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Judaism and dissent



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 the time of the First Intifada, with regular reports on stabbings and suicide bombings. A sense of fear and hatred took over the streets.

The older I got, the further apart from religion I grew. Yet I remained close to hate and fear. It became easier to think of Judaism in terms of Israel and nationalism.

The ramifications are clear: speak out against Israeli policies towards Palestinians and you are betraying fellow Jews. This narrative is common, and we see it today in relation to human rights organisations in Israel.

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

One such example is Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran IDF combatants who 'have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories'.

This organisation has been accused of treachery by Avigdor Liberman, former foreign minister, by the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (who later backtracked his claim), and by other members of Binyamin Netanyahu's right wing government.

It is bizarre to me that a country which valorises its military would also treat veterans as traitors when they voice dissent. Breaking the Silence are branded traitors, yet Elor Azaria, a soldier who was caught on camera as he shot at point blank and killed a Palestinian assailant who was already wounded on the ground, is treated as 'the child of us all'.  The Prime Minster backed calls for his pardon.

I am trying to paint a picture of present day Israel. Dissenters are branded traitors and murderers. It is as if nationalism trumps all values, and for it, we must sacrifice reason, even morality.

It used to be that being told I'm a self-hating Jew, or that I forgot 'my people', left a great impact on me. That changed some years ago, when a relative commented that I am abandoning the memory of Holocaust survivors by focusing on Palestinian refugees.

Reading those words, I returned to Arendt—a woman herself accused of neglecting her people—and found renewed comfort in the notion that one loves people; not places, not nations.

Admittedly, while I carry Arendt's words, I do have a love of Judaism. But this is a Judaism distinct from nationalism, and close to dissent.

It is the Judaism of Baruch Spinoza, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, and Judith Butler: of resistance, argument, and questioning.

Primarily, this is a Judaism that is concerned with ways of being with the Other: morally, ethically, hospitably. This is a Judaism that celebrates pushing back on authority, and it is driven by dissent.

As diaspora Jews increasingly distance themselves from Israel's politics—for others, speaking out against Israel is interpreted as a 'passion to destroy' Israel—I find myself further motivated to criticise the government's actions with respect to Palestine.

It is precisely because I am Jewish that I feel obligated to speak out. As long as the Israeli government carries out atrocities in my religion's name, I—and others—will be there, pushing back.


Na'ama CarlinNa'ama Carlin holds a PhD in Sociology. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, she writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethics, identity, and violence. Follow her @derridalicious

On 3 September 2017 Na'ama will appear with Angus McLeay, Anglican minister and anti-discrimination campaigner, on the Melbourne Writers Festival panel Dissent Within, co-sponsored by Eureka Street. The MWF program was launched this week.

Topic tags: Na'ama Carlin, Israel, Palestine, Gaza



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Words such as these are so heartening, representing to me the real spirit of the greatest Hebrew prophets, and the best of the teaching of the Jewish Jesus. On the one hand, this year especially, we might well recall the appalling history of Christian anti-Judaism, with roots in the New Testament itself, and not least, Luther's dreadful words about the Jews, and the treatment he proposed for them, sowing evil seeds, and happily quoted by the Nazis, We should know far more about these things, and this year especially be seeking reconciliation not only among Christians but among Christians and Jews. The Jesus whom I try to follow is the Jewish Jesus about whom Jewish scholars such as Vermes, or Flusser and R.Steven Notley (in "The Sage from Galilee".) teach us so much. On the other hand, my strong sympathies TODAY are with the Palestinian people. I cannot be a Christian Zionist. For the historical background, I'd recommend evangelical Colin Chapman's fair, well documented work (revised), "Whose Promised Land ? The conflict over Israel and Palestine". Thanks, Na'ama Carlin, for your words and the links provided.

Chaplain John Bunyan | 20 July 2017  

Many Jewish people, in Israel and elsewhere, have relatively recent historical memories of the Holocaust and other atrocities visited upon them such as pogroms, discrimination and segregation into ghettos. There are rare places, such as India, where I believe Jews weren't discriminated against. Having spent my early years in India I knew several Jewish people there, most of whom I believe are either in Israel, the UK or USA. Although a Gentile I can understand the pull of Israel on Jews and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. The Palestinian problem is one that I think was prolonged by the Palestinian leadership, both historically and currently. I find people like you very brave and admirable. Although a Christian myself, I have little time for many Christians, clergy or lay, who, I think, often know little of the situation on the ground and whose basic reaction to anything is to sermonise. We need more than sermonising or self-righteous finger pointing by those who don't have a horse in the race. The most sensible solution I can see is the One State Solution where Jews, Arabs and the minorities are all citizens and have to live together in peace. It will be hard to achieve but not impossible.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2017  

Thank you, Na'ama. I couldn't agree with you more. You might be interested in my latest novel, As the Lonely Fly, which deals with these issues. My experience of Judaism has been one of passion for justice and compassion for victims. The fate of the Palestinians should concern every Jew, because it has been and continues to be done in our name.

Sara Dowse | 21 July 2017  

Enlightening for me thank you Na'ama. Dissent, trumps acceptance when reasoning is flawed. Intelligent challenge is always justifiable and hopefully welcome.

