Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Politics and religion are nothing if not local affairs

Conference Summary
Judaism and Religious Extremism: Shlomo Fischer opened the conference by questioning the validity of the term “fundamentalism” when referring to radical religious Zionists. In particular, Fischer suggested that the defining text in the world of fundamentalism studies-the monumental five volumes of the Chicago Fundamentalism Project-may actually hinder more than help understanding religious extremism in and around Israel. Because the Chicago volumes sought to synthesize a massive amount of data, they had to be necessarily selective in both the questions they pursued and the data they included. This led the volumes to leave out significant material regarding the Zionism. For, as Fischer pointed out repeatedly, politics and religion are nothing if not local affairs. We cannot understand radical religious Zionism without paying close attention the peculiarities of small, sometimes disparate subgroups that nevertheless exert a political and religious influence beyond their numbers. This attention to peculiarity requires us also to pay attention to the constantly shifting nature of Zionist discourse. So called “Jewish Fundamentalism” is a moving target, changing with circumstance, re-inventing itself again and again in response to historical, political and social developments. This has caused the material about Zionism in the Chicago Fundamentalist Project to become quickly dated. Consider the way the Landscape has changed in the twelve years since these 5 volumes were published: Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, the Oslo accords fell apart, the state of Israel initiated a nonviolent disengagement from Gaza, and, most recently, the Second Lebanon War (the 2006 Israel-Lebanon Conflict) occurred. [...]

Taking his cue from early German Romantic thought, Fischer labels this entire vision expressivist. Expressivism takes spiritual ideals and clothes (i.e. ‘expresses’) them in material media (painting, architecture, poetry, or in the present case, society and the state). While the philosophy of expressivism was largely inaugurated by the German Romantics (poets such as Hölderlin and Novalis but also philosophers like Hegel and Schelling), it found its way into Jewish thought during the 19th century when Romantic texts were translated into Hebrew. As Fischer noted, when Hegel, for example, was translated into Hebrew, the translators used Kabbalistic terms throughout as technical equivalents for Hegel’s terms. This caused Hegel to appear rather closer to Kabbalistic thought than he may in fact have been, but also caused readers to think of the Kabbalah in Hegelian expressivist terms.

Expressivism leads quickly to the ideals of self-expression, what Charles Taylor has called the “ethics of authenticity.” In such systems of thought, the highest ethical ideal is to be true to one’s interior self, to express in the world one’s privileged individuality. As Taylor and others have noted, this ideal is a peculiarly modern one, and is all but unknown in traditional systems of thought. Fischer argued that the combination of traditional Kabbalah and modern expressivism has resulted in the radicalization of religious Zionism, often with dangerous political and religious consequences. It is too easy to say that when religious people do terrible things-plotting to blow up a sacred site, for example, or engaging in acts of suicidal violence-they are not behaving religiously. To the contrary, acts of systematic intolerance and violence are often propagated by people who are genuinely religious (or have real “religious experiences”). When religion is tied to authenticity and expression, the religious task too easily becomes indistinguishable from the call to actualize, express, or authenticate one’s own personal or will (or political will to power). Moreover, it is no accident that the central issues for such groups often revolve around violence and sexuality, for if the religious task is the re-sanctify all human life, nothing requires re-sanctification more than those most primordial urges.

Politically, this alliance between expressivism and religion lends a supposedly divine justification to what are otherwise secular projects and so tends to inculcate a dangerous political extremism. Religiously, this alliance is also suspect, for it too often ends by making an idol of the individual or community’s will. In modern Israel, this is most clearly seen in the way that the “will of the people” is regularly taken to express a sort of divine sanction. Here, especially, we can see the extent to which these supposedly conservative religious groups are in fact very modern. Radical religious Zionists should not be understood as regressive defenders of an idealized past, but as peculiarly modern religio-political movements. The absolutizing of the general will is an expression of secular nationalism more than of traditional religion. In modern Israel, the equation (what some what call the confusion) of national will with religious witness has given rise to the slogan: the voice of the people is the voice of God revealed to the prophets.

This Israeli version of the vox populi gets invoked constantly in contemporary Israeli politics and leads to one of two peculiarly modern political stances. On the one hand, a revolutionary populism identifies the vox populi with the discontented and disenfranchised voices of the nation and so calls for political revolution. This is a form of revolutionary modernism (think of Georg Lukacs, Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, et al.) with a Zionist twist. On the other hand, a Statist party goes further and actually identifies the vox populi with state of Israel, as such, because the state is held to be the entity most representative of the Israeli people in all of their diversity (a position mirrored in secular politics by the Hegelian right). Statist rabbis and movements may vigorously disagree with the decisions of the secular government but will, nonetheless, finally cooperate because they believe that doing otherwise would be to disobey God’s voice speaking through the nation-state. The recent disengagement from Gaza, which was opposed by almost all radical Zionist parties, went so smoothly because the settler rabbis were Statists and so faithfully acquiesced to the will of the government, despite their own serious objections to the policy.

As a final practical observation, Fischer noted how this attention to the vox populi explains why radical religious Zionists are eager to dialogue with their Israeli counterparts (whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative) but see little need to dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs. Both Statists and populists see the Israeli people as somehow organically expressing the will of God and so, even if they fiercely disagree, they have to pay attention to each other. Arabs, however, are excluded from this organic conception of the nation and are thus little more than bit players in a drama that centers on the relationship between God and the people/nation of Israel. Summary for the September 10-14, 2006 Symposium on Jewish Fundamentalism Hosted by Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR)

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