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From Spinoza to Vilkomerson, Jewish Voices for Peace Have Long Been Banned– by Jews

This throws me 362 years back, to the expulsion of the legendary philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza in 1656, from the Amsterdam Jewish-Portuguese community. There are admittedly differences, which I shall address, between that expulsion and the banning of Jewish Voice for Peace – but there are also striking similarities, which I believe are instructive for understanding the psychological mechanisms at hand.

Baruch, later Benedict, Spinoza ,

The big news concerning Israel’s fight against the movement for Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions this week is the publication of an Israeli government blacklist of 20 organizations. Notable on the list is the American Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Peace.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, the head of the organization, wrote Monday that “now, contrary to any democratic norm, there’s to be a political litmus test for entering the country.”

It may come as a surprise to some that Jews are actually being banned in an organized and institutional manner – from entering Israel – the Jewish state. But scrutiny of Jewish history reveals how logical this is. They are simply considered “the wrong kind of Jews”, as Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann told Lord Balfour. And the “wrong kind of Jews” can be banned. The Jewish tradition of such societal expulsion of Jews is known in Hebrew as ‘herem’, the term also applied for ‘boycott’.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

Indeed, Israel seems to have no moral qualms about banning not only Jews but those who have historically helped them– the American Friends Service Committee, which was also on the blacklist — whilst inviting Nazi-affiliates, if they support the goals of the Jewish State.  Natasha Roth wrote about this on Monday, “Why has Israel banned Jewish leftists but not members of Nazi-linked groups?”. Roth concludes:

“But the formality of this step — banning outright leaders and key members of a Jewish organization — is yet further concrete evidence of what has been apparent for some time: that even as the Israeli government makes crystal-clear its commitment to having as few non-Jews as possible within its borders, it is also becoming increasingly blatant about possessing criteria for the types of Jews it considers kosher.”

This throws me 362 years back, to the expulsion of the legendary philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza in 1656, from the Amsterdam Jewish-Portuguese community.

There are admittedly differences, which I shall address, between that expulsion and the banning of Jewish Voice for Peace – but there are also striking similarities, which I believe are instructive for understanding the psychological mechanisms at hand.

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The young Spinoza (23 at the time) was expelled by the community rabbis in the synagogue, with a proclamation containing curses and vitriol that was simply unparalleled at the time by any other expulsion. The proclamation referred to the “evil opinions and acts” of Spinoza, and not only excommunicated and expelled him, but also “cursed” and “damned” him:

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law”, the rabbis proclaimed.

Got that? The interesting thing is that the whole proclamation contains no factual reference to Spinoza’s “evil opinions and acts”. In fact, at the point, Spinoza had not yet published any philosophical treatise. So what we have here is hearsay, about an alleged heresy. And who needs to know more? If such a man is cursed so badly, he must have done something really, really bad.

Let’s jump back a few centuries, to the recent ban. As I have already quoted Natasha Roth on this yesterday, I’ll do it again:

“The Israeli government apparently considers the banning of BDS activists acceptable behavior for a democracy, a view facilitated by its having very diligently cultivated and promoted the lie that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement aimed at destroying Israel. This lie has been remarkably successful, despite the clear statement on the official website of the BDS movement that its goal is to secure the same human and civil rights for Palestinians as everyone else living in Israeli-controlled territory. But if granting equal rights to everyone who lives in the territory controlled by Israel will cause the state to implode, then surely those who oppose BDS on those grounds are ignoring a fundamental problem — that a state which cannot survive if all its residents have equal rights is by definition not a democracy.”

See the similarity? Spinoza was surely not criticizing or challenging Zionism at the time, because it didn’t exist as such. He was probably voicing certain logical arguments with his peers – and this was perceived as aiming to ‘destroy Israel’ (the rabbis said that Spinoza “should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel” – “Israel” has been used in Jewish history to signify the “Jewish people”).

We know of Spinoza’s actual thoughts as they matured, as he later wrote them down. We can assume they had roots in his younger years. No doubt, these thoughts were radical not only for Jews at the time, but also for Christians. The notion that God is not a being that makes judgement at all, that God is really parallel to nature – “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura), as Spinoza would put it – that was radical. If God does not judge, doesn’t that challenge the whole notion of the Jewish laws and commandments supposedly passed down from God? Indeed, Spinoza opined that the bible was simply collated and written by humans, and not through some divine delivery. Spinoza challenged the “afterlife” notion (which was actually more challenging of Christian tradition than Jewish), and Spinoza’s ‘God’ does not choose anything – it just is – which then renders the notion of the “chosen ones” meaningless.

These are radical thoughts for the time. Yet today many of us see them as utterly fascinating, and appreciate the huge contribution of Spinoza’s radical thinking to the whole process of Enlightenment.

Is it possible, that those who today challenge Zionism, the Jewish State and its actions, may later be appreciated by those who currently demonize them? Will those who challenge Israel strongly today and are demonized for supposedly wanting to destroy it – will they in the future be seen as those who have actually contributed to enlightenment, one that we in the future might be proud of?

