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Judaism and dissent

  • 20 July 2017


I have been occupied with the notion of 'dissent' in recent years, particularly as it has become a recurring theme in Israeli politics, and it is used to discuss Palestinian political prisoners, citizens, and left-wing protestors.

As a Jewish Israeli, I find that expressing public dissent about Israeli government policies is a challenge because it often results in accusations of being a self-hating Jew—of choosing others over your own people. This is as true now as it was when, decades ago, scholar Gershom Scholem accused Hannah Arendt, the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of lacking 'love of the Jewish people'.

Scholem wrote to Arendt: 'In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahavat Israel: "Love of the Jewish people." In you, dear Hannah ... I find little trace of this."

Arendt's reply, published in her book The Jewish Writings, was sharp and forthright:

'You are quite right—I am not moved by any "love" of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life "loved" any people or collective ... I indeed love "only" my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this "love of the Jews" would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person.'

Arendt's point is one to which I return time and time again because Avahat Israel refers to the love of the Jewish people. Not just individual people, but 'people' as a nation, and these days, even a State. Thus, Jewish people doubles as a religious orientation and a nationalistic one.

This juxtaposition of religion and nationalism compounds the complexity of speaking out against Israeli government policies. It means one isn't just dissenting politically, but also acting against one's faith.

Further complexity is introduced when one considers that, for the majority in Israel, the distinction between Israel and the Occupation is blurred. Further, any criticism of Israel is seen as anti-Semitism. This is only possible if one conflates Zionism (a political orientation) with Judaism (a religious one).

"This juxtaposition of religion and nationalism compounds the complexity of speaking out against Israeli government policies."

I have had a difficult journey with Judaism. Raised in a conservative home in Jerusalem, I grew up in an environment of faith and practice. It was also