What exactly is the religious rationale for Israel as a Jewish state? Who better to ask than an America Jewish secular journalist. We can assume that makes our investigative journalist a zionist (90% of Jews support Israel), but, as a journalist, and secular, our protagonist assures the reader he is interested in giving us as objective a version as can be expected.
David Plotz’s Good Book: The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the Bible (2009) puts the Old Testament (OT) under his microscope, knowing virtually zip about the religion, not practicing, nor forced to go to Saturday Hebrew school. Locke’s ‘blank slate’, sort of.
Plotz loves the ironies and contradictions of his journey and the Bible itself. He starts out believing vaguely in the existence of God, but not observing the rituals. During his 365 days of plodding through the book, he comes to admire the rituals, and starts observing shabat Friday dinners, complete with prayers, celebrating passover, new year, sukkoth.
But he’s not at all happy with the God the OT reveals. “I leave the bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God. God made me rational so I must use the tools to think about him. Submit him to rational and moral inquiry. And he fails that examination. The history of Judaism is an effort to grapple with the bible’s horror.”
Wow. But i’m sure Netanyahu is nonetheless delighted with Plotz. The zionists from the start wanted to dump the religion. Ben Gurion et al were atheists and saw Judaism as a harmful, the negative legacy of ‘the Jews’. Think of zionism as extreme liberalism.
Succeeding minority governments give token power to the ornery Orthodox parties, but hold their noses. They need them for legitimacy as a religious state. No country except Israel recognizes Jewish as an ethnicity in the census, not even the US. And neither the US nor Canada ‘do’ religion in the census anymore. What is a poor atheist to do?
Suddenly, the old archetype of the ‘wandering Jew’ becomes important as a way to establish this slippery ethnic label. But no! Jews no longer need to wander. They can make aliyah and go to Israel, the Jewish state.
Bible as land deed?
So agnostic Plotz is forced to turn to the Bible. What about the ‘proof’ that God gave ‘ the Jews’ Jerusalem etc.? Plotz finds that in Genesis, Jeremiah and Nehemiah, there are promises of land to Abraham at least four times, each time with different boundaries. The only mention of an ‘Arab’ is in Nehemiah, when Geshen is told “you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.”
So how to get it? In their conquests, in Deuteronomy, the tactics are laid out: a city about to be invaded is offered the chance to surrender and be enslaved, or annihilated and women/ children taken as booty. That’s what Joshua told the Canaanites when the Jews decided to invade and take their ‘promised land’.
To quote the famous judophobe Henry Ford: you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black. A special deal for any non-Jewish city in the promised land: annihilation only. I.e., very black. But not to worry, fruit trees should be spared.
Plotz analyzes the biblical heroes. Abraham, Rebekah, Jacob get what they want because they finagle, cajole, argue, deceive, play mind games, misuse God to advance their lies. Isaac is almost sacrificed, tricked by Jacob and Rebekah twice. He is the accidental patriarch. A bit of a putz, like Moses’s brother Aaron, a very lax (cowardly?) priest, who shrugs off the golden-calf feasting, and was let off the hook.
But Plotz likes these wily trickster heroes. They start poor, bargain with God and get what they want. Great models for the Jews over the millennia.
Jeremiah is a favourite. Though all gloom and doom, he is the template for the Jewish character traits that have made the tribe the longest surviving and wildly successful star of world society today. He was the priest under the Babylonians, and ordered his flock to submit. This is the key to the success of Jews in diaspora (adaptable, cultured, flexible), but in its incarnation as Judenrat,* a bit of a problem.
As they were getting ready for the gloom and doom exile, Jeremiah promised his flock they would someday return, that old contracts and land arrangements would apply “when Jews return to Zion.” This is the clearest land deal (no lavish boundaries from Iraq to Egypt). The most ‘historical’ one, unlike the legendary Noahide covenant, with Abraham as stand-in for the human race, or the conquest of promised land after the exodus, that whole episode at best a jolly good yarn.
But, of course, this is all ‘angels on the head of a pin’ stuff. The entire OT is a long, complicated pseudo-history, jam-packed with one genocide after another. Junk sculpture, according to Professor Emeritus in the Bible Department at Bar Ilan University and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard James Kugel (the Professor of Disbelief). Bits and pieces cobbled together in a postmodern pastiche. A bit like the state of Israel.
Universal God vs blood and guts
Plotz looks for hints of the universal God and finds them. Isaiah is the first. When not telling Isaiah of massacres, God explicitly values good deeds over professions of faith. There are brief moments of eloquent words of a new saviour, who sounds an awful lot like Jesus”
*The lion lies down with the calf (not the lamb). The leopard with the kid.
*The saviour resurrects the dead, offers eternal salvation.
*It is the will of God to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin … through him the will of the lord shall prosper.
*The servant of God is despised and rejected by others.
Plotz doesn’t have much use for Leviticus. It is full of rules for animal sacrifice and lots and lots of ‘Off with her head!’. There is no ‘Brokeback Mount Sinai’. But when bible-thumpers quote it to kill gays, Plotz suggests taking the offensive. There are death sentences for dozens of reasons (cursing parents, violating the sabbath, sex with a menstruating woman). Unlike the New Testament and the Quran, the OT is littered with this craziness, plus torture and full scale genocide. Wahhab surely used it as a template for his extreme Islam. There is none of this in the Quran.
Plotz quotes the colourful “Let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.” [Leviticus 18:28] But wait a minute. Who is the nation that came before the Jews when Israel was created? If the zionists have defiled Palestine, then they can expect the same treatment. Watch what you wish for, you might get it.
Time after time, reading Good Book, I was, like Plotz, appalled by the violence, the cruel vengeful, jealous God of the OT, grateful that I was not forced to have the God of Judaism as my standard. But Plotz is a proud Jew, and while rejecting the God (or at least defying him, like Plotz’s plucky patriarchal heroes), he brushes off the rituals and dives right in.
70AD the new ‘covenant’
If Plotz is a good example of today’s Jew, the zionists have won. Who cares what the world thinks? ‘We’ know we’re an ethnicity, the top dog chosen people. Who needs God? (But keep the OT just in case.)
Another Jewish look at Israel with the Torah in mind, Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (2003), has no truck with using the Bible for a land grab. Rushkoff emphasizes the universalism of Judaism. God is no longer just for ‘the tribe’, not associated with piece of land. God uses the Israelites to teach others, and uses other people (and war) to teach Israelites lessons, but God does not directly intervene after Moses. God is internalized, like the Hindu atman (the eternal sustaining essence within every individual).
Rushkoff downplays the genocides, instead, arguing that the Jewish obsession with conquering Palestine is childish, that Jews have to grow up. They will “lose the zionist claim over a patch of sacred soil, but get to claim the entire planet as a kind of Jerusalem.” The destruction of the temple in 70AD is really a leap forward in the holy covenant. Forget the temple. God is distant, but that’s ok for grown-ups. Humans must take responsibility to enact the holy teachings.
Rushkoff sees Judaism after 70AD as methodology, epistemology, holography. A Jewish ‘kingdom’, like any kingdom, will inevitably decline. The diaspora meant the spread of Jewish laws and values throughout the Roman empire and beyond. Isn’t that better than a corrupt, violent ‘kingdom’? Rushkoff warns that anti-Jewish prejudice is increasing. The Holocaust is wearing thin, the Jewish people risk losing their noble role in history with the reversion to tribal thinking, flouting, as it does, world opinion.
While Plotz relishes the ironies and contradictions undermining the OT (Leviticus’s “one standard for stranger and citizen”, and slavery/ tribal chosenness; visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments), Rushkoff points to the main irony: Israel is obsessed with territory, but the religion was founded and refounded on disengagement from the land. Everywhere is 'holy land'. This take on the Bible is very different than that of Plotz, but Plotz’s vengeful, jealous God is the one at work at the moment.
There are still genuine True Torah Jews who go even farther than Rushkoff, and insist Israel is an abomination, that peace means (probably) Muslim rule, but that’s okay. Muslims have a great track record ruling Jews (unlike Christians). And there is a new wave of antizionist Jews in the diaspora who reject Israel in its present form, and work with Arabs and all, in a universal way. Where is today’s Daniel to translate this writing on the wall?
*A WWII Jewish-German self-enforcing intermediary that served the German administration for controlling Jewish communities in occupied areas.