Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Israel and Fundamentalism

I promise, Ethan, I will respond to your comments. They are sitting in my e-mail box where I see them every time I check my mail, so I won't forget. But it's been a busy week, and a friend posted this article on Facebook and it seems more timely to respond to the article.

The struggle between fundamentalists and secular Jews is obvious in Israel, and it is becoming clear how urgent it is that Jews around the world step up and stand strong for Israeli democracy. Israel is right now in danger of becoming a fundamentalist state no better (in terms of human rights) than some of its Muslim neighbors. If a little girl cannot walk to school in a short sleeved shirt without being called a whore, I don't care what religion is behind the hatred: it is wrong.

So I am pleased to hear that American Jews are threatening to direct their money only towards projects that enhance Israeli democracy.

But I would argue that this is the same fundamentalist pressure that started me on my current religious journey. We are experiencing the same pressures here in the United States from religious fundamentalists. When Rick Santorum wins caucuses while arguing that gay people do not have a right to privacy in their own bedrooms and the Catholic Church claims that Obama is anti-First Amendment because he is stopping them from withholding reproductive health care from its employees, we are in danger of a crisis. Chris Christie is trying to divert funds from public schools to parochial schools. Newt Gingrich wants to dismantle the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and says that its judges are "un-American" because they do not think it is Constitutional to have God in the Pledge of Allegiance. We are in danger of the same things happening here.

It is much easier for these things to happen in Israel. For one thing, Israel is so much smaller than the US. For another, Israel's basis as a Jewish State can confuse certain issues. Israel is susceptible to the notion that the Orthodox are the "real Jews" and therefore vulnerable to giving the Orthodox more than their fair share of power.

But when we allow people to refer to "God-fearing Americans" or to call Christians (or the religious in general) "real America," we are giving away power. When we don't stand up to the Religious and we allow them to claim that their rights are being violated, when in fact what they want to do is to violate the rights of others (by denying them the right to marry, or get healthcare, or have consensual sex with adults) we are giving away power. When we don't stand up for our public schools, or for the rights of Atheists, we are giving away power. And how far is it, really, from where we are now to where Israel is headed?


  1. Hello again. Don't worry about getting back to me; take your time. Curious as I am to hear what you have to say, I am sure it will be more worth reading if you are not rushed or stressed about it. In the mean time, I hope you don't mind some more comments:
    Religious fundamentalists are indeed frightening, and some of the news out of Israel has left me ashamed and disgusted. There is some question, though, as to what the appropriate response is. Is it best to frame the matter as a conflict between the religious and the irreligious, and defend your stance with the values of liberal secularism? Without acknowledging their postulates, you abandon the possibility of convincing your opponents and are left with a contest of strength. If you win, they feel oppressed and nurture their grievances until they have the strength to try again, and if you lose, then what recourse do you have?
    It seems to me that we would have more luck marginalizing extremists by working from the basic postulates of their faith to demonstrate that they are not exemplifying it. I admit that I could be wrong, but I have faith that none of the Abrahamic religions truly support the interpretations of those who abuse them so horrendously, and that this can be shown by those sufficiently conversant in the language and doctrine. I would imagine that marginalization by those with clear religious credentials, combined with rigorous argument from the same foundations that the fundamentalists have already accepted, would be far more effective at forcing them to reexamine their actions. Obviously some would find themselves incapable of that kind of questioning or intellectual honesty, but if they can be marginalized within their community, then their narrative loses much of its power.
    Essentially my point is similar to what it was before: if you are drawn away from Judaism of your own accord, fine, but do not let them drive you off. There is so much to our tradition, we have a duty not to leave it solely in their hands to mangle. If we, as a nation, can show our wayward brothers what Judaism really is, how much better would that be than simply denying them power?

  2. I wonder though whether the issue is really fundamentalism per se? Religious fundamentalism is a threat to pluralism, but I'm not so sure it's that different from any other threat. The problem is the idea that people should live a certain way, as compared to the liberal democratic ideal that people should be free to choose how they live their own lives. This isn't always a religious idea, for example it was also a key feature of Stalinism which explicitly rejected religion. There are similar anti-pluralist tendancies in the very secular France, such as in the ban on wearing the hijab and the kippah in pubic schools.

    But back to Ethan's point - I agree that it's conceeding too much to the religious right to accept their narrative of what it means to be religious. Religious progressives should argue fiercely in favour of pluralism and celebration of diversity as religious values.