Rally 'Round the Flag

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Wrestling With Zion on 13 October 2003

When I was a kid attending services at Larchmont Temple, a classical Reform synagogue that boasted Joan Rivers as a regular member, my mind would wander from the monotoned responsive readings to pretty much anything else available. I played simple games in which I mentally listed the many logical inconsistencies in the service—from the professional organ player and chorus to the way the Torah was paraded around like one of those idols toward which we’re supposed to be so wary.

But, growing up as I did during the most well fought and well publicized of the Israeli wars, what I always ended up pondering the longest and most intently were those two flags on either side of the stage. (Yeah, I know now it’s called the bima, but I still have a hard time understanding what use it has other than distancing the costumed rabbi and cantor from the congregation that they should be a part of, and putting some big donors on display. So the word “stage” stands.)

The flag on the left was American, and the one on the right was Israeli. Which one was I supposed to be looking at when I worshiped? Which one deserved our allegiance? Why were they even in the temple, to begin with? Does God care about our nationalities? Do we have both of them up there just to cover our bets?

I figured the one we Jews really believed in was the Israeli flag. The one with the Jewish star. That was our country, after all. But then why did we have an American flag up there, too? This, I concluded, was a precaution in case a gentile walked in during the middle of services and wanted to know why we were all worshipping a Jewish flag. Weren’t we Americans?

So the Jewish flag was our real flag—our secret flag—and the American flag was our conspicuous nod to the nation that we called home. Just so no one thought we were unpatriotic, or, worse, communists (like grandma).

But when we went to the wedding of my brother’s fourth grade teacher, there was no flag. It was held in a Catholic church. Hmph. I supposed that because they didn’t have a nation to defend, they didn’t have to put up their own flag. They were just a religion, not a country. And since they didn’t have to prove anything about their allegiance, they didn’t bother to put up an American flag, either.

The dual flags in temple became a metaphor for me of the role of Jews in America. We were guests in America, pretending to be Americans, but when we got together behind closed doors we were actually some sort of Israelis. Why did we always say “next year in Jerusalem” if we didn’t mean it, somehow? My brother and I used to ask our parents if we were really supposed to be wishing to go to Israel, where they have all those wars. “Just for Passover,” my dad told us.

This notion of Jew as closet Zionist was confirmed by the Jewish youth groups I joined as a teenager. We went on weekend retreats where we’d walk around in the woods, smoke pot, make out, and then participate in “programming” meant to show us just how much we loved Israel. It’s the same woods-sex-and-song formula used to attract youth to an entirely more nefarious ideology in an earlier era, and it worked just as well. I left those weekends believing I would gladly die in a war for Israel–but not for the United States.

I can’t help but wonder now, however, which of those two flags in synagogue truly reflected Jewish values—the one representing the Jewish state, or the one representing a state that, at least in intention, favors no religion at all? Is a Jewish state Jewish, or a breach of the most fundamental principles of Judaism?

As a fan of the Torah, I’ve spent most of my Jewish-related reading time learning about ancient Israelites who had no country of their own. Is it just coincidence that the cut-off point for these holiest of our holy books occurs immediately before the Israelites invade Canaan (at their God’s behest) and begin their first experiment in running a nation?

The Exodus is a myth about gaining freedom from idols. It’s a story celebrating a people who see through the false icons of the Egyptian civilization, and come to understand the way that attention to such idols leads to inhumanity towards people. This is why Egypt–the first-born civilization–had to be put down. By sacrificing a lamb, the mythic Israelites were not saving their children from a plague-happy God, but blaspheming the highest god of the state religion–precisely during the Egyptian New Year festival during which they were supposed to worship him.

In revolutionary zeal, they put the blood of this god on their doors, at once betraying the nation of which they were a part, and liberating themselves of allegiance to a god they very likely would have prayed to, themselves. These were the workers of Goshen, after all, and most likely had nothing to do with any Hebrew immigration four mythic centuries earlier. (I like to think of the plagues not as attacks on our Egyptian captors, but as desecrations of Egyptian gods—blood desecrating the Nile, locusts desecrating the corn, darkness desecrating the sun. To me, those drops of spilled wine at the Seder seem much more like mourning our own smashed idols than the pain and suffering of our captors.) But such analysis is shunned in most corners, today, lest it threaten those who maintain a literal or historical interpretation of Torah mythology.

The Torah, like the vast majority of Jewish lore, is better appreciated as allegory than as any sort of historical chronicle. From what we can tell, the audience for whom its stories were intended understood this quite well. They knew that Jacob’s sons were not real people, but symbolic of the many tribes who rallied together around a new conception of God that was not dependent on a locality or common race.

Once the Israelites enjoyed a nation of their own, prophets from Samuel to Isaiah tried desperately to keep them from turning their God into yet another nation-saver, like those of their contemporaries. Some prophets even saw the loss of Israel as a valuable lesson in transcending the illusory security of a divinely protected nation.

Exile forced the Jews to pack up their religion for the road. The ancient rituals of the centralized Temple, themselves a replacement of barbaric rites of child sacrifice, were replaced by prayer and scriptural analysis. The Torah and Talmud became the new, virtual Temple. And ethical behavior—which can be practiced anywhere—replaced citizenship.

Ironically, perhaps, this focus on text and discussion over blood rites made Jewish houses of study—the Beit Midrash—the most popular religious institutions on the block. Non-Jews and Jews alike crowded into them to enjoy free-spirited conversations unfettered by the top-down doctrine of the official empire’s religion.

Guests of the nations in which they lived, Jews couldn’t own land. So they became merchants, bankers, and translators, specializing in mediating the transactions of others. As such, they depended on free and open commerce between nations that were ordinarily suspicious of one another, and developed radically pluralistic philosophies in the long search for a “unified field theory” of civilization. For if the world were really one connected place, it would include the Jews, too.

But as many nations’ most visible advocates of such cosmopolitan strides, the Jews were also persecuted as dangerous agents of change, particularly among nations who were having a hard enough time maintaining a national and racial identity in the face of the challenges of a more fluid civilization.

Everywhere the Jews went, there was a local god and local government with whom to contend. As nation-states developed, they institutionalized their local religions and myths of racial origin. For centuries, Jews stood as evidence of those who denied the reality of those religions while attempting to cohabitate with their believers. Whenever a fledgling monarch felt the foundations of his faulty reign failing, the Jews were singled out as the non-believing foreigners who threatened the sanctity of the state.

Jews always seemed to have two opposite reactions to this situation. There were the thinkers, like the prophets, Hillel, Maimonides, and Spinoza, who saw in nationhood and the persecution it brings not a goal, but an idol to be smashed. It was Spinoza who conceived the notion of a separation of church and state, and the right of any person to believe in the god he or she chooses. It was an Enlightenment philosophy that led almost directly to the American Revolution. Right about the same time, Isaac Luria’s myths of return from exile were reaching widespread acceptance as factual prophecy. Riding on this wave, a Jewish “messiah,” Shabbatai Zevi, had convinced at least 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population that judgment day was upon us, and that they should pack up their things and head for Israel. So while some seem to understand that the only Jewish answer to national religion is to separate these two irreconcilable priorities, the other side–usually in the majority, at least economically–believes that the better strategy is for Jews to create a nation of their own. Rather than teaching the world how ultimately immoral it is to institutionalize a religion into a government, they prefer to join them in their theocratic shortsightedness.

It’s hard to blame them. After a good millennium of persecution and exile by one nation after another, the status of “welcome guest” had become an impossible aspiration. Between 1421 and 1494 alone, the Jews were exiled from thirteen nations by official decree. The pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair, and the Nazis, to name just a few highlights on the persecution hit parade, were enough to convince even progressive Jews that, until the world became more civilized, a compromise was in order. The Jews would need a state of their own.

