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Why Religious Zionism, Not Judaism, Is The Problem

This is my disclaimer to the series entitled Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?

Pro-Israeli pundits often argue that they have a problem with “Islamism,” which they define as the politicization of the religion of Islam.  Prof. Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland clarifies, for example, that he doesn’t have a problem with Islam but with “Islamism,” a religio-political ideology enjoining Muslims to reestablish the pan-Islamic Caliphate.

If pro-Israeli propagandists insist that “political Islam”–which they call Islamism–is the problem, then in a similar vein am I arguing that Religious Zionismnot Judaism, is the problem.  It is the mixing of the political ideology Zionism with Judaism that I criticize.  I believe criticizing Judaism en toto would be Anti-Semitic.  Judaism, without the infusion of Zionism into it, is–in my opinion–a wonderful religion.  I believe it would be absolutely detestable to take my criticisms of Religious Zionism and use them to justify vilifying Judaism as a whole.

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The dangers of falling into Anti-Semitism are very real.  Historically, Anti-Semitism has been a major problem, and it continues to be in some parts of the world today.  One of the primary ways in which Anti-Semites unfairly targeted Jews was to vilify Halakha, digging up intolerant views in the rabbinical tradition to smear Judaism with.

But herein lies an irony: many Zionist Jews are now joining Anti-Muslim Christians in vilifying the Islamic tradition in a very similar way.  Once Halakha was the target of bigots; today, it is Sharia.  Rabbi Eliyahu Stern has written an excellent article about this topic, entitled Don’t Fear Islamic Law in America.

I will be applying the same standards our opponents apply to the Islamic tradition to the Jewish one, to show that Judaism is equally vulnerable to such criticisms.  It is hoped that this exercise will encourage people of Judeo-Christian background to be more hesitant in vilifying and targeting Islam.  This is purely an exercise in thought, a what if scenario (what if we applied the same standards to your religion as you do onto others?) designed to be the antidote to religious and cultural arrogance.

By clarifying that this constitutes an “exercise in thought” one should know that I am not saying Judaism is XYZ because of ABC, but rather simply that if you insist on arguing that Islam is XYZ due to ABC then–based on your own logic–Judaism and Christianity are also XYZ because they too have ABC.  This is a what if? and an if-then argument.

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This is not to say, however, that religion has nothing to do with the matter.  I am extremely critical of Religious Zionism, which has a very real and deleterious impact in world affairs.  Religious Zionists are now among the most influential voices in Israel’s hawkish right-wing, using religion to justify even more regressive policies towards the Palestinians.  Dr. Claudia Baumgart notes in Democracy, Diversity, and Conflict: Religious Zionism and Israeli Foreign Policy that Religious Zionism “started to play a major role” in Israeli foreign policy by the late 1960’s.  Today, its impact is absolutely pernicious.

Religious Zionism went even further than secular Zionism, declaring the settlement of Palestinian land–all of Palestine–a mitzvah, a religious obligation under Jewish law.  While it may be possible to convince secular Zionists of the need for a two-state solution, this is not possible with Religious Zionists who believe it is forbidden in their religion–nay, it is a blasphemy of the highest order and greatest magnitude–to cede even one inch of Eretz Israel to the Palestinians.  This is why Religious Zionism is a major impediment to peace in the region.

Much like how Radical and Ultra-Conservative Islam is a problem (“Islamists” as some incorrectly say), so too is Religious Zionism a major problem.  I agree with Dr. Baumgart’s assessment that “religion is not an independent cause of conflict in and between states.  But it can be an important intervening variable…”  In other words, Religious Zionism did not independently and all by itself create the problem of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, but it certainly is one important causative factor among a myriad of others.

This is of course not much different than my view of Radical and Ultra-Conservative Islam.  Some critics may assume that I do not think Radical and Ultra-Conservative Islam are part of the problem–that only American and Israeli foreign policy are to blame.  This is incorrect: I believe that terrorism is the result of a myriad of factors, and although American and Israeli neo-colonialism certainly tops the list, Radical and Ultra-Conservative Islam plays an important role as well.

Criticism of Religious Zionism should not tarnish Judaism as a whole no more than criticism of Radical and Ultra-Conservative Islam should tarnish Islam as a whole.  One should stay clear of the bigotry that would compel oneself to smear an entire faith for the actions of a particular strand of a religion.

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My need to criticize Religious Zionism is also founded on the link between Zionism and Islamophobia. Pro-Israeli apologists are often anti-Muslim; conversely, anti-Muslim bigots are almost invariably pro-Israeli. In fact, Islamophobes fanatically support the state of Israel, which they see as the embodiment of the Crusader state in the heartland of the infidel Muslim world.  Meanwhile, Israelis see the Islamophobes as useful to their cause against their Muslim foes.  Often, however, there is no distinction between the two: Zionist Islamophobes form a large chunk of the anti-Muslim camp.  Pamela Geller, an extremist Zionist Islamophobe, is a case in point.  In light of this, it is important to hold Religious Zionism to the same standard that these Zionists/Islamophobes so mirthfully apply to Islam.

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One may quite reasonably criticize my choice of title, “The Top Five Ways Jewish Law Justifies Killing Civilians:” after all, it does not make it clear that I am herein criticizing the Halakha of Religious Zionists, not of all Jews.  This is acceptable criticism, which I agree with in principle.

However, remember that this article series is a “thought exercise:” the entire purpose is to show how Judaism and Christianity could not possibly live up to the high standards anti-Muslim Jews and Christians insist on applying to Islam.  Our Islamophobic opponents certainly do not differentiate between different interpretations of Sharia.  They take Radical and/or Ultra-Conservative interpretations of Islamic law as The Sharia.  Likewise, I will take the Orthodox Jewish interpretation of Halakha–as understood by “mainstream” Modern Orthodoxy–to be The Halakha.  Then, we will see how much anti-Muslim Jews and Christians like it.  How will Pamela Geller respond to holding her religious faith up to the same standards she insists upon for Islam?

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Having said all of this, the primary reason I chose to speak about Halakha is that it is our opponents themselves who invoked the comparison between the supposedly peaceful Judeo-Christian tradition on the one hand and the supposedly warlike Islamic tradition on the other.  This argument–that the modern-day Judeo-Christian interpretations are overwhelmingly peaceful, whereas those of Islam are warlike–is raised by both the King and Queen of Islamophobia, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller.

Robert Spencer’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) invokes this comparison multiple times.  For example, he says on p.31:

When modern-day Jews and Christians read their Bibles, they simply don’t interpret the passages cited as exhorting them to violent action against unbelievers. This is due to the influence of centuries of interpretive traditions that have moved away from literalism regarding these passages. But in Islam, there is no comparable interpretive tradition. The jihad passages in the Qur’an are anything but a dead letter.

Meanwhile, the Queen of Islamophobia published a letter by David Yerushalmi which said:

[T]he historical comparison between the response to sharia in this country and Europe’s objection to Jewish law centuries earlier is a result of poor scholarship and faulty logic.  Jewish law, certainly since the destruction of the Jewish Commonwealth almost two thousand years ago, has had nothing to do with political power or the desire to effect dominion over another people. 

To the contrary, the opposition to sharia is the fact that throughout the Muslim world, sharia is the call to an exclusive Islamic political power with hegemonic designs (see the two most prominent surveys cited here: http://mappingsharia.com/?page_id=425).  The war doctrine of jihad is part and parcel of sharia.  It is alive and well as such throughout the Muslim world.

Therefore, I am left no choice but to compare Islamic understandings of religious law to their Jewish counterparts.  This comparison was foisted upon me by my opponents.  There is no way to disabuse the King and Queen of Islamophobia (and their loyal subjects) of their claims except to respond in the way I am.

Naturally, “bystanders” will be caught in the crossfire.  Good-hearted, fellow Jews may be offended by such an article series that takes such a critical look at Jewish law.  This is why I explained my absolute reluctance to go down this path in my opening disclaimer.  But, the constant barrage of Islamophobic polemics, encouraged by Israeli activists, convinces me that this is something unavoidable.  Thus it is so, that with a grudging heart, I proceed forth.

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Update I:

It is true that Ultra-Orthodox Judaism within Israel is just as disquieting as Modern Orthodox Judaism (as I will show in a follow-up article). This is due to their unthinking acceptance of Zionist ideology.  On the other hand, those Ultra-Orthodox Jews who forcefully reject Zionism, such as the Neturei Karta, do not justify Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians.  Perhaps then it would be more appropriate to say that Zionism, not just Religious Zionism, is the problem.  Once again, however, it should be stressed that it is the mixing of a racist political ideology with religion that is to be condemned, not the religion itself.

Update II:

A reader who posts under the user name “Just Stopping By” gave some valid criticism in the comments section, arguing that it would be too broad a generalization to categorize all Religious Zionism as one way–that dissenting opinions do exist.  Admittedly, this article series does deal in some generalizations, but these are acceptable, I think, in the context of this being a “thought exercise.”  One could, for example, hardly expect Islamophobes to recognize that even in Ultra-Conservative Islam there exists nuance.

