Universalism and Individualism versus Tribalism

As it looks now, more than half the members of the 19th Knesset will belong to the extreme right and beyond, at least a dozen of them honest to goodness fascists.

— Uri Avnery, “Israel’s Elections and the Voters Dilemma”

On Monday of this week, Martin Luther King’s Holiday, my wife and I took an overnight break in Temecula, California, a wine tasting town a bit north of San Diego filled with antique shops in the Old Town section. As we entered an old house converted to such a shop, we overheard a customer comment that “…today is Martin Luther King’s Holiday.” The proprietor, an old man of grey hair and stooped shoulders, blurted out: “It’s not my Holiday!” How quaint the old attitude rings out 185 years after America’s founding; how visceral the silent anger as the Inaugural played out in the Nation’s capital at this very moment; how heart wrenching that the words of this man who suffered assassination 44 years ago should still be submerged in the sickness of superiority. Listen to his words:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” (Martin Luther King, “I have a dream”)

Here indeed is the American Dream in all its glory-the universalism that joins all humankind in one blessed unity, “all of God’s children,” and individualism that exists in their natural rights granted to all by virtue of birth, “free at last! Thank God Almighty.” How can we still turn to that ancient crutch of “superior birth” when we all are accidents of birth having no choice in the matter; how turn to our “exceptionalism” when so many variables determine our direction whether chance, luck or fate; how damn the less fortunate when time, genetics, and chance mingle to create the circumstances that give us our lives? After 260 years of coddling the institution of slavery, after 85 years declaring it a legitimate institution established by omission in our Constitution, and after another 100 years of Jim Crow, segregation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, America and Americans finally cast off this amoral chain that shackled us to criminal laws, destruction of the innocent, hypocrisy, and self-shame. Finally, America could lift its head with pride and say to the world, we are free, free at last as the good God Almighty meant us to be.

Ironically, on this very day, our Black President was inaugurated for a second term, a day millions thought should never arrive. Ironic too, these same Americans flood the Christian churches every Sunday proclaiming their belief in the Son of God, who preached the Beatitudes and the Corporal and Spiritual works of mercy, who so loved all his brothers and sisters that he gave His life for them, an atonement against the very proclamations of that Old Testament God that divided his creatures into the chosen and the damned, who recognized the value of each and every person, the rights of all to share the wonders of the earth that all might live in decency, respect, dignity and honor.

Unlike the old Proprietor, Barack Obama called on all Americans to respond to the words of the Declaration of Independence, a declaration imbedded in the words of Martin Luther King’s dream: “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”

Uri Avnery, in the quote that opens this piece, offers a cautionary word as the Israeli people head to the polling booths. Ironic it is, perhaps, that the Jewish State holds its election within a day of our President’s Inauguration. Of what significance is this to Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” or to the President’s appeal to the moral star that governs our nation, a nation dedicated to universalism and individualism?

Fortuitously, these apparently disparate events yoke together three realities that will govern our country for the next four years if the American people hold their President to his words. Nothing in Obama’s address focused on the state of Israel, yet every word he spoke addressed the inequity that has attended the fulfillment of America’s promise to recognize the inherent rights of the common man, the rights of all women, the rights of Gays and Lesbians, but nothing about the rights of the oppressed, the occupied in Palestine. Why should they be included? Because this country has chosen to support the increasingly undemocratic state of Israel, the ever increasing tribalism that is pushing that state into a theocracy that denies the universalism of all human kind and imposes a set of beliefs that threaten to destroy the very concept of individual rights. America invests untold billions of dollars into this state ostensibly because it is democratic, a democratic friend in the mid-east, and it adheres to America’s core values. Nothing could be further from the truth.

America’s unqualified support for the State of Israel, for this looming contradiction to American core values–tolerance for all religions, inherent rights by birth for all citizens, belief in the pursuit of happiness, equality before the law, and justice regardless of race or creed or color or gender–hangs the rope of hypocrisy around our necks as we confront the communities of the world with our acceptance of a country that forces all to take an oath of loyalty to “the Jewish State” thereby denying individual freedom of thought, the antithesis of American values: “The amendment (sic) to the citizenship law is completely racist […] Israel’s lawbooks are becoming a guide for the world’s most discriminatory and racist regimes'” (Haaretz, 2010). When the government legislates beliefs for granting citizenship, an oath of loyalty to the Jewish State, democracy ceases to exist.

“Netanyahu’s rejection of peace, the obsession with the settlements, the deepening of the occupation – all these are turning Israel (Israel proper, not just the occupied territories) inexorably into an apartheid state. Already in the outgoing Knesset, abominable anti-democratic laws have been passed.” Avnery makes this terrifying observation: “… if this was not enough, these parties want to impose on us the Halacha, much as their Muslim counterparts want to impose the Shari’ah. They oppose almost automatically all progressive ideas, such as a written constitution, separation between synagogue and state, civil marriage, same-sex marriage, abortion and what not.” (Uri Avnery)

“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice … not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice,” thus spoke our President. How hypocritical should we continue to support the rogue state of Israel and deny to the indigenous people their rights under international law, laws influenced and guided by our own. Without American support, Israel would have to become a legitimate member of the world’s communities, making possible a true Palestinian state.

