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Judaism is not that Jeffersonian

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On February 26, 2013 @ 10:23 am In democracy | 2 Comments

Those who claim that Judaism has an affinity with Thomas Jefferson’s libertarianism are right in a sense. Regrettably, they know neither Judaism nor Jefferson. The famous American was an ardent expansionist: he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring from France the tracts of land which now make up a quarter of the United States. If Jefferson were the head of modern Israeli state, he certainly won’t have ceded any territories to the Palestinians. His militant attitude toward the American Indians, the natives and righteous owners of American land, provide a valuable guide for Israeli conservatives. Jefferson had no qualms about extending US jurisdiction to the American Indians acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson viewed every human as inherently free, and for him, past rights had no current validity. That makes the Jews’ return from Exile illegal, but also precludes Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, or the West Bank Palestinians from claiming Jerusalem.

Jefferson’s attraction to libertarians is that he preferred sanctions to war. That was his policy in the Franco-British war, in which Jefferson opposed England. The policy failed, and the US soon developed tight relations with Britain. Jefferson’s military performance as governor during the American Revolution was so lackluster that he couldn’t be reelected. AIPAC wouldn’t like his dictums, “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto” (though it resonates with conservative Israelis) and “[Political ]dependence begets subservience and venality.”

Jefferson was an ardent defender of the right to gun ownership who once said “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” He also said, “For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well-organized and armed militia is their best security.”

He supported civil opposition to the government and curtailing of government power—contrary to developments in modern Israel and America. One of his most famous quotes is, “The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” That smacks of Yigal Amir, rather than the ACLU. He also said, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” Sadly, another slogan was not approved for the US seal; too much then and too good now: “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” And this quote is fully applicable to Rabbi Kahane, “One man with courage is a majority.”

He vehemently opposed judicial activism and review, which by now have corroded both Israel and America.

Jefferson was as anti-Christian as it gets. His Jefferson Bible reduces Christianity to basic moral pronouncements. Reformist rabbis surely find such religious cynicism soothing. On the other hand, Jefferson very illiberally rejected polytheism, and so the US Declaration of Independence refers to monotheism, referencing the Creator. Jefferson’s concept of a “wall of separation between Church and State” echoes the views of Maimonides, who demanded Exilarch’s independence from rabbis. Then, as now, rabbis protested: proximity to the government brings money. Politics, the art of maneuvering, lies, and compromise, stains religion—but if the money is good enough, who cares about stains?

Jefferson was vehemently anti-left in the modern sense of the word. He derisively called his Federalist opponents “Platonists,” as they sought rationalist changes in society and were allegedly religious hypocrites. Orthodox Jews similarly deride Reformists as “Hellenists.”

Jefferson rejected democracy in favor of republicanism: “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule,” and that is the political essence of Judaism, as well. Though for Jefferson republican values were mostly limited to life and property rights (which cannot be voted away by democratic majority.) Judaism adds more rights, such as the right to live in the Land of Israel, in a Jewish state free from pagan abominations.

Jefferson’s ideas, to be sure, never took root in America, which rather adopted the Federalist approach of a little less liberty and much more pragmatism. The Russian equivalent of Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, pronounced similar anarchist ideas and remained similarly influential, but his ideas similarly remained pure theory, and were never implemented. Curiously, both Jefferson and Tolstoy owned considerable numbers of slaves despite their sweet talk of human equality and inalienable rights. Jefferson’s description of the problem of slavery resonates with the Arab problem in Israel, “We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation on the other.” And again, “the two races…cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, and opinion have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” Israel, which makes Jewish girls but not Arab males to serve in the army, is very far from Jefferson’s idea that “Every citizen should be a soldier.” Jefferson supported what is now the paramount demand of Israeli conservatives: deporting the hostile population. He wanted to free the slaves and then let them live elsewhere rather than in America. And Jewish advocates of interfaith and intermarriage would do well to listen to their idol, Jefferson: “The amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country can innocently consent.” Jefferson nevertheless fathered a number of children from his black concubine Sally Hemmings.

Much like the Jefferson’s ideal of the United States as a nation of free farmers, Judaism prescribes a system of towns where the only power is judicial; no legislative power is needed, as everything had been legislated already in the Torah.

And Judaism, how libertarian is it? Each one who works on Shabbat must be executed (Exodus 35:2 and elsewhere). That applies not only to Jews but to “all who live in your towns”. Non-Jewish houses of worship in the Promised Land must be destroyed (Exodus 23:24). Native tribes must be evicted from Israel (Exodus 23:33).

So, yes, Judaism is liberal, but not libertarian. The values are fixed, closed to democratic discussion. But people enjoy unmitigated freedom in all other matters.


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