Israel, a bonfire of religions and a whimsical rabbi

The jewish elders of Chelm (eponymous Steppe village peopled by naifs) went to the rabbi. “we’ve been puzzling over the meaning of life, but we’re stumped. What is life all about?” The rabbi leans this way and that, visibly contemplates, wisdom-strokes his beard – “life is like….” narrows his eyes, “….a fish!”. Awe-struck and dumbfounded, the elders retire to reflect on this mystic insight – and spend a full week in hot debate. They return. “Rabbi – most learned. We asked you the meaning of life. You gave it – life, you said, is like a fish. We have reflected, debated, thought – we have reached a dead-end. It is too perplexing, too far from anything we know. Please explain – what is life?” The rabbi leaned this way and that, thought, stroked. “Okay, okay…”  decisively, “life is not like a fish!”.


However else we characterise Israel, its establishment in 1948 was a lapse in the judgement of seasoned politicians. It was not hard either to see through the spurious case being made for jewish nationhood (now thoroughly discredited with DNA archeology – read Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived), nor to foresee the festering wound it would leave on a displaced people. To feel the horrors of the Holocaust was human, but to respond with the gift of a country was uncharacteristically sentimental for the political classes. Of course, today’s explosion of Islamic fundamentalism might not easily have been factored in during the years between 1917 and 1947 (even though there were muslim terrrorist groups waging jihad on behalf of Palestine in those years). But given experience in India, especially, but in other parts of the old empire, too, the British civil service was well aware of the longevity of resentments over disinheritance and intergenerational damage of ethnic cleansing.

Jewish terrorism played a decisive part in the realpolitik of the establishment and expansion of the jewish State. It is often prudent to appease the most truculent and violent, and the Irgun and Stern (Lehi) Gangs certainly qualified for that. Their combined ruthlessness and ideological extremism make an easy match for the contemporary ISIS/Daesh, according to Suarez’s extraordinary book, State of Terror – though these terrorist groups were distinguished by an additional factor: they were white and mostly Europeans, and, therefore, easier to appease.

Anyway, the existence of a jewish State is a contemporary fact, as is the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – and neither will go away in the near or medium-term future. It is a matter for chronic despair and regret*.

What concerns me here is the much subordinate case of the gap between what the jewish State is and what its cultural and historical roots are.

I have a Christopher Hitchens-like distaste for any religion and regard each and every one of them as absurd and corrosive propositions. (Buddhism, with no deity and no supernatural force, is a spirituality and a philosophy and somewhat attractive.) I don’t go along with Hitchens’ constant lament that religions nurture the more poisonous seeds of humanity – they are always there looking for fertile ground – but I do condemn religion for promoting miseducation and ignorance and for taking our eyes off the ball of existentialism.

But religious practices may be another matter, and here judaism becomes a little interesting. It is not lightly said that judaism is mostly about food and drink – it is. Because at the heart of its daily practices lies community. There is a place for private contemplation, but an insignificant one by Protestant standards. Most jewish rituals require audience and participation, and food and drink are crafted in ritual and often cunning ways to ensure that. The Passover feast (where adults are required to drink no fewer than four glasses of wine, and you are advised to invite strangers to eat) is the exemplar and there is a seamless connection between symbolic foods eaten ritually, song and the education of children in history (a fabricated one, of course ). If we can forget for a moment the violence and recrimination of the stories being recounted, we can marvel at the genius of the tradition I grew up in whereby the feast itself starts with drinking a soup of hard-boiled egg in salt water: the egg, a symbol of life, and the salt water symbolising the tears the jews putatively shed as slaves in Egypt. It is the closest we can come to eating poetry.

To take one other example, the Purim festival, celebrates the salvation of the jews through the agency of Queen Esther (the omnipresent Ishtar in feminist history, perhaps) and her father, Mordechai, along with the demise of Haman who planned their destruction. Jews (at least the Ashkenazi) eat hamantaschen, a three cornered cake with poppy seeds and honey. The shape is said to reflect Haman’s tricorne hat – a nice play on the Western aphorism, ‘if….then I’ll eat my hat!’. Incidentally, many rabbis enjoy the injunction on that festival to drink enough wine such that one cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai (right and wrong). They often lock the doors to do so – but I once saw a rabbi fall off a pulpit while telling a joke about Liverpool FC.

