An Exchange of Ideas

I received this response to my letter to Rabbi Dow Marmur (posted previously) from Howard Adelman, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at York University. My response follows immediately afterwards.


Values and Israeli Society


Howard Adelman

Just before Yom Kippur, Rabbi Dow Marmur forwarded me a missive sent to him by Jim Lederer (see attached) which invited comments. I read the long letter and was very intrigued since it picks up on the theme of yesterday’s blog stressing the still small voice of accumulating whispers of ordinary citizens. Since the letter also deals with ethics, and, more particularly, just war theory, I could not resist commenting.

If you decide to read the letter (and possibly my response), do not be put off by the long introductory note of self-pity and lament in Jim’s missive. He does have some relevant points and observations. Unfortunately, Jim also argues that not only has Israel been misunderstood, but that he has been both misunderstood and ignored. He alone has grasped a very different Israel than the one put forth by knee-jerk defenders, whom he refuses to call rightists, left-wing critics of Israel who are so narrowly focused on the misbehaviour of its government or as an immoral occupier, and Israel’s liberal admirers who zero in on Israel as a start-up nation. Jim argues that a very different Israel has emerged in a grass-roots based value system that is quite at odds with Israel’s former history.

Jim insists that his account would never be published in any contemporary newspaper or journal. I agree. But not because of his thesis, but because the combination of self-pitying and haughty self-righteousness is so off-putting. Further, the letter itself needs better organization and considerable editing.  Accusing all non-Israelis of a detachment from reality (with the exception of Rabbi Dow Marmur) does not help, especially when accompanied by a more general dissing of non-Israelis.

Jim argues that within the Jewish world, a gap – no, an enormous canyon – has developed between Israel and the diaspora so that two very different Jewish civilizations have emerged. This is a radically different argument than that put forth by Sara Dobner on Israeli-Diaspora Relations in the 24 September issue of the Canadian Jewish News. Sara offers a thesis that, in contrast to early Israeli society that was antithetical to the diaspora and refused to acknowledge that it had a future, the new Israel has come to accept the persistence of the diaspora as an independent source of inspiration and culture in the Jewish world. Instead of a gap developing into a canyon between the two worlds, Sara observes new bridges being developed between the two realms. Instead of the old depiction of the diaspora as doomed to disappear while in the meantime it served as a valuable lobbying ally and a source of philanthropic funds, Israel has now accepted the diaspora as a permanent partner, even though the tension between Zion and the gola persists.

Jim is a direct heir and grandchild of the old Israeli view that degraded and dismissed the diaspora, only he is even harder on the diaspora, insisting that it only understands Israel as a caricature while he himself caricatures the diaspora. For he claims that the diaspora fails to grasp the emerging sense of new values in Israel as relevant and authentic. He further claims not only that Israel and the diaspora have different cultures and that Jews in each have different identities, but that Israel and only Israel has developed a vibrant and authentic core of new values while the diaspora has not only not contributed anything to this emergence, but in general it is too superficial to even comprehend what has happened — whether among leftist critics, right-wing defenders or liberal admirers of high-tech Israel.

In spite of the radical differences between Jim and Sara, both accept the belief that Israel and the diaspora express radically different identities for Jews and the two societies manifest very different cultures. While Sara stresses building bridges and a synergistic relationship between the two societies, Jim is both dismissive of the diaspora, but goes further. He not only condemns the diaspora as irrelevant, but claims it is a prime source of misunderstanding. While Jim is the only one to understand the new reality emerging in Israel, Sara argues that diaspora Jews who are olim in Israel and Israelis living abroad are best positioned to interpret and mediate between the two societies. Jim puts the new emerging Israel on a pedestal while Sara pursues a new model of Jewish-diaspora relations.

