Human beings are obsessed with knowledge. We instinctively believe there are facts about the world which are true, which can be known, and which explain our experience of reality. But real knowledge – thoughts about reality which are true – is incredibly elusive. Human beings aren’t very good at dealing with this.
I recently finished reading an amazing book about Israel and Jewish history, written over 20 years before I was born. The Source, by James A. Michener, is a thick tome spinning an intricate web of fictional stories spread out through the realistic history of a fictional tel1 called Makor (Hebrew for ‘source’) near Acre, in what is now Israel. In retrospect, I probably should have kept a reading diary, because there are so many things in this book I would like to comment on. Continue reading Book Review: The Source, by James A. Michener (1965)→
A tel is a hill composed of layers over layers of civilization; these things are everywhere in Israel. [↩]
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?
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. [↩]
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. [↩]
In Germany, I have often heard that maintaining state control of the school system and its curriculum is important for maintaining democracy. This argument is used against the idea of private schools and homeschooling: if people can teach children whatever they want, the argument goes, religious fundamentalists of all kinds will raise the next generation for intolerance.
The good news for Israel is that it has a larger proportion of democratic schools than any other country in the world.2 These schools will be far less affected by these cuts, and moreover, students in democratic schools finish high school with years of first-hand experience in democracy. The bad news is that a major reason it’s so easy to start a democratic school in Israel is that the system is designed to let in religious schools with essentially no requirement that any particular topic be or not be in their curriculum. There are many more religious schools than democratic schools, and I’m willing to bet few, if not none of them, use that freedom to promote democracy and fight intolerance.
Totalitarianism cannot rise without having a firm control over education in some way or another. The governments of Germany — ridden with national guilt as they have been for the past 60 years — use their tight grip on education to promote democracy; but having such central control makes it possible for shifts in the opposite direction, like the one we are seeing in Israel right now. Wherever intolerance is fostered we must speak out against it and fight it. But a democratic state is always at risk of electing intolerant leaders, and in case that ever happens, we had better make sure those leaders don’t have the power to indoctrinate the young generation. As we say in EUDEC, democratic education is a sensible choice for democratic states.
I certainly do not mean to equate Judaism with this sort of racism. My family is full of terrific people who happen to be religiously Jewish and are at least as disgusted by this racism as I am. However, the mainstream in Israel does seem to support a rather nationalistic view of the religion, and the linked article reveals some very disturbing things. [↩]
I did not have the time to find a source to cite for this datum (a quick google search was not enough). I have, however, heard it many times; specifically, I recall Ya’acov Hecht saying that by sheer number of students in democratic schools, Israel has more than any other country in the world — even much bigger ones. There are about 30 democratic schools in Israel, which has a population of about 7 million. I know of no comparable situation in any other country today; the Netherlands had a similar proportion of sociocratic schools (which are a similar thing) but I understand that their numbers have gone down drastically in the past five years. [↩]
An archived blog about education, language, peace, and other fine things