Having said that, it is fair criticism–especially in an article intended to be a disclaimer and explanation of my viewpoints–that I should recognize the existence of a spectrum of views in Religious Zionism, instead of viewing it as one rigid monolith.  This I readily admit, even though I of course disagree with Religious Zionism as a whole, just as I do Ultra-Conservative Islam.

Update III:

Two additional points need to be addressed here: the first is my choice to use Carlos Latuff’s artwork.  I was unfamiliar with him until I started searching for images to use in my article series, and realized that I’ve used one of his images in the past (without properly accrediting him).  My use of some of his cartoons should not be seen as an endorsement of his political views, which are not very clear to me.  One can only speculate what a cartoonist’s political views are based on his comics.  The images I chose are very applicable to the article series, and that is why I used them.  Nothing more, nothing less.  To give credit where credit is due, I do think Carlos Latuff is a very gifted artist and political cartoonist.

I have seen accusations against him by pro-Israeli apologists that he is an Anti-Semite.  These do not seem to be anything other than the typical Israeli tactic of accusing Israel’s critics of Anti-Semitism in order to vilify and silence them.  One critic claimed that Latuff uses images of “hook-nosed Jews.”  However, this seems baseless to me: notice the perfectly normal nose of the Israeli soldier below.  One could hardly expect a critic of Israel’s war crimes to portray IDF soldiers as anything but evil.  This hardly amounts to Anti-Semitism.  Would these pro-Israeli apologists desire political cartoonists to draw Israeli soldiers with roses coming out of their butts?

The second accusation I have seen against him is that his cartoons use the Star of David.  However, he explained to the Guardian:

Part of the supposed ‘evidence’ for my antisemitism is the fact that I’ve used the Star of David, which is a symbol of Judaism . . . But check all my artworks – you’ll find that the Star of David is never drawn alone. It’s always part of the Israeli flag. Yes, it’s a religious motif, but in Israel it has been applied to a state symbol; and it’s the institutions of the state – the politicians and the army – that I’m targeting. Including the flag of Israel in a cartoon is no more an attack on Judaism than including the flag of Turkey would be an attack on Islam.

The tactic of smearing critics of Israel with the “Anti-Semitic” slur is perfectly pictured by Latuff himself:

I do think some of Latuff’s comics may be over the top and are beyond my comfort level, such as this depiction of an Israeli soldier, which is not Anti-Semitic but just too hyperbolic for me.  One can understand that an artist might want to push the boundaries and invoke strong reactions from his work.  In any case, do I have to agree with every single one of a political cartoonist’s comics before I can reproduce any of them?

The other issue is my reliance on Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s work.  He is one of the world’s leading experts of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it thus seems obvious why I would draw on his writings.  Despite my deep respect for his scholarship and his person, I must however issue a clear disclaimer distancing myself from his equivocation in response to a question about Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians.  I categorically reject all attacks targeting civilians, no matter who does them.  After all, my entire article series is designed to point out the hypocrisy of anti-Muslim Jews and Christians who condemn Muslims for what they themselves endorse (i.e. the targeting and killing of civilians).  If I would condone such terror attacks, this would be another layer of hypocrisy.

Along these lines, I might as well also state my views on Hamas and Hezbollah, since pro-Israeli apologists and Islamophobes use this as a sort of litmus test to silence opposition (DO YOU CONDEMN HAMAS?  DO YOU?).  Let it be known then that I condemn and reject Hamas and Hezbollah.  Although I recognize the right of the Palestinian people to defend their land and resist occupation (to deny them this right while accepting the right of the occupying power to “defend itself” is the height of colonialist mentality), under no circumstances–none whatsoever–is one allowed to target and kill civilians.  Even if Hamas and Hezbollah were to categorically renounce such tactics (and back up their words with actions), I would still not support these groups, which–like the Israeli and Jewish groups I will discuss–hold extremist religious views.

This does not mean that I do not “understand” why some occupied Palestinians would resort to such tactics.  (One cannot say the same for Israelis, who are the occupiers.)  “Understand” here is to be understood in the sense that one “understands” why a criminal was led to a life of crime due to an abused childhood.  This “understanding” does not equate to condoning, accepting, or justifying.

The desire to support Hamas and Hezbollah is born out of emotionalism, not principled ethics.  Many Muslims feel the need to side with “the Muslim side,” just as many Jews feel compelled to support “the Jewish state.”  I do not support groups or states, but rather ethics and principles.  Groups and states will always let you down; ethics and principles won’t.

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