The burning of the Alei Shalechet crematorium probably doesn't surprise anyone who has been following Israel's ongoing culture war. However, Shas Minister Yitzhak Cohen's statements have raised the stakes. He said he would push a bill criminalizing cremation, a bill that would "put an end to those who are implementing a Final Solution once again."
He not only implicitly condoned a criminal act of arson by using the Alei Shalechet burning as a pretext for his comments, but he also called liberals - who believe in the right to dispose of their remains as they see fit - the heirs of Hitler's Final Solution. This statement disqualifies him from serving in any public position because of his disdain for one of the guiding values of democracy: respect for people who think and live differently than him.
Statements like Cohen's raise a serious issue. Can Israel really exist as a unified state? Is it possible for those who actually believe in liberal democracy and people like Cohen to be united in the same polity?
I want to preface what is to come. I know there are many religious people, including Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who feel the way I do about Cohen's statement: incredulous shock at a total lack of humaneness and civilization. I ask them to share in the following thoughts for the sake of Israel as a civilized society.
Here is a suggestion that might please Cohen: Maybe we should start thinking seriously about a federative model for the State of Israel. The U.S. federative model, for example, allows sub-states to decide independently on such fundamental matters as the death penalty. For the sake of argument, let us assume there will be an ultra-Orthodox canton, Haredistan, and there will be a secular canton, Liberaland.
In Liberaland, there will be universities and yeshivot. People in Liberaland will be allowed to cremate their bodies and have abortions, but Jewish weddings and burials will also be held. Even if they are Jewish, Liberaland citizens - including homosexuals - will be able to get married without the presence of a rabbi.
It is to be assumed that people like Cohen and Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who also condoned the arson, will be able to breathe more freely if we "subhuman liberals" do our unspeakable actions outside their jurisdiction. Haredistan might opt for a rabbinical council instead of a parliament, and thus rid itself of democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and uncensored universities. Haredistan citizens will no longer have to feel threatened by freedom of thought and action. They will be able to implement any kashruth law they like, ban anything from cremation to the desecration of the sabbath, and prevent universities from teaching anything not condoned by the rabbinical court. In this way, it would emulate fundamentalist Islamist states.
Of course, Haredistan will not be able to provide many services, ranging from many types of medical and psychological treatment to medication tested by researchers applying evolutionary theory. They will also need to know that Liberaland only allows organ transplants for those who have signed up to donate their own organs to anybody in need, of whatever creed. I am sure that Cohen will feel comfortable without these services, as they are developed and maintained by the "ideological ashes of these devils" whom he so detests.
This thought experiment should be taken seriously. What people like Cohen do not understand is that those of us who carry the burden of actually contributing to the complex edifice of a modern knowledge society are sick and tired of supporting those who do not believe that this society's values of free thought and individual development are the source of its achievement. These individuals reject such values to the point of calling liberals Nazis; they lack any understanding that a knowledge economy (and this is Israel's only viable route) is based on values of tolerance, as research has conclusively proven. So maybe there is no choice but to live in different political systems.
Since we still live together, I call upon the leaders of religious parties (including Shas) and the rabbinical establishment to take a clear stand opposite Cohen, who is crossing every boundary of civilized behavior (except possibly in fundamentalist states like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the former Taliban regime). Judaism, as great thinkers from Maimonides to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Emmanuel Levinas to Yeshayahu Leibowitz have shown, need not be opposed to tolerance. We need a coalition of those who believe in living together in mutual respect, because Cohen has just taken another step toward weakening the ties that hold us together as a society.
The writer is a professor at Tel Aviv University's psychology department and a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.
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