Should the Israeli electorate vote into office the far right as Averny fears, then that government in its beliefs and its laws will be diametrically opposite to American values and, quite obviously, to the Universal Declaration of Human Right as Niki Raapana outlines here:

The American founders (many of whom were devoutly religious freemasons) believed in a Universal Creator. The Creator of all life was called “God” by almost all of the American founders. They established every common man’s inalienable right to pursue a happy life comes directly from God the moment man is born. Many founders further believed that only a nation based in Christian principles and the Ten Commandments could survive as a form of government designed to protect God-given, natural rights.

The First Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the U.S. Bill of Rights. The law expressly forbids the establishment of a state church. This is the only legal rule of law in the United States. The original Bill of Rights is a ONE PAGE document. Any literate second-grader can read it. The Jewish-Egyptian Talmud is enormous, it includes mysticism and unwritten, hidden texts, and much of the discourse about it is only written in Hebrew and practiced in Eqyptian secret ceremonies that worship the Light Being.

Noson Gurary, a Lubavitch rabbi insists “Jewish law is the basis of our legal system in America,” but that’s not entirely true. Property Rights, Common Law, Natural Law, and the need to protect individuals from tyrants is the basis for the legal system in America. American law was designed to protect the people from their government. Jewish law is not American law, it’s Israeli law. It’s also a vast, ancient library that claims the Jews are God’s “chosen people.” It has another set of laws for non-Jews who must obey a complex set of confusing rules and regulations that give control over all daily life functions to an agent of the Jewish “court.” Much like the religious “law” practiced by priests in the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Churches in Europe, Jewish law does not protect the rights and liberties of the common born man (as does U.S. law), it protects the rights of their elites to confiscate all private land and direct the lives of the people placed under their ‘care.'” (Rense, 4-13-09).

Last April in an article titled “Tribalism and Universalism in Judaism” (barer38, 4/17/2012), Daniel Gordis is quoted at some length:

Gordis’ claim is that Judaism has always been a “tribal” religion/culture, and it is the fact that this aspect of Judaism irks (Peter) Beinart’s sense of universalism that is driving the vitriol directed at Israel in Beinart’s book. The fact that Judaism has contained a strong ‘tribal flavour’ throughout its history is not a reason for it to continue to do so.

I would ask, in the same vein, whether someone as intelligent as Gordis could possibly imagine that any Seder in which serious conversation took place did not involve a repudiation or serious critique of the paragraph in the Hagaddah which begins with “Pour out Your wrath against the nations that do not know You,” which Gordis uses as a current example of Jews ascribing to Jewish particularism. The fact is, whether original or having first been expressed by the Reform movement, many Jews are deeply uncomfortable with the notion of particularism, or what Gordis calls “tribalism.”

Perhaps the most courageous and intelligent expression of this attempt to yoke tribalism or particularism together as inadequate to express the truth imbedded in the Torah, Love one another, has been Dr. Uri Davis’ reconfiguration of the Haggadah text to address the reality of the traditional version that is “out and out racist.” He refers to the exact same quote, “Pour out your wrath against the nations that do not know you.” He elaborates “The traditional version of the Passover Haggadah projects a message about life in general, and life within Jewish tribal societies in particular, that is unreservedly horrific … glorifyingly ugly ethno-centrism (notably, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who hath chosen us from among all people ; and has exalted us above all languages”); applauding criminal collective punishments (notably the Ten Plagues”); as well as alleging that traditions and myths that are other than Jewish, notably paganism, are inferior, thereby laying the grounds towards the legitimization of genocide (Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not … pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heaven of the Eternal…”). [A Secular Anti-Zionist Companion of an Abridged Passover Haggadah, 2011].

This comment from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s sermon on Rosh Hashanah 5773 suggests that the tribalism of the Talmud is not compatible with the world of 2013.

From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty. Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity. In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches:

Who is honored? The one who honors all human beings.

“To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways. One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.”

Regression to tribalism will not only destroy Israel’s relationship with its only true protector, the United States, once Americans understand that they are supporting exclusiveness, elitism, tribally proclaimed superiority over all others, and a tribal text that will justify in their minds how to manipulate and destroy their perceived enemies, but it will destroy Israel because the citizens of that state and their brothers and sisters throughout the world are divided on the virtues of the ancient ways, indeed, millions do not accept the religious teachings of the Talmud as it has defined others and constricted for them an independence of mind that will not be forced into obedience to a fanatical few.

Perhaps now is the time for this nation to abort its ties to and the controls imposed by its unreasonable support for a state that walls in those it does not like or tolerate, that attacks its neighbors at will without reasonable justification, that expressly intends to dominate the mid-east including nuclear domination, that willingly uses its American support to reject the censures of the United Nations because it can and does act with impunity, and a state that continues its theft of Palestinian land as it mouths words of peace when it has no intentions to work toward peace.

America’s journey of almost 200 years to reach the ideals expressed in its founding documents is not over, not if this nation intends to “support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice … not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.” (Obama’s address).

William A. Cook is a Professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. He edited The Plight of the Palestinians: A Long History of Destruction (2010). He can be reached at: wcook@laverne.edu. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.