This spectacular image was recently discovered in a box in an archive in a library at Columbia University, about which you can read here in this write-up by Marianna Najman-Franks (Barnard ’22). She found the death mask while working through the Oko Collection, donated by Adolph S. Oko about which and whom you can read here.
I am not entirely sure what to do with this image of an important and well-known philosopher, a major presence in the history and practice of Jewish philosophy and thought, biblical exegesis and politics, religion and metaphysics. Maybe stare at it, but then what? A first thought concerns the shock of recognition. A second thought is that this plastic, indexical impression speaks to the passage of time and our attention to it. There is also an object-character and the technological dimension that allows us to see this “thing.”
But what about that first recognition? What “clearly” identifies the mask as “belonging” to Spinoza is its location in this particular archive, the Oko Collection. When I said on FB that this doesn’t look anything “like” the Spinoza that we know from the portraits, Fred MacDowell faceapped it to make it look, as he said, “a bit more like Spinoza.” He blended the digital photograph of the death mask with a digital copy of a well known portrait of Spinoza. I’m including the digitally enhanced photo here below, but please note that the digital photograph below is NOT the original image, but an image of the image of the death mask.
The Bahir plays with that biblical icon of the modern iconoclastic tradition that is sometimes translated into English as “you saw no manner of image” (kal-temunah) (Deut. 4:15). The Bahir says, “You saw an image, not an entire image” (temunah v’lo kal temunah) (sec. 47).
The standard line about Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory is about perception in relation to time and memory. Subjective perception, i.e. perception understood from the point of view of the subject, is the way my body (my image of my body) breaks up reality into static, spatialized bits according to practical interests and vital needs. On top of that, my ordinary, subjective perception “occupies a certain duration.” Perception involves “an effort of memory” that prolongs a plurality of moments “one into another.” Perception is “impregnated with our past” (p.33). For practical aims, our perception is a “kind of contraction of the real, effected by our memory” (p.34).
Less talked about in Matter and Memory are “pure perception” and “pure memory.” They are non-contracted, ideal or theoretical or methodological forms and the key terms to what for Bergson are the objective reality of matter and the subjective freedom of spirit. “[F]rankly dualistic,” Bergson affirms the reality of spirit and the reality of matter, pushing them both, he says, to their own extreme (pp.9, 181, cf. 220). Pure perception relates exclusively to matter. Pure memory relates entirely to spirit. Splitting them apart before bringing them back together raises the intensity of both to the nth degree.
Without relating directly to pure perception and pure memory while citing some key passages in Matter and Memory, John Dewey noted the tension in Bergson between pragmatism and mysticism. Dewey in this essay wrote in particular about perception in relation to action, which is what interested him as a pragmatist.
“On the one hand,” Dewey writes, “the defining traits of perception, of commonsense knowledge and science are explained on the ground of their intimate connection with action. On the other hand… Philosophy must, accordingly, turn its back, resolutely and finally, upon all methods and conceptions which are infected by implication in action in order to strike out upon a different path.” In other words, for Bergson, saw something still greater than our action to which he would like to attach it. Dewey notes that for Bergson, “[Philosophy] must have recourse to intuition which installs us within the very movement of reality itself, unrefracted by the considerations that adapt it to bodily needs, that is to useful action. As a result, Bergson has the unique distinction of being attacked as a pragmatist on one side, and as a mystic on the other. There are at least a few readers in sympathy with the first of these strains who find themselves perplexed by the second.” [John Dewey, “Perception and Organic Action (1912) (On Henri Bergson)” in Larry A. Hickman andThomas Alexander (eds.) The Essential Dewey: Ethics, Logic, Psychology (Volume 2)Dewey, p.393)]. Dewey must have counted himself among the latter.
The project in Matter and Memory begins in chapter 1 with “the Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation.” In the beginning, I am “in the presence of images,” with matter itself, which Bergson defined as nothing more and nothing less than “an aggregate of images.” “Here I am in the presence of images,” in particular with the image of my own body, which is privileged for me because I know it from without in the form of a presentation and from within by sensation-affections (pp.9, 17).
Unlike “my perception” (i.e. ordinary perception mixed up with memory of the past), “pure perception” is perception that is “confined to the present and absorbed, to the exclusion of all else, in the task of molding itself upon the external object.” Pure perception has an objective character. Pure perception is an “impersonal perception at the root of our knowledge of things.” Philosophers (i.e. realists and idealists) have heretofore ignored the phenomenon of pure perception because, for them, perception is “a kind of interior and subjective vision.” In their view, perception is not different from memory, just more intense, whereas Bergson insists that they are radical, different in kind (pp.33-4; emphasis in the original).
