This is a guest post by Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America and a supporter of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Secular Humanistic Jews have a wide diversity of opinions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this piece reflects a viewpoint that many, but not all, share. It is not an official statement on behalf of SHJ.
My family shed “tears of joy” on May 14, 1948, when the Jewish State of Israel was established as a safe haven for Jews. I was five at the time and didn’t quite understand its significance, but I had been taught that an integral part of Judaism was anti anti-Semitism. A number of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) lived in my neighborhood, some of whom had been in concentration camps. I also had relatives who had died in the Holocaust, and my parents warned me to never trust the Goyim (Gentiles).
When I grew up and evolved from Orthodox to Humanistic Jew, I still felt a non-religious affinity to my Jewish “homeland.” I had no desire to make Israel my actual home, but I viewed it as a prophylactic against future Holocausts. When I learned that the establishment of Israel was not a day of unadulterated joy for everyone because Jews had settled in a country inhabited by other people, and forced many of them to leave their homeland. In other words, Israel created Palestinian DPs. Nevertheless, I continued to support Israel, focusing mostly on the anti-Semitism of countries in the Middle East that denied Israel’s right to exist. However, I had a more nuanced view that required balancing security for Israelis with human rights for Palestinians.
I also began to think that the “Right of Return,” which allows Jews anywhere in the world to move to Israel and make it their home, had outlived its usefulness. I’m fine with Israel taking in Jews who live in danger elsewhere, but not for giving immediate citizenship to Jews like me solely because my mother happened to be Jewish. Aren’t displaced Palestinians more deserving of the right to return than I am? Most Diaspora Jews (those living outside of Israel) disagree with me and support the Jewish right of return, even though you can’t literally “return” to a place you’ve never been.
Though I disagree strongly with what Bibi Netanyahu has been doing in and to Israel, the first time I heard the name “Netanyahu” I was favorably impressed. Elisha Netanyahu was an eminent mathematics professor at the Technion in Israel. I met him when I gave a series of math talks in Israel in 1979. At the time, I had not heard of his nephew, Bibi. On that trip, I had ample opportunity to talk to Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians, and heard a variety of perspectives. Secular people I met in each constituency gave me some hope for peace in the region.
A problem I originally had with Bibi Netanyahu was his Zionist notion that all Jews living outside of Israel are in exile and should become Israeli citizens. I resented Netanyahu telling me that I’m living in exile. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the oldest Reform synagogue in the United States. I prefer the words of its rabbi at a dedication ceremony in 1841: “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Poznanski
Netanyahu also called for all European Jews to flee Europe and become Israeli citizens. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/middleeast/netanyahu-urges-mass-immigration-of-jews-from-europe.html
And where would Netanyahu house them all—in even more bulldozed Palestinian farms and homes? How about encouraging European Jews to make their own countries better, rather than run away? Netanyahu seems eager to hand Adolph Hitler a posthumous victory: a Jew-free Europe.
I’ve been asked if I would have told Jews in 1933 to stay in Europe and make their own countries better. This is more nuanced. When to improve a country and when to leave? Many European Jews, unfortunately, made the wrong decision in the 1930s. I know there is anti-Semitism in parts of Europe today, as there is in many countries, but there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and perilous conditions in a country. If possible, I’d prefer that Jews bring diversity and promote social justice in other parts of the world rather than isolate themselves in a Jewish ghetto or a Jewish country.
My only reason to accept Israeli citizenship would be if I could help improve the country by eliminating some of its terrible, internal policies. For instance, Israeli law forces secular and non-Orthodox Jews to comply with the Orthodox monopoly in matters of religious conversion, marriage, and other intrusions on behavior. I married my wife Sharon in South Carolina with no religious test required, but Jews in Israel may only have an Orthodox wedding regardless of their religious beliefs. Even if I had been an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, Sharon and I would have had to travel to another country to marry because she is not Jewish.
When it comes to women’s rights, parts of Israel are like Muslim countries, requiring modest dress so men won’t become aroused, making women pray behind a curtain so men don’t get distracted by them,
and restricting where women can sit on certain public busses. Israel may be better than many other countries in the Middle East on such issues, but I don’t want to grade on a curve.
Were it not for the Holocaust, I don’t think there would be a Jewish state of Israel to provide a safe haven for Jews. Hitler did not distinguish between religious and secular Jews, and neither should Israel in official state policy.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 called for a Jewish state that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” However, Bibi Netanyahu pushed through a bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving national rights only for Jews. This anti-democratic legislation officially relegates the 20 percent of non-Jews living in Israel to second-class status. Such a law is an Orwellian modification of their Declaration of Independence, saying, in effect, “All citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others.”
My lack of support for Israel shocks many Americans. This country seems to have an unwavering support for Israel. Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, but they all claim to love both America and Israel. We hear no such whole-hearted love pronouncements or regular vows of support for France, Canada, or any other allies.
I’m sometimes told by Gentiles that I can’t be a Jew because I don’t believe in God. I respond by saying, with that criterion, here are some Israeli heroes you would exclude from being Jewish: David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, and even Albert Einstein, who was asked to become the first president of Israel. Many more secular Jews live in Israel than do Orthodox Jews. I also mention that I’m a proud member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, with its atheist Jews and atheist rabbis.
Israel is facing the same kind of struggle that many other countries have encountered—between democracy and theocracy. Unfortunately, Israel has recently been headed in the wrong direction. I will again become a supporter of Israel when it lives up to the ideals in its Declaration of Independence by putting human rights and social justice above sectarian concern and treating its minorities as truly equal citizens.
I don’t know how best to find both security and peace in Israel. Religion isn’t the only problem, but it’s a significant one. Many Orthodox Jews oppose exchanging land for peace because God made a covenant with Abraham to give Israel to the Jews. Many Muslims oppose land for peace because God made a covenant with Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, to give that same land to the Muslims. And many Christians oppose land for peace because God said his son wouldn’t return until Jews have all that land, after which most Jews will be left behind when Christians are raptured into Heaven. Who can be optimistic about peace when “holy” people are killing in the name of a god in the real estate business, who overpromised the same so-called holy land to so many different groups? My solution is a paraphrase of words in a John Lennon peace song: “All we are saying, is give secular a chance.”