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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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The real Israel is messy, just like other democracies

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In her new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley whose work was supported with grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, among others, caricatures Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people. In her introduction – usually the part that a writer pores over most carefully – Butler writes: “By claiming there is a significant Jewish tradition affirming modes of justice and equality that would, of necessity, lead to a criticism of the Israeli state, I establish a Jewish perspective that is non-Zionist, even anti-Zionist, at the risk of making even the resistance to Zionism into a ‘Jewish’ value and so asserting, indirectly, the exceptional ethical resources of Jewishness.”

The statement is triply absurd. First, she acts as if she’s some kind of Columbus discovering America – wow, Jews have “a tradition affirming modes of justice and equality.” Second, she claims those values are antithetical to Zionism. Third, she acts as if “a criticism of the Israeli state” is a novelty and inherently anti-Zionist.

This caricature fits the growing Big Lie on the far left that claims Israel and Zionism are illiberal, anti-democratic and resistant to criticism. I leave it to the philosophers and the psychologists to explain this enduring obsession with Israel and the need to distort the truth about the Jewish state and its founding ideology. But it’s important to affirm the true meaning of Zionism as an exercise in liberal nationalism seeking to bring Jewish values alive by implementing them in the Jewish homeland.

At the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel project, we talk about Israel as a “values nation.” We don’t try to claim that Israel is perfect. We don’t claim that other nations lack values. We are, instead, trying to continue a Jewish values conversation about Israel, to view Israel as an exciting attempt to develop a Jewish democracy and as a living laboratory implementing Jewish values in sometimes challenging conditions.

In this context, Zionism serves as a powerful, dynamic force for change. Zionism posits that Israel, like all countries, is a work in progress and, like all democratic countries, is in a perpetual quest for self-improvement. Moreover, like the United States and Canada, among others, Israel sits on certain tensions and contradictions. Modern democracies must balance majority rule with minority rights, and individual liberties with collective needs, as well as the desire to inject national values into the public square with the desire to be as open and welcoming to all citizens as possible.

As the only Jewish state in the world, Israel also has a special mission to preserve Jewish culture, to protect Jewish interests and to perpetuate Jewish values. It means that Israel won’t have the same kind of separation of church and state that many Americans aspire to have, while being well aware that religion is also a part of the American state. (This porous wall of separation blurs church and state even more so in Canada). So the United States tries to avoid subsidizing any form of religious education, while in Quebec, a religious day school can get money to cover secular studies, and Israel has religious and secular streams in its own public schools. 

Each of these three approaches has risks and rewards. American education is facing a values crisis as educators have a hard time teaching values in a western context that’s completely cut off from God, religion and other core beliefs. In Quebec, there’s a constant balancing act, and, most recently, many religious schools have been chafing under certain government requirements to teach about other religions, following a particular government curriculum – because money often comes with strings attached. Meanwhile, in Israel, haredi and Arab schools take government money without providing the kind of civics and citizenship training a democracy should have in order to raise the next generation of patriotic citizens, even as democratic Israel allows these subgroups to flourish.

Life is complicated. Nation-states are delightfully messy. I don’t fear criticism of Israel or of Zionism. But I resent critics who distort and pervert, who caricature and condemn, often in a one-sided way with no sensitivity to the historical record, the enmity of Israel’s enemies, or the enduring Israeli and Zionist attempt to improve.

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