Arabs & Modern Jewish Ethics

leave the territotories

If “Jewish ethics” is a relatively new and separate discourse formation in Jewish intellectual history, we might want to locate its inception in the 1970s. I have already suggested that Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, edited by Marvin Fox, was a significant launch point into that construct. Here’s one more reason for that assessment that might have gone heretofore unnoticed. It is of considerable interest to note the critical centrality of the role played “the Arab” as a paramount figure in the discourse as it took shape within only a few years in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. That is the takeaway from the inclusion by Fox of contributions by Ernst Simon, Meir Pa’il, and Zvi Yaron in the volume. Presented in 1971 and 1972, these papers are already reflecting on the morality and politics of Zionism, state power, the religion of Judaism, ethics and halakhah, and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Yaron taught at the School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University and was also director of Information Services at the Jewish Agency. His essay, “Religion and Morality in Israel and in the Dispersion,” begins with what a critical reader might suspect is a naïve notion concerning the interrelation between religion and ethics before going on to criticize the Jewish religious establishment in Israel. He notes that in Israel, even ordinary social problems such as those that concern internal affairs, foreign policy, social and economic policy, education, culture, labor, equality, etc. are now “Jewish” problems. Yaron argues that the religious establishment was disinterested in moral questions not touched upon in the traditional sources, and had “nothing to say on the acute moral problem of Israel’s rule of the Arab population in the Shechem, Hebron, and Gaza regions” (pp.237, 239). Yaron’s comments reflect the period right before Gush Emunim and the settlement enterprise began its gradual takeover of religious Zionism and the long since deceased National Religious Party. Yaron notes, however, with alarm the “moral torpidity on issues affecting live human beings,” the fear of the new and the ideology of suspicion, the divorce between religion and ethics. He goes on to say that there are “frequent religious pronouncements on the question of the territories, but hardly a meaningful word about the people involved –apart from repeating a few biblical phrases.” (pp.239-41).

What Meir Pa’il identifies as the hardening of attitudes among Palestinian Jews in the Zionist Yishuv and then among Israeli Jews, starting already in the 1930s, has been explored with more precision by historian Anita Shapira in Land and Power. The thesis is traced out here in rough outline. Pa’il was a member of Knesset with the leftwing Zionist Moked and then Sheli lists after a long service in the military going back to his service in the pre-state Haganah and Palmach. In “The Dynamics of Power: Morality in Armed Conflict After the Six Day War,” he considers the then regnant “purity of arms” ethos in the Israeli military and its erosion in face of inter-ethnic hatred. Anticipating by more than a decade David Grossman in The Yellow Wind, Pa’il’s contention is that “the appearance of hate –on the part of both Jews and Arabs—lies in the relationships developing between Israel’s armed forces and the Arabs citizen of the occupied areas” (p.209). The reference to “the occupation” is early, deliberate, and pointed. Pa’il notes in particular that “Deviation toward a national-racist direction is more common, because it offers an ideological justification for simple, quick and violent solutions on the technocratic level,” expressed in the “increasing conviction that the Arabs are inferior” (p.215). Pa’il writes about the demolition of homes of terrorists’ families, the removal of villagers and Bedouin from land, all carried out by a state governed by “Machiavellian interests.”

If Pa’il can be counted as remarkable, it would have to do with the clarity with which he names the occupation as such, already in the early 1970s, and how he grasps its structure. If he can be counted as naïve it would have to do with his own conviction that morality and Jewishness are aligned together against the Machiavellian interests of state power and racism, as opposed to becoming coupled with them. In his closing appeal, Pa’il maintains that how the challenge of the occupation is met will “determine just how Jewish the State of Israel really is” (p.219). In other words, Pa’il is still unable to anticipate fully the emergence of a religious form of Jewish racism, or the way in which religion will aggravate the emergent contempt and hatred for Arabs in Jewish Israeli society.

Pa’il, as a secular Israeli Jew, may still not have understood much or anything about Jewish tradition. In contrast, Ernst Simon was more clear-eyed about Judaism. Simon was one of the last great figures of the German-Jewish Renaissance, and, with Buber, an early member of Brit Shalom. In his paper, “The Neighbor (Rea) Whom We Shall Love,” Simon notes the mostly restricted sense under which the commandment to love one’s neighbor has been understood in biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern halakhic sources. Is the non-Jew also a neighbor, or does the term apply only to Jews? About halakhah, Simon expresses astonishment and dissatisfaction, in particular with Maimonides, but not just with him, for restricting the moral rule to Jews, and to observant Jews at that. The more capacious and humanistic approaches, historically verging on apologetics, especially in the old tradition of German orthodoxy, evidence not a little distress about halakhah as it had been hitherto received.

About Israel and the occupation, Modern Jewish Ethics included critical pushback. One is from Harold Fisch, a professor of English at Bar Ilan and one of the founders of the Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Thought under which auspices the papers to this first volume were first presented. Against Simon, Fisch argues that “love of one’s enemies” is not the appropriate mitzvah with which to consider Arab-Jewish relations. In his view, the demand, to love the non-Jew, to love the Arab along with the German, is “so unique” as to be “impossible,” even “superhuman.” Supposing it to be a supererogatory obligation, the extension of this rubric, “the neighbor” to non-Jews, falls for Fisch outside the halakhic framework to which Simon would otherwise commit (pp.55-6, 60-1). For his part, representing the American Jewish neo-conservative right, the views of Milton Himmelfarb are only recorded in the minutes of the proceedings. Against Pa’il while simultaneously confirming his argument, he compares Arabs to head hunters, privileged the virtue of survival, and ridiculed “exaggerated moral sentimentality” as “idiocy” (pp.221-2). While not uncontested by more liberal viewpoints, his was not an isolated sentiment recorded in the minutes.

These early reflections do more than anticipate in protean form the contemporary moral conundra that riddle Jewish moral discourse to this day about Zionism and Israel, Arabs and Palestinians. They are that and more. The contributions by and backlash against the essays by Yaron, Pa’il, and Simon indicate the post-Holocaust and the post-Zionist transformation of Jewish moral life. While the framework remains narrow and Zionist, the so-called other, “the Arab” has already taken root as a critical concern and central figure on the Jewish moral landscape. Perhaps most interesting in the minutes was the recognition by Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg that while “the Arabs” don’t fear for their very existence,” a reading of the literature more than confirms that they do in fact fear for “the loss of their own self-image,” their way of life in the clash with “a highly organized technological society” at the very moment when more young people at the edges of Israeli society begin to question the “validity and moral soundness of the whole Zionist enterprise” (p.224).

Just at the start, we begin to see that already in these essays from the early 1970s that everything is suddenly different, starting with basic geography. Still under-theorized, the cultural parameters of the discourse are no longer what they once were and where they were once set. The question of “Judaism and Germanism” has already become quaint. Very much unlike its figure in the moral reflection of Cohen, Buber, and Rosenzweig, in these papers “the Jew” is no longer a European figure of moral thought. “The Jew” no longer occupies that zone. “The Arab” now stands out, now in the foreground, not in the background. Some twenty plus years after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, at issue then is something interesting, not just the moral predicaments themselves, but new questions about hatred and neighborliness, about power dynamics, about the violent translocation of people and populations, about the space and place, in theory and in practice, of the Arab and the Jew, about the Jew and the Arab apart and together, about Jews and Arabs as figures of thought and as real people, about Jewish sovereign presence, about Judaism, about Islam, about the prospects of war and peace, about regional outlines of cultural disruption and transformation, and about modern Jewish ethics in the Arab Middle East.

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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