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How (not) to win a culture war December 22, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Politics, Religion.
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When considering the recent religious ruling by dozens of municipal chief rabbis in Israel, forbidding Jews from renting or selling their houses to non-Jews, Daniel Gordis opines that concepts like “racism,” while relevant in America, may not be applicable to Israel:

[…] America does not need to struggle to guarantee its Christian nature. Our society, though largely Jewish now, could easily become something very different with time. If that is what these rabbis meant to say, they were right.

Apply the ethnicity-blind standards of American life here, and in a generation or two, Israel’s Jewish quality might be gone.

Gordis goes on to imply that discriminating against non-Jews may be acceptable in order to “guarantee a long-term Jewish quality of this country”. To see the problem with this approach, begin by noticing that there is not actually any agreement among Israeli Jews about just what kind of “Jewish quality” Israel ought to have. There is not even any agreement about who is considered a Jew in the first place — witness the never-ending political struggles over conversion. Would it be acceptable to discriminate against Conservative and Reform Jews in order to guarantee a long-term Orthodox quality for Israel? (“I won’t rent my house to Conservatives!”) Conversely, many Israeli Jews consider the Haredi way of life to be antithetical to the kind of state they would like to live in; would we be justified in treating Haredim differently from all other citizens? (“Haredim are not welcome in my store!”)

Taking Gordis’s approach to its logical conclusion would seem to entail the creation of separate countries for every different culture/worldview. But what happens when people who have lived their whole lives in a Jewish (Orthodox?) state decide they want to be Christians (or Reform Jews) — must they leave their homes and move to a Christian (or Reform) country? Or face discrimination if they stay? And how exactly are we going to decide who is considered a “real Jew” for this purpose? For that matter, there’s no reason why religion should be the only kind of “quality” a state might want to preserve — would the French be justified in discriminating against citizens who want to change their country’s wine and cheese culture?

The fact is that we will always have to live in a society together with people who have different opinions and priorities, and that is actually a good thing: it exposes us to different perspectives and forces us to think critically and to rigorously defend our views in a free marketplace of ideas — may the best ideas win. Being surrounded only by like-minded people is a recipe for stagnation. And as Jews should be the first to remember, any of us could one day find ourselves in the minority. Only a system where all citizens are treated equally can guarantee that people with different beliefs and backgrounds can live together peacefully, and be free to choose their own lives. The “quality” of a state may indeed change over time, but that is often beneficial: would any of us want to live in a Biblical Jewish society, where slavery is permitted and where a woman who is raped must marry her rapist?

Each of us has values and traditions he would like to preserve; people of similar worldviews are free to get together as communities, and build themselves a thriving cultural life. But the honest way to preserve a culture is by persuading other people of its value. If the only way to keep your culture alive is by forcing it on others and discriminating against those who are different, your culture ought to go extinct.

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