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Has American Culture Lost Touch with the Hebraic Political Tradition?

March 20 2017

In the unusual prologue to his film The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille tells the audience directly that the “theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God?” Meir Soloveichik laments the absence today of similar references to the roots of the American political tradition in the Hebrew Bible:

Sixty years ago, the Hebraic foundation of the American idea was taken for granted by the culture. I live two blocks from a theater where Manhattan’s Orthodox Jews once went to see The Ten Commandments, but there is no picture like this that I can take my children to see in our time. This points to a larger problem facing those dedicated to political conservatism. The conservative movement has spent decades producing extraordinary institutions dedicated to policy and ideas, but it has done little to help produce a culture that reflects conservative ideas, values, and morals. . . .

The Ten Commandments was DeMille’s second bite at the Exodus apple. In 1923, he made a silent version. Among his extras, DeMille hired 250 Orthodox immigrants. These extras did not need to act. As one witness recounted, when filming the Exodus scene, “the Jews streamed out of the great gates with tears running down their cheeks, and then without prompting or rehearsal, they began singing in Hebrew the old chants of their race, which have been sung in synagogues for thousands of years.” . . .

Sixty-one years after The Ten Commandments was released and went on to become the sixth most successful movie ever made, I wonder whether we can ever again experience a culture where the American dream and my own heritage can converge—where the script that was known to Jewish hearts for 3,000 years can be an important part of our culture again. The future of our republic may rest on the answer.

Read more at Commentary

More about: American founding, American Jewry, Arts & Culture, Film, Hebrew Bible

A New Book Tries, and Fails, to Understand the West Bank’s Jews

Aug. 22 2017

In City on a Hilltop, Sara Yael Hirschhorn seeks to explain Israel’s settler movement, rejecting the common misconception that its members are fanatics uniformly motivated by religious zeal and ferocious nationalism. Nonetheless, writes Evelyn Gordon, Hirschhorn fails to look past her own political assumptions:

[R]eaders emerge from [the book] with no clear understanding of what drives the settlement movement. This isn’t surprising, since Hirschhorn admits in her conclusion that she herself has no such understanding: “After discussions with dozens of Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories, I still struggled to understand how they saw themselves and their role within the Israeli settlement enterprise.”

Consequently, she’s produced an entire book about settlers that virtually ignores the twin beliefs at the heart of their enterprise: Israel has a right to be in the territories, whether based on religious and historical ties, international law, or both, and Israel has a need to be there, whether for religious and historical reasons, security ones, or both.

This glaring omission seems to stem largely from her inability to take such beliefs seriously. In one noteworthy example, she writes, “While their religio-historical claims to the Gush Etzion area are highly contentious, many settler activists over the past 50 years have asserted Biblical ties to the region.” But what exactly is contentious about that assertion? No serious person would deny that many significant events in the Bible took place in what is now called the West Bank. . . . One could argue that this doesn’t justify Jews living there today, but if you can’t acknowledge that this area is Judaism’s religious and historical heartland, and that many Jews consequently believe that giving it up would tear the heart out of the Jewish state, you can’t understand a major driver of the settlement movement.

Similarly, Hirschhorn pays scant attention to the security arguments for retaining the West Bank, and none at all to Israel’s strong claim to the area under international law. . . . The result is that while most of her settlers don’t come off as fanatics, they often do come off as simpletons—people who became “colonialist occupiers” for no apparent reason, without ever really thinking about it.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Israel & Zionism, Settlements, West Bank