A New Judaism?*

A fundamental question:

“Are we, Israelis, still Jews?”, asked the philosopher Ernest Simon in 1953.[1]

What looks like a provocative question, was indeed a descriptive statement. He concluded that the establishment of the Jewish state sharply imposes on Israeli Jews a new type of religion in which the state enjoys total rule over religious institutions. In other words, the religious autonomy that Jewish communities enjoyed in the diaspora, the platform that enabled Judaism to develop and prosper, did not exist  in Israel. In order to save Jewish values from the state’s dictates  and let Judaism develop unlimitedly, Simon called to give religion a free hand in inspiring the values of individuals and local communites values.

Artist: Drew Martin

Seventy years later I consider Simon’s question relevant but in a different context. Simon was interested in inter-Jewish relations, i.e. state – religious establishment relations. I, however, examine how the Jewish state treats its non-Jewish, Palestinian, subjects. More precisely, how ruling over the Palestinians created a new Judaism. Most probably my findings are not those that Professor Ernest Simon, the great humanist and Jewish – Arab peace seeker, hoped for.

Bi-polar (dis)order

Only a few years divide  the extreme manifestations of Jewish powerlessness, the Holocaust, and the Jews’ reentering the game of political power and military might with the establishment of the state of Israel. In the Jewish mind, argues David Biale, they are inseparable.  The Jewish quest for power after the Holocaust, is a means to survive existential threats. “Israel is a continuation of the unique Jewish fate of anti-Semitism, but it is also a miraculous manifestation of power”.[2] Post-Holocaust Zionism and the continuing conflict with the Arabs, in general, and the Palestinians, in particular, writes Biale, changed the biblical theological doctrine of the Jews as chosen people from being the weakest and marginal nation to a bi-polar (dis)ordered identity. “Between the Jews as victim and the Jews as military hero, the ideal of the Jew as a normal human being has begun to disappear” he concludes. “A legacy of powerlessness becomes the justification for the exercise of power”.[3]

Biale published his book in the mid-1980s, before the massive settlement expansion in the West Bank that created a de-facto one Israeli–Jewish regime over the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Fifty percent of the population in this area, the Jews, rule over the other half non-Jewish Palestinians. When Biale published his book, the main Israeli–Palestinian front was along and beyond Israel–Lebanon border. He deals with Israeli power exercised externally rather than on the Palestinians incorporated within the Israeli ruling system. Moreover, while Biale asks if and how Israeli sovereignty changed Jewish history, I would like to find out how Jews exercising unprecedented power over such a great number of non-Jews changed Judaism.

No Judaism without Jews

Can there be Judaism without Jews? Is there somewhere an entity called “Judaism” that exists  disconnected from Jews in terms of time and place? This question does not relate to the source of the authority of Judaism. In other words, this question does not address the issue of who authorized people to create this entity – whether it is God, as tradition maintains, or a social-human initiative, as biblical criticism argues. The question I am positing here deals with a given situation in which Judaism already exists. Who if not human beings created it? And can it exist without Jews, detached from a concrete social experience?

I want to argue that it cannot.

The fact is that Judaism as we have known it for the past 2,000 years is post-Temple Judaism. It is a Judaism that the sages renewed upon the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and the failure of the Bar-Kochba revolt in 132-136 C.E. Effectively, the sages fomented a total revolution in Judaism; they changed the modes of worship, the religious experience and the connection with God. Prayer and intensive study of the Holy Scriptures replaced animal sacrifices. The rabbinical revolution also changed the social stratification of the Jewish people. Its leaders supplanted the priests and the Levites as the social and religious elite.

As a result, the path by which one entered this elite underwent a dramatic transformation. It no longer depended on one’s biological origin – being born to a father from the tribe of Levi – but rather was dependent on the individual’s intellectual and religious efforts deeds and personality.

The historical circumstances of the time also led to geographical and political decentralization. Jerusalem remained only as a symbolic focal point of Judaism. Religious authority was no longer centered in one place or in a hierarchical religious establishment of the priests as had been the case in the past. After 70 C.E. the Jews had neither a church nor a pope, as it were with the Chief Priest and the Supreme Tribunal (Sanhedrin). Even in rabbinical Judaism after that time there is no single model of authority. Alongside the Torah scholar were now the admor (a Hasidic spiritual leader), mystic, folk preacher, dayan (religious judge) and professor.

Faith, Practice, Belonging

In Judaism, like in other religions, its permanent internal structure is based on three formative foundations: an abstract believe system, the faith; religious demonstrations in private and communal rituals; and belonging to both an institutionalized congregation and to an imagined nation. In a world dominated by religions, belonging was the key factor by which one identified himself externally and was judged by others. Domestically, Jews lived in distinctive geographical and social boundaries without overall institutional authoritative that formulates official dogma. Formal and voluntary social inspection often evaluated the practice of sacred law more than the statements of abstract belief. Theological debates deeply split Jews and led to the transformation of common practices, for example: studying Maimonides and Greek philosophy in the 13th century, Shabtai Zvi’s messianic movement in the 17th century, the widespread of Hasidic communities that combined belief in charismatic authority with new group rituals and the establishment of the Reform movement, both in the 18th century.

If the face of Judaism reflects the situation of Jews, and if Jews shape Judaism in keeping with the circumstances of time and place – then what Jews are doing in the sovereign State of Israel is also shaping Judaism. Sovereignty involves the exercise of effective rule over a territory and a population. It behooves us, then, to consider how ruling a territory and population has changed Judaism. And, in the main, how rule over a non-Jewish population – in our case, the Palestinians – has spawned a new Judaism.

There is no precedent in Jewish history for the existence of a Jewish state that constitutes a regional power and rules another people. Never before has the Jewish people possessed a combination like this of sovereignty, power, and control, which are being exploited to oppress another people. The Hasmonean Kingdom (140-63 B.C.E.) was not a regional power. The Hasmonean ruler and high priest John Hyrcanus I converted the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Edom to Judaism in 125 B.C.E. after conquering them. But a mass conversion to Judaism of the Palestinians was not and is not on the agenda – the Palestinians are meant to remain outside the Jewish collective.

Ethnocentrism with no power

The Jewish people were always ethnocentric. Jewish belief emphasizes the supremacy of its ethnic collective over other nations. This is a blatantly hierarchical conception, according to which the Jew is superior to the non-Jew. But throughout history this was a supremacy that lacked the force of a state and an apparatus for wielding control over non-Jews. On the contrary, the Jews were inferior in status in the social and religious order that was established by the empires and states that ruled them over the two millennia.

IDF soldiers and Israeli settlers (August 7, 2009)

Internally, by contrast, Jewish writings and conduct accorded with the self-perception of being a chosen people.  In the 11th and 12th centuries C.E. Maimonides explained that this was based on what Jews saw as the supremacy of the Torah, their religion, and their way of life. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi believed that the collective possessed an existential-biological supremacy vis-à-vis other peoples. And in the late 18th century Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Chabad Hasidic dynasty, wrote in the “Book of Tanya” about the Jewish soul being superior to the inferior soul of the rest of humanity.

Grounded in these notions of supremacy, messianic Judaism envisions  a new  order, in which Jews will openly realize their spiritual and political supremacy over other peoples. Accordingly, messianic Judaism anticipates a return of the diaspora led by King David’s descendent. Jewish tradition states that God will establish this new order at some point in the future. Hasidic dynasties transposed the new order from the historic reality into the mental consciousness. They transpose the idea of the new order from a sought-after historical reality into a form of mental consciousness The result was the emergence of a concrete spiritualization of messianism, severed from historic reality.

The extensive dissemination of such approaches among the Jewish people in exile was not only a theological matter, but also a reaction to the position taken by the societies and the religions under whose auspices Jewish communities existed. In those societies, the status of the Jews was a priori inferior. Indeed, Jews were influenced by all the cultures surrounding them; some of them rose to senior positions in their countries’ political, military and financial establishments.[4] However, as long as they did not convert to the ruling religion, they were “the other,” an inferior people. In some cases, they were forced to reside in a defined geographical area: the ghetto, the Pale of Settlement, and so on. Their theological perception of being a chosen, superior people whose time would come one day was compensation for their plight.

Emancipation, colonialism and Jews

The emancipation, modernity, and Jewish integration into contemporary life created a new conception of the chosen people. This conception was translated into a universal-educational mission, as opposed to connoting the insular superiority of Orthodoxy. Instead of an isolated form of Judaism, passive vis-a-vis the broader human environment, a new generation of Jewish theologians, including Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and, to a certain extent also Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), proposed an open, universal, and egalitarian Judaism – a messianism without a Jewish king-messiah and without territory or rule over other peoples. The objective of the Jewish people, according to these scholars, is to extend the ideological boundaries of their religion to include all of humanity. This is a Judaism of content, not of weapons or force. Based on the experiences of World War I, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931) advocated Jewish nationalism based not on a state per se, but one based on  a predominantly spiritual and civilizing character; similar notions were propounded in 1945 by Makhlouf Avitan (1908-1960) in Casablanca.

These approaches developed at a time when the majority societies in which Jews resided were imperialist, colonialist, and missionary in nature. Imperialism spawns the development of mechanisms of control over regions and societies across borders and overseas. To this, colonialism adds the element of settlement in such areas, aimed at perpetuating control over land resources and over the labor of an indigenous population, exploiting it for the benefit of the occupying power. Imperialism and colonialism generate power relations in which the foreigner, the occupier, and the settler hold a position of superiority vis-à-vis local inhabitants, although those in power are far fewer in number than the latter.

The Western, colonizing settlers were accompanied by missionaries who sought to change the indigenous people’s religion and culture. The efforts to civilize others as undertaken by the missionary – and to this can be added the so-called enlightened settler – reduces the religious and cultural distance between the occupiers and the occupied natives. The former learn the language of the local population, fall in love with them, marry, and have families. Time and distance dull the settler-colonizers’ ties to their homeland and heighten their pursuit of local interests at the expense of those in the distant metropolis from which they came.

For some 300 years, Jews proudly integrated in the imperialistic and colonialist establishments. They served as cabinet ministers, financiers, settlers in colonies, and owners of slaves.[5] For her part, educator Emma Mordecai (1812-1906), who was religiously observant and active in the Jewish community of Richmond, Virginia, was a slave owner who openly supported the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Throughout the second half of the 18th century, the Gabay family in Jamaica employed hundreds of Black slaves in the large sugar plantations it owned throughout the Caribbean. Edwin Montagu (1879-1924) was secretary of state for India from 1917 to 1922, when the subcontinent was the jewel in the crown of British imperialism. Léon Blum (1872-1950) served three terms as prime minister of France when that country ruled vast swaths of Africa. The Jewishness of these figures was a part of their personal identity, not part of the colonial and missionary project per se.

In contrast, the idea of a universalist mission was also a Jewish response to the spirit of those times: This involved missionary work without a defined religious mission and without a church, cultural expansionism instead of colonial rule, and preventing the creation of relations of authority and force with indigenous peoples.

Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state foisted a territorial framework and regime on the modern conception of a chosen people. David Ben-Gurion demanded that the State of Israel be a light unto the nations. The Labor movement spoke of creating an egalitarian model society. Of course, a gap always existed between the self-perception of Jews and their behavior, such as can be seen, for example, in Western colonialism proclaims, in the Soviet Bloc ideal type of socialism and in the United States between the American dream and the socio-economic reality. But that consciousness existed together with the ambition to be the best and to constitute a model for the enlightened world. And then came the Six-Day War, the occupation and the settlements.

Colony across the fence

In fact, rule over the Palestinians did not begin in 1967. A sovereign state with a large Jewish majority could not have existed without the ethnic cleansing that was carried out in the 1948 war and its aftermath. Back then, a new form of Judaism already started to take  form and substance. That process was accelerated after 1967 with the establishment of the settlements. In school textbooks, the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings supplanted the Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos – who had preached social justice and a moral regime.

Armed Israeli settler accompanied by soldiers threatens Palestinian farmers near a-Tuwani, South Hebron Hills. (Basel al-’Adrah, BT’selem volunteer)

Initially, the settlements were a semi-wild phenomenon that was cultivated by the Labor governments. The ruling establishment turned a blind eye, while the other eye ensured that its collaboration with the settlers would stay under the radar. The Likud governments since 1977 happily opened their gates to the settler groups; indeed, the enterprise spawned by those elements took root as an act of state. Unlike Western colonialism, Israeli colonialism was implemented on the playing fields of the neighbors, just across the fence. The geographical proximity between sovereign Israel, the metropole, and its colony, created convenient conditions for massive investment by the state and the private sector in the settlement project. It is the largest and most expensive enterprise undertaken by Israel since its establishment, and Israel has become subjugated by it.

The geographical proximity also created settlers without settlements; that is, family members, friends and supporters of their ideology and their politics without actual involvement in the concrete practical colonialism on the ground. The latter continue to reside in the areas of 1948 within Israel proper. In contrast to classic colonialists, the majority of Israeli settlers created a hybrid reality for themselves associated with their country of origin – not the indigenous population. They are dependent on the state financially and institutionally. Many of them cross the imaginary boundary between the occupied West Bank and sovereign Israel, and return, every day. They maintain their ethnic isolation from the indigenous Palestinian population, do not intermarry or carry on affairs with its members as was true of colonizers of centuries past. The settlers’ local councils and municipalities are separate in every way, from those of their neighbors. The settlers do not aspire to refashion the latter’s culture or to turn them into Israelis. Like many Israelis living in the 1948 areas of Israel proper, they want to seize control of most of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to wipe out the separate identity and national aspirations of the Palestinians.

In the 21st century, the expansion of the settlements and the transformation of the Palestinian Authority into a subcontractor of Israel has resulted in a single regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The settlements are not built “there,” far away; they are “here.” This is, in effect, a regime of Jewish supremacy. The number of Jews living under that system is roughly equal to or slightly less than the number of Palestinians. Therefore, there is no point in continuing to hide the ethnic supremacy felt by these Jews behind the slogan of a “democratic majority” in a Jewish state. Thanks to the 2018 nation-state law, in fact, one can take pride in Jewish supremacy and in national exclusivity. The law signifies that the land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and that the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people. Beyond negating Palestinian attachment to the land and equal citizenship, the law downgrades the Arab language (from a state’s language alongside Hebrew as in the Israeli Declaration of Independence) to a special status language.

There is also no need for the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return of 1950 (which allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent to become an Israeli citizen) – an important anti-Nazi declaration – in order to create an artificial Jewish majority. Recent coalition agreements aspire to expunge that policy.

Jewish supremacy is also the response to the challenge posed by Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Their increasing integration into the Jewish-controlled public domain and labor market, while emphasizing their indigenous Palestinian identity, and their collaboration with Jewish civil society organizations, are giving rise to a hybrid reality. This is an ethnic-civil hybridity based on equal citizenship status. In practice they are discriminated against, yet their status as citizens is secured. Their growing occupational and residential integration in the Jewish sector threatens the ethnic basis of the regime.

In Jerusalem, a hybrid reality exists that is both geographic and ethnic. A full forty percent of the city’s inhabitants are not Jews or citizens of Israel. In contrast to West Bank Palestinians, their counterparts in Jerusalem have permanent residency status. Their prominent role in the labor market and in Israeli institutions of higher learning, on the one hand, and the establishment of settlements in the Palestinian area of the city, on the other, reveal the tensions in  Israel’s categorical assertion that Jerusalem is a Jewish city. In reality, it is binational.

Governability and revolution

Sovereignty, power and rule over the Palestinians have transformed Judaism. This new Judaism was not shaped in the beit midrash (religious college) as classical Judaism was, but within the framework of a dominant Israeli regime, in general, and rule over the Palestinians, in particular. The ethnocentrism evolved from a form of self-awareness into a modus operandi, from a universal mission into oppression and occupation. The moral paradigm that Ben-Gurion and the Labor movement demanded was converted into arms exports and various means of control and aid to despotic regimes, to enable them to surveil their opponents by instruments shown effective in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Graffiti settlers spray-painted on a home in the village of Burqa, Ramallah District. The text reads, in Hebrew: “Supporters of terrorism live here. Deport or kill.” (Iyad Hadad, B’Tselem, 21 April 2018)

Religious Zionist ideology oils the state machinery that puts Jewish superiority into operation. Until 1967, religious Zionism still lagged in the wake of secular or traditionalist Zionism. In similar fashion, it founded kibbutzim and moshavim (family-based economic production), workers unions, a youth movement and an anti-ultra-Orthodox ideology. After the war, religious Zionism harnessed its Zionist activism to ruling the territories and the population Israel conquered in 1967. Since the Oslo Accords and following Camp David in 2000 where Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were discussed, this activism has been aimed at changing the status quo on the Temple Mount and establishing settlements in the heart of Palestinian residential areas in Jerusalem. Moreover, national religious groups including settlers move to so-called mixed cities in Israel in order to “Judaize” them.

Orthodox Jewry has changed accordingly. The Temple Mount is no longer off-limits as a site that’s forbidden to visit until the conditions are created for the arrival of the Messiah. On the contrary: The sovereignty of the State of Israel must also be applied there. Groups seeking to rebuild the Temple go even further. They seek to transform Judaism from a post-Temple religion into a pre-Temple faith. For them, sovereignty of a people that is like all other peoples as classical Zionism defined its goal, is not Jewish.

Jewish messianism has undergone a transformation. Classic Jewish literature depicted the advent of a messianic age following a catastrophe or great crisis, the birth pangs of the Messiah, a war of Gog and Magog. All those elements are part of the transition from the realm of history into one that transcends history. In contrast, the new Jewish messianism is a product of historical success, the achievement of Jewish sovereignty, and the wielding of power over non-Jewish surroundings. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw Zionism as a breakthrough to the coming of the Messiah, whereas his son Zvi Yehuda Kook and his disciples believe that we have already reached that stage. The secularity of Zionism is only a semblance, they believe; in practice, it is the unconscious realization of Jewish messianism. This is not a person-based form of messianism – the Messiah is not a human being – but a period where Jews possess territorial rule and sovereignty. This perception has been bolstered significantly since the Six-Day War. Following its worldwide activity and popularity, Chabad also transformed classical Jewish messianism from a great catastrophe to unprecedented success. Among those affiliated with Chabad, sovereignty, and rule over the Palestinians are intertwined with ethno-Jewish supremacy, as per the teaching of the Hasidic sect’s founder and the messianic spiritual leadership of its late Rebbe (religious leader).

Another attribute of this form of messianism is its unidirectional determinism. Messianic determinism negates a priori the possibility of failure, and provides an incentive to propel the process forward. This determinism constitutes a sort of divine insurance policy under the auspices of which Jewish sovereignty and rule over the Palestinians are intensifying. That situation mollifies believers in the new messianism, who are disappointed that secular Jewry has rejected Orthodoxy despite their multiple efforts to get that population “to repent.”

Concurrent with these streams, Rabbi Meir Kahane developed a power-based, racist approach toward non-Jews in general and Palestinians in particular. For him and his followers, Jewish sovereignty above all meant the use of force and violence by Jews against non-Jews. The relocation of his activity from New York to Israel combined force use with Jewish sovereignty and made the Palestinians a particularly sought-after target, especially those in Hebron where Kahane’s supporters have a solid base.

A toxic mix of all these phenomena ignited the flames that consumed dozens of homes in the Palestinian town of Hawara and nearby three villages on February 2023  and brought settlers and Chabad followers back there a week later to celebrate Purim with soldiers, near the burned-out wreckages of homes and cars.

In recent years, those people have been joined by the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. The historic successes of the State of Israel, and the integration of the Haredim into the government, Israeli society and the settlers’ movement (they form about half of the settler population, concentrated in two big cities and East Jerusalem neighborhoods) have eroded the status of classic, non-Zionist Orthodoxy. Bolstering that trend are the anti-liberal and fundamentalist traits of the new Judaism. Public opinion surveys show a consistent correlation over recent years between the level of religiosity and a hawkish, racist stance. It’s not by chance that the most strident statements informing this new form of Judaism are being uttered by rabbis who come from such circles. They are shedding any of the ostensibly normative coating of this discourse.

Aggressive state-made superiority

Jewish supremacy is no longer something one needs to be ashamed of – to the contrary. Jewish supremacy and rule are not merely instrumental, enabling religious precepts to be upheld, but are a goal in and of themselves that creates a common denominator among all the Orthodox streams. Just as it is difficult today to imagine a Jewish present and future without the State of Israel, so too it is difficult to imagine Judaism without sovereignty, Jewish supremacy and domination over Palestinians.

“Fight the enemy. Price Tag.” Graffiti settlers spray-painted in Hebrew on a water tank in the village of ‘Urif, Nablus District. (Salma a-Deb’i, B’Tselem, 29 April 2018)

The new Judaism is not proposing to annul or even add to existing precepts. The observant communities that see military service as a religious obligation include that imperative within their existing reservoir of precepts. The new Judaism is proposing a new public domain, identity and means for belonging to an apparatus of sovereignty and rule. For the hard-core proponents of the new Judaism, governability and a judicial overhaul that the right-wing government advanced in 2022-24, are not only authoritarian practices advanced by a central government, but a cluster of values. New Judaism’s proponents resort to identity politics whereas it is their opponents that speak in a discourse of minority rights. Together with support for “the normative family,” theidentity discourse of the new Judaism is part of a package of conservative principles that have supplanted the social democracy and moderate liberalism of Israeli Orthodoxy.[6]

Linking religion to the state may indeed have transformed religion into the handmaiden of the state, as Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz has argued. But the opposite also occurred. Because Israeli citizenship is based on ethnicity, and because it is linked to religion, there is no clear separation in Israel between religion, ethnicity, and the state. Nor is there a significant number of secular individuals, in the full sense of the word. Most of the Jews in Israel are positioned along the spectrum between a great number of rigid Orthodoxy and a few atheists. Along this broad spectrum there is a mixture, to varying degrees, of religious practice, mainly relating to rites of passage, belief in God, religiosity, family tradition, historical consciousness and myths. The binary perception of religion and religious people vs. secular people does not reflect Israeli reality properly.

Demographically and ideologically, the settlers’ movement is led and profoundly supported by orthodox communities. It is not by chance that the Israel Defense Forces and the security establishment highly valued by them and are at the center of the new Judaism. They constitute principal organizations of control over the Palestinian territory and population, defending Jewish sovereignty.

Israeli society is militaristic; it confers on the army and the security organizations not only means and disproportionate material rewards, but also prestige and status. The army is also an instrument of socialization and citizenship. Military service is considered an entry ticket to society and proof of good citizenship. People considered to be non-Jews, on the basis of halakha (religious law), who serve in the army are considered to have entered the Jewish state and undergone a sociological conversion to Judaism. Moreover, in the eyes of the general public, military service by Haredim is considered to be a condition for receiving full rights. For religious Zionism, military service is a precept, and every security-related activity has theological and messianic import.

Its social structure support maintains high commitment to the belief-group.  Religious populations of all kinds, from the extreme National-religious to the Ultra-orthodox to the mainstream national-religious is deeply communitarian. It is organized around synagogues, settlements, distinct neighborhoods, youth movements, and an education system controlled by religiously and nationalistically hardline ideologues. They consume sectorial, non-pluralistic media that heavily features nationalist-religious preaching. Those in the community who feel uncomfortable with such an ideology, and try to consider what is beyond, are subjected to intense social pressure. In practice, they often remain in the community’s ranks despite their reservations.  The old order’s advocates are far more individualistic than community-oriented and spend most of their time with their inner circles of the nuclear family, close friends, and coworkers. Their most defined imagined community is the military unit in which they served; after that, there are organizations based on residency location, profession, and higher education.[7]

Supremacy challenged

Since its epic victory in the 1967 war, Jewish supremacy has been challenged by its neighbors. In the 1973 war Arab states significantly decreased Israel’s power as did the PLO-led popular uprising of 1987 and Hamas’s barbaric attack in 2023.

The Labor Party members that led Israel until 1977 built Jewish supremacy on two layers. Influenced by Jewish emancipatory philosophy, the political elite that was born and raised up in the diaspora defined it as global moral mission. Israel should become the model nation state in its moral standards. Below that, there were young military experts, many of whom born and educated in Mandatory Palestine, that translated Jewish supremacy to military might that guaranteed the state upper hand in any armed conflict.

Egypt and Syria’s gains in the 1973 war brought about elite change. Under Begin, the Likud perspective on Jewish supremacy was ethno-nationalistic and romantic. Only the Jewish nation would have the right to exercise collective sovereignty over the historic Land of Israel/Palestine. Begin agreed to return Sinai to Egypt when he learned that Sadat was neither going to demand   Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip nor to withdraw Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem or stop settlement expansion.

The Intifada of 1987 brought the Labor Party back to power  and, ultimately, forced it to recognize the PLO. Rabin, who was one of the security experts in previous Labor administrations, redefined Jewish supremacy and introduced it to Oslo peace process. Accordingly, the Jewish state enforced confines on the PLO territorial and sovereignty .

In its peace agreements with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) Israel acknowledged external limits on her superiority . However, Right-wing governments that have led Israel since 2001 strongly rejected making the same concessions domestically.  The Palestinians have been incorporated in as an inferior group under  a de facto one-state ruling over all historic Palestine.

