The politicization of Judaism
If you’ve been listening to Newt Gingrich recently, you might be fearful of Muslims turning the United States of America into the Islamic Republic of America. You might be under the impression that Islamic religion is nothing more than a political front. You might be under the impression that Christianity is also fast becoming a political tool. But in all of the recent ranting about religion and politics, the third Abrahamic faith is flying under the radar. Few people think of Judaism as a political movement the way they might consider Islam or Christianity. When I think of Judaism, I think of latkes, challah, Woody Allen and Passover seders. I think of my mother yelling “oy vey” when I did badly on a quiz or when she burned the Rosh Hashanah brisket. If you’re an American of any religion, this is probably the image you have of Jewish people as well.
But there’s a whole other section of the world that has a very different perception of Jewish people. To them, Judaism is nothing but a political movement. They think of Jewish people — Israelis — who rode in on military jeeps and evicted them from their homes. They think of Jewish people who have blocked them off from the rest of the world, by physical wall or economic blockade. They think of Jewish people who have stolen their land and denied their history.
I agree that it would be wrong to draw conclusions about Israelis or Jews in general because of some Israeli policies and military actions — just as it would be wrong to judge any community by the actions of its worst representatives. But how do we deal with Judaism when almost all American Jewish organizations unconditionally support Israeli policies?
In the secular, post-religion age in which many of us live, Judaism has been preserved by another faith: nationalism. Allegiance to Israel is integral to the American Jewish experience, perhaps even more so than the religious and cultural tradition born out of the Diaspora. And organized Judaism’s political leanings are nearly monolithic.
Questioning this allegiance is the worst taboo within the organized Jewish community. Academics like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein GS ’88 who criticize Israel are dubbed “self-hating Jews” by the American Jewish mainstream. Jewish pro-Palestinian groups like Jews Say No or Jewish Voices for Peace are on the ultimate fringe. There are a few semi-mainstream Jewish groups that do criticize Israel, but there are none that will even entertain the idea of a non-Jewish Israeli-Palestinian state.
The result is a near-total politicization of Judaism, analogous to Islamism in the Middle East or Sarah Palin’s brand of political Christianity here. While, unlike these ideologies, American Jews do not advocate for our government to be founded on Jewish values, we do advocate specific policies in the Middle East. Like the Sabbath prayers and the stories of the Torah, the history of modern Israel — often stripped of its unsavory bits — is an integral part of Jewish education. The Israeli independence fighters are heroes for American Jews, just like George Washington or Paul Revere. Millions of dollars are spent to teach young Jews to love Israel and to defend Israel from its critics. The proof is overwhelming and undeniable: Maintaining a Jewish nation-state in Palestine has become one of organized Judaism’s core goals.
And just as it is fair to criticize Israeli policies, it is fair to criticize its apologists — groups that claim to represent the entire American Jewish community. American Jews have traditionally been at the forefront of progressive movements. But in recent years, American Jewish institutions have trended toward the ugly side of Zionism, defending — or at least apologizing for — the Israeli hard right in its continuation of the occupation of the West Bank and repression of Palestinian identity. The undeniable injustices of the Israeli government and military warrant criticism; silence in the face of these injustices warrants criticism as well.
It is time for American Jews to stand up against oppression, violence and religious fundamentalism. The tribalism that has persuaded the Jewish people to categorically stand up for Israel for so many years is foolish and outdated. The occupation of the West Bank is wrong. The blockade of Gaza is wrong. The displacement of Palestinian villages is wrong. The continued construction of settlements is wrong. And American Jews have enabled all of it. It’s about time a Jew stood up and said so.
Brandon Davis is a sophomore from Westport, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. – Republished with permission from The Daily Princetonian