Back in May, New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research sponsored a lecture by Moshe Halbertal, a scholar of Jewish philosophy and law at the Hebrew University and New York University. The title of the event was “Israel at 60: Can it remain both Jewish and Democratic?” The evening was moderated by Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study (at Princeton, NJ) and co-editor of Dissent magazine.
Prof. Halbertal is part of an unusual breed, that of a religiously Orthodox individual who is also politically liberal. Sadly, like most dovishly inclined Israelis, he has soured on the likelihood of Israel reaching an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state solution that he favors. He commented on the irony that at roughly the same point that a majority of Israelis decided upon a curtailment of settlements and a withdrawal from most of the occupied territories, the Palestinians elected the rejectionist Hamas as its governing party.
I understand Halbertal’s pessimism on this point, but I see the newly evolved Israeli majority that no longer believes in the likelihood of an agreement with the Palestinians as engaging in a self-fulfilling prophesy.
There was no controversy at YIVO that evening at Halbertal’s premise that a “Jewish state” is fundamentally a good thing; by a “Jewish state” he does not mean either a theocratic or an exclusively Jewish state. He mentioned in passing a notion that I fully share, that Israel is justly a “Jewish state” on the basis of a kind of affirmative action granted by the world community as a result of historic antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Halbertal postulated that Israel’s population consists of five “tribes”: the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), the mostly secular Ashkenazi Jews, moderately religious oriental Jews (Mizrahim) whom he lumps together with the modern Orthodox, the immigrant population from the former Soviet Union (the “Russians”) and Israeli Arabs. He said that it’s not “an accident” that the Arab and Haredi “tribes” are not conscripted into the armed forces, because (unlike the other three) neither officially recognizes the Zionist character of the state.
In this connection, he indicated that about one quarter of the combat soldiers in the IDF are currently from the recent wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a population that tends to be patriotic and leans toward the nationalist right in the political spectrum.
These are Halbertal’s thoughts about the four legitimate purposes of a “Jewish state,” while also endorsing the protection of the legitimate rights of non-Jewish citizens:
- It enables the Jewish people to work for its political interests.
- The Law of Return is a form of “affirmative action for the Jews,” allowing a historically persecuted and vulnerable people to have a refuge.
- A Jewish state should cultivate the Hebrew language, the Jewish calendar and other symbolic and cultural expressions of Jewishness.
- The state is committed to reproducing Jewish cultures — in the plural because there is more than one Jewish culture.
But Prof. Halbertal sees it as important that the state be no more “Jewish” than the above. He (like the late politically left-wing Orthodox thinker, Yeshayahu Leibovitz) warns against the use of the coercive power of the state to enforce Jewish religious observances; both see this as bad for the country and for Judaism. For one thing, if the state expends money and resources for religious purposes, this turns off secular Jews to the practice of Judaism. And Halbertal argues for as broad a definition of Jewish identity as possible to include protection for all who may be persecuted as Jews.
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