After this week’s horrors in Jenin and other West Bank towns, Israel can no longer count on automatic support from U.S. Jews. Many who had once supported Israeli policies, or at least remained silent, are saying for the first time: “Not in my name.” That could mark a major turning point, not only in the Middle East conflict, but in American Judaism.
For years, Israeli governments have counted on unstinting support from Washington, guaranteed by steady pressure from the U.S. Jewish community. Once U.S. Jews begin to question Israeli policies, Congress and the White House will feel free to say “no” to Israel when that serves U.S. interests. Israel will have to make compromises to please Washington, perhaps including an end to, or even dismantling of, settlements in the Occupied Territories. That would provoke a major political crisis in Israel. The massive flow of U.S. aid to Israel might be seriously challenged for the first time, which could provoke an economic crisis too. The impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations is hard to predict.
The impact on the Jews and Judaism in this country could be just as profound. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Jewish religious life has been pervaded by nearly universal support for Israel and all its policies. The great historian of Judaism, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, has called it “The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.”
This new form of Judaism enshrines two dogmas: Israel's fate embodies the fate of all Jews, and Israel's very existence is threatened. The need to insure Jewish survival by supporting Israel has become the fundamental religious commandment. With Israel the symbol of every Jew's fate, only the army of Israel, it seems, stands between survival and another Holocaust. This gives Israel's military actions a seemingly irrefutable ethical legitimacy. So Jews can celebrate pride in a Jewish might that is both military and apparently moral, as long as they fear another Holocaust, this time in Israel..
Pride in might reflects a fundamental premise in the dominant stream of Zionist thinking: the many centuries when Jews were persecuted and powerless are something to be ashamed of. In the mainstream Zionist view, Jewish power is inherently good, because it is the only way to escape that shameful past and regain Jewish self-respect. The longer Jews insist that Israel’s existence is threatened, the longer they can justify the exercise of power that Zionism views as necessary (though this part of the process is largely unconscious).
Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, small numbers of U.S. Jews have questioned “The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.” Until the past week, though, it was almost tabu to raise these questions aloud in Jewish circles. There was no way for Jews to gain an objective moral perspective on Israeli policies. Now that tabu is beginning to break, and once it falls there is no turning back.
There is no way to predict what new forms Judaism may take in the future. But one element of traditional Judaism would surely remain: the rituals of atonement for sin. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has slashed a grievous moral wound in the Jewish people and their religious life. The wound will begin to heal only when Jews confess the truth, with an objective moral evaluation that has been missing before. That means more than admitting wrongdoing in the past. It means creating a future in which Jews offer a hand of genuine friendship and support to a fully independent Palestinian state.
The new Judaism must find ways to foster Jewish self-respect that do not require Jewish power over others. It must acknowledge that Jews were mistaken to look to military force for their sources of pride. It must question the premise of “The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption,” that Israeli force is justified because Israel’s existence is always threatened. It must recognize that Israel has been, for decades, a secure nation with no enemies having both the ability and desire to destroy it. It must understand that the fear of another Holocaust has been misused to give moral legitimacy to acts that are intrinsically immoral.
The new Judaism must learn to find Jewish self-respect in helping Israel build, together with Palestine and its other neighbors, the kind of Middle East community that the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber envisioned 80 years ago. In this confederation of nations, each would recognize the others as partners in an common effort of mutual respect, aid, and constructive work.
The goal would be a region in which every person is respected and feels self-respect, not by having power of others, but by sharing power with others. As Buber taught us, we can not wait for someone else to begin the process. We can respect ourselves only when we take the first step to do the right thing. Perhaps the tragic horrors of the past week are the wake-up call U.S. Jews have needed to take that first step.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado.