The Biblical verses that Jews sang aloud in synagogues around the world during the last few weeks tell of how Moses prescribed for the Israelites the exact specifications of the Temple they must build for God, so that the Divine Presence might have a place to dwell on Earth. Right on the heels of this story comes another, relating the mishap of egel ha’Zahav, the Golden Calf, when the Children of Israel capitalize on Moses’ absence to force his brother Aaron to make them a graven calf of gold to worship.
Notwithstanding the ancient Jewish tradition of seeing meaning in every errant vowel and lopsided letter in the Torah, even a casual reader should view such a glaring juxtaposition of two narratives as an invitation to engage in a little comparison. Perhaps the most striking difference is a very simple one: while the Sanctuary is composed of many materials –– copper and gold, skins and cloth, wood and oil –– the Calf, as its name suggests, is made from gold alone. The text would seem to suggest that in order to bring God into this world, that is, in order to locate an origin and a direction for our axis of right and wrong, we need a process that is materially subtle and symbolically complex. The danger lies in thinking that moral questions have simple answers derived from a single, pure idea.
I suppose the best re-statement of this teaching in modern times is that bad things tend to happen when people forget that every generation is meant to have a difficult time figuring out what the right thing to do is. In the past few hundred years, many Western societies have congratulated themselves on the new clarity of their moral vision even as they have pardoned more heinous misdeeds than their forebears ever dreamed of. The revolutions in both France and Russia set out to bring an end to social and economic oppression, and ultimately spent their strength on mass murder, terror, and empire. Catholics and Protestants across Europe realized the folly in burning one another at the stake, embraced their cousins regardless of faith or creed, and proceeded to massacre along ethnic lines with unprecedented zeal. And it is worth mentioning in particular that the thinkers of the German Enlightenment denounced religiously-motivated persecution of Jews as backward and irrational, yet it was that same language of reason, in combination with a refined strain of racism once fashionable among educated elites, that the Nazis used to make their iron-clad case for the Final Solution.
And so it is now that, well-schooled in the best-popularized lessons of sixty years ago, all right-thinking people in the world today know that the mark of true evil is racism. A corollary of this fact is that the best way to mobilize the moral outrage of the Enlightened mob against a target of your choosing is to convince the world that said target is fundamentally racist, and therefore illegitimate. This observation, above all, is the key to understanding the campaign being waged this week by activists on campuses across the country to accuse the State of Israel of practicing “apartheid.” The Apartheid regime in South Africa, we know, was the quintessential racist state. In it, black Africans were legally excluded from most professions, interracial sex was forbidden, and only whites were granted the right to participate in government. To those who know anything at all about Israel, comparing the two countries on these and many other scores is simply laughable. It is the hope of Israel’s enemies, however, that they will be able to manipulate the emotions of those who know comparatively little about Israel, in order to first rally an unthinking army behind the standard of anti-racism, and then subsequently set about the task of dismantling the Jewish State.
For this reason, I find it highly appropriate that the “Israel Apartheid Week” propaganda-fest was (presumably unwittingly) planned for the weeks leading up to the story of the Golden Calf. I sincerely hope the students on our campus and elsewhere will ignore the current monotone campaign of defamation against Israel in favor of undertaking the more difficult and rewarding task of learning enough about the Land of Israel, Zionism, and Jews to make their own judgments. Academic communities have an opportunity to show their moral sophistication by rejecting simplistic denunciations of Israel. Real engagement with ethical questions must begin with the recognition that they don’t have easy answers.