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Oldie, 3/30/09: Talking about Israel some more

Back on October 31 of last year, I reflected on my evolving mindset concerning the "other" side of my religious heritage, i.e. Judaism. The first item on my short list was Israel, and how, for many years, I had been convinced that it represented a more advanced moral standard and a higher plane of existence, as it were. More recently, having rejected religion outright, I was finally willing to take a cold, hard look at Judaism and decide whether or not it was worthy of rejection in the same way as Christianity.

I thought I had the issue all tucked in and put to bed with the lights out, but recently, a new angle (new to me, at least) on the subject has taken shape.

Excerpted below is the article from the NY Times - emphasis mine.

A Religious War in Israel’s Army

JERUSALEM — The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the recent Gaza fighting ... exposes something else: the clash between secular liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.

...[T]he left-leaning secular kibbutz movement ... showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

For the first four decades of Israel’s existence, the army — like many of the country’s institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two, religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military responsibility.

“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies... The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli society through the army.”

Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field.

He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

...[W]hat was evident in Gaza was that the humanistic tradition from which a code of ethics is derived was not being sufficiently observed there.

Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi Rontzki, said ...“The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,” he said. “They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”

This brings me back once again to an examination of what Judaism is to me. I realize now that from the very beginning of my exploration of Judaism, the focus was always on philosophy, scholarship, reason. I recall the pleasure I derived in college from independent reading and study -- the leisurely examination of "the meaning of life," and the historical threads that bound all of like mind -- those who sensed that we, as humans, had the potential to rise above emotion-driven savagery and create a world of thought, beauty and constructive action. But the farther along I went, the more room there was for religion to rear its ugly head. Time and again I was reminded by one person or another, that, oh yes, scholarship is fine, but Judaism is about tradition, which holds that women are "ordained by the almighty to be separate from men and to serve a different function. Women, you see, are holy because they can bear children, and that is your supreme calling. Scholarship is nothing -- men study scripture day and night because they can't bear children..." etc. etc.

So while I tried mightily to cling to the humanistic, reason-bound traditions of Judaism, my lack of grounding in it (that is, the fact that my mother was gentile and therefore I did not have "the birthright" as one rabbi put it), made it very hard to fight back against the growing tide of traditionalism. In college, for example, during my sophomore year when I first began hanging out at Hillel, the campus rabbi was a fairly liberal-leaning, egalitarian sort. At first glance, he gave the impression of being rather old-school, but that wasn't where he was coming from.

But then he left, and a female rabbi replaced him. And then came the backlash. Whereas earlier, our functions had been co-ed, as soon as the female rabbi arrived, the more reactionary elements in Hillel demanded a more traditional setting for our social activities. And so up went the mechitza[that's the curtain that separates men and women in orthodox synagogues]. Soon there was a lot of talk about the "authentic Jewish experience," in which we gals were expected to move to a Chasidic enclave and settle into a "proper" existence of early marriage and abundant childbearing, complete with an ugly wig, ugly shoes, and a lifestyle reminiscent of a Polish shtetl in 1901. The Jewish version of Quiverfull, in other words.

This encroachment of oppressive religion was what drove me far and fast from Judaism. Something in me sensed that it was harmful to my psyche. And since the rabbis I consulted were unanimous in saying that I should never expect any encouragement to convert, that I was entirely on my own in this endeavor, backing away was fairly painless. [The followup question of what led me into Christianity is something I'll have to look at later, since it seems to be a clear contradiction.]

But getting back to Israel -- it's a question that I imagine many Jews are having to grapple with, and it parallels the dilemma that many religious Americans have faced over the last 35 years or so, as the religious right has hijacked some fairly benign and humanistic concepts. Equality, dignity, compassion, unity ... those were the values I grew up with as a nominal Catholic, and I have clear memories of a reaching out between Christians and Jews during the post-war years, up to the late 1970s. Suddenly, religion began overshadowing everything again, emphasizing the differences between groups that had been working so hard to embrace their commonalities.

Finally, the question is being spelled out for people to really look at. What is Israel, and more importantly, what is Judaism? Is it an advanced, lofty, scholarly, humanistic and ultra-modern system of philosophy? Or is it, like other western religions, a regressive, patriarchal political system that endeavors to shackle its followers through fear, superstition and brainwashing?

My rejection of Israel in my post from last October was, I think, born out of the intuition of what it seems to be becoming -- what the New York Times article describes.


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