Seeking Redemption: On Religious Anti-Occupation Politics

In a new book, one of Israel's most prominent left-wing activists makes his case through a thousand years of Jewish scholarship.

Mikhael Manekin’s new book, The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics and Redemption in a Time of Power (currently available in Hebrew), opens with what he calls “a desecration of God’s name.” The year is 2000, and Manekin is a kippa-wearing captain in the Golani brigade, his unit dispatched to the village of Salem in the northern West Bank. One morning, he exits the house that his soldiers have seized for their camp, unzips his pants, and relieves himself in the yard. When he looks up from the deed, he sees the old woman whose home his soldiers now occupy, observing him from the neighboring house five meters away. “Her look was not one of embarrassment,” Manekin recalls, “but of contempt and disgust.” Although he had not intended to perform such a coarse display of dominance and disregard, there was no denying what he did: “I knew without a doubt that I had sinned.” Yet, he adds, “I would not have understood the significance of this event without my memory of the tradition,” by which he means the Jewish ethical tradition in which he was raised.

Manekin is a veteran left-wing Israeli activist: a former executive director of Breaking the Silence and former director of Molad, a progressive Israeli think-tank. Today, he runs the Alliance Fellowship, which brings together emerging Israeli Jewish and Arab political leaders. He is also a religious Jew—a believing Jew, who speaks more openly than most about serving God. His faith makes him an outlier in the world of left-wing politics in Israel, where, at least among Jews, the formerly religious (“datlashim”) greatly outnumber the currently practicing. The Dawn of Redemption—in Hebrew, the title is Atchalta—represents Manekin’s attempt to articulate a philosophy and approach to Jewish ethics that brings together the two worlds in which he lives, and that grounds his opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank deep in Judaism’s sources.

He succeeds. Drawing on an impressive range of sources—the Talmud, the writings of Ashkenazi and Sephardic medieval Jewish pietists, the Chofetz Chaim’s forgotten guide for Jewish soldiers, the Yiddish poetry of Jacob Glatstein—Manekin traces in compelling detail the traditional Jewish ethical disposition that recoils from pride, abhors violence, and views power with suspicion. He argues that this traditional Jewish ethics requires a radically different approach to the reality of Jewish political power instantiated by the Israeli state than the dominant view in Israel allows. By the book’s end, he leaves the reader with little doubt that not only is there no need to compromise one’s commitment to Jewish tradition in order to oppose Israel’s occupation, but that a commitment to traditional Jewish ethics requires active opposition to the occupation. Powerful yet unconventional, The Dawn of Redemption is a hybrid of memoir, mussar, family history, halakhic argumentation, and social criticism. It is a manifesto for a new religiously committed Jewish left that is taking shape.

***

The central contention of the book is that the actions of the modern Israeli state contravene the character virtues (middot) prescribed by rabbinic and pietistic literature over the last 1500 years. Whereas Israeli Zionist culture valorizes strength, celebrates power, and sacralizes violence, this older tradition counsels humility, commends gentleness, and regards the use of force with skepticism. As an example, Manekin quotes the Talmudic tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta, (1:1): “The characteristics of a scholar are that he is meek, humble, alert, filled with a desire to learn, beloved by all, humble before the members of his household, and sin-fearing. He judges man fairly according to his deeds and says, ‘I have no desire for the things of this world because this world is not for me.’” Elsewhere, Manekin quotes Shevet Mussar, an eighteenth-century text by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Avraham Shlomo HaKohen, the dayyan of Smyrna, on the moral exemplar of Moses: “He was all humility, mercy, and forbearance, and he learned from every person and gave every person the benefit of the doubt; he loved peace and pursued peace, and in all his doings, he sought to practice, ‘and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is not the archetype of the sabra but the opposite.

The conventional Zionist response is that the old ethical tradition was the product of exile, a relic of times when Jews were powerless, and therefore no longer relevant today. (This is why Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion looked further back in time, past rabbinic Judaism, to the Torah and valorized its pre-exilic narrative of conquest and military might). Manekin rejects their reasoning. “The existence of the state of Israel does not absolve the Jewish person of their ethical obligations,” he writes. And in his family history—his grandfather, Yechiel Mikhael, after whom he is named—Manekin finds a model for trying to live this ethical paradigm within the reality of Jewish national sovereignty. Yechiel’s moving letters, which chart his arrival to Israel after the Holocaust, appear at the beginning and reappear throughout the book to emphasize the gulf between what Manekin sees as Judaism’s ethical core and the realities of Israeli existence. Although a Zionist, Manekin’s grandfather found in Israel a country intolerant, even inhospitable, to the kind of diasporic Judaism he embodied. Today, Manekin worries—rightly—that the Judaism represented by his grandfather is on the brink of oblivion just when it is needed most.

