Opinion

Rosh Hashanah as the Battle of Netanyahu vs. Soros

Soros is a symbol of the holiday and the embracing of the 'other,' while Netanyahu is the type who says Israel must protect itself against 'wild beasts'

George Soros, the billionaire founder of Soros Fund Management, speaks at the Brussels Economic Forum, June 1, 2017.
Marlene Awaad / Bloomberg

For me, this Rosh Hashanah will be marked by the confrontation between the “closed” Benjamin Netanyahu and the “open” George Soros – two prototypes of the Jewish world today. These are successful and controversial Jews symbolizing the changing Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora. Their opposite characters help us understand these changes.

I understand people who leave Israel, who drop their association with the People of the Land and join the People of the World, not least because of Israel’s total rejection of the identity held by most Jews around the world, one based on equality and openness. These are people whose homes are open and accepting, devoid of feelings of superiority and condescension toward non-Jews. Through these people I learn about hidden aspects of my own Jewish culture such as the significance of Rosh Hashanah.

The Israeli Jewish cultural identity is religious, nationalist and forced. It wallows in isolationism, unaware of other Jewish horizons. Graduates of our schools are totally ignorant of Jewish and general narratives that differ from the Zionist dogma in its current ultranationalist interpretation. The sense is that “we are a nation that dwells alone,” which leads to arrogant behavior tinged with a sense of being persecuted. This is accompanied by two conventional wisdoms: “The whole world is against us” and we’re automatically the best because we’re the Chosen People. All this has eroded the little that connected the Israeli Jew to more general spheres of humanity.

In short, the establishment of the State of Israel opened horizons that had degenerated in our collective consciousness, but almost completely blocked possibilities that characterized life in the Diaspora. This reached a point in which the neo-Jewish Israeli interpretation contradicts the holiday of holidays, Rosh Hashanah.

The holidays as content-laden way stations let us pause and reflect. Together they comprise our cultural totality. The holidays of the month of Tishrei are the essence of Jewish identity. On the one hand, there is Yom Kippur, with the individual facing himself, his fellow man and his Creator. On the other hand, there is Sukkot, the collective holiday of these individuals. Rosh Hashanah is also a humanity-embracing celebration that includes others different from us.

There are Yom Kippur's fast and prayers and the sukkah as a reminder of our wanderings in the desert: “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” And what about Rosh Hashanah? First comes the shofar, whose universal sounds precede any language, but not just that.

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, September 19, 2017.
Don Emmert / AFP

Ties to all humanity

The interface between Jews and non-Jews that occurs every day of the year is celebrated on Rosh Hashanah. In Judaism, this is the day the world was created, and prayers are said for the peace of the whole world and its inhabitants.

In some respects Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of our non-sovereign reality, the Diaspora. During that period of our history we experienced everything – whether good or bad – with people other than ourselves. Thus Rosh Hashanah and its ties to all humanity are part of a non-territory-based conversation between a Jew and his environment. This conversation was positively viewed by past generations, Jews of the Diaspora, but is alien to the typical Israeli today.

What’s the difference between the conceptual revolutions taking place in the Diaspora and in Israel? In recent generations, the revolution in the Diaspora has been no less than the overhaul of relations between the Jew and the “goy” – the walls have come down. Jews and non-Jews can be family members; they can have intimate relationships, teacher-student relationships, and business and artistic relationships.

In essence, there is equality, acceptance and full integration. This life in the Diaspora requires Jews to constantly acknowledge the existence of others occupying the same space. They must constantly adapt in culture and conduct for the sake of a shared life, which expresses both solidarity and an independent identity. This is a life of equals despite the differences. In this life, every day is a kind of Rosh Hashanah with its acceptance of all God’s creatures.

Diaspora-based identity is by nature diffuse. Each locality develops differently, creating a multiplicity of similar identities. These identities derive from the tradition of the local Jewish community as well as customs derived from the discourse with the non-Jewish world. Jews without the power of coercion are persuasive Jews capable of forming alliances. These are Jews who believe in democracy for all citizens.

In contrast, an inward-looking identity of the Israeli kind becomes an identity that curbs multiplicity, a closed identity with few voices and meager alternatives. Whereas in the life of a minority living in the Diaspora, no one is truly free as long as all society is not free, one can always find Jewish activists at the forefront of solidarity campaigns and struggles for liberty and equality for all. In a sovereign state there can always be a selective form of equality, a very limited freedom in which solidarity with the “other” is perceived as an almost treasonable offense – Israel is proof of this.

The Israeli convergence into itself is characterized by a revolutionary fusion of five elements: sovereignty, power, territory, language and religion. These are translated into isolationism, arrogance and fear of anything different. Paradoxically, Israel, one of whose original purposes was to solve the Jewish problem, has cloned the ghetto experience rather than found a solution to it. Our walls of hostility are nurtured as a matter of policy, in order to separate Jews from anyone or anything that’s not Jewish while constantly denying the existence of others.

Enriching both sides

In any event, some of Rosh Hashanah's basic concepts have no real significance for many Israelis who are alienated from any identity other than the limited one that has been seared into their consciousness. There are open-minded Israelis in Israel and close-minded people in the Diaspora, but the majority sets the tone. Most Israelis lack an awareness of the “other” that is vital for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Most Jews around the world live peacefully among the family of nations, the wide and accepting one. They have absolutely no desire to move to Israel.

Naturally, this is the place to ask that pointed question: What about intermarriage? The honest answers are uncomfortable for an Israeli: Israeli society’s only vaccine against marrying other members of this country is the national conflict, and that’s one reason Israeli leaders have never tried hard to resolve it. I know that on the day the walls separating us from others fall, the number of marriages formed out of love will multiply. The percentage of mixed marriages won’t be different than in other open societies.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Marriage among different groups isn’t a dilution but enriches both sides; each side brings in stimulating customs, values and culture. This is how it was in the days of our forefathers, the judges, the kingdom, the first and second temples. So why can’t it be so in the third Jewish commonwealth?

Personally, I’m not interested in Jewish demography but in the stuff of Jewish life. What do I care about how many Jews there are if they are evil and malicious people? Similarly, a person’s genetic background, origins or lineage are meaningless to me if his ideas, behavior and values are good.

These two conflicting worldviews – the ghetto-derived Israeli one and the Jewish one that embraces the entire world – are personified by Netanyahu and Soros. Netanyahu belongs to Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the temples, and to Holocaust Remembrance Day, while Soros is a symbol of Rosh Hashanah and the embracing of all God’s creatures. Netanyahu has said Israel must protect itself against “wild beasts,” while Soros has said he chose America as his home because he values freedom, democracy, human rights and an open society.

I won’t celebrate this holiday with Netanyahu, with his traumas and Israeli paranoias that he invents or so skillfully represents. I’ll be with Soros, the Jews of the world and their struggle for open societies everywhere, for every human being.