The Opposition (Uncivil Religion) (Israel)

Who is in and who is out? In face of a diverse governing coalition with a broadly liberal civil society agenda, a hard uncivil bloc constitutes the parliamentary opposition: Netanyahu + rightwing religious parties (Haredi + ultra racist parties). You can read the statements of opposition leaders at their first meeting here in Hebrew. To flip the discourse, the only thing that unites this narrow magic circle is hatred of the other. Israel will be a test-case for anyone interested in watching matters relating to religion and state, political theology, and liberal governance. My own particular interest relates to the meta-opposition between Political Judaism and Civil Judaism and to Jewish-Arab/Palestinian relations in a Jewish majority country.

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Religion & State in Israel (Civil Judaism)

In tandem with the changing face of Israeli Arab politics in Israel might be the reconfiguration of religion and state in Israel. Composed of online newspaper clippings, this will be a running post to which I will add over time. Of interest is the possibility of a shift away from the Political Judaism and the rightwing-conservative religious semi-autonomy that has built itself up in Israel since the 1970s towards something that might be called a Civil Judaism that integrates and envelops religion into society, as opposed to vice-versa. Nothing is set. Everything is in a state of emergence. On the horizon are reforms in education, the rabbinate, kashrut licensing, conversion, civil society agendas like civil marriage and gay marriage, governmental oversight of institutional bodies, public health and welfare. At stake is the Zionist project as a “secular” phenomenon and the “Jewish character” of the State of Israel. The Haredi parties and press are referring to the new government and its evil decrees (gezeriot) as the destruction of Judaism and the institutions that they have built up over the decades.

What reforms are on the horizon, here (English)

For Haredi rhetoric, here (Hebrew) and here (English)

Here in Hebrew.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, an important ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel weighs in here against evil decrees by a government that wants to make people less religious:

Now it is known that there is a new government, that they have the intention, and they say it openly, that they want [to issue] decrees to stop people being religious… [decrees] against the laws of the Torah, not in accordance with the laws of the Torah,” said Edelstein. “This is the plan so what do you do? What is the advice? It depends on merits! When there are merits there are no disturbances, when there are merits, the person who comes to purify themselves gets assistance,” continued the rabbi. Edelstein went on to say that ultra-Orthodox community needs to earn merit by assiduously observing the religious commandments and thereby earn divine grace to avert the decrees planned by the government.”

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(Mutation) Political Judaism & Anti-Arab Racism (Lod)

I am watching this from the outside and at a distance, but the more events unfold in the violence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians it appears more and more prominent that the violence is not simply between “Jews and Arabs.” On the Israeli side reports are coming in that chief institagors are the kahanist racists associated with Itamar Ben Gvir and settlers coming in from the West Bank to cause mayhem in Israel. On the one hand, the violence is multi-faceted and dynamic. On the other hand, the violence is organized by non-state religious racists whose political projects and leaders are backed up by the state and society.

Analytically, it is important to focus attention. There is [1] the complex swell that is modern Jewish history and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. [2] The emergence of the settlement project in the occupied West Bank, the history of religious Zionism as a particular ideological and religious formation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [3] The radicalization of religious Zionism and of racism in Israel since the Jewish Underground in the 1980s, the murder of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, the “Judaization” of Israeli politics in the 2000s and the emergence of fascist and racist political elements in Israeli governing circles.

How much of the currently ongoing radical anti-Arab violence and racism in Israel roots itself in this emergent form of political Judaism that runs rough shod over the state function that gave it its political lease on life? Without absolving the government of Netanyahu of the ultimate responsibility as state sovereign, and as the singular politician who has done so much himself to cultivate anti-Arab incitement, tear down and demonize the left and center-left, and prop up the religious right in Israel while tearing down civil governance in order to maintain his grip in power and stay out of jail, it would still seem a lot.

This article here and the following quote from the leftwing +972 suggests as much. Religious settlers are coming in from the West Bank to create havoc in places like Lod and other towns in Israel; and the police and Border Police do little to stop them. This is the same violent, state-coddled, state-sponsored anti-Palestinian havoc they create in the West Bank:  

The Palestinian residents who I interviewed on Wednesday repeated what I was told by youth participating in the riots. Their problem isn’t with Jewish people, but with the settlers who have been coming in and taking over the city over the past several years with the mayor’s blessing, they said. “We have been living here for decades with religious and Jewish people, there are good neighborly relations, but they [the settlers] are coming for war,” said one of the Palestinian residents.

As does the report about a top Israeli police official blaming Ben-Gvir for the key role in whipping up making the anti-Arab violence worse. Netanyahu it should be remembered did everything to get the racist Religious Zionism party elected into the Knesset and did so by pulling in Ben-Gvir and the Kahanists.

This thread here at Twitter by Breaking the Silence supports as well that contention about Ben-Gvir.

Turning citizen against citizen is at the heart of the issue in Israel. The non-citizenship and statelessness of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are also there at the heart of this inferno, the non-recognition of Palestinians and Palestine in Israeli society. The point that I want to make concerns the super-hot impact of political religion and political Judaism on state function and civil society. Religion is a potential and actual force of political chaos that needs to be contained. As much as Zionism distorts Judaism, it’s as true that Judaism is also a problem, that Political Judaism distorts Zionism, and that this is a Gordian knot that needs to be cut. Religion makes everything worse.

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(Mutation) Political Judaism (Jerusalem Day)

After 9/11, there was a lot of back and forth about Islam and Islam and Politics. Over the years, the term Political Islam emerged to define a distinct and reactionary mutation in modern and contemporary Muslim cultures. No such critical inquiry has been extended to Judaism. It is as if Judaism is sacrosanct.

In Israel rightwing religious nationalism is so socially entrenched that no one really talks about the religious dimension that has driven the occupation/annexation of the West Bank after 1967 and then after 1977, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, and then the utter radicalization of rightwing ethno-nationalist politics and the intensification of anti-Arab racism in Israel after 2000. On the anti-Zionist left, Judaism is left untouched in order to avoid the hotwires of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism while pinning all the critical onus on Zionism tout court (i.e. the problem is Zionism, not Judaism). For Jewish leftists to call these acts “pagan” or “idolatrous” misses the critical point.

A genuine Jewish critique begins with the recognition that these acts are “Jewish.”

The problem is not Judaism itself, but a mutation in Judaism, at once organic and artificial, both in Israel and in the United States, especially in modern-orthodox and ultra-orthodox circles. Jewish Studies text scholars can you show you the rot in the texts, traditions, traditional readings of traditions, and post-traditional readings of traditions.

From the Jewish Underground in the early 1980s to the murder of Rabin in 1994, to the “Jewish nationalists” attacking Palestinian families and villagers in the occupied West Bank, the “non-state actors” are wearing the same knitted kippot of West Bank Religious Settler Zionism. On the basis of a religious mission and religious values, they are bringing the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and Palestine and the Palestinian people to the brink of an abyss. The Covid crisis, the catastrophe at Mt Meron, and the events surrounding the expulsion of families from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem by religious nationalists around Ramadan and Jerusalem Day 2021 make it abundantly clear that, unregulated by state actors whose primary concern should be the general welfare, religion and politics make for a bad mix.

There’s every reason to call this religious mutation Political Judaism, with all the negative connotations typically applied in the liberal west to the term Political Islam. It stands to reason that the two forms of political religion are symbiotic. Political Judaism is likewise non-compromising and exclusivist. It is an aggressive political formation that stands religion in a hostile relation to human values and to the liberal state, an aggressive religious formation that seeks to take over the state and state functions.

What would oppose Political Judaism?

Arguments about political theology, Zionism as secularized messianism, “religion” is a modern construct, and so on are maybe more or less interesting, more or less radical, more or less reactionary. Intellectual exercises such as these evade, as if intentionally, the problem of religion, not unusually by leftwing and rightwing critics of liberalism and secularism. It is not even secular Zionism that interests me today in Israel today as much as it is some “normal” form of Israeli secularism as a political force to block Contemporary Haredi Judaism, and Political Judaism and to contain the fascination exercised by “formations of the religious” unregulated by the public sphere which it seeks to take over and remake, to repopulate, in its own image.

By way of a postscript, I’m having a longstanding argument with a friend-colleague who thinks I’m putting all the blame on religion. About this I responded that the nationalization of religion is only a part of the story (and maybe an old one); the other part being the religionization of nationalism (in Israel and Palestine). Prove me wrong when we see secular Tel Aviv types tracking down Arabs on the streets in Jerusalem or Lod or attacking Palestinian villagers and burning Palestinian families, who are demanding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount upsetting a very fragile status quo; or simply tell me when we stop seeing constantly all the kippot and tzizit in the middle of the mix of it all, and when we start seeing them do things to bind two people together. Religion is not playing “a” role but a “major,” even “the” major one. Netanyahu has no “natural coalition” without the nationalist and Haredi religious communities. Until we don’t see that, there’s no real Jewish critique from the left, and no effective way to dislodge the right from power.

