Ends and Means: Idolatry of the State

I’ve got an article coming out soon about the Anti-Boycott law which was recently passed here in Israel. In short, I agree with the opponents of the law, even whilst I acknowledge that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Lobby seems to have a strong anti-Israel component to it. I don’t want legislation solely on the basis of threat, because frankly once we go down that path we might as well forget democracy altogether. Naomi Chazan, President of the New Israel Fund, expresses it better than me:

A tremendous fear has developed here, and it is convenient for all kinds of people to cultivate that fear − fear that the whole world is against us, that we are alone, that we are not understood by outsiders.

And when you are afraid, you look for those who are to blame for the fear and you target populations, people or opinions. And when this scapegoating receives tacit backing from some of those in power, it is rapidly translated into policy. And in the case of the 18th Knesset, that means legislative initiatives.

I have another concern though. I feel I am witnessing what I can only describe as the idolatry of the nation-state by some of the politicians – notably, though not exclusively, Yisrael Beiteinu. The orthodox religious parties have customarily not sought to make halakha (Jewish law) coerced by the force of civil law (in other words you can’t force someone to follow a certain religious behaviour by making it illegal according to Israel state law – though this is more complicated once you get down to specifics), but their discourse also seems to have shifted towards a muscular assertion of their authority (not always successfully – see Joel Katz’s Religion and State blog for updates on some of these issues). With both of these groups forming a part of the current coalition government under Netanyahu’s leadership (a result of the election in 2009) it is no wonder that Naomi Chazan emphasises the degree to which democracy is being threatened. The coalition feels bereft of leadership and great chasms exist between the values of those who share power and, moreover, two outspoken coalition groups do not seem to hold democracy as an important part of their ideology/theology.

This is a broad sweeping analysis, but I have got a sense that for the secular ultra-nationalists they have turned the State into an object of worship, all but forgetting that whilst normalisation of Israel’s status as the State for the Jews in international relations and of day to day life might be something that we are still waiting for, it is not the end. In terms of ends, I certainly find messianic ideas connected to the State of Israel’s existence rather problematic, of which another post another day, but I do feel that the state alone is not enough – it has to embody certain values and ideas and, if it is to contribute to the cultural and spiritual life of the Jewish people and the world, all the more so. I disagree with Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman’s interpretation of the protests as signs of a shift in the people’s understanding of who we want the State of Israel to be, I don’t think the protest has yet gained that level of sophistication, but he certainly touches on aspects of what I’m talking about.

Neither Hartman nor I are the first to argue that the nation-state cannot be the end in and of itself. For example, Martin Buber in his series of essays on ‘Nationalism and Zion’ in his book ‘Israel and the World‘ already forewarns:

We do, of course, need the conditions of normal national life, but these are not enough – not enough for us, at any rate. We cannot enthrone “normalcy” in place of the eternal premise of our survival. If we want to be nothing but normal, we shall soon cease to be at all. (p.252)

The secular ultra-nationalists effectively supplant worship of God and obedience to halakha with something new. But it is worse, because when these ultra-nationalists worship the State, then nothing but the state seems to matter.

Another to articulate the problem with nationalism as an end not a means was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who writes in his book “Israel: An Echo of Eternity”:

The ultimate meaning of the State of Israel must be seen in terms of the vision of the prophets: the redemption of all men. The religious duty of the Jew is to participate in the process of continuous redemption, in seeing that justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding. p.225

We don’t have to share Heschel’s exact religious outlook to hear, loud and clear, that protection of the State at all costs with no vision for where we are headed is deeply flawed. As Naomi Chazan implies, the more public discourse is stifled because it is cast as harmful to the security and legitimacy of the State, the further away we move from our ability to think about what kind of country we actually want to live in. I suppose, then, I do at least share a hope with Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman, that the current protests are signs that, even with what could be described as self-interested beginnings (which is not a criticism by the way), they are a wake-up call to politicians that people do care about more than just existentialist concerns.

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