What would it mean to live and act politically in Israel with a conscious commitment to this Jewish ethics? That is the question to which Manekin devotes much of the book. He revisits major moral scandals in Israeli history, like the Qibya massacre in 1953, when Israeli troops killed roughly seventy Palestinians, most of them women and children, in a retaliatory strike on the West Bank village; he elaborates on how we must understand them differently from the perspective of the tradition, and how this might prevent similar atrocities in the future. He stakes out positions that put him at odds with much of the contemporary Israeli left. Against the commonplace secularist argument that religion must remain outside the public sphere, Manekin insists that the old religious values of mercy and lovingkindness can constitute a crucial bulwark against the secular state’s brutality. Only devotion to a higher good, beyond and above politics—to God’s will, Manekin comes close to saying but never quite says—can resist the totalitarian and totalizing force of modern nationalism.

In the book’s subsequent chapters, Manekin uses this insight to challenge the dominant political tendencies in Israel. He critiques the secular Zionism of Ben-Gurion for turning might into a virtue and weakness into a political sin, a revaluation of values from which, Manekin argues, the traditional Jew recoils. He takes aim at the Religious Zionist movement for its warped reinterpretation of Torah that elevates secular national sovereignty to the level of the messiah, subjugating the sacred tradition to profane imperatives of realpolitik and giving rise to a theology of violence. After concluding that there can be no religious justification for maintaining the military occupation of the West Bank—not even, or especially, as a necessary exercise of self-defense—Manekin writes, “If we want to be good Jews, we cannot base our lives on blindness [to the suffering of others] and belligerence. Active opposition to the false notion of freedom [that Israeli flourishing requires Palestinian subjugation] … is a religious-moral obligation.”

This is not an easy path. Even as Manekin rebukes the Religious Zionist community in the harshest of terms, he chooses to remain inside it. He acknowledges that most Religious Zionists would not see him as part of their community, that most “do not think that a person who calls for the end of the occupation represents a legitimate position within the community.” But as a Torah-observant Jew, he has no choice. “I need a community,” he writes plaintively. “I need a synagogue.” Such is the agony, the existential and political loneliness, of what Michael Walzer calls “the connected critic” at the moment when he realizes his people have hardened their hearts. For Manekin is not a detached observer; he has made no renunciations. So, he is in a tough spot. He has placed himself, as Walzer writes, “a little to the side, but not outside” his own people, to whom he is speaking, and critiquing, in their own language. And while Manekin surely knows that those he counts as part of his community may not be willing to hear him, he has not given up on trying to reach them. Indeed, the depth of the book’s halakhic argumentation and immersion in the world of traditional sources attests to Manekin’s conviction that the reader who holds these texts dear can still be convinced. He is, perhaps, too optimistic.

For the left-wing American Jewish reader—admittedly not Manekin’s primary audience—there is a different challenge here. As much as Manekin’s sense of isolation within community is familiar, his unwillingness to give up on connectedness is more difficult to accept with reservations. There were, and still are, times when I needed a synagogue, but felt I could not go—that this would mean endorsing a politics I reject. Recently, following Israel’s war in Gaza last May, Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel asked, “what might be gained from staying ‘in’—from refusing excommunication and adopting an operative, if nebulous concept of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ as a terrain of meaningful struggle.” Reading Manekin’s book, I found myself asking a related yet distinct question. What if all of us who are distanced from Jewish religious life because of our opposition to the occupation were to insist, simply by virtue of our presence in traditional spaces, on the compatibility of anti-occupation politics with halakhic observance—despite, or rather because of, the discomfort this would entail? Of course, there are already left-wing Jews already doing this, much to the consternation of those on the right, like Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky, who labeled critics of Israel who remain “deeply involved Jewishly” as “un-Jews.” It is highly unlikely this will make a difference on the ground in Israel/Palestine. Would it make a difference for Judaism?

The Dawn of Redemption is not an anti-Zionist book. Instead, it is closer to something like religious post-Zionism. “I am an Israeli and want to remain Israeli, and I am a traditional Jew and want to remain so,” Manekin writes. “I am not willing to give up on either one of these commitments.” Yet this double bind means that he has limited options. He takes as a given that Jewish political power in the form of a secular ethno-state is not going anywhere. He also recognizes that there is no end to Israel’s occupation on the horizon. In light of this, he proposes a politics of diminished expectations, a focus on individual actions in the shadow of an immovable status quo. For Manekin, the most important question is not what the state of Israel should do, but how the religious Jew committed to traditional ethics should act within the framework of the state. In practice, he writes, this means that “every action taken by the secular state obligates the believing Jew” to assess whether they can take part in it—to reassert transcendent priority of religious ethics over the imperatives of statecraft. If, for Jewish communities in the US and elsewhere, the stakes of the question are different, its rough parameters remain relevant in other ways. We must ask ourselves, and not only when it comes to Israel/Palestine, how our ethical tradition requires us to relate to the substantial political power that, over the last century, we have gained.

*Mikhael Manekin, Atchalta (Hebrew), E-Vrit, 2021, pp. 146

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