Jewish superiority is no longer concealed under romantic notions, but exposed in all its brutality. To dismantle it, Hamas hit Israel on a scale that no other Palestinian organization or Arab army had attempted  since the 1948 war. Before October 7th, no Israeli settlement had been occupied since 1948. On October 7th, some of them were totally destroyed. Since the Holocaust not so many Jews, 1200, were murdered in one day.  Also unprecedented since 1948 is the large number of Israeli citizens – about 330,000 living near the front lines – that has been displaced .Trying to restore Jewish superiority, Israel has managed its anger through a dehumanizingly brutal reaction. The number of Palestinian dead, wounded, or displaced is higher than the Palestinian people experienced in 1984 and in a much shorter span of time.

Marching blindly

The writer A.B. Yehoshua noted the fact that Israel’s collective state framework is forging a type of new Jew who does not exist outside the Jewish state, for example, in the United States. Yehoshua characterized this individual as a “complete Jew”:

“Who is a complete Jew, or in a different, precise word – an Israeli? It’s a Jew who is governed by Jews, pays taxes to Jews, is bound by solidarity to other Jews, is sent to war by Jews, evacuates Jews from their homes or goes to guard settlements he abhors. In short, who lives in a binding relationship with other Jews. For example, when the State of Israel was established, the Israeli Jew entered into an austerity regime in order to integrate hundreds of thousands of other Jews who chose to ascend to the Land of Israel and to transform their partial Jewishness into complete Jewishness – in the historic Jewish territory and in Hebrew, which is the original language that unites the whole people.”

Yehoshua wrote those words in April 2012. He also asked, “Are we marching with political blindness to an apartheid state, will the occupation be a permanent part of our identity… Will the racism and the pogroms against the Arabs in the soccer fields continue… Will the religious fanaticism trample more precious aspects of the Israeli identity?” [8]

Today, more than a decade later, those question marks have been replaced, at least in part, by exclamation marks. Rule over others is not something that’s realized outside religion in the Israeli sense – it is part of it. For the Orthodox it is a substantive element of their theology and messianism. Their national – militaristic theology spread throughout the army. In the 2023 war, it led the army to implement indiscriminate bombardment of heavily populated areas causing unprecedented numbers of innocent casualties. Senior politicians, rabbis, high ranking army officers, and public figures used a toxic mixture of Biblical and operationally dehumanizing language bordering on genocide justification  to direct the army and legitimize the war. They explicitly called to kill or permanently expel all of the Gaza Strip residents and totally destroy their infrastructure. War atrocities that Israel committed  were presented by some rabbis as spiritually uplifting and justice making of the highest moral standard. [9]  Hamas’ barbaric attack led those authorities to replace Jewish superiority with much worse acts. Where the assertion of Jewish superiority fails, mass killings, displacement and ethnic cleansing starts.

Global networks

The influence of the new Judaism is also felt  outside Israel. It is  present throughout the Orthodox Jewish communities in the West , and, to a lesser degree,  in the liberal and traditionalist Jewish groups, whose members adopt pared-down versions of it thanks to their identification with Israel. Outside Israel, Jews’ attitude to the state of Israel is emotional rather than based on sharing the same system of governance. It is mediated through ethnoreligious belonging, care, and solidarity.[10]  In the United States, the Israeli flag can be found in many synagogues next to the American flag. The members of  liberal communities tend to close ranks with their brothers and sisters in Israel in light of the assault on their Jewish identity by the racist right. In some cases, that assault is not only verbally violent, but has also brought about loss of life.

The State of Israel, Jewish sovereignty, and Jewish rule seemingly provide a haven during times of trouble. It’s difficult for old and mainstream Jews in the West to disengage from Israel even if the country undergoes a radical face-lift. Their emotional-romantic bond with Israel is strong and is based on support for Jewish sovereignty that makes no apology for the force it wields, even if Israeli violence conflicts with their values from time to time. Simultaneously they hope that soon Israel will restore its father-founders’ value system.

The new Judaism – Israeli Judaism– identifies sovereignty and the rule wielded in its name, with Jewish supremacy and oppression. That is not only a justification for sovereignty, it is also a directive for implementing a particular practice and assuming responsibility for activating sovereignty as an instrument to subjugate Palestinians.

Israel’s appropriation of Jewish identity in general and Jewish supremacy in particular accelerate antisemitism, argues Brian Klug. “Israel sees… that its state and the Jews are the same; Israel does not regard itself as just a Jewish state, a state that happens to have a Jewish identity, but as the Jewish state, the state of the Jews that represents all Jews collectively. In other words, Israel claims Jews as its own, and Jews en masse proclaim Israel to be theirs. Therefore others fail to make the distinction between Jewish state and the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism becomes an expression of an anti-Israeli protest”.[11] This was demonstrated  by the profound increase in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews following the war crimes Israel committed[12] during its 2023 war against Hamas.

Progressive Jews in the West who cannot identify with the new Judaism, the young generation, whose consciousness is already less shaped by the Holocaust, are taking an interest in tikkun olam – repairing the world. They are active in the protection of human rights in general and of the rights of the Black minority in the United States, in particular. They belong to organizations that deal with climate change, environmental issues, and animal rights. This is a contemporary version of the Jews’ universal mission. They reject the concept of Jewish sovereignty and rule that is at the core of contemporary Israeli Judaism. Instead, they are proposing a supra-ethnic frameworks for improving the world and using Jewish rationales to support them.

Nevertheless, antisemitism expressed by non-Jewish progressive leftists following the war crimes Israel unapologetically implemented in the Gaza Strip, creates an identity problem for those liberal Jews. Their own ideological partners moved from seeing Western Jews as a minority whose rights should be protected alongside other minority groups, like people of the African diaspora, to seeing them all as an integral part of white supremacist neocolonialism and oppression. Progressive Jews face a choice between their Jewish identity and emotional attachment to Israel and commitment to their progressive value system. It seems that never before has it been  so urgent to identify an alternative Judaism to the one Israel has cultivated.

 Jewish sovereignty without superiority

The Jewish challenge today, both theological and practical, is to establish an alternative  new Judaism that envisions Jewish sovereignty without superiority or oppression. That would be a sovereignty that can deservedly be described as “Jewish.” Sovereignty without oppression translates into equality and full partnership of non-Jews in the exercise of that sovereignty.

Graffiti settlers spray-painted on the fence of Mahmoud Salah’s home in Far’ata. The text reads, in Hebrew: “No more administrative orders.” (Abdulkarim Sadi, B’Tselem, 4 April 2018)

Daniel Boyarin suggests giving up statehood and sovereignty in order to save Judaism and its values of universal justice and morality. According to Boyarin the Jews are a diasporic nation.[13] But is there an alternative way for those who wish to bind together Jewish nationalism with Judaism as a historic religion and people, fostering equality and partnership of non-Jews in Israel’s sovereignty? One could, of course, argue against the self-determination of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and endeavor to divorce it completely from historic Judaism and from the ideology and practice of Jewish supremacy. Seeing Zionism as a secular revolution, Chaim Gans[14] ignores the Jewish component in Israeli identity. Likewise, Michael Walzer[15]perceives classical Zionism as liberal and secular, aiming to integrate Jews in the modern world of nation states. The counter-revolution that religious-Zionism promotes, Walzer argues, wishes to reverse Zionist’s achievements.  Both Gans and Walzer see Zionism and the state of Israel apart from Judaism, at least ideologically.

Separation of that kind would create an Israeli nation in which all the citizens are equal – a far-reaching move that has failed in the past, in society and in the Israeli Supreme Court. On the other hand,  Ofer Zalzberg and Roie Ravitzky[16] try to keep religion politically uncontaminated. Jewish orthodox groups reject Israeli peace-making methods because “the customary discourse of the international order is legalistic, rights-based, and employs theologically neutral reasoning”. For them, “the word of God is more important than the government’s contractual commitments”. Moreover, “accepting the other and intensifying a relationship with the other potentially threatens a community particular culture and identity”.

Another possibility, which hasn’t yet been fully tried, is to find a Jewish theological and historic basis for sharing sovereignty with non-Jews. That challenge now awaits the opponents of Jewish supremacy. Indeed, a few steps towards it are already being made.

The Bible, Menachem Fish[17]  argues, suggests two models of collective identity. One inclusive, multi-cultural and politically egalitarian that reached its culmination in the kingdom King Solomon established. He expanded the collective boundaries of the nation beyond Jewish ethno-religious boundaries. In contrast, Ezra and Nehemiah founded the opposite model for their Jewish community members that returned from Babylonian exile to their ancestor’s Land of Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah established anti-political identity, a segregated tribal entity that strongly rejected non-Jews. Whereas the first model emphasizes human action here and now over the sacred law, and sometimes against it, the anti-political approach is oriented toward Heaven and God’s will. Moreover, Fish argues, post-Biblical era rabies adopted Ezra and Nehemiah’s ethno-centric model and institutionalized it in Jewish prayers. The repetitive prayers and holy sermons shaped Jews’ imagination away from politics. In other words, dominant Judaism is anti-political.  Jewish nation state building is incomplete, Fish argues, unless it’s re-politicized by connecting it to the neglected model of  King Solomon.

The idea of being chosen, which was endorsed by Emanuel Levinas , does not involve exceptional rights, but instead involves exceptional duties. You have to engage with other individuals. “What makes the idea of politics -and of Israel- so difficult for Levinas”, Michael F. Bernard-Donals concludes, “is that the Jew must negotiate between Judaism and Israel…. What politics ultimately requires” he writes, “is a language in which the real may be written. While such a language doesn’t establish a foundation for political thought, it nonetheless establishes the ethical ground on which such a politics might be enacted. It remains to be seen whether, in the language of displacement and of patient and painful encounters with individual others, a politics will ultimately emerge”.[18]

Surprisingly, Levinas approach to the individual’s’ existential engagement in mutual interdependency, is similar to Fanie du Toit conclusions about South Africa reconciliation process. “In South Africa, reconciliation politics propagated the idea, diametrically opposed to apartheid, that racial groups were fundamentally and comprehensively interdependent. This provided a compelling rationale for taking reconciliation seriously—and twenty-four years on, it still does. Reconciliation embraces a shared future on the basis that this is not only desirable but unavoidable, and turns to deal with a troubled past because it obstructs this future”.[19] Whereas Levinas focuses on  individuals’ interdependence, du Toit suggests that it exist between collectives as well. One may argue that interdependency within one state, as in South Africa, is  different than that between two states, as Israelis and Palestinians may prefer for their future. Yet, both Levinas and du Toit show a way forward awaiting explorationby Jewish supremacy’s opponents.

 *This text is based on my shorter article in Haaretz, April 8, 2023


[1]  Ernst Simon, Are We Israelis Still Jews? The Search for Judaism in the New Society, Commentary April 1953.

[2] David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, New York, 1986, p. 183

[3]  Ibid 164.

[4]  Derek J. Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History, Princeton 2013; Mercedes Garcia-Arenal David Nierenberg Richard L Kagan Martin Beagels, A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe, Johns Hopking University, 2003

[5]  Kritzler Edward, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in their Quest for Treasure Religious Freedom and Revenge, NY 2008.

[6] On how new Judaism relates to the regime change its supporters advance see my article In the Looming Civil War the Israeli Right Has the Upper Hand, 972 Magazine July 24, 2023 in https://www.972mag.com/civil-war-israel-national-religious/

[7]  Klein 972 Magazine ibid

[8] In https://www.newlibrary.co.il/page_1469. In Hebrew

[9] https://www.icj-cij.org/sites/default/files/case-related/192/192-20231228-app-01-00-en.pdf pp. 59-67; https://thecradle.co/articles-id/23810 ; https://www.srugim.co.il/894250-%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%91-%D7%A1%D7%93%D7%9F-%D7%91%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%A3-%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%9C%D7%97%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%90-%D7%99%D7%94%D7%99%D7%95-%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%93-%D7%A2%D7%96%D7%AA%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%91 ; https://www.mekomit.co.il/%D7%94%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%91%D7%95%D7%A8-%D7%91%D7%93%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%90%D7%95%D7%9F-%D7%90%D7%96-%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%94%D7%99%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%91%D7%90%D7%95%D7%A4%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%94 ;

[10] Derek J. Penslar, Zionism An Emotional State, Rutgers UP 2023

[11] Brian Klug, Being Jewish and Doing Justice – Bringing Argument to Life, London: Vallentine Mitchell, pp. 33-57, 2011

[12] https://www.972mag.com/mass-assassination-factory-israel-calculated-bombing-gaza/

[13] Boyarrin Daniel, The No-State Solution, A Jewish Manifesto, Yale 2023

[14] Gans Chaim, A Political Theory for the Jewish People, Oxford University 2016

[15] Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, Yale University 2015

[16] Ofer Zalzberg and Roie Ravitzky , Negotiations in Heterogeneous Societies: Ratifying a Peace Agreement in Israel, Negotiation Journal 2022, 38 (5) 501-521 in https://www.academia.edu/85420307/Negotiations_in_Heterogeneous_Societies_Ratifying_a_Peace_Agreement_in_Israel

[17] Menachem Fish, The Enemy Within: Political Zionism and its Faithful Adversaries, Tel Aviv University Press 2021 in Hebrew

[18] Michael F. Bernard-Donals, “Difficult Freedom” Levinas Language and Politics, Diacritics, 35, no. 3 (2005), pp. 62-77, quotation pages 71, 75 respectively

[19] Fanie du Toit, Chapter 8 Reconciliation as Interdependence overview, in his book When Political Transition Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence,  in https://academic.oup.com/book/6105/chapter-abstract/149652393?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=falseOxford 2018


  • Menachem Klein

    Menachem Klein is professor emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University. He was an advisor to the Israeli delegation in negotiations with the PLO in 2000 and was one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative. His most recent book is Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed.

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Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

By Amal Jamal: A Humanist Perspective on the Causes, Reasonings and Consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian War

By Menachem Klein: A New Judaism?*

By Melvyn Dubofsky: Has Labor Reawakened?

By Loren T. Cannon: The Backlash Continues: How Two Recent SCOTUS Rulings Pose a Threat to LGBTQ+ and Especially Trans and Gender Non-Binary Persons

By Larry N. Gerston: The Rise of Trumpism

By Andrew Kolin: Trump and Trumpism: An American Brand of Fascism

By Allen Wood: Kant After Three Centuries

By Joy James: Marcuse’s Most Famous Student: Angela Davis on Critical Theory and German Idealism*

By Frank M. Kirkland: Africa, We the Underdeveloped: Wynter’s Discontent in the Light of Hegel’s Conception of Development

By Mark Epstein: Pasolini’s Aesthetics

By Rainer Funk: Erich Fromm’s Contribution to Critical Theory

By Marsha Hinds Myrie , Lex Dulong , Jillian Uniacke: Joy James’s New Bones Abolition

By Peter Hudis: Determinism and Freedom: A Review of Michael Löwy’s Rosa Luxemburg: The Incendiary Spark

By Brian Robert Hischier: Fred Camper’s Seeking Brakhage

By Marybeth Tamborra: Chelsea Schields’s Offshore Attachments