Righteousness, self-righteousness mutually exclusive

Yakov Rabkin
September 2007

A Dangerous Confusion

Published: 2007-09-14

Righteousness, self-righteousness mutually exclusive


ROSH HASHANA, the Jewish New Year, began this week on the same day as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Both are all about moral reckoning and self-improvement, not about pointing fingers at others.

Jews who take their collective morality to heart continue to face difficult questions. The recent explosion of violence in Gaza, Israel and Lebanon sharpened some of these questions. What causes the chronic violence in the Middle East? How can the Israelis – Jews, Muslims and others – be saved from the hatred that has infused the Middle East? How can Jews and Muslims around the world be spared violence that spills over from Israel/Palestine, even though they neither live nor vote there?

Jewish tradition views the Jews’ eventual return to the Land of Israel as a spiritual project, dependent to a large measure on the behaviour of the Jews, their willingness to repent and to redress injustice. The exile is thus seen as an impetus to improve. In this sense, the tradition does not view the Jews as powerless victims, but rather as makers of their own fate who can choose between right and wrong.

The exile that followed the destruction of the two Jerusalem temples (sixth century BC and first century AD) has been seen as divine retribution that only the Messiah can put to an end. In this framework, the exile is not seen as a military defeat whose effect can be effaced by a military victory. This is why most rabbinical authorities reacted with undisguised hostility to the emergence of political Zionism in the late 19th century.

Thus, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote in 1918: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish nation. … Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne.” Prominent European rabbis declared as early as 1905 that “Zionism is a purely nationalist-racist movement without the least commonality with religion.” Opposition to Zionism has not disappeared since the times when Zionism was a minority movement shunned by most Jews.

Quite a few Israeli Jews express doubts about the Zionist nature of Israel rooted in the idea of separate development for Jews. They point out that, in spite of the might of Israel’s armed forces, Israel remains the only country to experience persistent anti-Jewish violence, no doubt a reaction to dispossession, expulsion and occupation experienced by the Palestinian Arabs. The most recent Israeli to join the Jewish opposition to Zionism is Avrum Burg, formerly Speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency, the executive arm of the world Zionist movement. He believes that it would be suicidal to preserve the Zionist nature of the state of Israel.

Israel’s nature as a state for the Jews rather than a state of all its citizens has embarrassed Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora for many decades. Just as Muslims who are horrified by what terrorists do in their name, many Jews find it hard to defend the morally indefensible, to bend their ethical standards in order to justify Israel’s actions in Jenin, Gaza or Beirut. It is only a matter of time before diaspora leaders, at least those who overtly identify with the state of Israel, will face the challenge of explaining their obvious double standard.

The primacy of the state is a dangerous belief to hold. A few decades after the Shoa, Jews remember what happens when the raison d’état supersedes individual morality. It may be illusory and even dangerous to confuse the profane centrality of Israel with the sacred centrality of the land: In order to affirm the first aspect, one has to reject or distort the second one, and vice versa.

After five decades of exasperating conflict in the Middle East, world Jewry can play a major role in reaching for peace. Many Western Jews have been active for years in diverse rapprochement activities that bring Arabs and Hebrews, Muslims, Christians and Jews together. There are joint prayer sessions and discussions, even a joint Jewish-Muslim program to teach tolerance on the basis of respective religious texts. Jewish academics, businesspeople, psychologists, rabbis and social workers from various countries have helped the cause of tolerance in Israel for years; and their role, as well as that of members of the Palestinian diasporas, can promote coexistence and combat discrimination in the Holy Land.

Rather than follow the Israel Lobby and encourage Israel to resort to force, many Jews work hard to put an end to endemic violence. They encourage their brethren in Israel to recognize and redress the injustice that the establishment of Israel and its policies have caused. This embodies what the Jewish New Year is all about: It celebrates the creation of Adam and Eve, born, as Burg reminds us, “without religion or zealotry.” He also reminds us that “Muslim moderates are in line to be the ‘Jews,’ the foreigners of the 21st century, without having done anything wrong.”

Many Muslims, in this country and elsewhere, who work for peace may get additional spiritual strength during the Ramadan. To advance toward peace, we should all remember that righteousness and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive.

Yakov M. Rabkin is a history profes­sor at the University of Montreal. His most recent book, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposi­tion to Zionism, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award last year. He will be speaking at Saint Mary’s University, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 18, in Room 179, Loyola Building.

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Righteousness, self-righteousness mutually exclusive