A tale of rage and loathing
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
For many of a secular bent, espousing religious belief is tantamount to evidence of fascism or insanity or both. Israelis in particular often display such an attitude. I often find that when secular Israelis discover that I keep kosher and even attend synagogue they regard me with a new wariness.
This happened only the other day, when at a conference dinner in Berlin the Israeli sitting next to me, who was tucking into his lobster and veal, looked askance at the plate of mushrooms that I had been served (sometimes the alternative catering proves a little erratic) and said 'Vegetarian? Kosher??' and then said defensively: 'I keep kosher at home'; and then, alarmed lest I might think he was actually religious, added hastily: 'but only so that anyone can eat in my house'.
Two weeks ago, the renowned Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote an article in the Times excoriating Israel's settlers. Stanmore's rabbi Jeffrey Cohen took an exceedingly dim view of this on the grounds that Oz was a 'Jew-hating Jew' who had used an international platform to revile his own people. So did I, and wrote accordingly in my website diary.
This produced the novel experience of finding both myself and Rabbi Cohen denounced in last week's JC leader column for our 'unrestrained and unwise' vilification of Oz which showed a 'total lack of understanding' of the context in which he was writing.
This context seemed to be that no-one in Israel would turn a hair at what Oz had to say, which was merely to want a secular democratic state within the 1967 borders and accordingly to oppose the religious motivation behind the settler movement. Oh, and if we had read Oz's autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness - 'preferably in its original, beautiful Hebrew' - we might see the error of our benighted ways.
Some JC readers might well share the leader-writer's outrage at what I wrote on my website. But since I have thus been denounced without readers being told what I actually wrote, it might be considered an advantage for them to know what they are to be outraged about.
Rabbi Cohen, of course, can speak for himself. But for me, the distressing aspect of Oz's article was not that he wanted Israel to be a secular state. It was his out-and-out attack on religious Judaism, his implication that this was necessarily extremist and nationalist, that it had created the monstrous injustice of the settlements, that the settlements were the sole obstacle to peace with the Arabs and that Israel should therefore be stripped altogether of any religious identity. Now I have consistently opposed the settlements and supported the disengagement. But Oz's tirade seemed to me to be deeply unpleasant, distorted and unfair. Yes, some settlers have undoubtedly been motivated by religious fanaticism and - as I wrote on my website -- the behaviour of some of these during the disengagement was despicable.
But many, particularly in Gaza, were neither religious nor extreme but merely poor people lured to Gaza by the prospect of cheap housing. Next, Oz equated religious Judaism with nationalist fanaticism. Yes, most nationalist extremists are religious. But by no means all religious Jews are ultra-nationalists.
Oz's obsessive hatred of religious Judaism - which encompasses an enormous spectrum of attitudes -- suggests that it is he, the militant secularist, who is the fanatic. His desire to strip Israel of its religious Jewish identity seemed to me to be tantamount to stripping the soul from a human being.
I was very struck by the analysis of his anti-religious animus delivered by Kenneth Levin in his book 'The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege' (Smith and Kraus) which I wrote about here last month. Levin writes of Oz that, as a result of the Arab siege of Israel which has systematically prevented him from living a normal life, he is possessed by rage towards Jewish history, Jewish culture and Jewish ties to the land.
In this he resembles those 19th century Jewish intellectuals in Europe 'who railed against the curse of the Jewish, of Jewish history and Jewish identity (often doing so - as Oz does - while professing individualism or universalism as more noble and high-minded than any narrow ethnic or religious or national identity) but whose indictments of all things Jewish were a response to Europe's besiegement of the Jews and their own eagerness to escape the siege'.
His desire accordingly to strip Israel of its religious identity seems to me to be profoundly anti-Jewish. As it happens, I have read and admired A Tale of Love and Darkness. But it is perfectly clear -- even to one such as myself who did not read it in the 'original, beautiful Hebrew' -- that it describes Oz's deep attachment to Israel. What it does not describe is his attachment to Judaism which, from his comments in the Times, must be open to question.