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With new laws, Netanyahu is hijacking Judaism as we know it

The leader of the largest Jewish population in the world is consciously abandoning modern Jewish identity in order to usher in a new Judaism. What kind? Just look to the Jewish Nation-State and Holocaust law.

By David Sarna Galdi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the ire of the Jewish world earlier this month when he went on national television to announce his support for an amended version of the controversial Polish Holocaust Law, a gimmick invented by Poland’s anti-democratic government to gain favor with its right-wing base.

The law effectively endangers free discussion about the Holocaust and presents a white-washed narrative of Polish behavior during World War II: that Polish authorities and most civilians went out of their way to save Jews, and that the betrayal of a Jew by a Pole was a rare anomaly.

Politicians from across the Israeli spectrum hurled attacks at the prime minister. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, voiced official dissent, while Israel-Prize winning Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer delivered the most biting indictment, calling the law a “betrayal,” and a “complete lie.”

Just weeks later, Netanyahu pushed the controversial Jewish Nation-State Law through the Knesset, despite tremendous public and institutional backlash. The law is common sense on its surface, re-stating Israel’s Jewish character. It deviously leaves out, however, any commitment to equal rights, legalizes preferential settlement-building for Jews, and downgrades Arabic’s status as an official language of the state.



Put simply, it is a gratuitous ultranationalist attack — a racial law institutionalizing discrimination against Israel’s minorities, specifically Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population. Before it passed, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to protest. An alliance of 14 American Jewish organizations officially voiced their disapproval and political figures on all sides opposed the law.

The timing of these two seemingly-unrelated pieces of legislation exposes Netanyahu’s quiet coup: a calculated, radical revision of what it means to be Jewish.

Abandoning Judaism

Jewish identity has drastically changed twice in history. First, when exile turned the Hebrew nation into a displaced, scattered minority susceptible to both anti-Semitism and successful assimilation in the diaspora. Jews began to look, speak and think differently, based on their host culture. Eventually, Yemenite Jews looked like Yemenites and Polish Jews like Poles.

The Zionist project redefined Judaism once again. It stamped out the image of the Jew as a weak, hunched victim of the ghetto — corrupted by exile. It sought to transform drastically diverse, far-flung Jews into a powerful nation of robust worker/fighters speaking a single language.

Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)

Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)

After the Holocaust, Israel was naturally assumed to be the guarantor of Jewish safety and a reflection of Jewish values. Diaspora-born Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan, an iconic general and minister put it quite plainly when they argued that their government “should not only represent the people of Israel, but the interests of all Jews.”

But with Netanyahu at the helm, Israel has repeatedly and purposefully spit on world Jewry and its sensibilities. The result? Fifty years since the euphoria that followed the Six Day War, the idealistic, long-distance Zionism of diaspora Jews hobbles like a three-legged dog. A recent Pew Research Center Study found that only 35 percent of American Jews between 18-50 identified Israel as a core part of their Jewish identity.

A mutated identity

It’s not coincidental. Netanyahu has thrown the dice and made a calculated decision to abandon not only American Jews at odds with Israel’s ascendant populist agenda, but Judaism itself.

That is, Judaism as we know it: progressive, scholarly Judaism in dialogue with the outside world for thousands of years. The Judaism whose greatest works and innovations developed in Babylon, Spain, and Poland. Intellectual Judaism that absorbed and pollinated the Enlightenment (Mendelssohn); philosophy (Buber, Scholem, Marx, Frankl, Arendt); American equal rights movements (Steinem, Friedan, Milk); and culture (Gershwin, Berlin, Streisand, Mailer, Allen, Marx, Polanski). Tolerant Judaism with an outsider’s sensibility that “loves the stranger,” as commanded 36 times in the Torah. 

Netanyahu wants to throw all that in history’s trash bin. He wants to mutate Jewish identity into Jewish hubris and turn Israel into a walled fortress of illiberal ethnocracy.

How else can one explain Netanyahu’s endorsement of a malevolent Polish law that desecrates the Holocaust? How to understand Netanyahu’s betrayal of Reform and Conservative Jews at Judaism’s holiest communal space? How to explain Netanyahu’s ignoring President Trump’s praise of American neo-Nazis and the more than 190 anti-Semitic threats and attacks in the U.S. back in 2016? These questions became increasingly relevant this week when Netanyahu welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for an official visit, despite the latter’s thinly-veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric and adulation of Nazi-allied politicians.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seen at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site on the last day of his two-day official state visit to Israel, Jerusalem, July 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seen at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site on the last day of his two-day official state visit to Israel, Jerusalem, July 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Only Netanyahu’s Alt-Judaism can explain the new phenomenon of leaders like John Hagee, Richard Spencer or indeed, Orban, who are are pro-Israel yet simultaneously denounced as anti-Semites.

There are rumors that Netanyahu’s surrender on the Holocaust Law is part of a quid-pro-quo designed to relocate Eastern European embassies to Jerusalem. There are diplomatic and political excuses for all of Netanyahu’s actions — but there is a bigger picture as well. The leader of the largest Jewish population in the world is consciously abandoning — if not attacking — modern Jewish identity in order to usher in a new Judaism. What kind? Look to the Jewish Nation-State and Holocaust laws.

Netanyahu’s Alt-Judaism legalizes the theft of land, restricts the free speech of its own people, mistreats African refugees, demolishes Israeli-Bedouin communities, discriminates against same-sex couples, bars left-wing Jews from entering Israel, and lionizes a soldier convicted of manslaughter. It disrespects the language of its native minorities because it is racist. It demonizes the press because it fears the truth. It funds the Judaization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank because it’s greedy and must erase the traces of any competing narrative. It resists LGBT or any civil marriage because it is ruled by an intolerant Orthodox hegemony.

Netanyahu envisions Judaism’s future not as a marketplace with many flavors, influences and debates but rather a rare, vicious bird surviving in a cage and extinct everywhere outside of it.

David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.

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    1. Paul H.

      It seems that some want Jews to be a race and Zionism to be their religion.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      The Left is always anti-democratic when the majority votes the wrong way eg Netanyahu.
      There will be elections next year and I promise you that Bibi will be PM again.

      Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Dear Ben:
          The Israeli Left (or whatever is left of it) is FINISHED.

          I imagine that some sort of alternative political movement will ultimately emerge as an alternative to the Likud. But the basis of its ideology will no longer be “Land for Peace” nor socialism. Both those visions died years ago.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It was never a “vision.” It was a ruse.

            Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordin Halevy

      Modern Jewish identity is a diaspora Judaism leading to assimilation. The Israeli parliament was right to vote this law and it was done in a democratic way.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Lewis from Afula and Halevy never stop repeating a crude misunderstanding of democracy–that it involves merely the expression of the will of the majority–but of course a true democracy has built in to it checks against the tyranny of the majority, anchored in laws, a constitution, and a Supreme Court vigilantly enforcing it. What Lewis from Afula and Halevy are endorsing is a crude tyranny of the majority. They are endorsing Feiglinism:

        A ‘truly’ Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

        Halevy, your Judaism is the Alt-Judaism described by Sarna Galdi, above, in his last two paragraphs.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordin Halevy

          My vision of Judaism is that of the official Israeli Grand Rabbinate. Liberal Judaism leads nowhere and is destined to disappear by assimilation.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Halevy: Actually, you have a paper trail on this. Your vision of Judaism is the Alt-Judaism Sarna Galdi describes. In every particular. Please, dispute each particular if you disagree. Enough vagaries. Which part of the Alt-Judaism do you disown, and why? No more shilly-shallying and beating around the bush with vague Orwellian pronouncements. (Do you understand any of this?)

            That you link that up with the grand poobahs of the “official Israeli Grand Rabbinate” is no surprise. You’re heavily invested in there being, as you put it, “the official Israeli Judaism…which is authoritative throughout the world.” (It isn’t, sorry to inform you). The sect you aggrandize is the same sect that in practice, as you understand it, celebrates soldiers such as Azaria behaving dishonorably, committing war crimes, cold blooded murder.

            “The official Israeli Judaism…which is authoritative throughout the world.” So you wish. In reality, this “grand” package seems to better fit the description that Sarna Galdi gives us: “a rare, vicious bird surviving in a cage and extinct everywhere outside of it.”

            It seems to me you want an Israel and a Judaism that have the roughly the same relationship to each other that Spain had to the Roman Catholic Church at the height of the Inquisition and Spain’s colonial empire. Think about the irony.

            I often think you talk like someone from the 15th, not the 21st century, or maybe even from the 1st century or earlier. I remember. One of the first things you did on this site was, incredibly, to introduce yourself as Ha-Levy, as a descendant of high priests, and you made some pompous suggestion about restoring the Temple and your sons officiating inside of it. Does memory serve me right?

            In this sense, Israel, on its current “nation state law” course, is an awkward anachronism, a study in both 15th century colonialism and in pre-Rabbinic political-religious atavism. And a post-Shoah echo of 20th century fascism. And 20th century Apartheid. The goddess of irony somewhere weeps.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Ellyn Harris

      I have a Polish friend who explained it like this… “Poland does not want to be known as the country that built the Concentration Camps. Poland fought hard against the Nazis & lost.”
      I say they should have fought till every man had died rather than surrender & kill for the Nazis. But, if they want to express how they did try & fight , then I say give them that.

      Reply to Comment
      • duh

        Do you know about the 1944 Warsaw uprising? As distinct from the Earsaw ghetto.

        Also 3 million non-Jewish Poles died during the occupation because German policy was only somewhat less genocidal towards Poles than Jews.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      The concern of people like ‘Lewis from Afula’ and ‘Halevy’ for the “real” and non-“assimilating” Judaism is not actually primarily a concern about Judaism, it is a concern about holding together the political forces and the support of the masses for the occupation. It is about extremist nationalism masquerading as some kind of “real Judaism.”

      Chemi Shalev:

      “It’s the occupation, stupid. … If not for the occupation, gay men would not have been excluded from Israel’s new surrogacy law, the police would never have arrested a Conservative rabbi for deviating from arcane Halakha law, American Jews could feel at home here, Israelis could decide how and where they get married, the Rabbinate’s monopoly would be broken, women would be equal, yeshiva students would have to reach a reasonable arrangement on their recruitment to the army, the Knesset would stop destroying Israeli democracy and Israel could get back on track to becoming a proudly liberal state. The rising tides of nationalism and incitement would also recede and the resentment of Israeli Arabs subside. […]

      The liberal majority has learned to live with the situation. It bows its head and shrugs. Israelis hear their leaders, and then convince themselves that the fate of the country is synonymous with the future of the occupation, and when it hangs in the balance – by making peace, for some, or safeguarding the land of our forefathers, for others – relinquishing one’s values and beliefs seems like an inescapable imperative.

      The liberal majority has gotten used to the fact that civil rights, personal status and the ability of people to live according to their wishes and beliefs are routinely sacrificed to the Moloch of occupation. Personal freedom of choice, as it is enshrined in progressive liberal countries, seems like a distant dream.

      Against this backdrop, and in light of the general apathy, the awakening of the past few days is quite surprising. […] “


      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordin Halevy

        This Chemi Shalev does not understand anything. She may voluntarily mix to have the right to write in Haaretz which is, as everyone knows, the newspaper of self-proclaimed intellectual elites. Only orthodox Judaism which is accepted by most Israelis allowed Judaism to survive over the centuries. Liberal and conservative Judaism lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people. Just look at the rate of mixed marriages in the USA. In addition, these Sodomite and Gomorean manifestations imposed on the Israeli population have nothing to do with the miraculous liberation of Judea and Samaria in 1967. Recall that according to the Torah, pederasty is an abomination and a deviation. Everyone can live his passions in private, but not impose them as a normal thing. We are in a ridiculous situation where soon zoophilia and incest followers (very numerous in the Arab community of Israel) will claim their rights with the support of intellectual leftists.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Don’t worry, Halevy, your world record unbroken streak for Missing the Point is safe. You can argue all you want about liberal versus orthodox social values, but Shalev is talking about electoral mechanics, saying that because the non-Orthodox public is so divided, and so manipulated by Netanyahu on the occupation and “security” question, Netanyahu gets to, time after time, cobble together a coalition of the Orthodox and the secular right and “center” and in exchange for the Orthodox pro-occupation vote, the thoroughly secular and decadent Netanyahu cynically throws them the religious meat they want, at the expense of the Israeli majority:

          “This is about the fact that the occupation is the dominant fault line of Israeli politics and citizens, the impenetrable wall that divides and separates the country’s non-Orthodox majority. Because of this internal schism, the voice of the solid majority of secular and traditional Israeli Jews who, according to all the polls, wholeheartedly support freedom, equality and pluralism, is stifled. Its beliefs are ignored and its wishes denied. It is held hostage by an extremist, fundamentalist minority, because the occupation reigns supreme.”

          More to follow.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            On the very same page where you champion the tyranny of the majority, and call it “democracy,” Halevy, you ignore these facts:

            “A Walla! News poll published on Sunday showed that 57 percent of the Israeli public supports surrogacy rights for gay men, but the Knesset this week showed them the finger. A government poll conducted last year reported that 60 percent support adoption right for gay couples, but the government endlessly hems and haws. Three separate polls conducted in recent months found that close to 80 percent of Israelis, including a majority of Likud voters, support gay marriage…. A similar, unequivocal majority backs civil marriages, open supermarkets and public transportation on Shabbat, formal recognition of Reform and Conservative Jews and breaking the Orthodox stranglehold in general. But instead of diminishing, the control of the Orthodox is tightening and expanding, in return for their ongoing willingness to sustain the occupation.”

            Halevy, I gotta ask you—ye who go on about “Sodom and Gomorrah,” do you not think that the life of Sarah and Benjamin in the Prime Minister’s residence and the Cases 1000, 2000, 3000…10,000 is a close approximation of the decadence and selfish evil of those ancient cities?

            Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        I believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want.

        Yet the problem with Reform & Conservative Judaism is that it is not sustainable over more than one generation. So I am sure these forms of Judaism may provide a “nice, pleasant hobby” for practicing individuals – but that’s it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Another bulletin from Herod’s Grandson the Flat Earther.
          You make no sense. The founders of Israel were secular, the majority of Israelis are secular. Ayalet Shaked is secular. Netayahu is secular. You just want religious-backed racial purity enforcement and ideolological purification reinforcement in the service of the lebensraum initiative.

          For your reading pleasure:

          “Israel’s Nation-state Law: Teaching Jews That the World Is Flat
          From a balcony in Ramallah, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, the nation-state law shrinks to its proper ludicrous proportions…What a privilege it was for me to sit among them and enjoy what is so natural to them that they don’t even categorize it — a rootedness and a belonging that don’t need verbal trappings; a zest for life; unimaginable strength and courage…
          The nation-state law reflects the reality of hedonistic discrimination that creates feelings of superiority and racism. This dangerous law declares the intentions of its authors: to teach additional generations of Israeli Jews that the world is flat and entrust them with the mission of expelling and wiping out a nation.
          Infected with superiority and devoid of shame, they’re incapable of understanding that this strength, this courage, this rootedness and belonging that Palestinians have in their homeland, will always find ways to cope, to resist, to innovate and to fight.”

          Reply to Comment
    6. Mark

      “Yemenite Jews looked like Yemenites and Polish Jews like Poles”.

      Are you sure? Maybe when kitted like the locals that might be the case, but many had clothing and styles that made them stand out. Perhaps local populations found it easier to pick out Jews than Mr Galdi.

      What can be said, I think with some certainty, is that Yemenite Jews did not look like Polish Jews; nor do Yeminis tend to look like Poles.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Molech and Baal combined.That’s Beta Bibi.The guy doesn’t believe in the Torah. He is trying hard yo oust the Got of Abraham from Israel throne.Like a morden Pharaoh, he thinks his army is invincible.This guy is a military chap who is in politics by Satan design. Like his mentor(devil),he is totally drunk with power. Mandela 98% and this chap 0.0002% as a leader.Time will sort him out.

      Reply to Comment