Opinion |

Judaism Dies in Darkness – and When Netanyahu Wins

In the quarter century that passed since he first took office, Netanyahu has transformed Judaism in destructive ways. In the end, that will be his main legacy

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, this week.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

When I was small, not so many years after the Holocaust, I remember wondering if I would live to see a day when Judaism was over.

We had a teacher in Hebrew school, a survivor of concentration camps and of subsequent wars in Israel, who seemed to be haunted by the idea.

West Bank, Gaza Palestinians won't be voting in Israel's election - would they if they could?

Halev nikra,” he told us once. The heart is torn. “Your generation,” he went on, to our uncomprehending ears, “May it not be the last.” No Judaism left to practice. The teachings lost. The wisdom gone. The traditions and subcultures all but forgotten, disfigured out of existence, turned inside out, unrecognizable, dead.

Over time, I understood him to mean that that the State of Israel was then still terrifyingly vulnerable, that assimilation was growing among Diaspora communities. Age-old centers of Jewish life in Europe and in the Muslim world were already extinct.

The fears were real. But there was one threat to Judaism our teacher hadn’t seen coming:

Benjamin Netanyahu.

Maybe our teacher would have seen it now, had he lived. You can’t miss it now.

In the quarter-century since he first took office, Benjamin Netanyahu has transformed Judaism more dramatically and more destructively than any other single figure of his time.

This, in the end, is his legacy. Post-Judaism.

Netanyahu first rose to power at a time of a shattering new crisis in Judaism, the events surrounding the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right Jew, and the subsequent wave of Hamas mass murders of Jews in suicide bombings of public buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The unthinkable had become the norm. For Jews, for Judaism, the wounds were horrific, bone deep. Netanyahu was smart enough, energetic enough, talented enough, to know very well how to begin to treat the wounds, to cleanse them and bind them and heal them. But he made a radically different choice, right then and there.

He would take the wounds and bleed them for all they were worth.

And he’s never stopped. He’s doing it again, right now.

This week, a small country of close-knit families and families of friends, a nation in which every death reverberates in concentric shock waves of mourning, was grieving the death of the 6,000th Israeli killed by COVID-19.

Netanyahu could have devoted himself to consoling the grief-stricken, to supporting the thousands of coronavirus patients still suffering debilitating symptoms months after contracting the virus, to paying honor and material help to the medical staffs, rescue workers, teachers, essential workers and others whose heroism, self-sacrifice, and exhausting persistence helped the rest of us through this crisis.

It’s what a good Jew would have done.

Instead, that day, the prime minister barnstormed the West Bank, campaigning for a fringe extremist party he himself forged into being, combining many of Israel’s most openly hateful, homophobic, anti-democratic, supremacist and violence-legitimizing activists into a pro-Netanyahu slate called Religious Zionism.

Halev nikra.

Once, long ago, there was a time before Bibi. A time before his close allies branded North American Reform Jews as dogs, progressive and centrist Jews as kapos, and an Israeli woman soldier who converted to Judaism as a shiksa, unworthy of marriage to a Jew.

In those days – before Bibi let disabled people and Holocaust survivors live out their lives in poverty and travail, before the ultimate commandments of post-Judaism became sanctifying settlements and voting for Netanyahu, before “Zionism” meant support or silence over the rights-stripped oppression of millions of Palestinians – we were taught the following in a Hebrew school in California:

All that the Lord requires of us as Jews is to do justice, practice loving kindness and mercy, and walk humbly with our God [Micah, 6:8].

Do not stand idly by while your neighbor is bleeding, nor endanger your neighbor’s life [Leviticus 19:16]

Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the members of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. [Leviticus 19:18].

You can forget all that now.

This is how Benjamin Netanyahu, master of the grudge, translator of vengeance into votes, built his legacy. How he got where he is. How he runs his campaigns. Take the best parts of Judaism and trash them, deride them, dishonor them, make them an object of scorn and abuse and vicious attacks. Take the worst parts of Judaism and exalt them, shield them, cement them into law, put them literally into power.

And now he’s running again.

Post-Judaism in one sentence? Listen to Netanyahu’s newest white hope, the segregationist, gay-bashing Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich declared on Wednesday, “There is a true religion – the Jewish religion. A religion of peace, love, and tolerance. And then,” referring to Islam, “there is a religion of violence, of terrorism, of jihad.”

When I was small, we were taught that humility, compassion, generosity of the spirit, integrity, and respect for all people as having been created in God’s image, were essential Jewish values.

We were taught that savagery against the innocent was not.

Now I turn on the news in Netanyahu’s post-Jewish state. Another Jew has been attacked by Likud activists for not supporting Netanyahu. Yet another Palestinian shepherd, or farmer, or child, has been attacked for not being a Jew. Yet another husband and father has murdered a member of his family for no reason at all.

And Netanyahu, beaming, tells us all that, thanks solely to him, we’re living it up.

When I was small, we were taught in Hebrew school that it was a Jewish value to bring light to the world.

What they didn’t teach us was that Judaism dies in darkness. And when Netanyahu wins.

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