This issue of Judaism Today focuses on the theme of ‘heresy’. History testifies that it has transcended its formulation as a purely religious concept and has become a political tool in the hands of the powerful to discredit dissenting opponents and to discriminate against stubborn minorities. For Jews, the very term conjures up the Christian imagery of a medieval auto da fe, superstition, irrational cruelty and the abandonment of intelligence. All too many ‘heretic Jews’ perished down the centuries because they refused to concede that Christianity was the hue religion’. It is for this reason that most Jews in 1998 refrain from using the word. It conveys a world that is primitive, reactionary, intolerant — and one might say, anti-Jewish.
Yet it is a word with a profound resonance within Judaism. Ironically, its origin lies in the Greek verb haireisthai which means ‘to choose’. A Jewish heresiarch such as Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah, was thus the progenitor of a heretical movement. Yet the difference between dissent and heresy was often a narrow dividing line. In Jewish history, it has been rabbinical decision that has defined the location of that dividing line. In the past, Samatarianism, Karaism, Shabbateanism and Christianity initially developed as schisms and ended up as heresies. In contrast, Hasidism too was interpreted by some as heretical, yet today it is accepted as a bone fide sector of the Jewish faith.
The tendency to remain politically monolithic within was not simply a method of maintaining unity in dark times. It was not only a question of maintaining internal social cohesion to ensure survival. According to Jewish tradition, imitating the זקן ממרא— the rebellious elder — in word and deed could lead not only to expulsion but also to death.
According to the word of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgement which they shall tell you, you shall do: you shall not depart from the word which they shall tell you, to the right nor to the left. And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not listen to the priest standing to minister there before the Eternal your God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die and you shall exterminate the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously. (Deuteronomy 17, 12-14)
Today apart from the haredim, few speak in the demonic terms of heresy. Those who label an opponent ‘a rebellious elder’ are themselves questioned and challenged. Despite this, a section of the Jewish world does not happily entertain dissenting views. It is ironic that while the use of religious heresy is regarded as offensive and intolerant by most Jewish leadership, political dissent is often seen as almost heretical. In the aftermath of the Shoah and the rise of the State of Israel, a muscular Jewish politics came into existence led by people who vowed ‘Never Again’ and obeyed the 614th commandment —hot to grant a posthumous victory to Hitler’. In the triumphalism that followed the Six Day War, nationalist machismo and a narrow survivalist agenda often substituted for political common sense. It promoted uniformity rather than unity, an age of unreason.
Following the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 and the election of Menachem Begin ten years later, many Diaspora Jews became very uneasy about Israeli policy. The halcyon days of 1948 were a distant dream. Thus Jews who protested about Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 were labelled ‘enemies of the people’. If they suggested that Israel should negotiate with the PLO, they were called ‘traitors’. Since they could not be stripped halakhically of their Jewish status, they could be turned into anti-Zionists, self-haters, and even anti-Semites. Even though they were Jews from the cradle to the grave, their very Jewishness could be questioned because they held different political views. They could be banished to a twilight world where they became Jews without Jewishness. Not so much ‘Non-Jewish Jews’, to quote Isaac Deutscher’s memorable phrase for assimilated universalists, but Un-Jewish Jews where Jewishness was defined according to a specific ideological agenda.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to London implicitly emphasised this approach. The collective advertisement in support of the Prime Minister in the Jewish Chronicle, paid for by a charitable trust, purported to speak in the name of the wider Jewish community. This appeared in the full knowledge that another letter, signed and paid for by its signatories, opposed the current Israeli government’s policies. The sponsors of the pro-Netanyahu letter felt buttressed by the obligatory reception for an incumbent Prime Minister which some communal organisations sponsored. The suggestion was that those who signed the British Friends of Peace Now letter were essentially beyond the communal periphery.
Although this letter was signed by many traditional Jews, one signatory further suggested that it contained ‘a preponderance of Reform rabbis, left-wing thinkers and personalities within the arts’. This was a simplistic attempt to polarise the two approaches into essentially religious definitions — if you were ‘really, really, Jewish’ then you supported Netanyahu. Moreover it is self-evident that even those who do not accept pluralism within Judaism feel strongly about the breakdown of the peace process. Despite appearances to the contrary, Orthodoxy in Britain is actually divided. Esther Wachsman, the mother of the murdered Israeli soldier, Nachshon Wachsman, recently spoke on ‘understanding and tolerance: between Jew and Arab, between Jew and Jew’ to several crowded United Synagogue audiences. The categorisation that an orthodox affiliation automatically means support for the Likud government and its policies is simply incorrect.
Although some of the signatories who welcomed Netanyahu on behalf of Anglo-Jewry projected an unconcealed disdain for opposing opinions, they were ironically the same people who condemned him for the IDFs redeployment from Hebron. Many would not be members of Netanyahu’s party in Israel because he is too moderate for them. Some approve the wholesale transfer’ of Palestinians from the West Bank to other Arab countries, others have written about Netanyahu’s ‘politics of appeasement’. They too are dissenters.
Another correspondent invoked the Prophets to project the imagery of an alien seed of destruction. ‘Your detractors and destroyers will come from within yourself’. This was comparatively mild. During the Shamir era, one leading British philanthropist, a strong supporter of settlement in the Territories, referred to his political opponents as ‘Amalekites’ — the implacable enemy of the Jewish people. Since Yitzhak Rabin’s murder by a Torah-true Jew’, it has become much more difficult to de-Judaise such critics, the fall-back position is to present this political dissent as a fifth column, a cancer gnawing away within.
It seems that there is now a broad recognition that to disagree with the policies of an Israeli government is not a sign of traitorous behaviour, but could even be regarded as a measure of commitment to Zionism and the Jewish State. It is also clear that there remains a minority which is unable to cope with unpalatable views such as those of Peace Now. They do not respect the integrity of their opponents and will utilise both Judaism and Jewishness as political instruments to discredit, marginalise or even excommunicate them. This morally low approach will only change when it is understood that there are two sides to every issue and they begin to argue for the sake of heaven rather than for the sake of victory.
Judaism Today Winter 1997-8