In a new op-ed for Arutz Sheva, Moshe Kempinski warns of the creeping tide of Hellenism (non-Jewish practices) or a “sea of political correctness” which threatens to overwhelm Jewish identity.
He has a point, although I think the situation is more complicated. Plus, there is a far more dangerous threat to Jewishness than the “new Hellenism.”
It’s true that diaspora Jews face a struggle to retain their religious and cultural identities due to legal rulings and cultural prejudices. Only recently, the Council of Europe described circumcision as a “violation” of children’s human rights. In Switzerland, a Geneva city councilman warned his municipality against allowing a public Hanukkah event, which he said would infringe Swiss law. In Poland, ritual slaughter has been suspended on the grounds that Jews (and Muslims) are not exempt from animal protection laws. And in Britain, some Jews are being denied unemployment benefits because they refuse to work on the Sabbath.
Throughout their long and painful history, Jews have struggled hard to maintain their religion and cultural practices. Anti-Semitic attitudes, pogroms, terrorism, assimilation, forced conversions and legal restrictions have all frayed the tapestry of Jewish identity.
However, the dividing lines between Jewishness and non-Jewishness are not always easy to define. Scholars believe that the Sadducees and even some Pharisees (two of the Jewish sects active in Judea in the Second Temple period) were willing to incorporate Hellenism into their lives. The most notable product of Hellenistic influence was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Philo and Josephus considered the Septuagint to be as reliable as the Hebrew Masoretic text. Interestingly, Septuagint manuscripts have been discovered among the Qumran Scrolls in the Dead Sea.
Jewish places of worship owe much to Hellenism. The word “synagogue” comes from Koine Greek, a language spoken by Hellenized Jews in southeast Europe, the Middle East and north Africa after the 3rd century BCE. Many synagogues were built by the so-called Hellenistai. These were adherents of a type of Hellenistic Judaism in the Greek Isles, Syria and northern Israel in the first century BCE.
And let’s not forget that there are many good things about Hellenistic culture. The world would be a poorer place without the writings of Homer, Aristotle and Plato or the mathematical discoveries of Pythagoras and Euclid.
On the flip side of the coin, non-Jewish cultures have absorbed many Hebraic ideas. Thanks to Judaism, westerners experience time as linear rather than cyclical. This has fostered a belief in material and social progress. The notion of a monotheistic personal God is thoroughly Hebraic, of course. Ethical imperatives such as justice for the oppressed and sustenance for the poor are derived from the Hebrew prophets. Yes, some of these ideas have been propagated by Christianity and Islam, but neither of these religions would exist without the parent religion of Judaism.
Hebraism and Hellenism are not enemies. The problem when arises when one culture tries to force its beliefs on another as when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163 BCE) tried to impose Hellenic cults on Judea.
I completely understand the concerns of Jews who are afraid that assimilation or modern-day Hellenism will swallow up Jewish identity, particularly in America. And I sympathize with Jews who are pained by the banning of ritual slaughter and the attack on circumcision in Europe. But the real problem facing Jews today is not Hellenism. The real problem is actually something far more pernicious and life-threatening. It is Palestinianism.
In Europe, physical attacks on Jews receive little attention in the media because much of the abuse is carried out by Arabs who are under the political protection of some liberals who accuse critics of Islamophobia or racism. Given the European media’s irrational hatred or suspicion of Israel, this is not surprising. You only have to look at the biased news coverage and the vitriolic editorials in publications like The Guardian.
The Palestinianist ideology is particularly dangerous because it draws strength from a range of sources. You don’t have to be an Arab or a Muslim to be a Palestinianist. A large number of western socialists, liberals, conservatives and even neo-Nazis can be described as Palestinianists. Many Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, university academics, trade unions, NGOs and charities also deserve the epithet. All share an irrational hatred or distrust of Israel and/or Jews.
What is disturbing about Palestinianism is that it comprises many stripes of anti-Semitism. Christian and Muslim Palestinianists believe in replacement theology in which their respective faiths supersede or make obsolete the Jewish faith. Liberal Palestinianists dislike Israel because they perceive the Jewish state as exclusivist. Socialist Palestinianists abhor Israel because it is a military power with close links to the US.
The totalizing effect of this confluence of prejudices is the fetishization of Arab revolutionary violence (“We are all Hamas now”) and the denial/falsification of the Jewish people’s historical, legal and cultural ties to the land of Israel. This approach involves the appropriation of Jewish identity. Hence, Israel is recast as ‘occupied Palestine’ and Jerusalem is al-Quds. Judea and Samaria – an ancient geographical term for the land west of River Jordan – is now the West Bank. The Palestinians are the ‘new Jews’ and the Shoah is sidelined to make way for the Nakba.
Some Palestinianists hold the strange belief that the Temple in Jerusalem never existed. Others use the Bible or the Quran to ‘prove’ that God has rejected Judaism in favor of Christianity or Islam. Some Palestinianists deny the Holocaust or are calling for another one. And of course, many Palestinianists simply use violence to inflict physical and psychological damage on Jews – not just in Israel, but also in France, Sweden, Bulgaria, the UK and elsewhere.
I respect Moshe Kempinski’s concerns about assimilation and “Hellenistic” political correctness. He is certainly right to highlight these issues. But I would offer the view that Palestinianism – not Hellenism – poses the more immediate threat to contemporary Jews. Today’s challenge is not about the survival of Judaism as a religion or cultural tradition but about the survival of Jews and of Israel. This challenge does not come from Athens but from Mecca, Tehran, Brussels and Moscow.
Or to put it another way: if the Maccabees were alive today, they would be fighting Hezbollah, not the Greeks.