The Conspiracy

A Curmudgeonly Interjection

I never knew before blogging for New Voices just how diverse the opinions expressed in the magazine were. Just take yesterday’s update email, entitled “Fight the Loyalty Oath,” in which no less than three different views by three different authors were expressed on a controversial bit of Israeli legislation. The opinions were:

1) The proposed mandate of a loyherzlalty oath to a Jewish state is discriminatory and unacceptable.

2) The proposed mandate of a loyalty oath to a Jewish state is discriminatory and unacceptable, and I will therefore now refrain from visiting Israel.

3) The proposed mandate of a loyalty oath to a Jewish state is discriminatory and unacceptable, and I will nevertheless continue to visit Israel in order to effect change from the inside.

Such diversity of opinion! Personally, I am conflicted about the bill. But I am surprised that the New Voices editorship was unable to locate and enlist even one intelligent student writer who could muster a reasonable argument in its defense (not least because I know a few such students personally). In the end, though, I refuse to believe that so prestigious a publication as New Voices is just a left wing rag, and as such, I hope that its readership is capable of considering the following few questions in the sober and critical spirit in which they are offered:

Do we think that ethno-religious nationalism is a morally acceptable form of political self-expression in the first place? That is, do we accept the right of the Kurds to a Kurdish Kurdistan or Armenians to an Armenian Armenia, or Catholics to a Catholic Vatican City? In short, do we accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State?
If not, are we still Zionists?
If so, how so?
If we are Antizionists, is there any acceptable form of national expression other than a liberal-democratic conception of the United States? How is this not unspeakably chauvinist?

If we do accept this principle, i.e. the Jewishness of the State, what prevents us from expecting its naturalized citizens from recognizing it as such? The consensus in the United States is that the nature of the state is its governance by the US Constitution and laws. And we make naturalized citizens of the United States pledge their “true faith and allegiance to the same,” even if their personal philosophy happens to be anarchist. Anarchists are not second-class citizens in the US. Nonetheless, they are expected to play by the rules.

Once these questions are answered, we can raise a whole other set of questions about pragmatism, public relations, and foreign policy, regarding the loyalty oath.

I don’t like to weigh in on Israel issues in public forums. Everyone’s mind is already made up, the disagreements are about first principles, reasoned argument takes a back seat to party politics, and discussions as such tend to dissolve into cacophonic stupidity of endlessly escalating volume (and that’s before the comment feed gets started!). Forgive me for being hopeful this time around.



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10 Older Responses to “A Curmudgeonly Interjection”

  1. Ben Sales
    October 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm #


    Editorial concerns aside, here are some answers to your questions:

    The way you phrased the first question already suggests the answer you think is correct and obvious: all of those other states exist, so Israel should too. I’m not sure, in that case, that it’s really a valid question, but I will say this: if our concern is really to safeguard life and civil rights in the region, and if we’re really interested in finding the most practical way to do that as soon as we can, then the idea of a bi-national state is unrealistic. Israel exists, the Palestinian people clearly have national aspirations of their own and too much infrastructure, attitudes and history is in place to wipe all that clean and start a new national experiment. Israel should continue to exist because it will be the main piece in facilitating the best way to end this conflict and ensure rights and life for everyone in the area.

    You don’t need to be anti-Zionist if you’re not explicitly a Zionist. I happen to be a Zionist because I think we have a great chance (as Rabbi Bigman says) to create a great, just Jewish society in Israel. Those who don’t favor that conception, however, aren’t necessarily anti-Zionists. They just think that the two-state model isn’t the best solution.

    Lastly, and most importantly, the loyalty oath differs in two respects from those of the US: first, only non-Jewish immigrants have to say it. This is explicit ethnic discrimination, and we shouldn’t stand for it. Everyone, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, etc. pledges the same loyalty oaths to the US. Second, this is clearly a political move by the current coalition, not one done solely in the name of Israel’s founding ideals. Its supporters point to delegitimization efforts and see this as the antidote. So instead of examining the cause of those delegitimization efforts, the coalition is instead forcing an oath onto non-Jewish immigrants to the state to combat a current political reality. This is shortsighted.

  2. Ben Sales
    October 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Also, I was not talking in my post about visiting Israel. I was talking about moving there. Big difference.

  3. Yedidya Schwartz
    October 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Thanks for this, Ben, and so quickly too.

    These are all good points you make, and my faith in productive discourse stands unshaken! I’ll try to address them one by one.

