Israel and the Enlightenment

by nerissa's ring on Flickr

The Enlightenment achieved many things, some good, some bad. About a year ago, in a conversation, I realized that one of the good things was eliminating the role of religion in public discourse and policy in Europe. One of the bad things, perhaps, is stigmatizing spirituality in the personal sphere, an unfortunate side-effect of its elimination from the public sphere.

You see, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with people having faith in something supernatural, so long as they know their belief is their own business. In Israel, the Jewish religious establishment tied in with the state has never internalized the Enlightenment. The establishment, and the mainstream Judaism to which the secular majority belongs (together with some of the orthodox minorities) rejects the Enlightenment outright, denouncing it as “Hellenizing” and foreign.1

This is no accident, of course, as religion provides some of the classic arguments for the Zionist project and the resulting existence of the state. And indeed, when one views Israel through a naive Judeochristian lens, it’s really pretty amazing that a Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem exists today. This fact, particularly in isolation, has tremendous emotional power, and the state clearly cannot afford to shut up about that kind of thing.

The problem is that religion-oriented political discourse has been losing currency in the developed world for a couple of centuries now. In most of Europe it’s a thing of wacky backwards foreigners and the crazy past. That the United States re-elected George W. Bush seven years ago is evidence that in America this is still a divisive issue.

Israel is swimming backwards in this current. Where the founding generation’s Judaism was a secular nationalism with some religious symbols, religion has been creeping into politics for decades. In recent months it’s been getting positively scary. As such, it’s probably too much to hope that Israel will realize sometime soon that in today’s world, you sound like a crazy person when you claim the Bible as an authority in your favor in a dispute over land.2

And as long as hasbara goes back and forth from sounding like an attempt to change the subject to sounding like the politics of a time predating the invention of the airplane, Israel will not convince the world of anything.

I remember there used to be a load of public outcry amongst the Israeli secular and reform regarding religious coercion (kfiya datit). What ever happened to that? Is that simply a battle we’ve already lost?

Footnotes

  1. Ironically, certain well-known European fascists called the Enlightenment a Jewish plot. All nationalist projects need an outside force to associate universalism and humanism with, so that they may be rejected. One cannot see all human beings as equal and at the same time consider one’s own nation especially important. []
  2. Consciously or not, this is using an excuse that has little direct bearing on most people’s current reality but is used to justify gross injustice towards large groups of people. As such, it is morally reprehensible and should be rejected outright. []

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