And so on.

But liturgically speaking judaism is quite distinct from Christian high traditions and other religions in that, inter alia, there is no theory of intercession. Humans do not need priests to exchange with their god – in fact, a rabbi is a lay person, trained but unordained – just as subject to whimsy as the rabbi of Chelm. Though synagogue prayers are spoken in Hebrew, which few nowadays understand, most prayer books have the English translation on opposing pages so all can read and understand the….well, equally unintelligible English. There is little need to proclaim belief in – much less subjection to –  a god, since jews are born in a redemptive state. If we suspend, for a moment, the ethnocentrism and arrogance of being the ‘chosen people’, we can at least acknowledge that this takes away from jews the demand constantly to be reaffirming their belief in a god and their pleading for a happy afterlife. Most of my fellow jews whom I have asked whether they believe in god stumble and express bemusement – it is a question few have  thought about, much less rehearsed. The jew is guaranteed access to heaven – all that remains is to lead a ‘good’ life – defined mostly as moral behaviour. I never, myself, flattered that question with a nanosecond of thought. My atheism came as easily and naturally as my enjoyment of the food and the drink. No rabbi ever asked me the question, and had I asked I would not be surprised if the answer had been ‘fish’. But I once listened to a sermon in a synagogue based on the 10 commandments. They all boil down to a simple injunction, said the young rabbi: “be good”. In terms of the then social change from warring, nomadic tribes to settled, close-living people, such an interpretation is mostly empirically sound and prudent. Don’t kill each other, don’t steal from each other, stick to the family as the basic social unit, find commonality on a spiritual ground. It’s a manifesto for the basics of social stability. With or without liturgy it is good to be reminded some thousands of years on.

All this combines to make the experience of judaism surprisingly both democratic and secular, by degrees – certainly celebratory and optimistic. (Jewish humour, often self-deprecating, has this underlying motif – ‘he who laughs last…’.) Judaism in its practices has more truck with whimsy than with authority and is more concerned with how to get on with each other than with god or priest.

So how do we get from a somewhat democratic, mostly secular, epicurian conviction of reasonableness to a militaristic, neo-theocratic, racist and apartheid State, greedy for land, ruthless in its self-interest and with an iron determination not to reflect critically on itself?

Perhaps the answer is not obscure at all. My account of jewish experience – while true for me, a man – is panglossian. It is paralleled with a darker side of insanitary and abusive circumcision of small babies, medievalist discrimination against women, incipient racism, a self-historical rootedness in violence and war, a vision of a god that is recriminatory and punitive and a deep-seated admiration for warrior-kings. It seems to be from this darker side that emerge such pitiless leaders as (among others) Menachem Begin, Ezer Weitzmann, Yitzhak Shamir, David Ben Gurion, and Ariel Sharon – and, argues Suarez, the State they led. These men, I am sure, led double lives – rejoicing in the humanism of the culture while plotting for the eradication of those who stand in its way; honourable and loving fathers some of whom kill the children of others.

It is a paradox – like all aspects of social and political life. Judaism as a religion and as a culture (NOT as a ‘race’) has spawned the best of Socialism (e.g. the Jewish Labour Bund, and the Habonim – which was eventually consumed by Zionism) and the worst of authoritarianism (Israel). In the balance, the costs of the latter outweigh the gains of the former, and so there would be no special case to be made for judaism in the bonfire of the religions. What if Israel were founded upon those communitarian, anti-authoritarian values – had the kibbutz, say, lived up to its stated ideal and served as a model for the State? Would that strengthen the justification for the jewish religion? Of course not. We do not need religion for us to be ethical, just, humanist, pacifist and skeptical of unwarranted authority (as unlikely as those attributes are in a religion). We are capable of it through our own means and material resources. In the end, Israel represents a political blunder of spectacular proportions, one that religion simply took advantage of by redefining itself as a nationalist movement, and drew from its worst and darker instincts in doing so.

  • ‘Despair and regret’. I have no practical entreaties. All have been said and repeated, affirmed, agreed and violated.

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