Annexation: Jewish Power & Jewish Character
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein
Editor's Note: This piece was published on July 10, 2020 in the wake of an announcement by the Israeli government to annex large portions of the West Bank. This land had come under Israeli control in the Six-Day War, and has largely been considered an essential part of any future Palestinian state. It was part of a series of letters addressing political questions of community, grief, and racial justice through the lens of Jewish tradition – and which in no way singled Israel out for criticism.
Dear fellow members of Yale’s Jewish community,
I hope my message finds each of you well, with some delight in your days, and in close contact with those you love. As I will never tire of saying: I am grateful for every reply I receive, be they in dissent, agreement, or to begin a friendship. In that spirit, this Sunday at 9 PM we will reunite in conversation on “Jewish Power and Moral Injury.”
Four months ago I began this series of letters, speaking to the spiritual condition of a pandemic that remade our world with terrifying rapidity and completeness. In recent weeks my gaze has shifted to America’s political and moral convulsions. This week Israel’s impending annexing of portions of the West Bank poses Judaism’s most urgent moral question. I take up this topic with not a little trepidation; nothing is more dangerous for a rabbi, and therefore scarier, than to speak of Israel in public, and doubly so in writing. I share these words with no expectation that all of you will agree, but from an unshakeable sense of obligation, and with every hope that our long dialogue, developed first in person and more recent digitally, will sustain our disagreements in a spirit of friendship.
Annexation is not divorced from history; the issues that arise acutely today are continuous with those negotiated at Oslo in 1993. The very right of Jews to live in Israel has been subjected to ongoing attack, as have the Jews living in the land - from the Hebron massacre of 1929 through multiple wars to the horrors of the second Intifada. A certain mistrust of both neighbors and the international order is warranted as a result. On the other side, Palestinians have suffered diverse displacements, and their last two generations have grown up under a stifling military occupation whose end becomes harder to imagine with each passing year.
Arguments in favor of annexation point to Israel’s security and to Jews’ profound historic and religious ties to Judea and Samaria. But the small gains Israel and Jews may accrue in these areas via annexation are dwarfed by the devastating impact annexation would have on the viability of any future Palestinian state, on bilateral trust between Israelis and Palestinians, on Israel’s standing in the international community, and - most importantly - on the lives and legal status of potentially tens of thousands of Palestinians.
As we navigate the tangle of tradeoffs between safety, dignity, and freedom for Jews and Palestinians, we must ask ourselves again and again: have our measures been proportionate and humane, or fearful and expedient? Have we lost the duality of Israel as a safe haven for Jews and Israel as the site for realizing Judaism’s dreams of a just and free society? I cannot speak to the legal, political, or strategic dimensions of this situation - as important as they are - but I can offer a picture from the Jewish tradition. A central thread of our tradition is about recognizing the possibility of inhumane overreach by Jewish political leaders - and preparing us to resist them in moments of crisis like this one.
From the Biblical prophets through the great rabbis, Jewish self-governance has been a fervently held dream. The Torah is not opposed to, nor even conflicted about, Jewish power - and we should not be either. At the same time, Jewish tradition is vigilant, even preoccupied, with a two-tiered fear: first, that this power would be used to strip life and liberty from those outside the ambit of Jewish identity, and second - that Jews would fail to raise their voices against their leaders’ actions, compromising themselves and Judaism by their silence. Succinctly, the State of Israel is the fulfillment of this dream; annexation of the West Bank would be the realization of this fear, the misuse of Jewish power. My words here address the second fear - that we might remain silent in the face of such acts.
The promise and danger of Jewish power are tied together in the character of King David. Despite his diverse and prominent virtues - writing the Book of Psalms not least among them - David is also the perpetrator of cold-blooded murder of a loyal Hittite servant. Smitten with Bathsheba, David schemes to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. David is not only guilty of this crime; he is also blind to his own moral decay. This is the setting for one of the most courageous acts of the entire Bible: when Nathan the prophet confronts the Israelite king with an uncompromising and unflattering ethical critique which shows no deference to power (2 Samuel 12:1-6):
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: “There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are that man!”