Denis Bartrum(Dr) | 21 July 2017  

A stirring testimony. It confirms my long held esteem for the passion for justice that I find in Judaism.

Brian Johnstone | 21 July 2017  

Na'ma Carlin displays with great courage the other fundamental strand in Judaism apart from theistic exceptionalism: an ethical universalism anchored in the ancient Mediterranean ideal of hospitality for the stranger. Her courage is in resisting the libels that no doubt come her way as a self-hating Jew (I find it ironic, if not pathetic, for someone such as Noam Chomsky - no shrinking violet about his abilities - should be described as a self- hater!)

Fred Green | 21 July 2017  

Congratulations and courage and strength to Ms Carlin for speaking the truth to her own people about the treatment of the Israeli Government towards the Palestinians. I have seen first hand the hardship and illegal and atrocious conditions enforced on the Palestinian peoples by the powerful Israeli Government of successive Prime Ministers. The original Zionists who emergrated to Palestine did not intend to subjugate the existing occupiers in this way. Now present Israelis who are horrified by their treatment seem powerless to bring about any compromise , and the rest of the world seems indifferent or unwilling to confront that Government. Is it collective guilt for the Hollicost? And how can a people so shockingly treated and who suffered so much, treat others without any sense of understanding or empathy?

Judith Gibbs | 21 July 2017  

A very moving account of your distress Na'ama. It is always sad when politics uses religion to support policies that conflict with the religion's basic tenants. We see that in many parts of the world, not just Israel. My generation is post World War 2 but my family had Jewish friends affected by the Holocaust and the earlier anti sematic persecutions of the Jewish people in Russia and eastern Europe. I am very sad for the people of Palestine both 'arab' and 'jew', when politicians on both sides use hatred and distrust to push their agendas. Sadly the various Christian faiths have a poor track record in the past, although reconciliations have/are taking place. So, maybe there is hope yet for reconciliation in the Middle East. Just maybe, in my lifetime-I was born like the State of Israel, in 1948.

Gavin | 21 July 2017  

Thank you for this voice of reason, of agape, of caritas. The ever-thought-provoking Hannah Arendt did indeed know that love was about people. Just one quote: in her thesis Love and St Augustine she wrote: " 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' - this particularly explicit version of the natural, prereligious and secular law of not doing to others what we would not have them do to us." The Palestinians number among the others.

John Nicholson | 21 July 2017  

Heartening and inspiriing intellectual and moral work, Na'ama, especially in a context in which one stands accused of being a turncoat ! This has happened to quite a few I know on this site who have turned their moral magnifying glass towards promoting intra-religious issues of dissent in relation to which, apropos a Jesuit publication, we Catholics, like our Jewish forebears, may justifiably protest. For me this has been the Catholic school-funding policy question, now in a state of terrifying moral and practical disarray, after years of my showing how unsustainable the current funding policy model would turn out to be. You'll be happy to know that I also used Hannah Arendt's moral justifications throughout my thesis. More string to your much more morally important bow!

Dr Michael Furtado | 21 July 2017  

Na'ama, The problem you describe is found. to some extent, in every religion, and in every community. It results from ‘Group Selfishness’., and is a result of immaturity. When a baby is born it can cope only with its own needs and wants, and is largely oblivious of those of others. If it wants feeding, it has no thought of whether ‘Mum’ is busy or not, and uses its only but effective signal; it cries. As it begins to develop, it eventually learns that others must be considered too, and restrains self-centred wants. But later it forms part of a Group that it identifies with, and the ‘I‘ becomes ‘Us‘. Backed up by the support of the Group, demands seem much more reasonable, and those of ‘Them’ are dismissed more easily, especially if ‘we’ have fostered a Tradition that ‘WE’ are ‘Special’. This implies that ‘Them’ are not to be considered as equal, or perhaps not to be considered at all. Group Selfishness is far more harmful and insidious than individual selfishness, and echoes the cry of Lucifer, ‘I will not serve’.

Robert Liddy | 21 July 2017  

Many thanks Na'ama Carlin for a beautifully expressed description of the quandary that irenic truth-lovers always find themselves in when faced by ethnic and/or religious super-patriots. It's almost universal; even in Biology (!) patriots of particular theories defame and persecute truth-speaking critics! Check-out a graphic example of post-war 'management' of a truth-seeking student: - a classic example of truth versus nationalistic civic convenience over young Anna Rosmus’ research into what happened in the lovely town of Passau during WWII. This was dramatized in the 1990 film, Das Schrecklicke Madchen (The Nasty Girl) directed by Michael Verhoeven. The movie portrays the complex and endemic character of truth-resistance among civic hierarchs and in the church - Verhoeven, M. (1990). Das Schrecklicke Madchen (The Nasty Girl). Miramax Films, USA: 94 minutes. The only criticism I'd like to make of your article is you don't mention the stream of invective, genocidal threats, and acts of terror, including rocket attacks, against Israelis. Surely, if those stopped, the average citizen would gradually become less defensive and more open to joining the wonderful groups who are already fostering love, care, and cooperation between Israelis and Arabs? Don't you think?