    I don’t think that the answer to the first question is obvious at all. There are many who are opposed to ethnic and religious nationalism in absolutely good faith, based on universal principles of equality and non-discrimination. Many are in favor of a world state, without national borders, based on Kantian notions of the progressive nature of international relations and cosmopolitanism. Kurdistan, of course is not (yet) a state, and many will give strongly reasoned arguments why it shouldn’t be. People who think this way would view the existence of the state of Israel as a concession to utilitarian concerns, but hopefully one that can be transcended peacefully within the due course of time.

    You make the claim that you do not have to be an anti-Zionist if you’re not explicitly a Zionist. This is an interesting claim, and, I’ll admit, not one I’d thought of before. I’m not sure whether I agree or not. We would have to better define our terms. If someone thinks that the two-state solution is undesirable because the nationalist aspirations of the Jews are unimportant, isn’t that anti-Zionism? If she thinks they are important, but just not as important as the loss of life that would result, doesn’t that make her a Zionist, just a conflicted one?

    Your last point is divided in half. First, you point to ethnic discrimination – on that front I’ll refer to the Lee Smith article that I cited in the post, who addresses it, and I think his case is compelling. Secondly, though, you point to the pragmatic and real-world-politic causes and effects of the bill, that makes it, as you say, short sighted. This position speaks to me strongly. I concur that it is a politically short sighted decision which is ultimately why I am, as I said above, conflicted.

    Lastly, going over my post, I see that some of the things I’ve written above about the editorial content of New Voices came out more nastily than I intended, and in reconsidering my intentions, I found that even they were more nasty than they ought to have been. Please accept my sincere apologies for this; sarcasm is almost never a rhetorically helpful move, and generally only serves to undermine discourse and relationships, rather than help them. Rather than moralizing more (since I of all people have now lost my right to it) I will just say that (1) I really, really, seriously, do NOT consider these to be the pages of a “left wing rag,” and (2) The phrase about “cacophonic stupidity” was uncategorically NOT meant to refer to anything written by anyone for this magazine, and (3) I am deeply sorry that any of my comments might have given this impression (as I now realize they probably did). Nobody like a curmudgeon when he is talking, and the curmudgeon himself very often dislikes himself just as much five minutes later. This is the case here.

  4. Yedidya Schwartz
    October 15, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    And of course, you’re right that there is a big difference between visiting Israel and moving there. I should have echoed that distinction.

  5. Yair
    October 15, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Well said. I would personally add that Brandon Springer’s piece was well argued, if somewhat wrongheaded (in my personal opinion), though as Yedidya notes, the editorial spread (and other two pieces) was far less inspiring.

    Towards evening out that imbalance – it occurs to me that perhaps the New Voices community would be interested to know that British law today requires the royal monarch to be a member of the Church of England and excludes from the position of king or queen any member of the royal family who has married a Catholic. (Fewer are probably aware of the fact that Tony Blair only just converted to Catholicism post his prime ministership so as to avoid having the affiliation negatively affecting his political prospects!)

    I presume the above means that some of the scrupulously moral minds of New Voices will similarly stop frequenting the United Kingdom? Imagine the outcry if Israel officially excluded Muslims (or all non-Jewish religionists) from holding the post of President (roughly analogous to the ceremonial role played by the British monarch). Forget that – surely we should be boycotting and divesting from those other small and insignificant European nations which have been banning the burka (France) and minarets on mosques (Switzerland). If the debatable symbolic bigotry of a verbal loyalty oath – one remarkably similar to those established by other Western nations for non-blood-related incoming citizens – is so utterly repugnant, I can only imagine how detestable the physical and legislative religious oppression of Muslims and other religions in the UK, France and Switzerland must seem to the eminently ethical arbiters of New Voices. Similarly, I hope to see some serious condemnations rain down on the Islamic Republic of Iran when it becomes a true democracy (perhaps under the Green Movement), since we all know Islam or any other religion cannot coexist with that form of government (see: Indonesia).

    Or maybe it’s time to introduce some real world complexity and perspective into this discussion, rather than the sadly mendacious and uninformed mischaracterizations and moral tunnel-vision that seem to typify Israel discourse all too often. A modest proposal.

  6. Yair
    October 15, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    None of the above, incidentally, is to suggest that the loyalty oath is a good idea. On the contrary, I’m decidedly opposed (though not because I think it’s racist, ethnocratic or some such; a topic for another time). Nor it my intent to inexcusably claim that unfairness in one European countries excuses lesser unfairness in Israel. Rather, it is to point out that the “sky is falling approach” to every single disagreeable development in Israeli politics is not helpful or constructive. A realization of geopolitical and historical context can go a long way towards ensuring we do not go off the deep end every time something happens in Israel that rubs us the wrong way. Hyperbole (“that’s it – no more Israel for me!”) in an already hyperbolic discourse facilitates nothing but the poisoning of that discourse, and I’m sure no one here want to do that.

