Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

On Pluralism and the Difference Between Religious Identity and a State: A Response to Columbia’s Hillel Students

Following the letter by UCLA Hillel students – disagreeing with the protesters but calling them mostly peaceful and (after the violent attack on them) pleading with the Los Angeles Jewish community to stay off campus – students affiliated with Columbia’s Hillel wrote their own response to the protest movement on their campus. They list slogans recited by some protesters that cross the line to antisemitism and rightly call them out while demanding that their own religious identity be respected. 

The letter demonstrates impressive maturity and confidence, and the students should be applauded for speaking up.

That said, there are some problems with their assumptions about Judaism and Zionism – both historically and in terms of understanding contemporary Judaism – that warrant further conversation. Zionism – like all modern Jewish political movements – began self-consciously as a rebellion against rabbinic Judaism. It portrayed itself, rather than its religious and political opponents, as the authentic recuperation of real Judaism before its diasporic corruption. (Ironically, their Reform opponents made the same claim, citing ethical monotheism of the prophets rather than texts like the Book of Joshua that Zionists preferred.) They did this, like all modern forms of Judaism, by selecting some texts over others, some traditions over others, and reinterpreting existing text with new meanings. The retooling of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which they cite, is a popular example. Conflating the meaning of the “land of Israel” with the modern state of Israel is another. 

In other words, these students are conflating a type of Judaism – today a popular one – with all Judaism, the same way as other denominations and Jewish political movements (Reform, Conservative, Religious Zionist, Haredi, Bundist, Liberal, etc.) too often assume that the past and its texts proves that their version of Judaism *is* Judaism and the others are inauthentic fakes. 

I would urge them to consider both the value and reality of pluralism, the difference between “my Judaism is valid” and “my Judaism is all Judaism.”

Equally importantly, they also need to consider (as do some anti-Israel protesters) the difference between religious identity and a political state. The former is subjective and up to each person, the latter is a political structure subject to international law and all other political forces. In other words, just because their religious identity – the way they read their tradition and history – tells them that they need to create a state in a certain way does not necessarily mean that state in that form is automatically legitimate or uncontestable. For example, if it is structured on oppressing another group it might not be, even though that form of Judaism/Jewish identity is up to the individual to decide for themselves. Kahanism, for example, is also a form of Judaism. Betzalel Smotrich had ample prooftexts to defend his call for genocide last week. 

There is deep irony that they demand respect for their religious worldview but disregard the non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Judaisms of Jews whom they dismiss as “tokens” rather than respecting them as equally autonomous religious human beings with whom they disagree. Similarly, they do not at all address the reality of another nation existing in Israel/Palestine and demanding the same rights as the students define Zionism demanding – national independence and power in their own land. (That they ignore the reality in Gaza – and the West Bank – that have sparked these protests, though they do discuss the October 7 atrocities, may be connected to this.)

In sum, I urge us all to remember two points: (1) we should respect the reality of pluralism with a healthy dose of religious humility, (2a) if you are protesting a state, do not conflate it with the religious or ethnic group connected to it, and (2b) if someone is careful to do this, those defending the state should acknowledge this fact and understand it is therefore not a religious attack. The problem comes when the protest slips to protest the ethnic or religious group, which in this case would constitute antisemitism, or when the ethnic or religious group themselves elide that distinction, which arguably also constitutes antisemitism but in any event undermines the important distinction that protesters themselves are supposed remember.

The students end by writing that they “came to Columbia because we wanted to expand our minds and engage in complex conversations.” Well, these are some of the complex conversations. I hope they are open to them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.