Nathan’s rebuke of King David’s rapacious overreach is devastating and effective. This short scene contains all of Jewish political theory: the dream of power sufficient to defend ourselves; the realization that commanders of armies, even Jewish ones, often use their vast power to despoil others; and the readiness to confront leaders whose actions violate basic human decency. In the loud and diverse Jewish voices objecting to annexation we hear the present-day echo of Nathan’s indictment of King David. It is not that the wealthy man of Nathan’s parable gains nothing from this theft - it is that the harm to his poor neighbor ought to matter vastly more to him.
Nathan the Prophet makes ethics into a binding constraint on the legitimacy of a Jewish ruler’s actions; the 13th-century Sefer Ha-Chinuch (‘Book of Education’) goes further, making ethics into the very justification for Jewish power. The book is a commentary on Maimonides’s list of 613 commandments, and the Chinuch (we must refer to the title of the book; the author is unknown) places ethics at the foundation of Jewish politics in his commentary on commandment number 498, the appointment of a Jewish ruler:
The root [i.e. reason - JR] of this commandment is well-known. Because a leader is widely heeded by everyone, they must be Jewish... for Jews are merciful people descended from merciful people. This is so that they will be merciful to the people… and love truth, justice, and integrity. And this is well-known to be the character of the children of Abraham…
The Chinuch believes that a government is decisively shaped by its leaders’ character: can they withstand the pressures and temptations of power - indifference, cruelty, and self-aggrandizement - in favor of kindness and compassion? And so it is character that provides the final, bedrock explanation for a Jewish government: the purpose of having a Jewish leader is the creation of a kind and caring politics. This ideal of kindness manifest as politics is not ‘a light to the nations’ but something humbler and more important: a shared character instilled by generations of parents, a solidarity of goodness, which is strong enough to shape public life.
(Though the Chinuch is likely primarily focused on a Jewish ruler’s treatment of her Jewish subjects, the Maimonidean tradition in which it is located sees leaders’ character as the only, and therefore the decisive, guarantor of the welfare of non-Jews, whose legal protections under Jewish law are weaker.)
At the same time, the Chinuch’s author knows that there are cruel and unfeeling Jews who can and do rise to power. When they do, we are obligated, like Nathan before us, to rise up in criticism and opposition:
From the root of this commandment, you can infer that it is prohibited to appoint cruel or unfeeling people over the community. And anyone who ingratiates himself to such people deserves whatever suffering befalls him.
We have again the dream of a Jewish ruler who exercises power, the realization that she may well abuse those very powers, and a Jewish obligation to protest in the name of human decency.
This tradition from Nathan and the Chinuch reaches a foreboding crescendo in Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi’s Kuzari, a canonical work of Jewish philosophy structured as a dialogue between a rabbi ‘defending the despised faith’ to the king of the Khazar nation. At 1:113 the Rabbi offers an argument for the superiority of Judaism based in history: Christianity and Islam have subjected Jews living under their rule to second-class status, while Judaism has never degraded or oppressed non-Jews. The Khazar king crisply dismisses the point:
This would be valid had you chosen your powerlessness. But it is compelled up on you. When you have the opportunity, you [too] will kill.
In the Khazar king’s estimation, trials of character only begin in earnest with sovereignty; one can only claim vindication when one has the power to abuse but refrains out of a profound recognition of the evil of such abuse. Annexation may tragically prove the Khazar king right - the Jewish State succumbing to the temptation to degrade and rule over others. And, on the account of haLevi’s rabbinic protagonist, this undermines Judaism itself.
This short survey has shown three iterations of the same story of power, temptation, and protest: King David's glorious reign sullied by his ruthless machinations against Uriah the Hittite; the Chinuch’s dreams of compassionate Jewish rulers coupled with the fear of cruel and unfeeling ones; the Khazar king’s taunt that a Jewish polity will not morally surpass any of its neighbors.
Annexation may make Israel a tragic fourth chapter in this story - only this time on a national scale in historical time, the moral disaster that the tradition warned us of so desperately. Our only solace is that we arrive at this moment with clear instructions honed over thousands of years: to raise our voices in a protest fueled by love of humanity, love of Israel, and love of peace.
Yours in friendship, and with wishes for a Shabbat of true peace,
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale, and works in the Slifka Center for Jewish Life. In addition to rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jason holds an AB in Social Studies from Harvard College and a Masters in Talmud from JTS. He is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Covenant Foundation’s 2015 Pomegranate Prize for Emerging Educators. Jason, his wife Arielle, and their two sons are can most often be found singing, playing chess, riding their bikes, and performing experiments in the kitchen.