Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora

There is an important conversation that is not happening about Zionism and the American Jewish community. It is a conversation that is as old as the Zionist enterprise itself. One of the central claims of political (as opposed to Messianic) Zionism is that the solution to the “Jewish question” is sovereignty. The Jewish community was a powerless and dependent community during its almost two thousand year sojourn in Exile and it was this powerlessness which left it vulnerable to the predations of the sovereigns of whatever country offered them a temporary home. Equally important was that this political dependence caused a cultural withering and produced a Jewish culture which was perverted by the influence of other more powerful cultures. A true Jewish culture could not take shape until the Jewish community had achieved sovereignty and shook off the chains of both political and cultural dependence. (Shades/foreshadowing of post-colonial theory.)

This argument had great resonance in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The civil and human rights of Jews in every country in the world were fragile, and the Holocaust seemed to be the final, awful expression of this untenable situation. The only way Jews would assume control over their own destiny was “to be a free people in our land.”

From where we are standing now, however, six plus decades after the end of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel, and after the civil rights movement and the ongoing enshrinement of religious and civil liberties in the United States, the discourse of sovereignty does not look the same. There are two ways in which sovereignty (either mamlakhtiyut or ribonut) can be understood. First is the sovereignty of ultimate power. (OED: “The position, rank, or power of a supreme ruler or monarch; royal authority or dominion.”) Translated to the Zionist argument this would be the claim that there is a need for Jewish power, Jewish control of all the levers of government and the judiciary. Only in this way is the future of the Jewish people guaranteed. This understanding of sovereignty demands a Jewish State with a Jewish prime minister, a Jewish legislative body, etc. That is, in some way, (or in every way) the polis must be Jewish.

A different understanding of sovereignty is participation in the governance of the country. (OED: Sovereignty is “the supreme controlling power in communities not under monarchical government; absolute and independent authority.”) This latter form of sovereignty does not require a Jewish supreme ruler, but rather the unfettered equal access of Jews to the levers of power and institutions of government—together with, though not subordinate to, other communities. In other words, what is necessary for this type of sovereignty is a working democracy in which (to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel) “some are guilty but all are responsible.”

This latter understanding of sovereignty should be the understanding of the Jewish community that has decided to reside in the Diaspora. In a democracy, the argument should go, the Jewish community has control over its destiny, not in an autonomous or separatist way, but in necessary collaboration with other communities. It is in this political process of dialogue, disagreement, compromise and collaboration that the country will flourish to the benefit of all the communities therein. This is then a Jewish return to sovereignty with others, in which the sovereignty of others is complementary to Jewish sovereignty. In other words, the existence of the Jewish community within the permeable boundaries of a working democracy.

Obamacare, SCOTUS and the monetization of our morals

Justice Roberts surprised everybody yesterday by joining and writing the opinion for the majority in this week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I want to suggest that his decision is to be appreciated by the progressive community not only for upholding the act but also for shifting the legal conversation.

The decision was a major step forward toward creating a more perfect union, toward helping to forge a society in which we all share obligations toward those who cannot fend for themselves, toward a vision of a just society which honors each and every person as being created in the tzelem elohim/the image of God. This experiment in democracy—in which we have given our trust and loyalty, and by way of which we have pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—has taken a major stride forward in affording tens of millions of people the ability to have health insurance and thereby health care. At bottom, upholding the constitutionality of the ACA saved lives. People who otherwise might have died, will not die because they will have access to doctors, medicines and life saving treatments.

However, the Roberts decision in my opinion also set the legal conversation about civil and human rights on a firmer moral ground. Roberts sided with the conservative wing of the court to say that the ACA was not constitutional under the commerce clause. The commerce clause, is the clause in “the Constitution [which] authorizes Congress to ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’ (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 3)” Further, and more importantly “[o]ur precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate com­merce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate com­merce.’” (quoting from Justice Roberts’ opinion p. 4) Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (U. S. Const., Art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1) Roberts interprets this straightforwardly that: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.” (Roberts’ opinion p. 5) Continue reading

The “Jewish” Vote

Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?

If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.  Continue reading

A Lack of Imagination is Dangerous: On Israel, Iran and ♥

There is something of a surprising campaign which has taken hold on Facebook which has also garnered some attention in the press. Two Israelis, Roni Edry and Michal Tamir added a poster to their Facebook profile with this statement in bold colors: “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We ♥ you.” Within days there were tens of thousands of “likes” on Facebook, messages from around the world, a new Facebook page and even hundreds of positive responses from Iran.

What to make of all this? All the messages seem rather sappy and simplistic. “We ♥ you” is not a foreign policy. It is not a negotiating position. It is not even an obvious claim on justice or morality. It is strange.

It does, however, have resonance in its simplicity. This counterpoint to the bombast of Iranian, Israeli and American leaders is stark in the very minimalism of its claims. There is a rather strong denial of what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the “ontology of war” in these statements. The ontology of war is the understanding that peace comes at the end of a narrative which includes victory over the enemy. Peace, then is one stage in an ongoing process of war. Inevitably, peace will also be followed by war, since the peace is only assured by victory. Peace which does not partake of this narrative, peace which is a response to the Other, makes one vulnerable.

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The “Citizens United” decision and the Image of God

There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric. Continue reading