Peace with Realism

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Jewish Idealism

Let us take a closer look at Jewish idealism. The subject is a tricky one. Are the Jewish members of the ISM idealists? Some of them may be. But the movement's leaders certainly are not. They are cynical partisans of the Palestinian cause and enemies of Israel, who have found it advantageous to exploit the idealism of some Jews. Is it idealistic to hate Israel? By no means. Nevertheless, the kind of idealism that attacks the self at the expense of objectivity has roots in (a misinterpretation of) Jewish prophetic tradition.

Judaism may be unique in having so carefully preserved so much criticism of its own people in its own sacred writings. The prophetic books of the Bible are full of castigation of the Hebrew people for widespread moral lapses. It is remarkable, even astonishing, that these reproaches have not only been carefully preserved but even treated as sacred scripture.

The Jews have paid a heavy price for this self-honesty. Both Christian and Muslim anti-Semites have not hesitated to exploit the Jews' willingness to bare their sins to the world as "proof" that Jews are disobedient and evil (see my article Jewish Self-Criticism and Anti-Semitism elsewhere on this site). The use of Jewish self-criticism as a club to beat Jews with goes back to the New Testament and the Qur'an, and it is still very much alive today.

Also very much alive is Jewish self-criticism itself. This self-criticism, this willingness to castigate oneself or one's people publicly for the sake of justice, goes back to prophetic tradition. The prophets expressed a deep concern for social justice, calling upon Israel to be "a light unto the nations." The Prophet Isaiah is certainly one of the great inspirations of the Jewish social conscience and the desire to become this light:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.
Isaiah 42:6

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:7-8

Jewish self-criticism is an expression of idealism. But it can boomerang. What Jewish self-critics too often seem to forget is that others do not play by their rules. What seems to them like an exercise of conscience is used by others as justification for judging both Israel and the Jews by a harsh double-standard. In short, Jewish self-criticism becomes a justification for anti-Semitism.

Using Jewish self-criticism as a weapon against Jews is especially easy since there is so little, in fact hardly any, self-criticism on the other side. And so there is "Jews Against the Occupation," but there is no "Arabs Against Bombing Civilians." There is "Jewish Voice for Peace," but there is no visible Arab counterpart. There is "Rabbis for Human Rights," but there is no "Imams for Social Justice." There is no Arab B'Tselem investigating Arab violations of Jewish human rights. There is no Arab "Peace Now."

Why not? Because, Israel's critics say, only Jews are to blame, and some Jews even admit it!

Jewish self-criticism is dangerous. It can be used to hurt Jews. Does this mean that as Jews we should stop criticizing ourselves and justify everything we do, just like so many others? By no means. That would not be true to Jewish tradition. And so we must tread a fine line, which means we must first know where that line is.

Let's take a look at the writings of one well-known Jewish idealist, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the magazine Tikkun. Lerner considers self-criticism a sacred duty, and speaks often of Israel's "need to atone." Lerner also criticizes the Palestinians; however, he spends much more time and energy criticizing Israel. For Lerner, "Our atonement was not an attempt to claim that Israel holds all the responsibility.... Yet the preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel."(7) Lerner's desire to "feel the other's pain" is admirable, but not always objective. For example, he takes Israel to task for not having "acknowledged responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were driven out of Israel in 1948," but he makes no mention of the fact that those Palestinians fled after five Arab armies invaded Israel. Who should "acknowledge responsibility" for that? By recognizing only the Palestinian version of what happened in 1948, Lerner casts doubt on the legitimacy of Israel's very existence.

In another article on the need for atonement, Lerner expresses the roots of his Jewish idealism. He is inspired by the Hebrew Prophets' call for social justice and by their universalism, the proclamation that the one true God is the God of all nations.:

Over and over again, the Torah states that one can live and create a society in the Holy Land only if one is living a life in accord with the highest ethical values of justice and "loving the stranger." The very ownership of the Promised Land was forbidden, "because the entire earth is mine," says the Eternal One of Israel.

Even in biblical days, there were nationalists who heard Godís voice in a different and more chauvinistic way. And to straighten them out, the prophet Isaiah heard God talking about the future of the Temple Mount this way: "My house [the Temple] shall be a house of prayer for all nations."

Once again he criticizes the Palestinians for failing to try nonviolence; nevertheless, he still assigns a disproportionate share of the blame to Israel, even to the point of historical inaccuracy. As in his other article he accuses Israel of having caused the Palestinian refugee problem, with not one word about any Arab responsibility. In another instance of adopting unquestioningly the Palestinian version of events, he accuses Israel of having murdered Muhammad al-Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian youth who died in a crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists. Neither in this article nor in any subsequent writing does Lerner mention that research has shown the bullets that killed al-Dura were not fired by Israeli soldiers.

Lerner's idealism is unbalanced because his criticism of Israel is so one-sided, often ignoring relevant facts. It is misguided in that his laudable but carelessly applied desire to express the best Jewish ideals has led him to support Palestinian propaganda efforts to rewrite history and undermine Israel's claim to legitimacy. In fact, Lerner's article now appears on Media Monitors Network, a venomously anti-Israel and anti-Semitic web site. Israel's enemies are always looking for Jews they can use.

Lerner's most recent application of idealism to support an attack on Israel appears in the issue of Tikkun current as of this writing. In a lead article Lerner defends the decision by the Presbyterian Church to initiate a selective divestment in companies doing business with Israel.(9) Characteristically he lays the entire blame for the present conflict on Israel, calling the terrorist leaders Israel has targeted "people it labeled militants," as if to say there are no terrorists and any measure Israel takes against them is oppression. Lerner supports a two-state solution, but only as a stage on the way to eliminating borders altogether. He makes the following utopian statement:

Ultimately, I believe not in the one-state solution but the no-state solution. The greatest danger facing the human race is that the scourge of nationalist wars will continue to divert our attention from the immediate survival need of the human race: to band together to repair the destructive environmental impact of 150 years of global industrialization. So whereas in the short run I see no political possibility of overcoming Jewish nationalism enough to go to a one-state solution, the long-term goal is not to fuse Israel and Palestine together but to remake the entire political geography of the world around geo-environmental political entities whose primary task is to coordinate investment and production for the sake of creating a global economy aimed at repairing the world's environment.

Why, one might reasonably wonder, does Lerner mention only "Jewish" nationalism as an obstacle to his utopian dream? And just how would he accomplish this dream "to remake the entire political geography of the world"? Throughout history utopians with similar dreams, including communists, messianists, and Islamic extremists, have caused enormous strife and bloodshed in the name of their lofty ideals. There is simply no way to erase the cultural and ethnic differences between people short of coercion.

Nevertheless Lerner pushes his idealistic vision to the point of absurdity:

In this context, I hope for the preservation of the cultural richness and diversity of the world's religious and cultural heritage, and the elimination of current nation-states, which often perpetuate senseless national struggles like that of Israelis and Palestinians. So, if you are talking short-term, focus on the Geneva Accord and its two-state solution, in which Israel gets to retain some of the settlements in the West Bank close to the pre-1967 border (the "Green Line") in exchange for giving the Palestinians an equal amount of land from what is now Israel. And if you are talking about the long run, forget about one state and instead go for what the world really needs: no states.

It is hard to imagine how one can preserve the "diversity of the world's religious and cultural heritage" without nation-states. Lerner's utopian vision wants "diversity" (a word the left has invested with a significance almost sacred) without the means of preserving that diversity. And just who would govern this world without nations, and what amount of force would be necessary to prevent various ethnic groups from naturally coalescing into nations or at least self-contained entities defined as distinct from other entities? To propose seriously that we do away with nation-states is about as realistic as ignoring the impact of Palestinian terrorism in assigning blame for the current conflict.

It is clear from this piece that Lerner's brand of misguided idealism leads to a detachment from reality. This makes it all the more dangerous when taken seriously.


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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism