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Dan Rickman  

 

Being a left-wing Orthodox Jew

What is it about a commitment to left-wing politics which provokes responses such as 'naïve' and 'self-hating'?

Published: 10.08.09, 08:20 / Israel Jewish Scene

“Naive” and “self-hating.” Those are just some of the criticisms aimed at Orthodox Jews on the left of the political spectrum. But what is it about a commitment to left-wing politics which provokes this response?

 

Many Jews have been involved with left-wing politics over the years. The enlightenment allowed Jews to be politically active and this led to the Zionist movement, the Bund and even Orthodox Jewish anarchists.

There is also a lack of political balance amongst Orthodox Jews – there are few who publicly discuss being left-wing and I applaud those who do – for example The Magnes Zionist.

 

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I think my political and religious belief complement rather than contradict one another. Judaism is based on social justice in this world. The Torah states, "Justice, justice shall you pursue – so you may live". I was influenced by having several communist relatives but nevertheless attending an ultra-Orthodox school with many second generation classmates.

 

This led me to the view that Orthodox Judaism nowadays must have a universalist approach and we can and must develop an anti-racist view consistent with Jewish sources. There have been humanist critiques of Judaism, e.g. those of Israel Shahak which go too far but still carry some weight – they should be seen as a wake up call.

 

The rabbinic concept of tikkun olam ("perfecting the world") has been used in a modern context to develop approaches which increase social and economic justice through peaceful human endeavour. Judaism is about social progress, not conservatism.

 

Granted, there are limits to this - the Jewish religion is intrinsically anti-revolutionary and stable government is (arguably) seen as a necessary evil. For example, Ethics of the Fathers says: "Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbour alive."

 

The suspicion of those on the Left is not about theological dissonance, but centres on the Left's perceived lack of sympathy with Israel.

 

Much of this is based on concepts such as “new anti-Semitism”, which in its most extreme form sees non-Jews who criticise Israel as anti-Semites and Jews who do so as self-hating Jews.

 

More than this, people such as Melanie Phillips have argued that such Jews “in order to gain acceptance from the surrounding society ... embraced universalism and assimilation... promoting Enlightenment principles...”

 

This view is one which I find deeply disturbing.

 

Listen to each other with respect

First, its rejection of enlightenment values opens the door to those who have argued within Jewish tradition that non-Jews should have fewer rights than Jews or are in some ways less human – for example, mystical traditions that non-Jews have lesser souls than Jews – and who base their political approaches in the light of this.

 

There are alternatives – the second Chief Rabbi of Israel Isaac Herzog argued that Halacha in a Jewish state must not discriminate against non-Jews and that “no rabbi with a brain in his head or a modicum of common sense” would dispute this.

 

I also find it very disturbing that far-right European politicians are being seen as kosher by some Jewish leaders as they are “pro-Israel” whilst the left is excoriated as “anti Israel”. I’d suggest that we need to re-think our terms, recognising that “old” anti-Semitism is sadly alive and well and that these people are not our supporters.

 

I appreciate that many on the Right feel as deeply about human rights as those on the Left. The key task is to marginalize extremist views who aim to create division and make debate and discussion virtually impossible. This needs to be resisted and whether one is right or left-wing, a key religious principle is that we need to try to listen to each other with respect rather than indulge in sinat chinam (“causeless hatred”).

 

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