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.

Read more at Journal of Church & State

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


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy