Peace, Ethics, and the Failure of Jewish Liberalism

By Mirvish, Adrian | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Peace, Ethics, and the Failure of Jewish Liberalism


Mirvish, Adrian, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


SOME TIME AGO MY FAMILY AND I ATTENDED A RALLY for Israel in downtown San Francisco. The crowd was large and speeches from lay and religious Jewish officials were interspersed with songs. Although some of the music was uplifting I felt a distinct sense of disquietude with the words of one tune that called in universalistic tones for peace between Israel and its neighbors, emphasizing the words "shalom" and "salaam." I clearly was not alone in my reticence for while some of the crowd sang with fervor, others deliberately refrained. I feel a similar reticence welling up inside me when it comes to prayers for peace every Shabbat. In the face of suicide bombings, or even attempts at such, is there not cognitive dissonance in even talking, much less asking, for peace?

In spite of such reservations, there are still many Jews who advocate peace as a truly viable possibility, unswerving in their insistence that this state of affairs can--or indeed, must absolutely--be attained, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In this light, I can think of the recent talks of two rabbis of liberal persuasion who, while insisting that we need always to consider both sides regarding the war to eliminate Saddam Hussein, never mentioned the fact that over a 30-month period alone Iraq had contributed $34 million to pay the families of suicide bombers. Or consider the case of a Jewish family who went to march in a San Francisco anti-war demonstration despite the fact that it was organized, in this case, by a rabidly anti-Israel group known to be opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state.

One could continue with more examples in the same vein, but the above I think suffices to identify the type of liberal sentiment that I wish to discuss. I am not concerned here with those who question Israel's right to exist. My interest lies instead with the moral and political convictions of Jews who support the existence of the Jewish State. The concern is with people who not only identify with, but play some active role in, the Jewish community, people whose commitment to a liberal view moves them to respond with wistful talk of peace at a time when, vis-a-vis the intifada, Israel is in effect at war. What about this liberal world view allows them to insist on the immediate need for peace even although Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Hammas are dedicated, overtly, to destroying the Jewish State? What is it about this liberal world view that promoted virulent opposition, or at least extreme reticence, to a war aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein, a dictator not only known for vicious crimes against his own people but one who was also unambiguous in his desire to eliminate Israel? How is this liberal world view related to Jewish tradition, and what alternatives are there within the tradition for those, like myself, who have long endorsed a liberal standpoint but now think that September 11th and the Palestinian war against Israel call for some profound adjustments to this liberal agenda? Is it possible to reconcile a yearning for rational, peaceful solutions to this complex human conflict and the realities of contemporary terrorist movements?

The contemporary, liberal Jewish response to this moral dilemma is clearly inadequate. Although Jewish liberalism has in the past been so important in a number of areas--as, for instance, in its commitment to the American Civil Rights movement of the sixties--this same set of ideas has by now unfortunately become fossilized. Rather than dealing with an important, humanistic force, what is left today is essentially an ideology that judges reality through a set of a priori constraints instead of engaging the situation on its own, sometimes unpleasant, grounds. This lamentable ossification, I wish to show, is the result of liberal Jewish sentiment having been cut off from the very tradition that inspired it.

Consider the moral and political stance of A. J. Heschel, specifically his God in Search of Man (1) and Who is Man. …

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