“The image of the awful cruelty that tyrannical rulers inflicted upon them,” wrote Orthodox rabbi Aharon Shemu’el Tamares of his fellow Jews in 1912, “is fixed too firmly before their gaze for them to desire to be tyrants themselves and not to keep in their hearts a deep hatred for all other tyrants.” Born into the Russian empire in the late 19th century, Tamares was a firm pacifist and an ardent anti-Zionist, who believed – or, at least, wanted to believe – that their millenia-long experience of persecution had inoculated the Jews against the temptation to themselves become oppressors.
And yet, Tamares knew that such an orientation was not inevitable, and that Jews’ own experiences of suffering could easily lead them to desire what their oppressors had: military power and a nation state. But nationalism, he argued, had been “the primary source of the tears of the oppressed in general and of Jews in particular,” and to adopt it would necessarily mean emulating its violence.
Against such an inclination, he continued to insist that to compromise Jews’ recognition of the horrors of tyranny and violence would be to forfeit Judaism’s single, great insight. “The nation with such an ancient tradition to go against all of the nations, who for two thousand years would not bend and bow before the non-Jewish gods – we have before us an elevated task,” he declared in 1922. “It is: to revolt against the god of war, who has grown and prospered in recent generations to be the firstborn among false gods … it is only for this one and singular reason that it is worthwhile not to assimilate – that it is worthwhile to be a Jew.”
By 1929, though, as he saw more Jews being attracted to European-style nationalism, Tamares bemoaned: “Woe to us … for this generation [of Jews] is one of morally defective, stooping miscreants who value and sanctify gross power, the fist.” Perhaps, then, despite his hopes for a “revolt against the god of war,” Tamares would not have been shocked by the pogrom in Huwara at the end of last month, in which hundreds of Jewish vigilantes, aided and abetted by Jewish soldiers, rampaged through the Palestinian town for hours into the night, burning, looting and killing as they went.
Like all the other nations
Tamares, who died in 1931, saw more clearly than most that establishing a Jewish nation state and fulfilling mainstream Zionism’s dream of becoming “like all the nations” would involve becoming just as brutal as them. Today, however, almost a century later, and after more than 70 years of dispossessing and oppressing Palestinians in the name of the Jewish national project, many Jews are somehow still surprised that Jews – Jews! – could beat, riot, burn and kill.
Yet the truth is that, as horrifying as the pogrom in Huwara was, it is only the latest iteration of the violence that Israel has been carrying out against Palestinians since its inception – from the Nakba of 1948, to the military rule imposed on Palestinians within Israel’s borders until 1966, to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, that began a year later – and only a more obvious instance of the systemic and banal violence Israel inflicts upon Palestinians each day: home demolitions, evictions, night raids, administrative detentions, checkpoints, village closures, curfews, maiming, murder and willfully turning a blind eye to wanton settler violence.
Today, the Jewish state rules over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank by military dictatorship, denying them basic civil rights, including the right to vote for the government that directly controls their lives. And though Israel officially “left” Gaza, it continues to control minute aspects of Gazans’ lives, including the flow of goods, the population registry, and the border itself.
Even as Jewish leaders in Israel and the diaspora have condemned the pogrom, many of them continue to ignore or excuse this broader system of violence and oppression within which it was committed. Some justify it as a temporary necessity until a two-state agreement can be negotiated, even as Israeli settlements have rendered such an agreement all but impossible. Others say that such violent measures will always be required to protect Jews from attacks like the two shootings last month in which Palestinian militants killed three Israelis. Of course, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians deserve to live in safety. Yet these violent measures and the occupation itself are primary drivers of such attacks, particularly as Israel continues to brutally clamp down on all avenues of nonviolent protest.
Indeed, Tamares would have given such justifications short shrift. “Evil that comes accompanied by an ‘excuse’ is the greatest destroyer in the world,” he asserted. “This is the secret of all of the greatest wars … slaughters, and murders in the world in general, and the persecution of the Jews and the pogroms in particular.” In Tamares’s time, it was European society that found ways to rationalise its oppression of Jews; what tragic irony that it is now we Jews who have constructed excuses and justifications for indefinitely dominating and enacting violence against another people.
Ultimately, it is only by virtue of such rationalisations that one can be surprised by the pogrom in Huwara. They allow for the illusion that the oppression and violence is “out there” somewhere – among the worst, most violent settlers, at the fringes of Israeli society – and not at the heart of the state itself. Keeping this illusion alive is what allows Jews for whom Israel is a fundamental part of their Jewish identity to avoid confronting a deep cognitive dissonance.
Is a moral Judaism still possible?
Most Jews, it is fair to say, still believe in a Judaism that values liberation, justice and human dignity. Many even insist, like Tamares did, that Judaism has a unique moral message for the world. How else can one understand their shock that Jews could commit a pogrom? But unlike Tamares, so many of them remain committed to a state engaged in a brutally oppressive, dehumanising, and unjust project.
There will surely be many who continue to try to harmonise these two commitments – a moral Judaism and an undemocratic Jewish state – either by denying the reality of what Israel is or by holding out indefinite hope for a version of Israel that has never been, all while the occupation grinds on. But perhaps the shock of seeing burning buildings, cowering Palestinian children, and Israeli settlers and soldiers marching virtually hand-in-hand through Huwara will force some to finally admit that these commitments are irreconcilable.
A Judaism that is committed, explicitly or implicitly, to the maintenance of an undemocratic Jewish state – in which millions of Palestinians are either partially or totally denied a say over the regime that violently controls their lives – is a Judaism without moral integrity, let alone any pretension to being “a light unto the nations.” It is a Judaism of the fist, the Uzi submachine gun and the Merkava tank; a Judaism of the bulldozer, the Shin Bet and the checkpoint.
The alternative – the only alternative – is a Judaism committed to liberation and freedom for Palestinians as well as Jews. A Judaism that demands that Israel guarantee everyone within its borders full rights, in whatever form that may take. We should choose such a vision, first and foremost, because it is the only one that will end Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and guarantee safety and security for them and for Israeli Jews. But we should also choose it because it is the only vision that offers any possibility of a moral Jewish future.
Could such a Judaism live up to the one Tamares longed for? Perhaps it is too late to fully realise his goals. For decades, our own experience of persecution has led us not to oppose oppression, as he had hoped, but rather often to justify it in our own name, so perhaps it can no longer reliably serve us as moral inspiration.
Perhaps, despite the pockets of Jews around the world that have always fought for universal freedom, too large a portion of our people has spent too long dominating or justifying the domination of another people, and our collective moral instincts have been indefinitely dulled, our longstanding claim to have something moral to offer humanity irrevocably undermined. Perhaps the best we can hope for, for the foreseeable future, is a Judaism that simply does no further harm.
Tamares once wrote that “our Torah-bearing, diasporic nation carries within it the seeds of the ideals of the prophets that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation,’” referencing Isaiah 2:4. Perhaps, buried deep, deep down, those seeds are still there. Perhaps if we are lucky, and if we are able to take responsibility for the harm we have caused Palestinians, heal from our own trauma, and build a shared future in Israel-Palestine, we may yet create the Judaism that Tamares dreamed of. A Judaism that might – someday – do its part to bring the world closer to redemption▼
Aron Wander is a writer, organiser and rabbinical student living in Jerusalem.
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