Politics, the Present, and Isaiah 53: Towards an Ethical Particularism

The primary struggle of our generation is the struggle between the universal and the particular. Global consciousness is polarized between these two subjectivities. On one side is universalism, characterized by the language of human rights and individual liberties. On the other side is particularism, characterized by the defense of tradition and ethnic or religious boundaries, and an emphasis on collective culture, land, and language. On the coordinates of today’s political map, universalism is progressive and particularism is reactionary.

The two sides of this dichotomy are not equal in strength. In the West, the universalistic language of human rights and individual liberties dominates. It is now unfashionable, if not immoral, to strongly identify with a particular ethnic group. Nationality and religion are looked down upon as backwards relics from the not-yet-developed world, stuck in the past and often manifested in violent racism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism. More often than not, this view is correct. The present geopolitical landscape is full of examples of violent particularism – Islamic extremism in the Middle East and ethnic conflict in Central Africa, to name just two. It is almost impossible not to view particularism as in conflict with contemporary liberal values.

Despite declarations of the “end of history” and the post-ideological era, the current clash of ideas demonstrates that ideology is very much alive. Today’s political ideal can best be described as in the vein of “Karl Popper’s cosmopolitan view of liberal-democratic societies. Popper envisioned the concept of the ‘open society’ as a de-nationalized cosmopolitan republic where critical rationality, science, and philosophy, rather than ethno-nationalism rule” (Dubnov 2008). Many on the left still embrace this utopian hope.

The consequence of this ideological climate is that Judaism, and even more so Zionism, are increasingly at odds with present-day intellectual currents. Culture, language, and ritual – once the pillars of communal life – have become antiquated and obscure, unnecessary and even potentially dangerous. In the West, notably in the United States, particular ethnic and religious groups have been quick to shed their heritage and histories in order to join liberal, universalist society.

The idea of abandoning one’s background is not new to Jews. For much of modernity Jews tried to abandon their Judaism “so that they might transcend their marginality” only to be shown, time and time again, that no matter what one did one could not escape one’s Judaism. Whether through Popperian liberalism or international communism, Jews attempted to overcome their particular backgrounds and progress to a cosmopolitan age. After all, “what was a better solution for the Jews who tried to hide or deny their origins than to unite themselves under this grandiose, yet impossible a-national project?” (Dubnow 2008) And yet each time they tried, they were met with disapproval or discrimination, exile or extermination.

In 2013, Jews living outside of Israel are faced with the opposite situation. Now it is too easy, almost effortless, to escape Judaism. All one needs to do is to stop lighting the Hanukkah candles, eat bread on Passover, and celebrate Christmas. At first glance, that such a thing is possible must mean that liberal universalism is the victorious ideology of our age. But with a closer look at today’s realities, it is clear that there is a crucial difference between the universalistic utopias imagined by Popperian liberalism and Leftist internationalism alike, and the actual state of political and cultural spaces. For Jews today, renouncing the particular does not mean that one moves forward, as it was once imagined, onto a plane of a-national existence along with everyone else in the world. Instead, it means that one steps sideways, into the cultural and political surroundings – a world that is indisputably Christian.

Jews have understood this for generations. Jews and Judaism exist, writes Milton Himmelfarb, “in a society and culture that are ambiguous in mixtures of secularism and Christianity…While the secular society in the lands that used to be Christendom is neutral in matters of religion,” claims Himmelfarb, “it is more neutral against Judaism than against Christianity.” Though the United States of America, home to around half of the world’s Jews, has no state religion its municipal holidays follow the Christian calendar. The weekend consists of Saturday and Sunday, in keeping with the observance of the Christian calendar. The religious majority is Christian. Elected representatives and appointed officials are sworn in on the Christian Bible, unless they request otherwise. “In every Western nation,” Himmelfarb continues, “Christianity is too inseparable from the national culture for religious neutrality to be possible.”

America is often thought of as the perfect ethnic and cultural melting pot: the vessel for creating a de-nationalized, secular cosmopolitan republic. And yet what makes America a melting pot is the soup that it contains, and not the vessel. Within the pot, cultures change and mix, creating a stew with a multicultural and universalistic flavor. However, the vessel that contains the mixture is indisputably Christian. The American political and cultural spheres, because of rather than in spite of pervasive universalism, are Christian. And the universalism that pervades them has its roots in the interpretive shifts made by Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

The History and Process of Interpretation

Isaiah 53 is the last of the four servant songs contained in the book of the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. Though Isaiah is a well-known and often quoted book of the Hebrew Bible, the verse 53 of the book of Isaiah is best known for the view Christianity takes towards it. Christian scholars consider this passage the prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the explication of his role as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. This interpretation is largely based on a theological maneuver that breaks from the concept and conception of the preceding servant songs, as well as from the ancient Jewish interpretation of the text.

For Christians, the text serves as “a divinely revealed adumbration of Jesus’ passion. This prophecy was understood as indicating that Jesus’ death represented the fulfillment of the will of God and served a divinely ordained and necessary purpose… the Suffering Servant foretold the first coming of Jesus the messiah” (Rembaum 1982). The Christian interpretation changed the subject of the passage entirely, away from the collective, national view of the Servant as the Jewish people to the view of the individual Jesus as the universal savior and bearer of the sins of all of humanity. “Rejecting the views of his Pharisaic teachers, Paul (Galatians 3:16) taught that the promises made by God to Abraham were not to be fulfilled in the entire Jewish people, but rather in Abraham’s single offspring” (Rosenberg 1965). This move from the collective, national conception to the universal can be seen in another of the Pauline epistles. In Romans 2:25, Paul argues that the physical practice of circumcision, which was a means of drawing a boundary between particular groups and delineating who was a member of the Jewish people and who was not, is unimportant. “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.” By negating the practice of circumcision, Christianity erased the delineation of particular identity that has long been an important part of Judaism.

With Paul’s interpretative maneuver in mind, universal liberation comes from the reduction of a human being to an individual stripped of his national, collective background. Since each person receives praise from God, there is no need to identify with a particular people or nation. Central to the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a passage that refers to everyone in the world is the notion of the Suffering Servant as an individual. While for Jews the Suffering Servant could only be viewed as the Jewish people as a whole, for Christians “this was Jesus, who thus played the role of a ‘new Isaac,’ the יחיד (only one) of Genesis 22” (Rosenberg 1965). The object of salvation shifts from the collective, with a language and land, to the individual. The subject of salvation shifts from the particular group – the Jewish people – to universal humanity. “It was no doubt taught that the willingness of Isaac to sacrifice himself had made possible the settlement of Israel, the people of God, in the land of Canaan. In like manner it was no doubt to believe that, through the sacrifice of Jesus…the people of God, the righteous…who accepted the truth of his mission, would inherit the Earth” (Rosenberg 1965). Out of the sacrifice Isaac comes the deliverance of a great nation. Out of the sacrifice of Jesus comes the deliverance of the entire world.

The interpretative alteration performed by Christian scholars is primarily based on the notion of vicarious atonement – of an individual (person, class, or nation) bearing the sins of someone else. The notion of vicarious atonement differs from the kind of atonement typically found in the Jewish tradition. In the Hebrew Bible sins are typically transmitted through generations of particular ethnic groups, families, or nations. The sins of the parents lead to the punishment of future generations. “Under the old [Jewish] idea of national and family solidarity the penalty for the sin of one or more individuals might fall upon the group as a whole. So, in like manner, the piety of one or more individuals might inure the benefit of the community as a whole…In such a view of the social order, the clan, family, tribe, or nation was looked up on as an organic unit, as a social person. Just as in as in the case of the physical person it is the punishment of the whole body when any single part is smitten, so similarly in the social body to punish one part is to punish all” (Smith 1923). Christian interpretation of the biblical verse rejects this idea, and instead demonstrates that the servant, “as one member of the human family, suffer[s] for the sin of the entire family group” (Smith 1923). It considers the author of Isaiah to be “the first man known to have broken over the boundaries of national prejudice and to merge all nations, friend and foe alike, into one great brotherhood of man. He boldly announced the social solidarity of the human race. All nations alike were in the children of God’s family. Israel was but one member in the great family of nations” (Smith 1923). This is the grand transition from the collective, national conception of existence to the individualist, universal conception.

The intellectual currents of Judaism have, for centuries, stood opposed to the Christian interpretation. “The sense of national and family unity never died out in ancient Judaism and is, indeed, still a vital force in the life of Judaism today” (Smith 1923). The initial Jewish view of the text was “nationally organized and in no way makes provision for the recognition of individual and personal interests” (Smith 1923). It isn’t until the Christian interpretation, which shifts the emphasis from the particular to the universal, that those individual and personal interests are acknowledged.  With regards to the absence of Jewish discussion of the passage until after the rise of Christianity to European hegemony, “it is reasonable,” writes Joel E. Rembaum, to view the “relative silence as a form of Jewish self-censorship in the face of the Christian emphasis on the Christological meaning of such passages and as an attempt to control messianic movements and speculation among Jews.” The challenge for Jews, from the middle Ages until today, has been to respond, react, and modify according to the alterations made by the Christian interpretation and rearticulate the reading of the original Jewish text.

Prior to the advent of Christianity, Jewish sources tended to interpret the initial textual passage, Isaiah 53, as a messianic attestation. The Jewish people would be restored to glory with the coming of the messiah. But in the middle ages, due to simultaneous engagement and competition with the Christian interpretation, the emphasis shifted from the messianic to the nationalistic. “In Middle Ages,” writes Rembaum, “Jewish exegetes tended to view the Servant as the Jewish people suffering in Exile.” One reason for this change is “Christian anti-Jewish propaganda that pointed to the Jewish exile as proof of God’s punishment and abandonment of the Jewish people… Jews had to rationalize their status and affirm their covenantal relationship with God. In the process certain Jews came to view the Jewish people as the Suffering Servant of God functioning in exile as ‘a light unto the nations.’” The medieval Jewish outlook responds to the Christian interpretation of the passage from the Hebrew Bible. “Jews were often confronted by Christians who were trying to convince them of the legitimacy of the Christological meaning of the Servant prophecy. Most Jews responded by avoiding the messianic interpretation altogether, so as not to give their adversaries even the slightest pretext for arguing their point. Instead, they developed a collective national understanding of the passage that, in essence, contradicted the Christological interpretation and provided the Jews of the medieval Christian world with answers for certain very profound questions” (Rembaum 1982).

During the First Crusades, the Jews of Europe found themselves at the mercy of Christian zealotry. Though both Jews and Christians were devout believers in the veracity of their interpretations, “the difference was, however, that the Christian majority had the wherewithal to implement these attitudes, while the Jewish minority could not as effectively translate such feelings into actions” (Rembaum 1982). The interaction between the two beliefs resulted in a shift in the Jewish approach to the text. For Jews, after witnessing the mass murders of the Crusades, “their deaths and their clinging to their faiths in the face of adversity demonstrated to their assailants that the bond of God, Torah, and Israel was not only extant but also the highest expression of religious truth” (Rembaum 1982). This shift, if looked at through contemporary lenses, is very much a part of the victim mentality that pervades contemporary Zionism and Israeli politics. The constant feeling of being under attack, and that for persevering awaits a divine reward, is evinced by the Jewish response to the Christian interpretation. “The Servant was the people of Israel suffering in exile. Far from being rejected by their God, the Jews had been singled out by Him to fulfill a variety of functions, in the process of which they were to undergo extreme travail. Because their suffering, like that of the Servant, was part of the divine plan, it had meaning, and, as was the case with the Servant, the great rewards of salvation awaited the people in the end” (Rembaum 1982).

In order to grapple with the seemingly inexplicable tragedies that had befallen them, Jewish scholars adopted the theological concept of their enemy and applied the notion of vicarious atonement to the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53.  Rashi’s interpretation of the text, viewed as a response to Crusades-era violence, exemplifies the attempt to explain the text by relating it to the suffering of the Jews at the time. “He sees this passage as indicative of God’s afflicting the people the people to give them an opportunity to make amends before him…He seeks and finds an additional dimension in the sacrifice of the Servant: the Jewish people suffer to atone for the sins of all humanity.”

Rashi: Israel suffered in order that by his sufferings atonement might be made for all other nations; the sickness which ought to have fallen upon us was carried by him. We indeed thought that he had been hated by God, but was not so; he was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.

“Rashi explicitly states that Israel atoned for ‘all the nations’ and that the Servant suffered so the whole world might have peace’ and ‘prosperity’…Thus, the suffering of the people moves beyond the limits of expiation for its own transgressions and becomes the vehicle for the continued well-being and the very existence of all humanity and the world.” “It is precisely because the idea of an innocent human sacrifice affording universal atonement and reconciliation of humanity with God became so prominent in early twelfth-century France that Rashi was moved to incorporate it into his Isaiah 53 exegesis” (Rembaum 1982).

This expansion, from the collective, national to the universal dialogues with the Christian notion of vicarious atonement – the idea used by Christians to argue that the Suffering Servant is the prophecy of Jesus’ death and subsequent redemption for all of humanity. Rashi does not negate the Christian interpretation, despite what may have been his intentions. Instead, he assimilates and incorporates it into his own interpretation, adapting “elements of the classical Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 as related to Jesus’ suffering … applied to the suffering of the Jewish people.” The Christian interpretation and the Jewish re-interpretation exist in coincidentia oppositorum, engaged in a dialectical relationship.

Rashi’s argument is the synthesis of the interpretative dialectic – the result of the simultaneous contradiction of the Jewish thesis and the Christian antithesis. The pre-Christian Jewish tradition maintained that the Suffering Servant was the people of Israel and that the passage pertained only to Jews. The Christian interpretative tradition, most notably Paul, argued that the Suffering Servant was Jesus coming to save everyone in the world. From a Jewish perspective, the two interpretations entered into conflict that needed to be resolved. The Jewish tradition could not suffer a challenge to the validity of its peoplehood and faith without a response.

Therefore, Jewish scholars authored the synthesis. “The Jews, and not Jesus, suffered as a sacrifice to God and atoned for humanity. It was the Servant-nation Israel that maintained its guiltless qualities in the face of great pain, and not the Christian messiah” (Rembaum 1982). The Jewish people became a kind of nation-messiah instead. And it was not only Rashi who synthesized the opposed interpretations. By looking at different Jewish responses to the widespread Christian interpretation, we can see the Jewish tradition formulate its response. Abraham ibn Ezra relates “the personality and experience of the Suffering Servant to either an individual Jew in exile or, more emphatically, to the entire people of Israel in exile” (Rembaum 1982). Ibn Ezra’s response appears like Rashi’s, “deemphasizing [the] … understanding of the Servant as an individual, a concept that is essential for Christian exegesis and by stressing the collective interpretation” (Rembaum 1982). But he, too, incorporates the structure of the Christian doctrine in an attempt to negate it. He argues, “according to the prophet, the sickness and transgressions that should have befallen the Gentiles because of their false teachings were borne by Israel, whose Torah is true…. ascribing to the people [of] Israel the role of the Servant who vicariously suffers for the other nations” (Rembaum 1982).

The idea of vicarious atonement, an originally Christian concept, engaged dialectically with the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition, by opposing the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, assimilates and incorporates the very idea used by Christians to negate Jewish doctrine. Through textual evidence, we see the Jewish tradition addressing the Christian sentiments of its surroundings in order to adapt. “The Christian Church, with its stated purposes regarding the ultimate conversion of the Jews, provided Jews with an understanding of the Servant prophecy that helped Jews make some sense of predicaments in which they found themselves, thereby reinforcing the Jews’ will to persevere.” But the reconceptualization of the Jewish approach to the text did not just impact religious doctrine; it also impacted the way the Jewish communities of Europe interacted with the surrounding society. It “provided Jews with an explanation of how they, God’s chosen people, could undergo suffering on a national scale.” But by incorporating a Christian notion into Jewish thought, Jewish scholars also acknowledged the existence of the surrounding Christian faith. In doing so, they created a interpretative synthesis that transformed the particular collective, national interpretation, by way of the Christian universal interpretation, into a more ethical particularism that at once acknowledged the special place and continuity of the Jewish people and somehow, even if indirectly and unintentionally, validated the Christian interpretation.

Confronting Reality, Reactivating the Dialectic

In his paper, “The Dialectics of Assimilation”, Amos Funkenstein writes, “Jews expressed their uniqueness, and still do, in an idiom always acquired from their environment; we could speak, with a term taken from Habermas, of a ‘performative contradiction’.” One example of such a contradiction is Rashi’s interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a response to the Christological view of the prophecy. Rashi, as a means of asserting Jewish uniqueness and separateness, borrows the Christian notion of vicarious atonement to bolster his claim. “In other words,” stresses Funkenstein, “by polemicizing against Christian theology – against the identification of Christ with the ‘suffering servant’ – Rashi absorbed on of its cardinal tenets – namely the dogma of vicarious suffering as a means of salvation; Israel takes here the role of Christ.” The dialectical interaction between Judaism and Christianity seen in the interpretative process of Isaiah 53 exemplifies the process that contemporary Judaism and Zionism need to begin with the surrounding non-Jewish political and cultural worlds. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the dialectics of assimilation continues on. And consequently, whether we like it or not, “even the self-assertion of Jewish cultures as distinct and different is articulated in the language of the surrounding culture.” The text and its history is a micro-version of the macro-dialectic we, as Jews, need to engage with. How then, do we apply these dialectical processes to the cultural, political, and religious dilemmas facing the Jewish people?

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hebrew writer Chaim Hazaz wrote, “a Gentile Russian, Frenchman, or German wants to redeem his nation, or the proletariat of his country; the Jewish revolutionary is out to save the whole mankind.” Today, the whole world claims to be out to save mankind. Nationality and culture are disregarded, collective histories and backgrounds are forgotten. Contemporary universalism, which has its intellectual forerunner in the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, is the kind of reality that Jews for so long wanted to be a part of. Isaiah Berlin once argued, that “revolutionary zeal was a modernized version of religious conversion, but like any other conversion it required self-deception. Zionism, he claimed, was to symbolize the end of such deceptions, a shift from ‘self-surrender’ to ‘self-assertion.’” But now conversion requires no kind of self-deception. Indeed, complete conversion is simply the absence of self-assertion.

In these times, for Jews, the universal idea does not represent the ascension to a higher level of coexistence. It means assimilation and informal conversion to Christianity. “Viewed from a Jewish angle, the Popperian and progressive liberal cosmopolitanism and the communist internationalist utopias were two sides of the same coin. Both sprang from the illusion that by ‘civilizing’ people they would abandon their atavistic tribalism and instead absorb ‘a more enlightened way of life – liberal, rationalist, socialist, communist – [that] will cause [Jews] to dissolve peacefully as a group into their social and national environment.” Jewish affinity for messianic politics was based on the incorrect assumption that the environment would have also progressed to a stage of total universalism.

The social and national environment did not transcend their Christian basis, for in realizing the universal they were necessarily realizing the Christian. Jews do not progress and join the rest of the world in a post-national messianic era. Instead, they end up observing Christianity. It is thought “Moses Hess, like Marx, believed that ‘real emancipation [of Jews] would occur only when all hatred an contempt for them on the part of others disappeared.’” Pervasive hatred and anti-Semitism has, for the most part, stopped. But the end of the “hatred and contempt,” rather than leading to a golden era of universalism is leading to silent extermination.

Practicing Jews and Zionists recognize the present contradiction: if they embrace the universalism of the surrounding political and cultural institutions, they become Christians. Consequently, observant Jewish communities in the United States have become more insular and right-wing. These Jews send their children to Jewish day schools, tend to live in communities that are largely closed to non-Jews, and caution interaction with the non-Jewish world around them. Zionists are also in the process of responding to current realities. Contemporary Israeli political discourse is characterized by an attitude of contempt towards the international community and scorn for human rights activists. Incidents of racist violence have never been more frequent. And, most frightening, is the ongoing process of the erasure of the history and narrative of the Palestinians. Faced with the ease of assimilation and dissolution, Jews and Zionists have withdrawn into their exclusivist, particular shells.

And yet the withdrawal into racist and even violent particularism is what endangers the continued self-assertion of Judaism in the diaspora and Israel as a Jewish state. A Judaism that does not acknowledge the diversity and globalism of today will be easily marginalized. It will be isolated from mainstream culture. It will cease to engage with science and the academic world. Most dangerous, it will not appeal to the younger generations of Jews who are born into a world of multicultural identities and globalized media. The response to the hegemonic culture of universalism must not be a retreat into the ghetto.

The same is true for Zionism. A Zionism that does not acknowledge the narrative of the land’s Palestinian co-inhabitants will bring about the end of a Jewish state. Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who purport to be the vanguard of today’s Zionism are the greatest threat to the survival of the Zionist idea. They refuse to validate Palestinian claims to the land. They ignore international and internal pressure to end the occupation. And they propose authoritarian and violent plans to disenfranchise or remove the country’s Arabs. Settlement building continues. The occupation persists. And systematic oppression remains. Everyday that the situation goes on unchanged brings us closer to the time that Israel will either have to give the Palestinians living in the West Bank Israeli citizenship, or face sanctions from the international community. Both instances spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Both instances demonstrate the pressing need to articulate an ethical particularism.

The time has come to tap back into the dialectic of assimilation and self-assertion. Jews and Zionist must assert themselves in the language of the world around them. Global universalism is today’s thesis. Judaism and Zionism are its antithesis. The synthesis must be an ethnical particularism that negates the chauvinistic, racist, and violent tendencies of the past unethical particularism. One way to do this is to emphasize the multiplicity of narratives: to find common ground in different history and shared experience in opposing backgrounds. For example, Jews have historically been the victims of tremendous injustice. Victimhood is a position Jews are very comfortable with. Acknowledging that today, in Israel, Jews are no longer victims but in a position of power over the Palestinians is a way of asserting Jewish or Zionist identity while incorporating the language of human rights. Just as we were victims, the Palestinians now are victims. In working to rectify the situation, we do not weaken ourselves or jeopardize Jewish continuity. On the contrary, we strengthen our collective identity and increase the likelihood of Israel’s survival by ending the occupation and giving full rights to the Palestinians.

On the Here and Now

I want to focus on the issue of Zionism because I think it is the more endangered, and perhaps more dangerous of the Jewish particularisms. I’ve spent close to half a year now living in Israel, and I’m worried that Israel has reached a point of entrenchment in the Occupied Territories from which it cannot return. Half a million Israeli citizens live in what is supposed to become the Palestinian state. Besides the upheaval and violence that it will take to remove them, there is a distinct possibility that the Jewish settlers simply will not leave. Then, conventional wisdom dictates, Israel will be faced with a choice: remain a Jewish state but cease to be a democratic state, or become a democratic state and cease to be a Jewish state. I want to reject this choice completely.

I began this paper explaining how America is a Christian country not to expose the idea of universalism as a myth but to demonstrate that the universalism of America is in fact a Christian particularity. I do not want Israel to adopt the exact policies and legal framework of the United States as an answer to impending apartheid because that would constitute destroying the Jewish nature of the state. Instead, I want Israel to adopt the structure of America’s policies and legal framework of the United States in the context of Israeli reality. I want Israel to use the dominant language of civil liberties, human rights, and universal ethics as a means of particular self-assertion.

In many ways, the situation of Arabs in Israel mirrors the situation of African-Americans in the United States before the struggle for civil rights. Arabs in Israel encounter widespread and institutionalized discrimination. Their cities, towns, and schools receive less funding. Fewer building permits are issued in the Arab sector. And because of the unholy union between the government and the orthodox Jewish rabbinate intermarriage between Jews and Arabs is basically forbidden, recalling the anti-miscegenation laws of the American Jim Crow South.

Israel maintains several school systems – Jewish, Arab, and Religious Jewish. The Supreme Court of the United States, in one of the decisions that ended segregation, determined more than half a century ago that there is no such thing as separate but equal. Israeli public schools must be integrated. A standardized curriculum must be adopted. And, at the same time, cultural and ethnic diversity must be acknowledged.

Palestinian citizens of Israel account for more than twenty percent of the Israeli population, but only ten percent of the representatives in the Israeli Knesset. Attempting to make representation in the Knesset more proportional will not cancel out the Jewish nature of the state.

There are, however, injustices unique to the Israeli situation. The ongoing occupation splits families and makes it essentially impossible for Arabs living in Israel to visit family members in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Most atrociously, Israel controls the lives of around two and a half million Palestinians living in the West Bank who have no say in the conduct of the army that occupies their land.

All of this can be changed without threatening Israel’s Jewish future. Indeed, only if the aforementioned injustices are addressed does Israel stand any chance of remaining a Jewish state in the decades to come. A state whose municipal holidays fall according to the Jewish calendar, whose weekend follows the Jewish Sabbath, and whose language is Hebrew is indisputably Jewish. Some say that no matter what Arabs won’t agree to a Jewish state. They won’t sing Hatikva, they won’t serve in the army, and they won’t observe independence day. But that will only be true as long as the Israeli government and society treat Arabs like second class citizens. An Arab population that knows the government will protect its rights as it would protect the rights of Jews will not continue to view the government as hostile.

During the struggle against segregation and throughout the civil rights movement, there was notable black resistance to policies of the government of the United States. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, on the largest stage in the world, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Forty five years later, the first black president of the United States is beginning his second term. While there are still deep racial problems in the United States, the country has come a long way from 1968. It has only been strengthened by the struggle for human rights and civil liberties. Israel must begin a similar journey of actualizing the rights of minorities. It must take down the ethnic and religious barriers that keep Arab citizens out of power. It must end the occupation, or give Palestinians living in the West Bank the right to vote for the Knesset. It must disentangle the religious rabbinate from the government and political system. Israel must become a state of all its citizens, but a state of all its citizens can still be a Jewish state.


Works Cited

Dubnow, Arie. “A tale of trees and crooked timbers: Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin on the question of Jewish Nationalism.” History of European Ideas. February 2008.

Funkenstein, Amos. “The Dialectics of Assimilation.” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 1, No.2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 1-14.

Powis Smith, J.M. “The Ethical Significance of Isaiah, Chapter 53.” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 3 No. (Mar., 1923). pp. 123-140

Rembaum, Joel E. “The Development of Exegetical Tradition Regarding Isaiah 53.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 75, No.3 (Junl., 1982), pp. 289-311.

Rosenberg, Roy A. “Jesus, Isaac, and the “Suffering Servant.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 84, No.4 (Dec., 1965), pp. 381-388.

