Dogma, Dissent and Differences

Over the centuries Jews have been marginalized and demonized for refusing to fit in. The reasons keep changing but the effect is always the same: Jews are collectively denounced for dissenting from the dominant dogma. In pagan Rome, where tolerance meant the worship of many gods, the Jews would worship only one. When Christians proclaimed that there was only one way to salvation, through the Church, Jews were seen as heretics because they insisted on another. Capitalists saw the Jews as Bolsheviks; Communists persecuted the Jews for being bourgeois and counterrevolutionary. Nationalists assailed the Jews for being rootless cosmopolitans, and anti-nationalists objected that Jews are “tribal.” If there was any consolation, it was a sense of solidarity against persecution that encouraged communal unity.

A new dogma is emerging, according to the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Comonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who spoke last week at the Third Israeli President’s Conference. Declaring “I don’t believe the destiny of the Jews is to be hated,” he nonetheless sounded the alarm about today’s emerging dogma of human rights, which already has targeted Jews in the form of the State of Israel. This new credo differs from the Anglo-American idea of liberty described by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, said Rabbi Sacks, by centering on the individual’s relationship to all of humanity. In effect it is post-nationalist, bypassing the laws and customs of nation-states or ethnic groups favor of universal values – unlike the Anglo-American tradition, which acts through diverse local governments.

Ruth Gavison, the Hebrew University scholar awarded the Israel Prize this year, argues that the need to maintain both national and universal identities is “critical, stable, and permanent,” and for Jews, the national identity is Zionist. She acknowledges that today it is sometimes considered to be anachronistic or even sinister to be a Zionist because nationalism is sectarian and stresses differences, and it has led to wars, racism, genocide. But she believes that national values contribute something important to universal values.

In the context of today’s human-rights movement, that Zionist belief in national identity is the latest Jewish heresy against the general culture. Yet Jews are far from unanimous in subscribing to it (or to anything else). Nowadays growing numbers of American Jews have their doubts about Zionism in theory and practice. There are serious divisions within the Jewish community over what Israel is or should be and about how Judaism is best enacted in the world. Plenty of Jews believe that serving humanity is a higher calling than working on behalf of the Jewish people.

These principled differences make the oft-repeated goal of communal unity less likely than ever. As with Eastern European Jewry a century ago, our community has become fragmented not through denominational splits but because of passionate disagreements about what Jewish values are most important in society at large. The assault by world opinion on Israel’s conduct is not felt as an urgent external threat, so there is little countervailing pressure to set those differences aside for a common purpose. Even with the growing intensity of anti-Zionism in the world, more diversity and less unity are becoming an increasingly inevitable fact of Jewish life.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, also writes the “At Home Abroad” blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem.