American Jew I am so ashamed of what has become of the state of Israel. The victims have become the perpetrators and the world is right to shame them for it.” (100 recommendations)
Kirk writes, ”You can’t be a democracy and a theocracy. Israel used to brag about being the only democracy in the Middle East. Now that they’ve given up on that why should we keep paying their bills?” (112 recommendations)
Jason Shapiro receives 51 recommendations for his comment, “When you cut through all the verbiage and rhetoric one is left with an inescapable conclusion. Israel can do whatever it wants because it has Nukes and the full backing of the United States.”
Pilot receives 51 recommendations with his comment, “I never understood why America openly supports a “nation” that derides all other faiths and proudly discriminates against those same people within and outside its borders. Isolation through hubris and perceived superiority will simply hasten one’s humbling.”
I could comment endlessly, but I’ll restrict myself to a few sentences. Clearly, these authors know little about the status of religion in Israel. (Not a theocracy). Or international relations (that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons somehow permits Israel to make its internal laws as it wishes. Or freedom of religion in Israel (with whatever religious issues obtain, Israel is a pluralist’s dream come true concerning religion).
It’s Mr. Gordon’s contribution, the Jew who’s ashamed of Israel for becoming powerful, that bothers me the most. Not knowing this fellow, I cannot claim to understand the deeper source of his shame regarding Israel. I am always wary of someone who in print purports to have had an Israel conversion experience. Nevertheless, that a Jew (another one, if not this Gordon fellow) can declare from these shores that he or she is ashamed of what’s become of the Jewish state these 70 plus years bespeaks an ignorance that is distressing.
Now I suppose one can sigh and say that this is the level of discourse in this country on most matters among most people. We live with tweets, talking points, inaccuracies, fake new (the real fake news), and that no one reads anymore (if they ever did). Or one can sigh and remind oneself of the numbers of folks who gathered at the AIPAC meeting in March or the recent Christians United for Israel meeting, or that polls continually show significant support for Israel among Americans, and relax knowing that a mass of cranky letters in the Gray Lady doesn’t amount to anything worth more than a blog post.
Or one can do what Jews have done from time immemorial, viz, worry. That’s what I choose to do, worry that this is all going somewhere not good. In particular, I am concerned about those who purport to represent Liberal Zionism and what they have to say about that status quo.
But that’s another post.
Rabbi Phil Cohen