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3 Responses to Politics, the Present, and Isaiah 53: Towards an Ethical Particularism

  1. An impressive blog entry, but I have a few comments / criticisms. First, for most of the blog, you want to maintain Jewish particularlism and seem to be gathering an impressive array of historical and theoretical texts to propose some kind of novel framework for reconciling Jewish particularism with universal civil rights. In the end, though, you’re adopting a standard framework of universal civil rights — it’s just one where the weekend is on Friday/Saturday, school’s closed for Yom Kippur, and the national language is Hebrew. I don’t have a problem with that, but it seems a little anticlimactic given what preceded it. That said, I feel more comfortable with your conclusion than with what led up to it. Briefly (?!):

    1. Minorities in the U.S. don’t “shed their heritage and histories.” Saying so ignores two phenomena: First, that of identity politics, which have played and continue to play a significant role in all areas of American life. Second, and more important, is the notion of intersecting and overlapping identities, something that Amartya Sen (among others) has written about (see http://people.cis.ksu.edu/~ab/Miscellany/otherpeople.html). That is, identity need not stem from one nationality or religion but may come from multiple nationalities, multiple religions, and multiple communities (LGBT, handicapped/differently abled communities, etc). And in fact many Americans view their identities as “hypenated” and try to enjoy multiple heritages and histories. This second way of perceiving identity seems to be an important one that you miss, which leads to a second problem…

    2.Most of what you’ve written here suggests a reductive, binary way of viewing religious identity, i.e. you’re either 0 or 1, you can flip a switch between Jewish and Christian identities, and those are your only choices. This binary view causes you (and perhaps some of the people you cite) to mischaracterize secular American society as Christian. To call American culture “Christian” is to broaden the word to such all-encompassing parameters that it becomes almost meaningless (“… the universalism of America is in fact a Christian particularity.”). Enlightenment thought was influenced by Christianity, but that doesn’t make it Christian, per se; by that token, Christianity would really at its core be a Jewish phenomenon, since Christianity arose from and was influenced by Jewish thought. (Amartya Sen, by the way, views his secularism as being born of the space permitted for agnosticism within the Hindu tradition; there’s more than one path to secular, multicultural society.) The degree of separation between the two can be gleaned in part from the antipathy between the source culture and the new culture that stemmed from it: Secular, multicultural American values are constantly being labeled anathema by Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Whether you think Saturday is the sixth or seventh day of the week is an utterly trivial matter versus issues of gender equality, sexual preference, premarital and nonprocreative sex, materialism and socioeconomic inequality, and the legalization of business pursuits on both Saturday and Sunday. For all these reasons, your assertion that “complete conversion is simply the absence of self-assertion” is way, way off the mark. But even on the relatively trivial level of state holidays, your assertion that “municipal holidays follow the Christian calendar” is wrong; holidays depend on the municipality. See http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-12-20-column20_ST_N.htm.

    3. Finally (and, obviously, not so briefly!): The comparison between blacks and Palestinians is strong only in terms of certain types of discrimination faced by both groups. Black Americans, however, never adopted an ideology advocating geographic separation in significant numbers; there was no widespread rhetoric of turning the tables on the white population, the way Hamas speaks of eradicating Jews from Palestine (including Israel proper). You write, “An Arab population that knows the government will protect its rights as it would protect the rights of Jews will not continue to view the government as hostile.” At a certain point, optimism becomes delusional. I’m not arguing against equality before the law — on the contrary, I’m all for it. My point is that the source of hostility in Israel/Palestine isn’t limited to legal inequality; I’m don’t even think it’s primarily a question of legal inequality. The problem is you have religious zealots in both camps that have increasingly become mirror images of each other, making uncompromising collective claims on the same territory and viewing everything as a zero-sum situation. This is totally different from the circumstances surrounding the American civil rights movement. You’re looking (nobly) for solutions to a situation that doesn’t, in fact, have a solution. And on that note, I’ll refer you to the words of a Christian theologian: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The only solution to the troubles in the Middle East is individual, not collective, and it is available only to some individuals, not all: Sensible persons of any religion or ethnicity should do whatever it takes to leave the region. And people outside the region should help them.

  2. Pingback: Haaretz Supports Ethical Particularism | The New Partisan

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