Make a Fence for the Torah — Politics of Space and Separation in Israel-Palestine-Judaism — Liberalism


And what if the problem is actually “Judaism,” and not “Zionism”? About physical lines of barrier-separation in Israel and the non separation of politics and religion, I’m beginning to think it’s the latter. Zionism was once a secular phenomenon, which made the contradictions defining it less intractable than would seem to be the case today. As a liberal American Jew, I think have to care about all this for only as long as I or people like me continue to care about Judaism and Israel.

The politics of space and separation are fascinating. In a recent column at Ha’aretz, Akiva Eldar describes the third way driving the Israeli occupation of the territories. Neither disengagement nor outright annexation, this third way is very, very subtle. It is line-based.

In his book “Israel’s New Wars: An Historical-Sociological Explanation” (Tel Aviv University ), Uri Ben Eliezer defines this option as separation politics that contains a connection: It separates Gaza from the West Bank, the Palestinians from themselves within the West Bank, the Palestinians from the settlers, and Israel from parts of the West Bank. At the same time, it links Israel to parts of the de facto annexed West Bank and Israel to the settlers, who are its citizens. That’s the opposite of the idea on which the Oslo Accords were based: connection by means of separation based on reciprocity, compromise and social and economic ties between the peoples.

To this we’d have to add to the system the lines of separations between secular and religious Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic, veteran Israeli Jews and newcomers from the ex-Soviet Union  and Ethiopia, Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, citizens and migrant workers.

I’m wondering if this tight system of separations is a unique political formation, the intensity of which has something to do with the small, almost miniaturized territorial configuration that is Israel-Palestine. The politics of separation reflected here is not simple or static. The dynamic and logic are metastatic.  

More basically, I’m also wondering if this mania for drawing lines of separation, between one thing and another, is not in some deep way bound up in logics that are specific of rabbinic-kabbalistic Judaism.

The kabbalists, one should be clear, tend in the Zohar to demonize “the other.” For their part, the rabbis in the Mishnah tell us to make a protective fence for the Torah (Avot 1:1). The protective fences and other lines of separation in Israel have their own rationale, parts of which relating to security that I can actually appreciate on purely secular grounds. What gives me pause is what these lines become in the political “space of appearance” that is contemporary Israel, assuming that no meaning is ever static, especially in a country like Israel without clearly defined borders.

I tend to think that political religion tends to make things worse. That’s what makes me liberal.

But there’s a contradiction here at the heart of my own liberal theory about which I would like to be honest. Some lines of separation I like. Others I don’t. The former include the ones between private and public, religion and state. Other lines of separation, the one’s I don’t like, look more like apartheid.

I think I can live with this contradiction, as long as it is recognized as such. It’s about getting these lines right and not wrong.  The criterion for determining right and wrong has to do with the possibility or impossibility of passage between domains.

Ease of passage is basic to liberal theory, and it is that which might resolve or modulate the contradiction. A simple, low fence with an open gate is one thing. An electric fence or blastwall or a guarded gated-community is something else. I will give the rabbis their due. They tell us in the same passage from Avot to be “moderate in judgment.” Except when I don’t, that’s why I tend to trust the rabbis’ good judgment, and why I tend to trust mystical religion not at all.

My own sense is that we make lines all the time. Maybe that’s what makes us homo faber. Good judgment comes down to getting it right, assuming that this or some pragmatic approximation to getting it right is possible in the first place.

[Contrary to the sentiments expressed below about my desire to disengage, emotionally and intellectually from Israel-Palestine, I’m going to continue posting about Israel and Israel-Palestine. I will try to keep these posts specific to questions relating to space and place, to politics and religion, and to the impact of all this on Judaism, American Judaism, and liberal Judaism.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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