Dr Marty Rice | 21 July 2017  

A heroic stance, Na'ama, and I hope and pray that it will prevail! If it's any consolation, it may help to be reminded that these intra-religious contradictions and tensions flare up within all faith traditions. While it's crucially vital and gallantly impressive that ES has published you in this instance, the distance between Judaism and Catholicism creates a safe space in which to be able to do that without causing to many ructions. I can think of several instances within my own (Catholic) faith tradition in which a dissenting opinion has been crushed by a refusal to publish. The common denominator here is for more editors everywhere to take Hannah Arendt's fearless advice on board and treat every dissenting position on its own merits..

Dr Michael Furtado | 22 July 2017  

For a Jewish woman this is a brave and brilliant exposition of the damage caused by equating nationalism with religion which we have seen in its extreme recently with the ISIS caliphate (State) equated with Islam,

john frawley | 22 July 2017  

Congratulations Na'ama, as a conscientious and compassionate dissident (objector). And on not being prepared to sacrifice your integrity, your morality and your thinking, to remain an orthodox Jew - so called. My sincere prayer, is for the recovery of the same prophetic voices to be forthcoming in all our hallowed institutions of 'Church, State and in Society'. Especially, regarding the ubiquitous and incredulous travesty of Child rape and it heinous crime of covering it up in our Society. Just as importantly in all Churches, especially the Catholic Church? Where are our insider dissidents? Our conscientious objectors? our whistle blowers? Where are or learned Men and Women? Where are our responsible Parents? Where is our prophetic voice? Sadly none of this atrocities have been forthcoming, except under external duress. And why are conscientious objectors falsely being deemed unorthodox and in anathema. When it is these very perpetrators and their protectors, of crimes against Divine and Natural Truth and Justice, who are unorthodox and in anathema. Maintain your Prophetic Voice, Na'ama, and be prepared for the Sacrificial Cost, which sadly, so very few are prepared to pay. Even for the higher good of the disempowered, the broken and marginalised. Michael Wood OM.

Michael Wood | 22 July 2017  

Thank you, Na'ma for the prophetic insights you provide into psyche of the current rulers of Israel and their followers. So foreign to the faith which they claim to offer to the world. My heart weeps for my friends, Palestinian and Israeli, who have to live with so much fear and hatred being peddled as 'righteous living' by their leaders, state and religious. When will they address the simple requirement of living lovingly and respectfully with all of creation?

David Dunn | 22 July 2017  

How about Israel, and the rest of the Middle East, wake up and realise the modern secular/multicultural state is the way to peace?

AURELIUS | 23 July 2017  

Thank you for writing this and quoting Arendt who makes much sense in these days when banal evil is 'normalised'. Group loyalty and silencing of dissent are serious flaws in any attempt to claim make more civil societies. We need to find ways to value and connect with others who atr not silenced.

eva cox | 24 July 2017  

Edward Fido's dissenting voice here requires an answer, rather than the sermonising that he properly disparages. As someone who also grew up in the secular state that was and still is India, I too attended (a Jesuit) school with several Indian Jews in it. The fact that I can also attest to Jewish freedom from discrimination in that polity also confirms Mr Fido's experiences. It bothers me therefore that he should go on to making a case for their migration to Israel, when the liberal multireligious pluriform democracy that is still India's should be forsaken by this very wealthy community to pursue a Zionist dream that has all the hallmarks of turning into the very nightmare that Na'ama Carlin challenges. One simply can't logically support Na'ama Carlin's voice on the one hand, while championing the Zionist cause in the same breath. History has shown that a one-state solution for Israel is plainly incompatible with Zionism's raison d'etre.

Dr Michael Furtado | 25 July 2017  

The pertinent point to make at the moment when referring to the Israeli government is that it's a very "right-wing' Israeli government - so much so that it's even at odds with it's own military regarding security measures. Even the Israeli military doesn't agree with the current crackdown/restrictions imposed on Muslim access to the Temple Mount. What does it say when civilian politicians are more hardcore than their own military? (Echoes of Nazism)

AURELIUS | 25 July 2017  

Thank you Na'ama Carlin. This is a wise and thoughtful reflection by a "righteous" Jewish person. For many years, the extreme right of the worldwide Zionist community have used the term "anti-semite" as a weapon to deter people who wish to express solidarity with the downtrodden Palestinians. In 2017, Gideon Levy, a journalist with the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, gave the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in Adelaide. This is an annual event sponsored by the Australian Friends of Palestine and the University of Adelaide. As a Jew and an advocate of Palestinian freedom and human rights, he encouraged those attending to support the BDS campaign. He gave a warning that all who participate would be labelled "anti-semitic", but he felt that it was an important thing to do to defeat the Zionist regime in Israel. We should remember that a similar international boycott campaign helped bring down the very right wing apartheid regime in South Africa. We all need to support the BDS campaign and encourage others to do so if we want to see justice for the Palestinians and a free and independent Palestinian state.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 February 2018  

Quite interesting. I came across the Covenant Forsakers column awhile back and thought you might want to open it up at Might Network and read.

Randall Frushour | 02 May 2018  

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