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(Boundary Stones) Moses Mendelssohn (State and Religion)

I have been thinking a lot late about religious (Haredi) response to the Coronavirus and the problem of religious-state violence in Israel. Against all that, maybe it’s time for a little neo-Haskalah. Whereas postliberal theorists, political theologians, and theo-politicians, especially the reactionaries, would efface the line, I will note instead the supple plasticity, the architecture and territorial thinking, that typifies Mendelssohn thinking about relation between state and religion as distinct zones that overlap into each other. His thinking refers us to pillars and foundations, one the one hand, and provinces and boundary-stones, on the other hand. The pillars of society are two-fold. But the territorial lines are not fixed; they are fluid; subject to drawing and re-drawing. The territories move one into the other, and they can also be pushed back from each other. While we may not share the neoclassical taste for an aesthetic of balance and harmony, these introductory remarks have not lost their perennial force. Mendelssohn was preoccupied by the problem of human evil and violence in religion and state. Here is the opening paragraph of Jerusalem, which I have broken into segments:

“STATE and religion –civil and ecclesiastical constitution-secular and churchly authority– how to oppose these pillars of social life to one another so that they are in balance and do not, instead, become burdens on social life, or weigh down its foundations more than they help to uphold it –this is one of the most difficult tasks of politics.

For centuries, men have strived to solve it, and here and there enjoyed perhaps greater success in settling it practically than in resolving it in theory. Some thought it proper to separate these different relations of societal man into moral entities, and to assign to each a separate province, specific rights, duties, powers, and properties.

But the extent of these different provinces and the boundaries dividing them have not yet been accurately fixed. Sometimes one sees the church move the boundary stone deep into the territory of the state; sometimes the state permits itself encroachments which, according to accepted standards, seem equally violent.

Immeasurable evils have hitherto arisen, and still threaten to arise, from the dissension between these moral entities. When they take the field against each other, mankind is the victim of their discord; when they are in agreement, the noblest treasure of human felicity is lost; for they seldom agree but for the purpose of banishing from their realms a third moral entity, liberty of conscience, which knows how to derive some advantage from their disunity.”

(p.33 of the translation by Alan Arkush)

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The State of Israel Does Not Exist (Judaism)

If a state is defined as a sovereign territorial body, then, by the reckoning here by Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, the State of Israel does not exist. Instead of being a state in which the rule of law applies throughout the territory, there is a cluster of autonomies.

“The State of Israel is gradually coming to resemble Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, where organizations, religions, ethnic minorities and gangs have become the real rulers of the country. The physical and legal territory controlled by the government covers only selected portions of it.”

What Bar’el notes but about which one could make more is that organized religion is the dominant part of the problem. In the West Bank and in the Haredi enclaves of Israel proper, religious communities constitute autonomous and lawless zones of semi-sovereign power. The public good defined by vital interests (health, law, safety, education) suffers in the process.

Religion has a set of values peculiar to it, its own kedusha.

Religion is one singular sphere that overlaps into other social spheres. Religion can serve but does not secure and can do great damage to the public sphere. These are basic notions in the Enlightenment theory of Spinoza and Mendelssohn.

Unique to the 21st century is the emerging recognition that there are discrete types of the religion of Judaism that are now part of the social problem, that they are deeply detached from and entrenched in the larger social fabric, that there are basic and constitutional conflicts between autonomous zones of rightwing/conservative Judaism and the idea and constitution of a democratic and Jewish State.

Judaism included, religion is a spiritual force of order that has the potential to create actual chaos in this world.

The chaos is social, political, moral.

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(Haredi) Simulation (Shtisel)

Late to Shtissel, and just now completed watching seasons 1-3 in the span of one extended binge, I should have known better. But I was surprised to find, after poking around online late in the middle of season 2, that the cast is composed of secular Israelis. This should have been obvious from the start; except that it’s one thing to know something beforehand an in theory. It’s another to realize the same thing once already into the fact, as it were. Not “authentic,” the show is a simulation of Haredi life. A takeaway: it is possible to fake it, to fabricate anything, any way of life if you have the key. At the heart of the simulation in theater is what Brecht called the gestus or gest. Shtisel is the more or less convincing capture of a Haredi gestus; in scene on top of scene, one type in relation to another body and social type. The gestus or gest creates the illusion. The way people stand, sit, smoke, talk, walk, wear a dress or a shirt, and otherwise hold themselves. These are/not Haredi Jews at Temple Rodef Shalom at a public event in New York City. In the non-technical sense, a gestus or gest recalls precise physical gestures and movement thru space, the way an actor inhabits a body habitus. As meant by Brecht, the gestus or gest refers to these movements, this body character in relation to society.

Not to compare one and the other. Shtisel is entertainment. Bu here from Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theater,” are two passages directly relevant to the gestus or gest in general and which remind me of Shtisel:

section 61: The realm of attitudes adopted by the characters towards one another is what we call the realm of gest. Physical attitude, tone of voice and facial expression are all determined by a social gest: the characters are cursing, flattering, instructing one another, and so on. The attitudes which people adopt towards one another include even those attitudes which would appear to be quite private, such as the utterances of physical pain in an illness, or of religious faith. These expressions of a gest are usually highly complicated and contradictory, so that they cannot be rendered by any single word and the actor must take care that in giving his image the necessary emphasis he does not lose anything, but emphasizes the entire complex.  

section 63: Let us get down to the problem of gestic content by running through the opening scenes of a fairly modern play, my own Life of Galileo. Since we wish at the same time to find out what light the different utterances cast on one another we will assume that it is not our first introduction to the play. It begins with the man of forty-six having his morning wash, broken by occasional browsing in books and by a lesson on the solar system for Andrea Sarti, a small boy. To play this, surely you have got to know that we shall be ending with the man of seventy-eight having his supper, just after he has said good-bye for ever to the same pupil?