Analytically, Bergson in his study of pure perception brackets what is “my” complex perception, enlarged as it is by memory. Absorbed in the present, pure perception is “a vision of matter both immediate and instantaneous,” “an uninterrupted series of instantaneous visions, which would be a part of things rather than of ourselves” (pp.34, 65). Pure perception plunges consciousness into the objective reality of matter. As such, pure perception is a part of matter as Bergson understands it, i.e. as an aggregate of images (pp.69, 222). This “impersonal perception” is “at the very heart of our knowledge of things” (p.34). But pure perception is not actual; it is the virtual perception of all things (p.39).
In the imperative voice of the mystic, Bergson calls upon us to “restore…the true character of perception; recognize in pure perception a system of nascent [i.e. virtual?] acts which plunges roots deep into the real; and at once perception is seen to be radically distinct from recollection; the reality of things is no more constructed or reconstructed, but touched, penetrated, lived; and the problem at issue between realism and idealism, instead of giving rise to interminable metaphysical discussions, is solved, or rather dissolved by intuition” (p.69, emphasis added).
To be sure, my perception of the external world is small and memory supplants and enlarges upon intuition. But Bergson wants to isolate that “impersonal basis” in which perception coincides with the object perceived, which, for Bergson, is “externality itself” and not my own psychic projection(pp.65-6). The “proper office of psychology” is to separate perception and memory in their “natural purity” (p.67). Memory is the subjective part of perception. Pure perception eliminates memory, the subjective, and gives us if not the whole then the “essential part of matter.” Not occult, matter “coincides, in essentials, with pure perception” (p.73).
From this, Bergson draws two conclusions. The psycho-physiological conclusion is that the brain is an instrument of action, not an instrument of representation. The metaphysical conclusion is that pure perception places us outside ourselves. In pure perception, we “touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition, this intuitive grasp being “entirely absent” from memory (74-5). In pure perception, “we place the perceived images of things outside the image of our body.” This means that pure perception is a “part of things” and no longer distinct from them. Material extensity resembles the undivided extension of our representations (p.181-2). Pure perception is nothing more and nothing less than the lowest degree of mind, i.e. mind without memory; it is “really a part of matter” as Bergson understands matter (p.222). Another possible conclusion: the physical world, which is the totality of images, is a “kind of consciousness” (p.235).
Most of my paraphrase here on pure perception is taken from chapter 1, “Of The Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation. What Our Body Means and Does.” The chapter title does little to anticipate how, at the end of the chapter, Bergson reveals to the reader that the analysis is of a metaphysical order that goes “far beyond the borders of psychology” (p.76).
Chapter 2, Of the Recognition of Images. Memory and the Brain” is Bergson on his way passing through the borderlands of empirical psychology and psychology of memory. The pragmatic focus here is on where the body begins and where it ends. Again it is worth remembering that the body is, as conceived by Bergson, just one image among others (p.76, 77). The chapter is an exquisitely detailed analysis of perception, movement, and memory.
Bergson then proceeds to pure memory in chapter 3, “Of The Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.”
Bergson’s attention to mind and body is in Chapter 4, The Delimiting and Fixing of Images. Perception and Matter. Soul and Body” (the boldface is my addition)
Pure memory is “spiritual.” It is the subjective and “spiritual” aspect of perception. If pure perception “bears” upon present objects, then pure memory is the “representation of an absent object” (p.75). In that “spirit is a reality, it is here, in the phenomenon of memory.” In memory, we grasp spirit in its most tangible form” and “absolutely independent of matter” (p.73).
Pure memory is “virtual.” Little by little, a recollection comes into view; the virtual state passes into the actual as memory takes on color and mimics perception; at the same time, our actual memory “retains something of its original virtuality,” which is “attached to the past by its deepest roots” and which is distinct from the present qua memory (p.134). The actual memory-image partakes in and begins to materialize pure memory even as pure memory is manifested in colored and living images (p.133). Just as pure perception expels the memory-image, the memory-image expels pure memory. Bergson rejects associationist psychology because it substitutes the living reality of continuous becoming for a disassociated multiplicity of inert, juxtaposed elements. Which means that to reach the past, we would have to place ourselves within it. We should not look for the past in anything actual or already realized. The past is “[e]ssentially virtual.” (p.135).
Bergson contrasts pure memory with my present perception and with lived bodily sensation. While my subjective perception motivates my action, my past is powerless. My present is sensation and movement; my consciousness of my body in this material world (i.e. the materiality of my existence qua system of sensation-affect and movement (137-9). In contrast to my actual sensastns, which are located corporeally, pure memory interests no part of my body. Pure memory is “nascent sensation,” “virtual,” not corporeally localized (pp.139-40). What makes pure memory “pure” is its freedom from any admixture of actual sensation and utility. Pure memory is powerless, “preserved in a latent state” (pp.140-1).
One conclusion is that the body (i.e. bodily action, the image of bodily action, and interest limited to objects and useful memory) limits “the life of the spirit.” Strictly speaking, Bergson admits, this is where he should have stopped, without delving into metaphysical questions. Pure perception places us in the truth of matter. Pure memory allows us into spirit (pp.179-81). Pure memory is not an emanation of matter, not a brain function. Pure memory is that which allows us to give up habits of thinking relative to bodily necessity and mental constructs relative to brain function, habits that refract pure duration into space and separate psychical states. Pure memory would be duration, the continuous flow of things and our states. Installed in duration, we see ourselves freely acting free from the “fundamental conditions of external perceptions.” In pure memory, we “transcend space without stepping out from extensity” (pp.184-6).
The final word of Matter and Memory against empirical psychology is that memory is not a weak perception. The “truth is” memory is not a regression from present to past, but rather a progression from past to present. There is a suddenness to this. “It is in the past that we place ourselves at a stroke.” We start from the “virtual state” (scare quotes are Bergson’s) and lead onwards through different planes of consciousness (italics are Bergson’s) to the end where the virtual is materialized in an actual perception (where it becomes pesent and active). Pure memory is clearly identified by Bergson as both the virtual state (pp.239-40) and as a “spiritual manifestation”(emphases are mine) (p.240). We are, “in truth, in the domain of spirit” at the confluence between mind and matter, with the one flowing into the latter (p.240). Pure memory is spirit. Pure perception is matter (243).
Maybe the most excited moments in Matter and Memory are when Bergson calls upon his readers. He tells us the reader in the imperative voice, “start with pure perception,” place and plunge yourself into and touch the real. Or when he describes the activity of his own mental life. Here I am; I look closer; I call up and compare; I will formulate; I pass now. Let us start; let us suppose (e.g. 17, 228). Bergson is a guru who leaves instructions that are meant to be followed. His use of the first and second person singulars is very helpful.
The assumption that pure memory is a spiritual manifestation (p.240), the plane “where our mind retains in all its details the picture of our past life” (p.241) informs Bergson’s dualism, a dualism that binds together psychology and metaphysics. Methodologically, Bergson starts with pure perception, where memory is stripped out from mind, where subject and object coincide. The analysis of matter gets pushed. We begin more and more to see in it “only a succession of infinitely rapid moments which may be deduced each from the other and thereby are equivalent to each other.” For its part, “spirit being in perception already memory, and declaring itself more and more as a prolonging of the past into the present” is “a progress, a true evolution” (p.221).
Spirit’s “humblest function” is to “bind together the successive moments of the duration of things,” and thus comes into contact with matter. “[A] growing intensity of life” “corresponds to a higher tension of duration, and is made manifest externally by a greater development of the sensori-motor system” (p.221). “[T]o touch the reality of spirit we must place ourselves at the point where an individual consciousness, continuing and retaining the past in a present enriched by it, thus escapes the law of necessity, the law which ordains that the past shall ever follow itself in a present which merely repeats it in another form, and that all things shall ever be flowing away. When we pass from pure perception to memory, we definitely abandon matter for spirit” (p.235).
FREE PAN-PSYCHIC MATTER
Bergson is not a materialist. Bergson is a spiritualist, or perhaps a mentalist.
I can say this because, for Bergson, matter is not what we normally call material (physical-chemical). For Bergson, matter is an aggregate of images (p.9), my body being but, for me, an epistemoligcally privileged instance of one such image. The image is not insde or outside my thought (p.25). Which is to say that pure percetption is not of, but in the aggregate of images (p.61). This is is how subject and object coincide in pure perception. Nature is a “latent consciousness,” an expression of individual consciousness as it throws gleams, “extracting,” says Bergson, “from the whole that is real a part that is virtual” in order to disengage that which interests it.