Interestingly, in 1927, Professor Yosef Klausner of the newly established Hebrew University in Palestine, made a speech concerning Spinoza, and ‘rescinded’, as it were, the ban on Spinoza:

“To Spinoza the Jew, it is declared from Mount Scopus, from our ‘Temple in miniature’ – the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: … The ban is nullified! The sin of Judaism against you is removed and your offense against her atoned for! Our brother are you, our brother are you, our brother are you!”, Klausner proclaimed. 

Klausner was using the rabbinical phrase ‘our brother are you’, traditionally applied to rescind a ban. But Klausner was no rabbi. Nonetheless his proclamation was stating a certain Jewish-academic view, that was to apply to the modern outlook of Zionism, which would be less fundamentally attached to the Jewish views of 1656.

But how did Spinoza exactly ‘atone’ for his ‘offences’? His subsequent treatises after the ban only strengthened the views that would have seemed heretical, blasphemous and evil at the time. No, Spinoza didn’t ‘atone’ for his offences. It is perhaps Judaism, or at least some Jews, who have moved on since, and seen him in another light.

Spinoza had reacted to his expulsion with grace and equanimity:

“All the better; they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal. But, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path this opened to me, with the consolation that my departure will be more innocent than was the exodus of the early Hebrews from Egypt.”

Let’s jump back to the present. Rebecca Vilkomerson:

“Yet as we at JVP are now feeling the pain of exclusion, we are very aware that Palestinians have always faced profiling and bans on entry to Israel. From the right of return for refugees to the simple ability to travel from one town to another, travel restrictions are a core feature of the Israeli apartheid state.”

Now that’s decent. That’s noble. That’s a commendable, empathetic, mature response.

Spinoza’s expulsion may arguably have ‘released’ him to write his thoughts more extensively later. He still did publish his two major treatises Ethics and Theological Political Treatise anonymously, in 1670. There was more to fear than the Jews, and the latter treatise was regarded as “forged in hell” at the time. In comparison to current events, the Israeli banning of various organizations and activists that seek to take Israel to task for its violations, in a peaceful, nonviolent manner, may well spur the movement into more action. It seems highly unlikely that it will actually silence it.

Speaking of Spinoza’s ideas today can only be a sign of merit. Personally, I became utterly fascinated by his thoughts already at age 16, when I recall having been assigned to do a presentation on him in history lessons – in an Israeli high school that is. At the time I did not access his thoughts on religion and Judaism, simply found him utterly fascinating on other matters.

But Spinoza’s thoughts on Judaism also reflect on Israel today, as it is the Jewish State. Take for example his mentioned notion about God not ‘choosing’ anything, and hence not even assigning any territory to anyone, not Jews nor anyone else. Mirror that against Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s claim that “this land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that” (because God gave it to us); and you will see that his notions are very relevant. And if that’s too much of a religious-national example, then what about the ‘leftist’, ‘secular’ former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who brags about having “liberated Judea and Samaria”?

Aye, Zionism isn’t really secular, as I’ve written in the past. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote more recently, “Zionism is Israel’s fundamentalist religion” .

I cannot say whether, if Spinoza would have been alive in our times, he would challenge Zionism as he did Judaism (as well as other religious notions). I believe that he would, because that’s where the logic of his arguments seems to point to. As he wrote:

“At the present time, there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.”

I would not only take this as relevant to our very times, but also add, as the Jewish British cabinet minister Edwin Montagu did in 1917, that there is no “Jewish nation” at all.

Spinoza opined that commandments of Torah, have no validity for latter-day Jews. The single most important thing that he saw as a crucial maxim is thus:

Love your fellow human beings and treat them with justice and charity.

That’s something we can hopefully all relate to. And it’s beginning to dawn upon many that Israel’s policies, even its very founding ideology, is fundamentally violating that principle, and it’s not getting any better with time. It’s not anti-Jewish to abide by that principle – it is arguably Jewish. It’s also arguably essentially Christian too. And one needs to have a reality check about that principle. If the Jewish State violates it, systematically and institutionally, then it may be the Jewish State that has it wrong.

And it really doesn’t matter which kind of a God you believe in, or whether you believe in one at all. Many people would be able to relate to this as ‘humanity’. These are the principles that stand at the core of modern enlightenment, at the core of the body of law especially since WW2, known as international law – which Israel regularly and systematically flouts.

Now, how many centuries will it take, before Jews who care mostly just about themselves, understand that fellow Jews who are empathetic and vigilant about human rights, may actually be the ones who carry the future, also for Jews?  In the meanwhile, those fellow will be banned. And not many Jews in the Jewish State will lift any kind of outcry. Because if ‘rabbi’ Gilad Erdan’s Ministry of Hasbara said they were the wrong kind of Jews, then it must be true.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.