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(Franz Marc) Fox (Holocaust)

Thinking about Laura Levitt’s The Objects That Remain after seeing this news article here about the return of this lost property.

It’s an amazing painting by German expressionist artist Franz Marc. The legal details are a little complicated and of interest in their own right. I’m posting here because I just really like the gentle painting, which I’ve never seen before, and the artist, the great painter of animal life.

The item need not be spectacular, Markus Stoetzel, a Germany-based attorney for the heirs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It is not always a Franz Marc painting,” he said in a telephone interview. “It can be a book or a piece of furniture that has a connection to the past, to what they lost.”

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(Cloud Recording) Haredi Response to Covid (Benny Brown)

I am posting below the link and passcode for anyone who wants a cloud recording of the annual B.G. Rudolph Lecture sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse.

The lecture by Benny Brown as on “Tradition and Change: Haredi Response to Covid.” Among other things, the lecture and discussion explored questions relating to civil society, alternative communities, cultural-religious autonomy, halakha, and governmentality. Many thanks to Benny and to everyone who came.

Passcode: G%VQta+0

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Haredi Response to Har Meron (Chaim Kanievsky)

I’m posting this statement that was issued in the name of Harav Chaim Kanievsky responding to the Lag Ba’Omer disaster at Mt. Meron in Israel. Some forty-five people were killed at a stampede at a religious pilgrimage site, a mass event about which you can read here. By way of a in-real-time religious response to the problem of suffering. It’s bare-boned and simple: [1] there is no way to understand the calculations of God, [2] the victims who died in a “strange and terrible way” were unblemished, and [3] here is the human obligation; the entire community is connected. It is maybe an anti-theodicy. The statement does not not justify God, but nor does it justify God. While one can appreciate the theological modesty, there is a strange and terrible human flip side, as Marilyn Braiterman notes in the caustic comment below. The statement makes no communal cheshbon nefesh, no public accounting for a disaster that was not unpredictable and for which community leaders are responsible. What Marilyn Braiterman does not note is that, in a theological system, God has to have a part to play in the human debacle, and it is what makes this particular statement interesting.

BS”D  Erev Shabbos Kodesh Emor, Lag Baomer 5781

The hand of Hashem has stricken us: amidst the simchah shel mitzvah, dozens were killed in a strange and terrible way at the tziyun of the G-dly Tanna,Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Among the victims are fathers of children, sweet bachurim and children, tinokos shel beis rabban. 

We do not understand Heavenly calculations and every individual is obligated to do teshuvah. Teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) avert unfavorable decrees.

As an atonement for our souls, we have requested that Kupat Ha’ir establish a fund to support the families of the dead and wounded, and the money will be distributed in accordance with the need, based on the decisions of the undersigned rabbanim, shlit”a.

Every individual should contribute NIS 430, the numerical equivalent of nefesh, as an atonement, and may the merit of tzedakah for the families serve as atonement for Am Yisrael and the blood that was shed.

No one can absolve himself, because all residents of Ererz Yisrael are close to the victims, who were pure and unblemished. 

May Hashem help us do teshuvah sheleimah before Him, amein kein yehi ratzon.

Since some of the victims were fathers of families, whoever contributes NIS 3000 (NIS 100 X30 payments) is considered a “saver of lives,” and this is a great merit, when middas hadin is prevalent, to be spared.

Chaim Kanievsky

A few days later came this statement, also in Kanievsky’s name, which I am posting below and which you can read here.

The statement contains a communal cheshbon nefesh. It confirms that the disaster was a decree from God and that people need to be “mechazeik b’Torah and in hasmadas haTorah,” and “women should be mechazeik b’tznius,” and that “people aren’t mapkid enough in the halachos of netilas yadayim for a seudah in all its details. And we have to be mechazeik to have kavana when we say brachos in order to feel kirvas Elokim.”

These statements are barely articulate. I would not want to read them except being steeped in sadness. But there’s no “realism” in this theological frame, no understanding about how and why things go wrong in this world. What a critical reader might think is cynicism might be more like innocence. Unlike Kanievsky’s statement, reading the Haredi press online reads like sharp pain and shock and confusion coupled with a commitment to a way of life in the stories about ordinary people and the loss of life, but little to nothing by way of critical questioning or comprehension.

For more against women, see here in relation to a mass death event.

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