We are “confronted” in the consciousness of this latent aggregate of images by “the apparition of living bodies.” Spooky stuff, these living bodies are “capable of spontaneous and unforeseen movements,” through which in the differentiation of function they become more complex, motor-neurally. Not seen is the “growing and accompanying tension of consciousness in time.” (p.248). Free from the mesh of necessity, the last word in the mystical-dualist project that is Matter and Memory is to see this. “Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom” (p.249).
Responding with gravitas to a recent online piece of petty Jewish politics, historian David Myers posted something online and there was this picture there of Abba Kovner and his partisan comrades. I went immediately to Dina Porat’s biography The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner.
Kovner was a legendary leader of the socialist Zionist Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair in Vilna, a partisan fighter in the forests, poet and propagandist, a cultural figure in Israel between 1947 and his death in 1987, both at home and out of place in that country, seared by the experience of social death and personal suffeng.
Kovner in his appeal to the Vilna Ghetto was the one who coined the phrase “sheep to the slaughter.” Strange episodes after the war included a plot to murder Germans by poisoning the water supplies to major cites, and bloody battle pages against the Egyptian invaders that he wrote as a soldier during the 1948 War of Independence. Kovner was a founder of the the old Beit Hatfutsot Museum, which opened in 1978 in Tel Aviv. A member of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Kovner was committed to secular Jewish culture and to diaspora memory. He is interviewed by Lanzmann in Shoa, talking primarily about Vilna and armed resistance.
What caught my eye and what I came to see and admire about Kovner in Porat’s biography was the place, time, and particularism of a twentieth century eastern European-Ashkenazi-Israeli political type. While I remember something of it from when I was young, its appearance today can only be strange. We are not today composed this way, and I am sure there is some good in that. The self-enclosed ideological comportment represented by Kovner is non-critical about the in-group. But what gets lost in the passage to postmodernism is something integral to socialism. Not “universal,” most distant from us in this stubborn Jewish socialism is the way of life and social being determined by unyielding moral solidarity, the collective life of the group, the freedom of people held together by binding ideological commitments, cellular in form.
The through-line in Rashi’s commentary to Lamenations is that, yes, the people sin, but that God is responsible for the calamity, for what we today call anti-Semitism, for the human inclination to sin, for setting up a barrier between God and the people, for violating God’s oath and for not containing God’s anger. Rashi calls on the people to keep hope alive, but says nothing that might justify the ways of God with Israel. Once gemlike and like gold, now they are physically loathsome. With his eye on human viscera, Rashi cares about the people and he cares about beauty and this is at the heart of the lament. Lamentations rebukes God.
May this not happen to you. Such a calamity should not happen to all those who transgress the law.The Sages said, that from here it is derived that to [publicly] complain about one’s troubles has a basis in Scripture, [for Scripture states here,] “see what He did to me” [and] “Notice, see, etc.”
For it is Your doing. You caused them to hate me when You separated me from [partaking of] their food and drink and from intermarrying with them. If I had intermarried with them, they would have had compassion upon me and upon their daughters’ children.
From the Almighty, etc. And if you attempt to say that this evil did not come to me from His hand, that it is coincidence that has befallen me; this is not so. For both bad occurrences and good occurrences, who has commanded and they came to pass, unless God ordained? And He commands neither bad nor good [to come]. But what should a living man bemoan? “A man for his sins.” Every man should bemoan his sins, because they are what bring the evil upon him. (“They did not emanate from the Almighty,” Rabbi Yochonon said, “From the day that the Holy One, Blessed Is He, said, ‘See, I have placed before you today the life and the good, etc.,’30Devarim 30:15. neither evil nor good has come from His command.” Rather the evil comes by itself to the one who commits evil, and the good to the one who does good.) Therefore, what should one bemoan? Why should a man be angry, if not about his sins?
נַחְנוּ פָשַׁעְנוּ וּמָרִינוּ. זֶה דַרְכֵּנוּ עַל יְדֵי יֵצֶר הָרָע: We have transgressed and rebelled. This is our way, because of the evil inclination.
How can it be that the golden glow has paled. This elegy was pronounced over Yoshiyahu, it is stated in Divrei Hayomim, “Behold it is written in the Book of Lamentations,”2II Divrei Hayomim 35:25. and with it he joined, in the midst of the elegy, the rest of the children of Tzion.
