Let My People Go

Okay, so let me float this one by you. Most people can’t contend with provisional thinking, so if you’re one of those people, please don’t read further. I don’t want to cause any pain or confusion. But if you’re into thought experiments and slightly dangerous ways of thinking about things, then please come along. This is just some mind-play, okay?

I’ve been doing more talks about Judaism and the way Judaism was invented to help people free themselves from the stultifying and dehumanizing effects of religion. And this message – that the fleeing slaves of Biblical myth were, for all intents, cult survivors looking for a better way – has been doing well with audiences of Jews in pretty much every denomination.

Where we tend to get hung up, though, is on the subject of Israel. Many people I speak with like everything about Judaism except the nation part, and correctly cite all sorts of Torah on how the Jews aren’t supposed to claim Israel until after the messiah comes. They see Judaism’s strength as the ability to co-exist with the secular realities of others. They believe that Zionism, though quite understandable, was more of a necessary or even ill-conceived compromise of Jewish ideals in order to save Jewish bodies.

Others, of course, believe quite the opposite. They see Israel as a God-ordained territory, officially assigned to the Jews. They believe that to be a Jew is to support Israel’s existence, period. Besides, the atrocities committed against European Jews throughout history prove Jews need their own place to live. Even if the Israel supporters don’t agree with Sharon’s policies at any given moment, they do not challenge Israel’s right to exist.

I’ve been trying to help people through this debate – which often breaks out between audience members when I speak – by asking them to separate the formation of Israel from its existence right now. Whether or not Israel was a good idea for the Jews or the Palestinians, it exists now, so what are we to do about it? What would it be like to attempt – even at this late juncture – to organize a state around Jewish ideals? What might that look like?

But, then again, maybe Israel’s formation and Israel’s existence shouldn’t be parsed at all. There’s another option I haven’t been speaking about – except on the phone with my friend Mobius at Jewschool – and this is the possibility that the establishment of Israel was actually a brilliant quasi-magickal ritual designed to end anti-Semitism, once and for all.

After all, Europeans have hated Jews for a great variety of fabricated and imaginary reasons over the past two thousand years. They have said that Jews eat Christian children and drain their blood, own the banking system, control the planet through a secret conspiracy, etc. It’s very hard for a people to disprove such allegations, particularly when they’re living in ghettos and getting beaten up and killed all the time. (Of course, the real reason Jews were so hated is that they didn’t believe in local gods or the connection of local leaders or named messiahs to those gods, but that’s another story.) My point is that the reason anti-Semitism was so hard to fight is that it had no concrete basis. There was no way to surrender – no way to give up the banking system that Jews didn’t really own to begin with.

The establishment of Israel created a concrete entity on which to project anti-Semitism. Now there was a place to point. Now there was a nation whose actions could symbolize the actions of all Jews. Because the nation-state is itself a flawed concept, there is no way for any nation – Jewish or otherwise – to behave in a manner true to the ideals of decency all the time. There will always be compromises, indiscretions, and outright militaristic oppression in a real, violent, and imperfectly governed world – especially one in which all your neighbors don’t want you to exist, and use your existence as an excuse to oppress their own people. But that’s another story, too.

My point is that the establishment of Israel created an entity onto which Europe, Arabs, and the rest of the anti-Semitic world could focus their otherwise unfounded and ill-defined rage. Once Israel replaces the more abstract and manufactured representation of the “Jew” in their minds, then Israel and Israel’s actions can be detested in the Jew’s stead. (Besides – except for fringe elements on the extreme right and left, anti-Semitism is no longer a state-sponsored European truism. Despite bestselling books arguing to the contrary, anti-Semitism is on the decline. The only people committed to hating and killing Jews left today are Muslims angry at what they understand as Jewish occupation of Palestine. According to the vastly under-reported EU’s report on anti-Semitism, young radical Muslim men committed the vast majority of anti-Jewish acts throughout Europe in the last decade.)

So if we’ve finally been able to create a single, globally accepted representation of Judaism that the whole world sees as the embodiment of what’s wrong with the Jews, what happens if we let it go? Not that it’s possible, but what if the Jews were actually to surrender Israel, in the form of metered right of return and eventual Arab population growth? Or even more dramatically, in the form of a full retreat to pre-67 borders? Or even most dramatically, in the surrender of ‘holy’ regions to international control?

Could the establishment of Israel and its subsequent dissolution actually be the master plan of the most prophetic Zionists? Might it be the use of the social construction of “nation state” as a magical sigil – a neurolinguistic slight of hand – an act of global jujitsu? If the Jews were to cut Zionism’s cord completely, and set it free like a helium balloon, would we be setting the world free of its anti-Semitism as well? Could this be the original intention of the whole project?

Like I said, this is not a suggestion of policy. It’s just a thought. Let it go.

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