But the Jewish state is just that: a compromise of Jewish ideals, and not their realization. It has, no doubt, saved Jewish lives. At the same time, however, its unchecked descent into religious self-justification threatens Judaism itself.

For in order to protect this nationalized refugee camp—especially by those of us here in America who do so through financial proxy—we have had to inculcate ourselves with some very un-Jewish ideas. The most glaring of these is the notion that Jews need to control all of biblical Israel in order for the messianic age to begin. It’s not a commonly held belief within secular Israel—but it sure is in the disputed territories, and especially here in the post-1967 generation United States. That’s why Brooklynites radicalized in this fashion leave their safe homes and fine jobs in favor of settling the West Bank. It’s also why Israel’s greatest allies are the most radically fundamentalist Christians of the United States–the same ones who blame 9/11 on the sins of New Yorkers–but who share the belief that land is a prerequisite for grace. Messianism leads to strange bedfellows.

Torah itself is sacrificed to the cause. It is interpreted in the most literal way possible in order to justify each new land grab. See? This parcel was deeded to Abraham. It says so right here in Genesis! And this new need to interpret Torah in a literal fashion reduces covenant to a real estate contract. It conflates the sacred space created by divinely inspired allegory into the flat, mundane time line of political history. We get a claim on some land, but we lose our religion in the process.

Nation-states were not invented by God, but by people. Look up the Treaty of Versailles for how that happened. Nation-states are social constructions–agreements that all those people living in the region from, say, Tuscany to Sicily are now Italians, with a shared heritage and religion. This religious and ethnic idenlity is invented and retrofitted, not an original part of the human condition.

And just as all the other nation-states developed false myths of ethnic identity in order to generate ethnocentric patriotism, now the Jews are doing it, too–in spite of the fact that our religion, such as it is, was designed to avert just such a scenario. We are wrong. Judaism is not a race, but an idea. Jews come from an assortment of tribes who allied in the desert around a single notion: that human beings are not simply born into their reality, but can make the world a better place.

It is our enemies who attempted to define us promoters of universalism as a race, and we who have allowed ourselves to adopt their view. Pharaoh is the first character in the Bible to call the Israelis “a people.” The Inquisitors of Spain first called the Jews a “race,” in order to justify persecution against people who had successfully converted to Catholicism with a new crime: our blood. And Hitler, exploiting some of Carl Jung’s musings, was the first to publicize the myth of a Jewish “genetic memory.” Now, in the face of science and basic genetics, famous New York intellectuals publish rebuttals of my efforts to break these misconceptions, citing the existence of Tay-Sachs disease as proof of a Jewish race.

I am not against Israel, and I’m most certainly not against the Israelis, who tend to have a much more progressive and secular understanding of the role of nationhood in sustaining the Jewish people and an experimental system of government founded on Jewish ethical principles. They should be applauded for their efforts.

It is American Jews, insisting that the biblical character God literally gave a specific piece of land to all people who accept the covenant (or the race of people descended from the mythic figure Abraham), who have mired Israel and Judaism in the worst stripes of fundamentalism. There are better ways to support the existence of Israel–ethical, social, political, financial and even military–than to claim that it is the Lord and one true God’s will. The fact that American Jews today now have a nation to defend, a race to keep pure, and flag to wave just like everybody else is not a step toward true Jewish emancipation. It’s the ultimate form of assimilation.

At the very least, we must consider the possibility that Israel is not the ultimate realization of Jewish ideals, but a temporary surrender of those ideals to the greater necessities of survival in a world plagued by angry religious states with cruel and murderous ethnocentric policies.

In a sense, the real Jewish nation—at least in principle if not its most recent deeds—is the United States, which was founded on more consistently Jewish ideals than Israel, herself. Unintentionally, the Arabs are right when they paint America as a great Zionist conspiracy. It is the true, if troubled, experiment in religious freedom and secular self-rule initiated by Moses so many ages ago.

If I had to pick a flag that best represented the spirit and law of my Torah, it’d be the one on the left.