Sacred gems. Children who shine like precious stones. But the Midrash Aggadah [states that “sacred gems are spilled refers to], every fourth-part [=רְבִיעִית of blood that Yoshiyahu shed with each arrow that they thrust into him, Yirmiyahu buried in its place [i.e., where it spilled]. Concerning it he called out, “sacred gems are spilled.”
Who were evaluated in golden currency. Who were praised and valued like gold. Whoever saw them would say, “Look, the complexion of these is like the appearance of gold,” and similarly, “it cannot be praised תְסֻלֶּה with the gold jewelry of Ophir,”4Iyov 28:16. [and as in,] “with jewelry of fine gold, it cannot be praised תְסֻלֶּה”5Ibid. 28:19. [and as in,] “praise סֹלּוּ Him Who rides the heavens.”6Tehilim 68:5. These are expressions of praise and value.
Even the serpent. Even though it is cruel, it bares its breast. When it sees its offspring coming from afar, hungry, it uncovers its breasts from their sheath, for it has a cover over its breasts, and it takes them out so that its offspring should not see them covered up and turn away. Then they suckle their young.
Yet the daughters of my people have become brutal. They see their children crying for bread, and yet no one breaks [bread] for them; for their own lives come before their children’s lives because of the hunger.
Her Nazirites were more pristine. Her princes, like נֵזֶר and כֶּתֶר [=a crown]. But I say [it means] actual Nazirites, who had long hair and were very handsome, and the antecedent is “of my people.”13Above Verse 6.
For they dripped with burst bellies, etc. The corpses [of those who died] because of hunger were swollen from the aroma of the fruits of the field. The enemies would roast meat on the grass outside the wall, and the aroma would go into those swollen from hunger, and their stomachs would split, and their feces would ooze. This is an uglier death than those slain by the sword.
The blind slithered in the streets. When the blind would walk in the street, they would stagger, and their feet would slip on the blood of the slain,19Alternatively, ‘they wandered through the streets blindly.’ whom the wicked were slaying in its [Yerusholayim] midst.
For they were obscene. An expression of foulness and filth,21Alternatively, ‘they blasphemed.[נצונאצו].’ as in, “its crop מֻרְאָתוֹ with its feathers,”22Vayikra 1:16. which is translated [by the Targum] as בְּאוּכְלֵיהּ. So did Menachem classify it.
גַּם נָעוּ. נִשְׁמְטוּ בַדָּם:
And slithering. They slipped in blood..
אַתָּה ה’. יָדַעְנוּ כִּי לְעוֹלָם תֵּשֵׁב וְהוֹאִיל וְכֵן הוּא: Adonoy, You. We know that You will remain forever. And because that is so…
Such is the primary and the most apparent operation of the perceiving mind: it marks out divisions in the continuity of the extended, simply following the suggestions of our requirement and the needs of practical life. But, in order to divide the real in this manner, we must first persuade ourselves that the real is divisible at will. Consequently we must throw beneath the continuity of sensible qualities, that is to say, beneath concrete extensity, a network, of which the meshes may be altered to any shape whatsoever and become as small as we please
If there are actions that are really free, or at least partly indeterminate, they can only belong to beings able to fix, at long intervals, that becoming to which their own becoming clings, able to solidify it into distinct moments, and so to condense matter and, by assimilating it, to digest it into movements of reaction which will pass through the meshes of natural necessity. The greater or less tension of their duration, which expresses, at bottom, their greater or less intensity of life, thus determines both the degree of the concentrating power of their perception and the measure of their liberty. The independence of their action upon surrounding matter becomes more and more assured in the degree that they free themselves from the particular rhythm which governs the flow of this matter. So that sensible qualities, as they are found in our memory shot perception, are in fact the successive moments obtained by a solidification of the real.
–Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, translated by N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer, pp.209-10
On divisibility, the creation of division, the solidification of the real in perception, the mesh of natural necessity, and the action of beings who across intervals are “really free,” all of this reminds me of Talmud. That is to say, Bergson helps bring Talmud, which pays such keen attention to the distribution of objects, into the philosophy of perception. Talmud is a mesh that divides up and cuts up the real, and the rabbis are “free” in the way Bergson. describes. While Bergson is critical of intellect, I think this passage gets at what Talmud does and how it enacts arhythmic awareness vis-a-vis the world.
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.
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.
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.”
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  the complex swell that is modern Jewish history and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  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.  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.
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.