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The Herem Law in the context of Jewish Past and Present

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dacosta_and_spinozaThe European Union appear concerned about the new Israeli herem law. The law suggests that a person or an organisation calling for the boycott of Israel , including the settlements, can be sued by the boycotts' targets, without having to prove that they sustained any damage.

“We are concerned about the effect that this legislation may have on the freedom of Israeli citizens and organisations to express non-violent political opinions" said spokesperson for foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

More and more people and institutions now understand that Israel is not a ‘civilised society’: it is impervious to notions of human and civil rights, and it also does not share the common and fundamental foundations of a Western value system.  Israel is not a democracy and it has never been one. At the most, Israel has managed to mimic some of the appearances of a Western civilisation, but it has clearly failed to internalise the meaning of tolerance and freedom.

This should not take us by surprise: Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and Jewishness is, sadly enough, inherently intolerant; indeed, it may be argued that Jewish intolerance is as old as the Jews themselves.

Regarding legislation then, how are we to understand the implications of the word ‘herem’? The Hebrew word herem in its contemporary usage refers to a ban,  boycott and sanction. However, within the biblical context, the word suggests the total destruction of the enemy and his goods at the conclusion of a campaign.

The emergence of Christianity then, can be viewed as an attempt to rectify such a situation of stark intolerance -- it can be understood as an attempt to drift away from The Old Testament’s dark ideology. Christianity introduced ideas of harmony and love. And it is no wonder that the man who dared suggest to his Judean contemporaries to ‘love their neighbours’ ended up nailed to wood. He himself ended up being subject to a vile homicidal  herem campaign.

Uriel Da Costa

The spirit of herem is intrinsic to the Judaic teaching and spirit. Many people are aware of Spinoza being subject to a Rabbinical herem. Yet, not many are familiar with the story of Uriel Da Costa.

Da Costa was born a Catholic in 1585 in Porto, Portugal. From an early stage, Da Costa was aware that his family had Jewish origins, and in the course of his studies, he began to consider a return to Judaism. By 1617, Da Costa and his family had decided to return to Judaism, and they fled Portugal for Amsterdam, which was soon to become a thriving centre of the Sephardic Diaspora.

Once in the Netherlands though, Da Costa very quickly became disenchanted with Rabbinical Judaism. He came to believe that the Rabbinic leadership was consumed by rituals and (Talmudic) legalism. In 1624 Da Costa  published a book entitled “An Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees”, which questioned the fundamental belief in the immortality of the soul. The work also pointed out the discrepancies between biblical Judaism and Rabbinical Judaism.

The book was considered controversial and publicly burned. Da Costa was called before the Rabbinic leadership of Amsterdam for uttering blasphemous views against Judaism and Christianity, was fined a significant sum, and subject to herem. 

In 1633  Costa sought reconciliation with the community. He vowed to go back to being “an ape amongst the apes.” However, soon enough, he began to express rationalistic and skeptical views again, for instance,  expressing doubts whether biblical law was divinely sanctioned, or whether it was simply written down by Moses. He came to the conclusion that all religions were human inventions, ultimately rejecting formalised, ritualised religion. Possibly the first atheist Jew, Da Costa came to believe that religion should be based only on natural law, believing that God resides in nature, which is full of peace and harmony, whereas organised religion is marked by violence and strife.

It did not take long before Da Costa became, once again, subject to Rabbinical herem. For seven years he lived in virtual isolation, shunned by his family and loved ones. Ultimately, the loneliness was too much for him to bear, and he recanted once more.

As a punishment for his heretical views, he was publicly given thirty nine lashes at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, then forced to lie on the floor while the congregation trampled over him. The events left Da Costa traumatised, and he became suicidal. After writing his autobiography, “Exemplar Humanae Vitae” (1640), in which he disclosed his experience as a victim of Jewish intolerance, he set out to end the lives of both his cousin and himself. Seeing his relative approach one day, he grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. Then he reached for another, turned it on himself and fired, reportedly dying a terrible death.

Zionists and ‘Anti Zionists’ Alike

The record of vile Rabbinical measures against dissidence is staggering. But unfortunately, Jewish intolerance exceeds far beyond religious institutions.  In Israel, it seems that Jews impose herems on each other on a daily basis.  The so called ‘Israeli left’ imposes herem on the West Bank settlements (as if Tel Aviv is not a settlement), and in response, the right wing government herems the left heremiates .

And as we all know, prominent Jewish critical voices outside of Israel too such as Norman Finkelstein,  have been subject to relentless Zionist herems over the years.

However, one may find it astonishing that Jewish ‘anti Zionists’ who claim to be ‘progressive’, godless ‘atheists’ and  ‘cosmopolitans,’ also  consistently use the exact same Talmudic herem tactics that have been employed by their Rabbinical ancestors for hundred of years.

In the last decade we have come across more than a few Jewish ‘anti Zionist’ herem campaigns. Jewish ‘anti- Zionists’ single mindedly dedicated themselves to the destruction of Deir Yassin Remembered (DYR),which was at the time the biggest and most successful pro-Palestinian organisation in the UK.  Monitoring the contemptible language used by Jewish ‘anti Zionist’ campaigners and observing the strategies they  implement  against fellow anti- Zionist Jews  and Palestinian solidarity activists reveals a very grim picture and a repetition of the most horrendous Rabbinical herem tactics. 

But such a realisation and understanding of these Jewish ‘anti Zionist’ tactics should not really take us by surprise, after all, just like the Jewish State, the Jewish ‘anti Zionists’ also identify as Jews.

However, unlike Rabbinical Jews -- who at least provide some reasoning for their severe judgements based on supposed transgression of Biblical tenets -- the Jewish ‘anti Zionist’ concentrate solely on measures of punishment. Yet such a fact is hardly surprising : whilst hardly any of the so called ‘progressive’ Jewish ‘anti Zionists’ believe in God or follow the Torah -- they have clearly managed to draw from Judaism its very worst methods i.e. brute and crude intolerance.

I too am obviously  subject to on going and constant herem campaigns,  conducted by various ethnic Jewish activists, both  Zionist and crypto-Zionists.

However, I am delighted to report that my detractors are not at all successful. In fact, they are by now growing accustomed to learn that their hopeless herem attempts to excommunicate me simply backfire, time after time, leaving them frustrated and more and more isolated from the public discourse regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict.

On reflection, I would conjecture that the growing circulation of my work has little to do with my talent or wisdom though. It is much more simple than that: rather, my perspective on  humanism and ethics is probably more straightforward, coherent, inclusive and consistent than the Jewish ‘anti Zionists’  pseudo progressive ethno-centric exclusivism, so clearly manifested in each of their herem campaigns and implicit in much of their writing.   

Jews and the BDS

As one would expect, world Jewry welcome the new Israeli herem law. According to Ha’aretz, the umbrella organisation of French-Jewish groups in France (CRIF) hailed the  new Israeli herem law : “the CRIF’s director general Haim Musicant pointed out that a similar such law has long existed in France, much to the satisfaction of the French Jewish community.” 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also defended the new law, saying "what stains (Israel's) image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy's attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not."

Netanyahu sums it up eloquently -- the new Talmudic law is there to highlight and establish the terms regarding what is acceptable within ‘Kosher democracy’: it is a non-civilised setting driven by blatantly exclusivist policies. In a very similar manner, the Jewish so called ‘anti Zionists’ often enough claim to know what ‘Kosher anti Zionism’ is all about, and how its boundaries should be defined. Incredibly enough, the Jewish ‘anti Zionists’ also repeatedly preach to us about ‘who is good’ and ‘who is bad’ for the Palestinians.

I presume that by now, the continuum between Netanyahu’s attitudes and those of the crypto-Zionists within our midst is pretty well established, and clear enough for all of us to see.

In April, the renowned journalist and film maker Max Blumenthal addressed some questions regarding the Jewish hegemony within the BDS movement.  The BDS is a call initiated by Omar Barghouti  and Palestinian civil society to impose boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel.

Blumenthal wrote, “last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights…  During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: ‘We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.’”

“Last December”, Blumenthal continues, “I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society.”

If you should ask yourself why J Street insists on running the BDS as a ‘Jewish internal affair,’ or why the BDS has become a ‘Jewish call’, here is the answer – the BDS is interpreted  by most Jews as a call for a herem,  and this is what Jews do best : destroying, excluding, excommunicating, silencing, boycotting, sanctioning. After all, Jews have been doing this for centuries.

But here arises another problem regarding Jewish over representation and control within the boycott movement. As much as many of us sympathise with the Palestinian civil society call, hardly any of us actually want to operate within, or take direction on what we should do and think from a Jewish ‘anti Zionist’ Trotsky-ite synagogue.  And as it happens -- and this makes me very sad at times -- some of the crypto Zionists who operate within the BDS movement are now using this important Palestinian call in order to promote Jewish interests, or to fight other Palestinian solidarity activists. 

But I believe that for the BDS to be successful, this movement must be attentive first and foremost to the Palestinian call, and to that call above all others. For the BDS to be effective it must transcend itself beyond the banal herem type activity. It must be a universal call, and managed as a civil society campaign.

Herem, Post Herem and a Joke  

Israel and Zionism then, has proved to be a short lived dream. It was  initiated to civilise Jewish life, and to dismantle the Jewish self-destructive mode. It was there to move the Jew into the post herem phase. It vowed to make the Jew into a productive being. But as things turned out, neither the Zionists nor the ‘anti Zionists’ managed to drift away from the disastrous  herem culture. It seems that  the entire world of Jewish identity politics is a matrix of herems and exclusion strategies. In order to be ‘a proper Jew’, all you have to do is to point out whom you oppose, hate, exclude or boycott.

Such a state of affairs is indeed pretty tragic, but it certainly brings to mind the old Jewish joke:

Q: How many synagogues are needed in a village with just one single Jewish habitant?

A: Two synagogues; one that he goes to, and one he would never set foot in.


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