  7. Benjamin Barer
    October 16, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    I would like to give a few thoughts in response to the enlightening conversation that has developed here.

    First of all, I now know that there is a much higher responsibility to bear when posting on a politically charged topic, as opposed to more mundane aspects of Judaism, like textual study. I appreciate the criticism, as I am not a professional writer, and the only way I will become more articulate is by incorporating heartfelt criticisms, which, I think, is what the above represents for the most part. The last thing that I would like to say before addressing the issues raised is that in no way should my post be taken to reflect some pre-assigned editorial agenda on the part of New Voices. I was not told what to write, or even to take a stand at all on this issue, and the fact that three people happened to have similar opinions on an issue in Israeli politics on a given day is hardly a convincing sample size to conclude anything from it. I know that an apology was offered, but in this world where everyone can write in the most public and open of forums – the internet – it is crucial to keep in mind that there is a lot that is left unsaid, both relating directly to the issues addressed in a given post, and to the individual who authors a given post, especially when that post is no longer than a page or two, and so any criticisms of such a post must be measured and cautious.

    As for the criticism rightly leveled against my proposal to no longer visit the state of Israel if legislation such as the Loyalty Oath is approved, I see it as touching on a particularly important aspect of being a North American Jew struggling to find my place in relating to this country that I am living in right now. That issue is: how can I justifiably pour my efforts disproportionately into Israel when there are so many, and in most cases much greater, concerns in the world that have nothing to do with Israel? Of course, the short – and unsatisfactory – answer is because I am Jewish, and have been raised to care about this country more than any other (in many cases including the one I was born in). However, to address briefly the specific point raised, that if I feel this way about Israel, I ought to not visit many other countries with similar legislation, I would like to offer what I feel is a valid difference, though I know that many will disagree. Just to be clear, the issue for me with the Loyalty Oath, beyond the shortsightedness and bad timing politically of the introduction of the law, is that I take issue with the fact that not all aspiring citizens of Israel would have to swear this oath. That is what differentiates it for me from other similar oaths instituted in other counties. As for my post specifically, why making this type of stand against Israel is more appropriate for me, even if I were to continue to visit other countries that granted certain rights and privileges based on ethnicity or religion, is because Israel is the only country in which I am able to partake of those extra rights and privileges due to my being a part of the majority culture here. There is a difference, in my mind, between supporting a country – by visiting it – and having no chance of benefiting from certain laws that bestow extra rights on another group, and visiting a country in which I am automatically treated better than other citizens and visitors based on something that I did not choose, and is therefore not in the slightest way a positive reflection on me as a person. As such, refraining from supporting any laws that make that difference more apparent is much more important to me here than it is with regards to other countries – though that is not to say that the laws referred to are any more defensible.

  8. Harpo Jaeger
    October 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Yedida: If someone thinks that the two-state solution is undesirable because the nationalist aspirations of the Jews are unimportant, isn’t that anti-Zionism?
    I’ll answer with some shameless self-promotion: here’s a post I wrote for Jewschool a while back coining the phrase ambi-Zionism, and a New Voices column on a similar topic.
    f she thinks they are important, but just not as important as the loss of life that would result, doesn’t that make her a Zionist, just a conflicted one?
    Sounds good to me. I think you’ve actually offered a pretty good analysis of what being a modern Zionist means: grappling with the implications that ethnic nationalism brings. Personally, I reject ethnic nationalism as a basis for states, but I don’t advocate dissolving existing ethnic states simply because that’s what they are. For me, practicality is more important than Ideology. I try to hold others to the same standard: I like a Zionist who recognizes the inherent problems in implementing Zionism, and I dislike anti-Zionists who claim that Palestinian nationalism is somehow more legitimate than Jewish nationalism. I guess that’s why I appreciate your point about “conflicted Zionists.” My feeling is that if you’re not conflicted about the situation in Israel-Palestine, you probably don’t have enough of a nuanced view.
    Also, this post and comment thread is a pretty good example of the kind of discourse you’re worried doesn’t exist anymore.

  9. Yair
    October 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Surely, Yedidya should indeed be worried if this sort of critical discourse is relegated to a comment thread while the three (three!) published articles on the topic on the site are pretty much identical in thrust. And had Yedidya not pointed this remarkable imbalance out, none of these comments would have been posted and there’d have been no discussion at all! Seems like an indictment to me.


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