Of All Peoples, Jews Should Understand The Value of Self-Determination

Of All Peoples, Jews Should Understand The Value of Self-Determination

For Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch’s piece, “Liberal Rabbi: BJ Colleagues Gave The Wrong Message,” click here.

It would be very foolish for a secular Jew to step into a dispute between two or more rabbis. But given that I find the current dispute to be touching on a core concept of Jewish identity, whether it be religious or secular, I will take the risk and responsibility of such foolishness.

The dispute is, of course, between B’nai Jeshurun’s leading rabbis, who praised the UN vote of Nov. 29 upgrading the Palestinian Authority into an observing non-member state, and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue who responded with a rebuke. 

The B’nai Jeshurun rabbis’ statement, “The vote at the UN is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” was countered with, “You are wrong. It was a bad moment for us.”

The dispute over this issue can, of course, suggest the familiar disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the vilification of one side, or the not-entirely-unjustified derision of the UN. But in fact it reaches further to a question of identity and affiliation within the Jewish people.

One thing that makes the biblical Jewish story universal and unique, a contribution and inspiration to all humanity, is that it is a story of the birth of a nation in resistance to oppression. The universal message of Judaism is the message of the right of a people, any people, to freedom and self-determination. It is the story and message of overcoming enslavement, oppression, persecution and mass murder, and eventually achieving self-determination in becoming a free nation in a land of ancestral heritage. This was the defining event of Israel, twice.

The exodus from Egypt marks the transformation of Jacob’s descendants from tribe into people, and as such it belongs to the internal history of the Jewish people. At the same time it carries the universal value of freedom, national freedom, and as such it belongs to all nations. The story of modern Israel repeats the same value, claiming the right of a displaced and persecuted people to its own place under the sun and to its sovereignty. The world’s reluctant but steady support, and finally the UN vote of Nov. 29, 1947, recognizing the right of Jews to a home on parts of its ancestral land, testifies that the national interest of the Jewish people has been recognized as an international value.

Denying a people its right to self-determination would seem unthinkable for a Jew or for an American. It would have been an irreconcilable paradox for a Jewish American.

Objecting to the right of any people to be free and self-determining, preventing a people from achieving these goals, or even deeming the advance towards them by a symbolic vote in the UN as “a bad moment for us” — all this means turning our backs on that which has made us a nation and the message it sends to other nations. No political calculation of the pros and cons of certain moves in the diplomatic arena; no indignation over deviating from previous agreements that have been long abandoned by both sides; no hypothetical projections of effects on the side demanding its freedom can take precedence over the value of freedom and self-determination — not even when it concerns the freedom and self-determination of an enemy. And all the more so when it concerns the freedom and self-determination of a people that has been paying the price for our own freedom and self-determination in a disputed land.

If the “liberal Jews” that Rabbi Hirsch is concerned about are walking away from Israel or even from their Jewish affiliation, it is not because of “despair” over an extended, violent and seemingly irresolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, it is a certain, often tacit, recognition that the Israeli position and its massive support in the American Jewish establishment is a betrayal of the primary reason to be proud of belonging to the Jewish people.

That the message of the Jewish people is a universal one, not a privately Jewish one, is evident by the final lines of Rabbi Hirsch’s response:

“It was Moses’ greatness to tell the people the truth: “We will not arrive soon at the Promised Land; but we will continue on the path, and we will endure, and one day, if not we, then our children, will prevail.”

Isn’t this message exactly the one Palestinian leaders are now telling their own people? Doesn’t it describe better the current Palestinian story than it does the current Israeli one?

Standing by one’s people is an easy thing to do; it is a stand that does not pose demands on one’s conscience or reason. Standing by the values that made you into a people proves a more trying task. The fact that the letter sent last week by the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis is a minority voice in the larger Jewish American community, the rejection with which it was met by many members of their own community, and the response by Rabbi Hirsch all suggest that we are failing in this task. 

Ilan Safit is chief editor of Yedioth Aharonot America and assistant professor of philosophy at Pace University, where he also directs the Center for Ethical Thinking.


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