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THE way many American Jews lambast Israel in the press, you would think their sense of outrage springs from an Israeli betrayal of Jewish or Zionist ideals. That such a perception is mistaken becomes obvious after even the most cursory study of Jewish history.
We often see articles critical of Israel that start off with something like "As a Jew, I must protest the way in which Israel is dealing with the intifada," or "As an ardent Zionist, I must speak out against Israel."
Many of the writers who begin their articles this way mistakenly believe that such an admission absolves them from charges of anti-Israel bias. Still others claim a special sanction to criticize Israel by emphasizing their prima facie sympathy for the Jewish state.
But some authors err even more greatly: They believe that Judaism the religion is fundamentally incompatible with the expression of political and military power.
Because these authors are invariably assimilated or nearly assimilated Jews who have little knowledge of the Bible and Jewish history, they fail to realize that Judaism and Zionism cannot possibly be the sources of their moral indignation.
I AM often confronted by people who think that Judaism is nothing more than a set of moral values that are the precursors of modern liberalism. They locate the Jewish tradition more in the tradition of Kant and Rawls than in Moses and Hillel. The truth is that modern-day Jews who form such a large part of the mainstream of philosophers and liberal thinkers can no more lay claim to Jewish tradition than Friedrich Nietzsche could to Lutheranism.
Judaism is an ancient religion with a complex theology, a comprehensive code of law and a large set of time-honored rituals. And like most religions, it is not very sympathetic to individualism or free thinking. Many forget that Judaism excommunicated one of history's greatest thinkers--Benedict Spinoza--for heresy.
Judaism is a dogmatic religion, one whose tenets and laws often conflict with my own liberal philosophical views. My life benefits from both systems and from the insights I gain from the conflict between their values. It is certainly appropriate to subject Israel to a rigorous liberal standard of human rights--as long as it is made clear that liberalism, and not Judaism, is the basis for the criticism.
So it is not with malice against the religion that I expose Judaism for what it is; indeed, no other historic religion--not Catholicism, not Hinduism, not Islam--even remotely comes close to meeting liberal standards of tolerance and concern for human rights.
One of Judaism's primary manifestations is nationalistic: It promises the Jews a nation-state in the land between the Nile and the Euphrates Rivers(only a portion of which is now under the sovereignty of the state of Israel). Some of this land was originally conquered by the biblical Israelites from the peoples of Canaan, peoples whom the Bible records as steeped in immoral practices such as human sacrifice and incest. But it was conquest nonetheless.
Judaism is well-known for its strong, fair system of internal justice, as well as for its emphasis on acts of charity. So, in a way, it does share values with liberalism. But when it comes to the enemies of Israel, Judaism allows little or no mercy.
CLEAR precedents for waging aggressive war and destroying one's enemies are established in the Torah and form an integral part of the Jewish religion.
During the conquest of Canaan, cities were routinely destroyed under the principle of Herem, in which every person, every animal and every piece of property was annihilated. This practice was viewed in a noble light because it removed from the attackers' minds any temptation to collect spoils, thus permitting divine command to be their sole motivation. Nevertheless, Herem as a practice flies in the face of our notions of "just war" and is difficult to accept even if one views it as the word of God.
Another example of Judaism's ruthless treatment of its enemies is the case of the people of Amalek. The Bible records that the nation of Amalek massacred the sick and old among the Israelites when they left Egypt during the Exodus. To punish Amalek, the Israelites were ordered in the book of Exodus to wipe them out. The biblical decree applies even to livestock and to all descendants of Amalek, not just to the actual perpetrators living at the time. Indeed, the commandment to eliminate Amalek from the face of the earth is included among the 613 that Jews are bound to obey.
One of the most pathetic stories in all of the Bible is the account of King Saul's downfall in the book of Samuel. Saul had disobeyed God's direct command by failing to annihilate Amalek completely. Saul captured alive the king of Amalek, Agag. Jewish tradition tells us that before the prophet Samuel hacked him to pieces with an axe, Agag was able to impregnate a woman, who would give birth to the beginning of a long line of enemies of Israel. Because of his blunder, the formerly promising Saul secured his place of ignominy in Jewish history.
TOMORROW is the Jewish holiday of Purim. As recorded in the biblical scroll of Esther, the holiday celebrates the victory of the Jews over a descendant of Agag's, Haman, who tried to destroy them. The story--to be read tonight--includes a bloody turn of events that is another instance of Jews' "doing the right thing" for the sake of God's law, but taking actions opposed to liberal moral law.
So when Jews feel compelled to write in protest of Israel, let their motivation be something other than Judaism the religion (unless you are protesting Israel's operation of public buses on the Sabbath). Let your motivation be utilitarianism, deontological liberalism or even Arab nationalism--for these at least can be real sources of criticism of Israel. But don't write the criticism "as a Jew" or "as a Zionist." The tradition of Moses, Samson and David simply cannot back up your views.
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