By Micha Odenheimer
Eleven years ago, I created Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli organization devoted to connecting Jews to the most acute challenges of global poverty in the Two Thirds World. In the tradition of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the Baal Shem Tov, Midrashim such as Tanna D’vai Eliyahu – and of course the Torah and Prophets as well, Tevel was founded out of a belief that universal social justice is at the heart of Judaism’s mission. The Enlightenment, which dismantled ghetto walls for Jews who wished to assimilate into Western civil society, created a polarizing split. Some Jews shed their Jewish particularity in an effort to fit in, raising the flag of ethical monotheism and social justice as the only essential part of the Jewish tradition. Others fought to keep virtual ghetto walls high, by emphasizing those laws that keep us separate from others, in order to preserve Jewish particularity. One guiding idea of Tevel b’Tzedek was that the time for such a split was over. In the post-modern world, Jewish particularity of the most robust kind, and aspirations towards universal social justice can be reintegrated. The State of Israel, especially, could provide a psychological platform for this reintegration. In fact, since starting Tevel, 12 years ago, the field of Israeli involvement in the challenges of global poverty has burgeoned, and young Israelis, both religious and non-religious, have shown great enthusiasm, initiative and capability in this field.
But the past few months, and the Israeli government plan to deport 38,000 asylum seekers back to Africa have been a shock to my system. My disappointment in the lack of empathy or concern for non-Jews among political and religious leaders and many on the Israeli street was so acute that I experienced it as a crisis of faith in Jewish nationalism.
Israel was an initiator of an international treaty on refugees in the wake of the Holocaust, that required countries to give asylum to people for whom return to their home country meant mortal danger. And yet our country of refugees and holocaust survivors was ignoring this treaty. Worse yet, government ministers incited fear and hatred of asylum seekers, attempting to pit the population of South Tel Aviv – a ravaged area long before the asylum seekers came – against the African refugees. And people – not all, but many – were lapping it up. Supporters of the deportation were spreading the idea that its opponents were doing so as part of a broader agenda – to create “a state of all its citizens” that would replace the Jewish state. The more you cared about the Jewish people, the right-wing narrative went, the more you understood that compassion was a luxury. The Jewish heart for the downtrodden must be sacrificed on the altar of patriotism.
The fusion of statehood with Jewish identity had coagulated into a tendency to dehumanize those outside one’s group. The passion for justice which I had thought was an indelible part of collective Jewish nature seemed to have been flattened out of existence by the nation-state. What ultra-Orthodox critics of Zionism had predicted – that the state would erase Jewish uniqueness and make us “a people like other peoples,” was happening, but not in the same way as they had feared. It was not that secular Zionism had destroyed Jewish particularity, or ritual observances. Judaism in this sense was alive and well in Israel. Instead it was the ethical and universal core of Jewish identity, forged through both our spiritual tradition and our history, that was being ameliorated – in great part by religious Zionists. It was that precious trait that allowed us to care more, not less, about other human beings because we were Jewish that was being degraded and G-d forbid destroyed.
But then Jewish voices against the deportation began to register loud and clear, and to break the neat left/right division on the deportation issue. First came the Israelis students: thousands of them, organizing quickly and effectively over social media as “Stop the Deportation.” Then came people such as Alan Dershowitz, Irwin Cotler, Abe Foxman, longtime diaspora defenders of Israel, who warned against the consequences of the deportation – and its immorality. Israeli intellectuals and Orthodox leaders began to cross ideological lines to speak out. Yossi Klein Halevi called the deportation “a crime against Jewish history.” Elyakim Rubenstein, the religious and widely respected deputy head of the Supreme Court called the fact that Israel had granted refugee status to only 12 asylum seekers out of thousands “astonishing.” I helped create a group called “Religious Zionists against the Deportation – Lo Tasgir” that quickly gained adherents. Rabbi Avi Giser, the rabbi of Ofra, a religious settlement in the West Bank, spoke out strongly against the deportation, risking the wrath of his constituency. So did others, such as Rabbi Aviya HaKohen of Tekoah and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Efrat. Although at the time of this writing it is not clear what will be the final outcome, at the very least, we have managed to put some cracks in the cynical attempt to fashion a wedge issue out of the refugee question.
What the struggle over the deportation taught me is the vital importance of Jewish Peoplehood as a counter-force against the power of Jewish statehood. Professor Isaiah Leibowitz, the acerbic and iconoclastic religious philosopher, often recounted a conversation he had with David Ben Gurion. Leibowitz who was Orthodox and a Zionist in his belief in Jewish self-determination, deeply believed in the need to separate religion from the State; Ben Gurion, who was secular, said that he would never let that happen. “You want Judaism to rise up as an independent ethical force that can criticize the state. I will never let that happen.”
But it is happening. For those of us who cherished the dream of a uutopian Jewish state, guided by the inspiring rhetoric of its Declaration of Independence, waking up is hard to do, but absolutely necessary. The story of Israel, from the in-gathering of the exiles and making the desert bloom through the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor and Start Up Nation, is amazing. And yet, the era of Zionist piety, in which the state itself is seen as not just necessary, but as righteous and good, is over. Instead the state must be seen as an arena – the main arena – in which the struggle for Jewish ethics, for the soul of the Jewish people, is taking place. And in this struggle, the hard to define, easy to malign concept of Jewish Peoplehood will play a decisive role.
By Jewish Peoplehood I mean the Jews of the diaspora along with the Jews of the Holy Land. I mean Jewish memory along with Jewish longing for messianic transformation. I mean the process through which Jewish tradition is filtered through new understanding of both reality and possibility in order to create a Torah she’baal peh, an inspired oral Torah for today. I mean the inclusion and conscious promotion and dissemination of long ignored teachings within the religious world, such as that of Rabbi Chaim Vital, the great disciple of the Ari, that “Love your Fellow” includes all human beings, or Rav Ashlag’s prescient manifesto declaring that globalization has made the acceptance of mutual responsibility for the welfare of all of humanity at the core of Judaism.
The issues are manifold. Will the gap between rich and poor in Israel continue to grow, as wealth and power are concentrated in an oligarchical class of politicians and business tycoons? Will the headlong leap into the privatization of health care, education and welfare be reversed? Will we be able to battle the “developers” who would divvy up our coastlines and raze our forests, so as to preserve the natural beauty of the country for the next generation. Will a country that has fragmented into “tribes” – Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Mizrachi Orthodox, Mizrachi traditional, national-religious, Russian and so on – be able to reclaim a language of the common good? Can we regain enough confidence in our own goodness and destiny to trust in the possibility of peace and to fully include non-Jewish citizens of Israel in our dialogue about the future?
On the surface, right now, it seems as if those in power in the State of Israel – following a worldwide trend that includes Trump’s United States, Putin’s Russia and Turkey’s Erdogan – have succeeded in creating a perception in which national interest and global social justice are oppositional values. But bubbling below the shiny surface is the People of Israel, who, if not prophets, are the sons and daughters of prophets. A renewed explosion of these energies is, I believe and hope, soon to come.
Micha Odenheimer grew up in Los Angeles, graduated cum laude from Yale University, was ordained by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and was a close student and friend of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. A writer, journalist, and social entrepreneur, Micha’s essays about poverty, conflict and globalization from countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Nepal, and Iraq have been published in the Washington Post, Haaretz, the London Times, Foreign Policy magazine and other journals. Micha was involved in the founding of Elul, was the founding director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, and founded Tevel b’Tzedek in 2007. In 1999 he was awarded the Boris Smolar Prize for Journalism and in 2009 the Flegg Prize from the Hebrew University.