Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The rapist, the politician and the definition of Jewish Identity

Reading the news about Sabbar Kashur, the Arab man going to prison for sleeping with a Jewess while posing as a Jew, in the same sitting as I read about the Rotem Conversion Bill and Avrum Burg’s new Arab-Jewish political party, Shivyon Yisrael, Equality for Israel, I cannot help but question what it means to be a Jew.

In the case of the woman who consented to sleep with Mr. Kashur, being Jewish was in name and race. Sabbar’s nickname was Dudu. Even his wife called him by this variation on the Hebrew name Daveed, as in the king. I don’t know the personal beliefs of Mr. Kashur, but as a Palestinian, he comes from one of two (possibly three) monotheistic religions. He’s also not a foreigner in this land. All this leads me to conclude that Kashur’s “crime” was not his lie, Jews embellish on J-Date all the time, it was his race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call being a Palestinian Arab. In this sense, for Mr. Kashur’s accuser, Judaism is her race, not his.

For Yisrael Beiteinu’s Dudu, David Rotem, Jewish is both something that jives, exclusively, with his orthodox religious beliefs and serves as a form of legitimization for the over a hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union, his constituents. He didn’t bring his bill to the Knesset floor to offend Diaspora Jews. He didn’t have the foresight to think about it. He was advancing the political will of his beliefs and his party. This political jockeying is one of the byproducts of being a people with a state. Rotem’s Judaism is orthodoxy and the orthodox stamp of approval.

For Avrum Burg, being Jewish is a personal praxis of individuals who consider themselves within the big tent of Judaism. (I may be doing a disservice to Mr. Burg who probably would reject Jews for Jesus and others like them.) I think Avrum is juggling three identities; Jewish, Israeli and democrat. It may be hard for someone outside of Israel to conceptualize the struggle we have as democratic people who want to preserve the refuge status of Israel for Jews and not just be a country with a Jewish majority. Once, former Meretz leader Yosi Sarid, in his vulgar way, said that in his wet dreams he wakes up and there are no Arabs here. I’m not even sure that fantasy is good for the Jews. We have a lot to learn from our co-nationals, as they from us, and their presence here reminds us that we were never alone in this land. For Avrum Burg, and probably Yosi Sarid, Judaism is the private religious choice of individuals. It is not state business.

There is one thing that should be pointed out above all; in the 21st century, identity is not reified. It is fluid. For instance, I am studying to be a rabbi. Both schools which I attended in this pursuit are non-denominational. Some people ask, what kind of rabbi will you be? My standard answer is, “A good rabbi.” I can guarantee you that when I am looking for a job, if need be, I will declare a denominational identity. This is what it means to say that identity is fluid. For me, being a Jew is living within the Jewish myth.

In Israel, there are two identities in an I.D. card; national and religious. The purpose of national identity is clear. Can you vote? Must you pay taxes? Will you travel with an Israeli passport? The purpose of the religious identity is less clear. Donniel Hartman, in his book The Boundaries of Judaism says that Israel has adopted the lowest common denominator definition of a Jew, someone with a Jewish grandparent, the same as the Nazi definition. The reason for this is that part of Israel’s purpose is to remain a refuge for Jews, something most of us agree upon. The State of Israel has come up with a different reason for defining Judaism, to create authority over the various religious groups in Israel. Here, in Israel, each religion has a czar of its own.

MK David Rotem’s conversion bill is about the authority of official Judaism in Israel. Rotem was, on one hand, strengthening his orthodox cronies, on the other, he may have been trying to cater to his constituents who have difficulty becoming legitimized as Jews. Either way you look at it, any Orthodox converted immigrant from the former Soviet Union who would have a sexual encounter with Mr. Kashur’s accuser would not be required to give his pedigree nor would he have to explain his religious beliefs. Simply put, the Kashur case is about official Israeli racism toward Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but racism is not part of my Jewish values. It is historically true that defining ourselves in contrast to others has always been part of defining who we are. This is not unusual, even among non-Jews. It’s also true that Judaism traditionally discouraged intermingling. But this is not the problem we are addressing.

There is a tension in Israel between being a state of Jews and a Jewish state. We need a refuge for Jews. This is a given. We may also believe that whatever it is that we define as Jewish is valuable, otherwise we wouldn’t choose to remain Jewish in a world where we are free to assimilate. But the big question is whether a state can have a character. France is dealing with this at the expense of their democracy by not allowing free religious expression. Israel is dealing with it at the expense of Diaspora Judaism and non-Jewish citizens (which also hurts our democracy).

If a state can have a character and we want our state’s character defined by Judaism, then there remains the question of how we determine what Judaism is? Donniel Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I learn, writing on the Conversion Bill and the affect the bill has on Israel-Diaspora relations, says that “Israel must be a place …where the various Judaisms of the Jews have footholds and a place of respect.” (Notice, he doesn’t say Israeli Jews.) Ari Elon, a Hartman fellow, in his wonderful book From Jerusalem to the edge of heaven, suggests a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Neither of them address, specifically, the Arab members of Israeli society, but both are known to value democracy.

Having a Jewish character and being a state of one form of Judaism seem mutually exclusive. Jews have always been varied in their praxis and belief. What we need to do is separate religion from the state’s powers and maintain a Jewish character. This will require change from all parties to the discussion. Who is a Jew is too important a question to be left to politicians. It requires all of our input and a willingness to engage each other as legitimate equals. Can we stand up to this challenge? I don’t know. When Yochanan Ben Zakai fled Jerusalem to sue for peace from the Roman captors, we was not acting as the spokesperson for the people, even if he acted on their behalf. Maybe what we need is a Yochanan Ben Zakai, maybe just a large table where we can sit together and talk. Whatever the case, let’s not leave ourselves out of the discussion. The ramifications are too big to be left to others to decide for us. Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek.

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