A New Book Traces the Roots of Israeli Democracy to the Legacy of the Conversos

At its height in the 17th century, the Sephardi community of Amsterdam was composed largely of descendants of conversos: Jews who had entered the Catholic Church during successive waves of persecution in Spain and Portugal. Many of these “New Christians” reverted to Judaism—sometimes generations after converting—upon coming to the Netherlands. In his book The Origins of Democratic Zionism, Gregory Kaplan explores the thought of three members of this community—Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the philosopher and apostate Benedict Spinoza, and the poet Miguel de Barrios—and argues that their historical memory of persecution and their ex-converso milieu led them to develop distinctly democratic ideas. Samuel Goldman explains in his review:

[In Iberia], New Christians were persecuted for their heredity rather than their beliefs. It was not obvious, therefore, that escape to a more tolerant society should be accompanied by a return to Judaism. In order to attract conversos, Jewish leaders had to justify a choice for Judaism. This imperative, Kaplan argues, explains Morteira’s presentation of the so-called Hebrew Republic [of Moses’ time] as a democracy.

Perhaps so, writes Goldman, but less convincing is the next part of Kaplan’s argument:

Jumping to 1896, [Kaplan] contends that Theodor Herzl’s assessments of democracy built on Spinoza. If Spinoza was adapting Morteira’s ideas, there is a line of argument from the converso problem to the founder of modern Zionism. This proposal is intriguing, but there are too many intervening steps to justify any significant conclusion. For Germanic readers like Herzl, Spinoza’s influence was filtered through the Idealist and Romantic traditions.

We have become accustomed, [however], to regard biblical argumentation as a source of narrowness and intolerance. Kaplan shows how we might again read the Hebrew Bible as a justification for liberty.

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Read more at Journal of Church & State

More about: Benedict Spinoza, Biblical Politics, Conversos, Dutch Jewry, History of Zionism, Theodor Herzl

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship