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

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf