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Polyamory in the time of malaria: Israel and progressive Jews

Guest post by Shahar Luft

An alarming chasm is said to be opening up between Israel and American liberal Jews. It’s in the air in AIPAC meetings, in JCC offices and campus lawns. Concerned Jewish liberals tell Israelis: where your government is taking you, we cannot follow for long. You shut yourself in an ethnostate, colonize a captive population, deport immigrants, and separate genders in prayer; while for us, being Jewish is increasingly the opposite of all that: it’s humanistic, inclusive and caring; a moral pledge, not a tribal stance.

Occasionally, these statements acquire a nostalgic edge: in the past, Israel was ruled by humanitarian social-democrats who affiliated with a worldwide progressive movement; today it befriends reactionary populists.

But paradoxically, some of the difficulty that progressive Jews find with Israel has to do with the leftwing, socialist movement that shaped the country in its early years. At its core lies a perception of the Jews as humans struggling to survive rather than as bearers of a world-transforming message.

Labour Zionism has a sort of pantheon, a cemetery that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Among the many buried there, one finds the gravestone of Berl Katznelson, the movement’s great luminary.

Berl (the first-name usage indicates prominence, not humility) was positive about Jewish tradition. Unlike some enthusiasts who thought that they were creating a new civilization that will break with the past, Berl welcomed historical Judaism, along with its religious trappings.

Berl is buried next to his lifelong partner. And to their third, polyamorous, partner.

Again: their third romantic associate, a nurse who had caught malaria from her patients and died decades before the other two.

The three saw themselves as deeply bonded and cared little for the religion that consecrates the exclusive man-wife relationship. And the movement had them buried like that because it prioritized their own perceptions of who they were above religion. Labour Zionism was as secular as secular goes.

Why did Berl urge respect for a religion he blatantly did not practice?

Because he was secular. At bottom a gloomy existentialist, he thrived on frustration and disappointment. The Socialist International turned a cold shoulder to the Jewish activists who appealed to it after the 1905 pogroms. The revolution could not bother with each obscure demography. Jewish socialists were expected to interpret the destruction of their communities as another sign of the old order’s impending collapse.

Some Jewish socialists began to doubt. If the revolution abandoned the Jews, then it could not be universal. If it was not universal, perhaps it was not really the ultimate mega-event promised by Marx. Maybe history had no plan at all. Maybe it was an arbitrary sequence that led nowhere. There was no God to oversee a religious redemption. And there was no materialist dialectic to assure a socialist one.

When informed by his friend Rubashov in 1917 that the masses had taken to the streets of Saint Petersburg, Berl replied: and we have just harvested a cartful of produce in our field. That was shorthand for: history is not a scripted drama played out by noise and spectacle; it is, instead, each cartload you pull in the blazing sunlight and each square kilometre of farmland you clear and each goat you add to your livestock. Practice, not theory; the messy confusion of daily life, not the beautiful trajectories that philosophers conjure to shut out the confusion.

And that history is made by concrete people. They are all you have, along with their superstitions and prejudices. Not Lenin’s anonymous masses, but a self-identifying group, the Jews. Shared religion enhances their mutual obligation, but the obligation, not the religion, matters. Being Jewish is standing by other Jews. It does not have to impact on your romantic choices.

One might object: that’s all bygones. Labour Zionism has not been in power for decades. The course of the country is now decided by others.

But Labour Zionism’s decline is also a reflection of its success. Some of its attitudes sunk so deep into the texture of Israeli life, that they no longer require a distinct party to represent them. Above all, the pragmatism has caught, along with the suspicion of grand plans and lofty principles. Unless you are willing to cast your lot with living others, principles are empty posture. The left’s decline since the seventies coincided with its increasing propensity to put global before local. Its best and brightest now turned towards Western liberalism, for which peace and human rights trumped everyday experience and collective survival. But the low-key pragmatism abandoned by Labour Zionism was picked up by others. It remains the undeclared modus operandi of that society.

It involves acknowledging that reality doesn’t streamline to match the formulations of theorists and jurists. It involves a dose of moral ambiguity that awaits resolution, but not anxiously. Is the West Bank a part of Israel, or not? Should religion and state be separate? Are we primarily Jews beholden to tradition and theology rather than citizens united in nothing but constitutional democracy? The answers are constantly yes and no and in between and none of the above. The apparent muddle is not necessarily debilitating because apparent clarity is not always an assurance of success. Too often (Berl would say), clarity just papers over the details that don’t match. Marx had it all wrong, Lenin failed, and the European fascists were defeated. But placing the materially specific before the tidily logical, the Zionist collective survived.

American liberal Jews are right to warn Israel about the strain in the relationship. But that strain does not originate only from under the lamplight of current events. Israel’s preference for security and cohesion above moral precision stems from its striving to be a nation rather than a class; a state rather than a religion. This attitude follows from a systematically secular approach that had once aligned with social democracy. The current Israeli government may give it a face that’s less appealing. But with or without that face, this is much of what Israel was always about.