Jim offers a potted history of the decline and self-destruction of five obsolete versions of Zionism. Communist Zionism was destroyed by Stalin’s doctor’s plot, though he could have noted that the same thing happened in the diaspora though the final nail in the coffin came with the invasion of Hungary in 1956. European style nineteenth century liberalism morphed into the Likud with its visions of Greater Israel, and, I would add, in the diaspora into the support for right-wing Israeli governments especially by the ultra-rich. Classic left-wing socialist Zionism self-destructed because it mishandled immigration from the Arab world, brought about the catastrophe of the 1973 war and totally bungled the post-war economic challenges of globalization. Mainstream Jewish orthodoxy destroyed itself by becoming fixated on settlements abandoning its former concern with social justice and the rule of law. And although revisionist Zionism had a last gasp in the remnants of an old dynamic faith as expressed by Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan, all defeated in the 2012 primaries of their once esteemed party, the movement morphed from a party of principle into a party of expedient and pragmatic politics. These developments together took the place of a bygone political realm of contending values.

However, creeping up underneath the worn clichés of obsolete Zionist forms and the valueless politics of pragmatic politicians interested only in power, has emerged a new inchoate Israeli movement rooted in Kehilla-style decision-making versus advocacy majoritarian politics based on being either for or against a proposal or set of proposals. Like pragmatism, this is process politics rather than a politics of ends or ideals, but unlike pragmatism, for Jim this new movement is rooted in a deep sensitivity to values — as if James, Dewey and the other pragmatists, including Hirschman, were not rooted in a deep sense of values.

It was here that Jim almost lost me. For he defines the Kehilla process as working by consensus, like a Quaker meeting. But in my understanding, the Kehilla mode of political governing that emerged within Jewish communities in Eastern Europe was not a consensus process. The local partially autonomous community structures, focused on religious matters, education and philanthropy, with the entitlement to tax to support such enterprises, arose after WW I in Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics. These new political structures were based on electoral politics representing a myriad of contending parties – Zionists, Bundists, Orthodox, Folkists with a myriad of subdivisions – that were mirrored in early Israel. They operated by majority rule, not consensus, though the majority could only be reached by enough of the various minorities reaching an agreement. This is not consensus politics. But, perhaps, just as the new historians in Israel are interpreted in many ways, the new history of Jewish government in Europe in the inter-war period has a new narrative of which Jim is a proponent of one particular reading.  I just am ignorant of such a reading, for it does not fit in at all with what I have read.

At the same time, I am sympathetic to Jim’s main point that a new value-based movement is emerging in Israel. I take as my example my experience with Micah Goodman, the young Israeli philosopher and specialist on Maimonides, who initiated Ein Prat – The Academy for Leadership, that my granddaughter, Ariella, attended both before she went into the army, during the army and for a year after her army service. Micah has promoted a new paradigm for Israeli politics based on listening to the other and not telling the other. However, I found Jim’s thesis wanting — that this new movement is rooted historically in the Israeli Black Panther protests fifty years ago, Motti Ashkenazi’s demands for accountability after the 1973 war and increasing efforts to make the people rather than the Knesset sovereign.

I am also in full agreement with Jim on his central thesis that the IDF has the most advanced inculcation of just war ethics than any army, though the American army is not far behind. (The Canadian army is not even in the running.) Jim correctly roots that development in Israel in Assa Kasher’s manual that he wrote for the army in the nineties. It is manifested in the guidelines provided to pilots in their bombing runs and in the provision of ethical and legal advisers to commanders on the operational level. Though the Geneva and Hague guidelines are indeed woefully inadequate in dealing with asymmetrical warfare, there has been a great deal of work in Israel and abroad on the issues that arise. More significantly, as a commentary on Jim’s dissing of both the diaspora and the ethics of all other nations than Israel, these worldwide movements, though primarily rooted in Israel and the United States, challenge Jim’s thesis that Israel and the US do not share any fundamental values in common.

The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty (though perhaps not the basic Law on Freedom and Occupation) that Amnon Rubinstein and Dan Meridor promoted in the Knesset, was influenced a great deal by American (and Canadian) law. The initiatives in the IDF and in the Knesset were matched by developments in the Israeli Supreme Court — as Jim argues. Like its American and Canadian counterparts, these courts usually proceed by incrementalism rooted in specific cases that try to balance various competing values in a society, in the case of Israel where security is so important, balancing security with fairness, the protection of civilians, proportionality and a dedication to common sense. In all of these courts, their best judgments are guided by principles of coherence, consistency and correspondence with the facts.

However, I myself find these developments in Israel to be inadequate because they have not been matched by the creation of adequate systems of accountability. Further, too little progress has been made in overcoming the tensions and impetus of military values and imperatives so that just norms at present remain in a relatively weak position in countering these other strong forces in military decision-making. Though there is a process of investigating failures in observing whether just norms have been followed, these are not timely enough or open enough to offer sufficient progress, though these processes are infinitely better than the ideologically driven biased processes of the UN Human Rights Council.

Thus, although I take Jim’s letter to contain a number of valuable nuggets of truth and wisdom, it is too marred by distortions and an atonal insensitivity to other sources that are far more balanced, proportionate and discriminating.


My Rebuttal

I am deeply grateful to Dow for distributing my piece and to Prof. Adelman for accepting my offer to comment on it.


But first a gripe: Prof. Adelman, I am a fervent adherent of the old Hollywood dictum “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.” The name is Lederman, not Lederer.


I particularly enjoyed receiving a copy of Howard’s blog posting because I hope that my missive to Dow and Howard’s reply will encourage others to enter into a needed, spirited debate on whether, how and why Israel has been misunderstood. Moreover, what he wrote, what he chose not to write about, and what he appears not have known to write about go a long way towards proving the worth of many of the central ideas that I put forward.


Surprisingly, he made only passing reference to the central theme of my piece—that the Israeli public is in the midst of constructing a new, national value system that is adapted to their traditions and unique experience; and that because of shallow media coverage, the world, and especially Diaspora Jewry is unaware of the process that is underway.


Had he stated that the information I presented was new to him, I would have felt that I had accomplished my objective and would have said no more. Had he written that he was aware of the process that is underway, I would have expected him to expand on the subject and provide both me and his other readers with details of which I may have been unaware.


In the end, in this case, anything else said or written is just “Shmearach,” as they say in Yiddish.


So, in the wake of his remarks, here is my shmear. I will address the assertions he makes point by point.


Without having ever met me, Howard accuses me of self-pity and self-righteousness. I beg to differ. I love my work and find it exciting, not pitiable. However, for very objective reasons, and as I noted in my letter to Dow, I do suffer from a sense of deep frustration.


I have been the Senior Israel Analyst for Oxford Analytica for the past 22 years. My work is distributed by expensive subscription to the World Bank, the IMF, dozens of governments (including Canada’s) and several hundred major international corporations. My mandate is a very special one. I am tasked to deal with precisely those issues that are ignored or distorted by such august media outlets as the New York Times, the Guardian and The Economist. I spend most of my work time sifting through vast quantities of raw data; and all too often the conclusions I come to differ markedly from the blatherings of politicians, the spin of bureaucrats, the defences put up by diplomats, the models employed by and the dogmatic utterances of academics, and the assumptions, presumptions and conventional wisdom of the media’s punditocracy.


My briefs regularly appear among the list of most-read articles published by Analytica, and I most surely would have been fired long ago had my observations proven to be incorrect or lacking in prescience over time. Nonetheless, no matter how well-footnoted and referenced my articles for the general public are, I have not had a single piece published in a North American journal or magazine in 15 years. In most cases the editors never try to refute the arguments I make or challenge the data I provide. They appear to take the same view as the one voiced most directly to me by a CBC editor I had many years ago. In all seriousness, he instructed me: “Don’t tell me what the Israelis say. Tell me what I know.”


From a purely ideological point of view, I find it hard to accept that only those with access to wealth—and not ordinary people—should have access to the material that I produce.


As I mentioned to Dow, my frustration came to a head during the recent war when I kept reading and hearing errant nonsense and outright idiocies in the media such as that Israel was behaving in an inherently morally inferior manner because fewer Israeli civilians were being killed by Hamas rockets than Gaza Palestinians were being killed by Israeli warplanes. These sorts of too-often-repeated logical fallacies served to highlight a subject I have long railed about. Because, over time, media coverage of Israel had been so shallow, non-Israelis are suffering from cumulative ignorance about one of the most dynamic elements of Israeli society, its ongoing search for a value system that takes into account the often unique experiences Israelis have undergone.


Contrary to what Howard alleges, at no point in my article did I diss the Diaspora. I merely pointed out that because of ignorance, Diaspora Jews were not aware of this dynamic and thus have not taken part in it. For this reason, while North American Jews had devoted masses of energy and effort wrestling with the questions such as whether membership in the tribe of Judah could be patrilineal as well as matrilineal (which created no waves among Israelis), American Jews took no note of the debate that raged in Israel on what should be the content of the civic textbook used in public schools.


Different priorities and different data sets in common use by both parties have combined to create a canyon between the two groups of Jews on the subject of what shuld be on the agenda of public debates.


Howard accuses me of being the “heir and grandchild of the old Israeli view that degraded and dismissed the Diaspora.” The very opposite is true. My letter to Dow was written with great pain at the lack of real communication between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. I am all in favor of building bridges between Israelis and the Diaspora, but that cannot come about so long as Peter Beinart and Norman Podhoretz and their ilk insist that Israel bow to their dictates—especially those decrees that do not relate to and even fly in the face of Israelis’ day-to-day experiences and the rites of passage they undergo.


For that reason, I therefore also feel obliged to challenge Howard’s support of Sara Dobner’s assertion that new olim and Israelis abroad are best positioned to build these bridges. My experience is that these two groups are too busy just adapting to and learning the basics about the new environments they must personally cope with to be able to assess accurately the macro-issues that today divide two, increasingly different Jewish civilizations.


To take but one example: On Rosh Hashana, Diaspora and Israeli Jews read the same Torah portion—the Akeda. It deals with the binding and potential sacrifice of Isaac. Following that holiday service Diaspora Jews probably never give much more thought to that narrative—at least not until it is once again recited during the normal annual Torah reading cycle.


This is not the case for any Israeli parent who has a child in a fighting army unit. Because migrants tend to be relatively young, it is doubtful whether they have children liable for conscription.


However, middle-aged and slightly older Israeli parents, every two weeks, very often find themselves having to actually enact the Akeda story themselves. Parents with children in fighting units, at five-thirty on Sunday morning, invariably and dutifully usually end up take their beloved child to the nearest bus stop. And, like Abraham, they entrust that child to the desires and even whims of an almost indefinable, seemingly amorphous body over which they have no control, but which they have no choice but to trust implicitly. Each time this rite takes place, after a ceremonial kiss, these parents have no choice but to turn their heads away, without knowing whether the child in whom they have invested their souls will soon be sacrificed. Only someone who has experienced such an event himself or herself is positioned to begin to comprehend Israelis’ motivations.


Other, similar, unique rites of passage have additional, cumulative effects on Israeli perceptions and behaviours that then make those behaviours almost incomprehensible to foreigners.


Howard then goes on to claim that I somehow ignore the contribution that has been made by value-seeking pragmatists such as James, Dewey and Hirschman. I do not ignore them just as I did not ignore the pragmatic Edinburgh philosophers I did mention in my piece. I merely pointed out that in Israel, it is not only the intellectual elite that is grappling with morally and ethically complex existential issues of this sort. In many cases, and unique to Israel, the search for solutions to weighty value-laden problems is being led by the hoi polloi.


Howard follows this critique by committing a major historiographical error. He claims that the Kehilla mode of self-governance emerged in Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics after World War I; and that it was not based on consensus politics. As I pointed out in my piece, it evolved in the Diaspora in the years following the final codification of the Jerusalem Talmud; and it has survived for some 1500 years. Howard, apparently a staunch Ashkenazi focussed on his recent roots, seems to be totally unaware that the Kehilla system of governance is a modified form of self-rule that was prevalent in communities in Israel during the period of the Sanhedrin, that North African and Sephardi Jews were using Kehillah governance long before the Moslem conquest, that Iraqi Jews and other Mizrahi communities adopted the system after the hereditary Babylonian ethnarchy collapsed in the 10th century CE, and that the system was well–established in Ashkenaz by the time of Rashi. In addition to organizing and paying for things such as education and the mikve, this consensus-based system was the primary means used to negotiate, collect the funds for and make the decisions necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of redeeming those hostages whom were regularly kidnapped by brigands and barons in medieval Europe.


By disregarding this historical truth, Howard also does an injustice to the thousands of gabbais (sextons) over the centuries who were entrusted with not only running the synagogue, but with maintaining the communal unity that has always been a prerequisite for Jewish survival. The gabbais collected all the gossip needed to head off communal disputes before they became destructive communal battles. They were the first person Jewish travellers arriving in a town met if they were seeking lodging; and they were thus responsible for collating potentially threatening news about the outside world. And, most importantly they presided over the consensus-building chat that invariably accompanies the daily shiur that takes place in all Orthodox synagogues between the mincha and maariv prayers.


Incidentally, so atavistic is this craving for consensus that today, even secular Israeli institutions such as Israeli youth movements, devote much of their time teaching youngsters how to go about joint consensus decision-making.


Howard finds my assertion that this movement towards consensus, popular decision-making began with the Black Panthers and Motti Ashkenazi to be “wanting.” All I can say is that this is what I witnessed personally. If he can point to another period when the Labour movement’s hegemony was finally undermined by mass popular actions, I am open to persuasion.


On one point, at least, we do seem to agree. As I noted in my piece, and as he stated so forcefully in his response to me, Israel has not created adequate systems of accountability. But then, as I mentioned, this is precisely why the search for common values began…as an antidote to the politicians’ refusal to hold themselves accountable to a set of nationally-agreed-upon standards of behaviour. And so, as I concluded, Israel is now in the midst of a guerilla war between large numbers of value-seeking citizens and those bureaucrats, army officers and freely-elected politicians who refuse to be held accountable for their actions or inactions.


While Howard concludes his remarks by alleging that my assessment “is marred by distortions and an atonal insensitivity to other sources,” I too can suggest that his critique is pervaded by these same faults.


I therefore have a suggestion to make. One of the primary and most impressive features of the Israeli values-seeking movement has been its emphasis on a self-felt need to devote an exorbitant amount of time in seemingly-repetitive debate before its participants come to an agreement on the criteria that should be used to evaluate any proposal brought up for public discussion. This process is certainly one in which the Diaspora not only has a right but also a duty to participate in. That is because the battle to formulate criteria is not only the main means that the Israeli public and the courts have to force accountability on the government, the results of the debate inform almost every aspect of Israeli life from who has the right to lead a public protest to relations with the Diaspora to when the public believes it should mobilize in support of a peace proposal.


For more than thirty years, I have tried dozens of times to publish reports on these efforts to establish criteria, but every article I have written on the subject has been rejected by editors as being “not for us.” The ignorance by Diaspora Jews about the substance and the manner of approach that Israelis take in dealing with existential matters such as those that I have talked about, as well as my own frustration, is thus, I believe, perfectly understandable.


To their credit, the folks at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple have now asked me to speak in early February about the criteria the Israelis have created for judging the viability of any peace initiative. The material I have gathered is based on an analysis of over 5,000 newspaper articles, op-eds, speeches, panel discussions and the notes I took of radio talk shows. This collective “wisdom of the Israeli crowds” has proven over time to be extraordinarily prescient and has predicted both the peace agreement with Jordan as well as the collapse of the Oslo accords. It also reveals with extraordinary clarity the reasons for the failure of all the abortive peace-making missions that would-be mediators have launched over the years.


I invite you Howard, and anyone else interested in the subject, to attend my talk in February. Who knows, you may even have something important to contribute to this ongoing search for wisdom.


In the meantime, I also invite anyone and everyone to respond to my original article, Howard’s response and my rebuttal. If you do, we may even be able to begin a bit of canyon bridge-building.

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