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.