A Divine Society?

On Invoking God as a Reason for Backing Israel

By Leonard Fein

Published November 13, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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Judge Richard Goldstone is back in the news, having written in an OpEd piece in the New York Times that it is a canard to define Israel as an apartheid state. That has set off the predictable reactions, from “Goldstone is whitewashing Israel’s behavior” to “Goldstone has finally seen the light.” All quite beside the point. There are for sure elements of Israel’s behavior in the West Bank that are at least “apartheidish,” but even if that were not so, Israel’s 44 year-long occupation of the West Bank is inherently rotten. Of late, with the expansion, real and planned, of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, with the boorish and often brutal behavior of some of the Jewish settlers, things have been going from merely rotten to downright devastating. What’s at issue is not the label that is proposed, but the thing itself: the occupation.


In response to the Palestine National Authority’s accession to full membership in UNESCO, the Netanyahu government has approved the construction of 2000 new housing units in the West Bank, 1650 of them in Jerusalem. Netanyahu denies the housing tat is in response to the UN tit. As he told the Knesset, “We will continue developing Jerusalem, its neighborhoods, and people. This is our right and obligation — not as punishment to the Palestinians but as our basic right.” How curious, then, the timing, the invocation of the right to build the day after the UNESCO caper.

If Palestine ever comes to pass, it is in Israel’s interest that it be well-born — a viable state, its territory contiguous, its prospects for healthy development robust. The current effort to Judaize the whole of Greater Jerusalem, not only depriving Palestine of its intended capital but isolating its south from its north, renders resentment and distrust indelible and the death of a two-state solution inevitable. Take your pick: The “basic right” to build, or the still more basic right to live in peace, security and dignity.


A year and a half or so ago, I listened as Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, speaking at Harvard, tackled one of the most nettlesome problems in Judaism — the idea of “chosen-ness.” It is hard to argue that we are not chosen, given all we have achieved. But it is impossible to argue that we are chosen, given how noxious the notion of God playing favorites is (to say nothing of all our failings). So the theologians turn the references to our selection into tasteless porridge — “we are chosen, you are chosen, everyone is chosen,” or some such, and the discomfort endures.

Along comes Sacks and proposes a really nifty solution: Being chosen, he says, means precisely insisting on staying a tribe, thereby demonstrating the imperative of particularism. It means serving as an example of how particularism need not lead to a sense of superiority.


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