In this weekend’s Haaretz magazine, Eva Illouz tackles the idea of ethical particularism. While she doesn’t use those words to describe the stance she presents, through her analysis of Sayed Kashua and Moshe Halbertal’s ideas, a clear attempt to synthesize universalistic values with particularistic Jewish ones. The first paragraph below contains a fairly bold admission, even from the left-leaning daily paper in Israel. She then goes on to discuss Halbertal’s articulation of what I referred to here as the dialectical relationship between global universalism and Jewish particularism and the potential for a just state of Israel.
The rather obvious and simple conclusion is that Israel does not fit the model of liberal polities. Israeli democracy is democracy minus the liberalism (Prof. Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University made a similar point in a brilliant article he wrote 20 years ago). But in his Friday morning lecture, Halbertal offered a surprising contention: Liberal states, he claimed, are never neutral. How does Halbertal know that liberal countries are not neutral? Because they have calendars, a national language, a history and a cultural heritage. If they are never neutral, it follows logically and morally that Israel is entitled to its Jewishness (in the same way, presumably, that other countries are entitled to their Christianity). Once we establish that liberal countries have only the appearance of liberalism and deep down are Christian, or at least have a very definite and specific culture, it is easier to justify the Jewishness of Israel (emphasis mine).
If Israel does not want to become a politically improved and militarily more powerful version of dark ethnocratic regimes, it must not only insure that the rights of minorities are protected, but also become forcefully universalist, go back to the universalist strands of Jewish tradition and align itself with the neutrality of liberal states. Israel can and should have a national Jewish culture, but this culture should be, like its Western liberal counterparts, far thinner and more neutral. This would imply treating Jews and non-Jews equally in more domains than is practiced today; dismantling the state rabbinate (Halbertal himself proposes this); encouraging religious pluralism and treating all Jewish denominations equally; making religious symbols into universal ones; teaching the history of other traditions; creating a canon of Arab and Jewish literary classics; making it easier for non-Jews to become citizens. All these measures would maintain Israel’s Jewishness. Israel would still have the same calendar, symbols, and language. It would become non-neutral in the same way as liberal countries are, because various groups would be organized in a broader and more inclusive framework. We want Sayed Kashua to remain committed to his group, but we also want him to be able to hang a painting of Yemin Moshe in his living-room and be at peace with it (emphasis mine).
Though I think she does not go far enough in her suggestions to make Israel a genuine liberal democracy, Illouz notes something that I failed to elaborate – that some of universalistic answers to the problems of contemporary particularism can be found in the Jewish tradition. Passover, for example, can be both a holiday celebrating Jewish self-assertion and a call to universal emancipatory action.
Problematically, she also fails to mention that there can be no attempt to actualize an ethical particularist future while the occupation continues. Israel’s realization of democracy on the most basic level is contingent on a withdrawal from the West Bank. Any attempt to describe Israel as democratic while millions live under military control is farcical.