“Above All, Judaism Is a Religion”

Nov. 10 2021

One of America’s leading historians of the Jewish people, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) trained numerous scholars, and shaped the thought of many more with his works on Jewish memory, Marranism, and Sigmund Freud. In conversation with Sylvie Anne Goldberg, he reflected on the state of Judaism in his day:

One movement that is quite active right now calls itself “secular Judaism.” I have nothing against these people, who include many American and Israeli academics and intellectuals, nor against their movement or this trend. I support any action taken in the name of affirming Jewish identity. The one thing that annoys me, and I don’t think it’s a sign of purism, is the name itself, “secular Judaism.” Historically speaking, I find it distorting, misleading, and contradictory. Judaism is a religion, or at least it was. We can’t artificially cancel this aspect.

Above all, Judaism is a religion. By definition, every specifically Jewish way of life is anchored in one form or another to a religious connection to life.

And although Yerushalmi admitted sometimes thinking that “the condition of the Jewish people . . . isn’t anything to be proud of,” he urged reflection on the situation immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

The state of mind expressed in the Apocalypse of Baruch, [a religious work from that period], is, “let’s stop sowing, plowing, getting married, and everything else, because it’s all over.” And yet, nothing’s over, since we’re here today to talk about it. The other example comes from a poem by Yehudah Leib Gordon, . . . “L’mi ani amel” (“For Whom Do I Toil?”). . . . I quote from memory—the end of the poem states: “Who knows? Perhaps I’m the last Hebrew language poet and you are the last readers.” This poem was written in 1870, I believe. That’s how Gordon felt at the time, with good reason. There was no way to predict that less than a century later, a Jewish state would be restored, in which Hebrew would become the daily language.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Judaism, Second Temple, Secular Judaism

Israel’s Friendship with Iraqi Kurds, and Why Iran Opposes It

In May 2022, the Iraqi parliament passed a law “criminalizing normalization and establishment of relations with the Zionist entity,” banning even public discussion of ending the country’s 76-year state of war with Israel. The bill was a response to a conference, held a few months prior, addressing just that subject. Although the gathering attracted members of various religious and ethnic groups, it is no coincidence, writes Suzan Quitaz, that it took place in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan:

Himdad Mustafa, an independent researcher based in Erbil, to whom the law would be applied, noted: “When 300 people gathered in Erbil calling for peace and normalization with Israel, the Iraqi government immediately passed a law criminalizing ties with Israel and Israelis. The law is clearly aimed at Kurds.” . . . Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Coordination Framework), a powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia, slammed the conference as “disgraceful.”

Himdad explains that the criminalization of Israeli-Kurdish ties is primarily driven by “Kurd-phobia,” and that Kurd-hatred and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand.

One reason for that is the long history of cooperation Israel and the Kurds of Iraq; another is the conflict between the Kurdish local government and the Iran-backed militias who increasingly control the rest of the country. Quitaz elaborates:

Israel also maintains economic ties with Kurdistan, purchasing Kurdish oil despite objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. A report in the Financial Times discusses investments by many Israeli companies in energy, development sectors, and communications projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to providing security training and purchasing oil. Moreover, in a poll conducted in 2009 in Iraqi Kurdistan, 71 percent of Kurds supported normalization with Israel. The results are unsurprising since, historically, Israel has had cordial ties with the Kurds in a generally hostile region where Jews and Kurds have fought against the odds with the same Arab enemy in their struggles for a homeland.

The Iranian regime, through its proxies in the Iraqi government, is the most significant source of Kurd-phobia in Iraq and the driving factor fueling tensions. In addition to their explicit threat to Israel, Iranian officials frequently threaten the Kurdish region, and repeatedly accuse the Kurds of working with Israel.

Read more at Jersualem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Iran, Iraq, Israel-Arab relations, Kurds