Saturday, May 10, 2008

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Mitzvot)

Israel at Sixty

Some time ago I was invited by Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine to participate in a symposium on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary. While at the time I did not submit my thoughts to that forum, the questions he posed seem a useful framework for our discussion here.

How ought a religious or secular Jew think about the State of Israel at the time of its 60th anniversary?

I conceive of Israel as an historical, not a meta-historical entity—and this does not bother me as a religious Jew. The formula used by official Religious Zionism, reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, implying that the State is the harbinger of the ultimate messianic Redemption, does not particularly address my concerns as an Israeli. One of the central messages of classical Zionism was that Jewry or Jewishness is defined in terms of nationhood, peoplehood, being a tribe, civilization, culture, or whatever—in short, of belonging to a collectivity, without any preconceived religious definition or mission. In the modern world, secular Jews are an important part of the mosaic called Judaism. I call myself a religious zionist (lower-case letters), who sees Zionism as the most significant historical enterprise of the Jewish people of the past millennium or more, and one in which religious Jews should have a significant input. However, its Jewish value does not stand or fall on grandiose theological definitions. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said, “Zionism originated in the sense of being fed up with being ruled by Goyim.” (To my mind, such an approach also goes a long way towards answering the objections of people, such as a friend of mine, who does not say Hallel on Yom ha-Atzmaut “because I have a bit of the Satmarer in me.”)

One might add, only half in jest, that the widespread custom of celebrating Yom ha-Atzmaut by making mangelim (barbeques) symbolizes the concrete, even carnal nature (in the root sense of that word—“fleshly”) of Zionism—i.e., the return of Judaism, and of Jewry, to a focus on concrete, earthly reality.

On a more personal level, after living here for more than a third of a century, what keeps me here, far more than ideology, is that I have learned to call Israel home, and to feel that the Israeli people are my people—and, at this point, to even feel a certain alienation and strangeness upon encountering my former compatriots, the Americans.

To what extent does the actual history of the past 60 years of Israel speak to or nurture your soul and make you feel proud, and why? To what extent is Israel tied to a worldview based on the notion that domination of others is the way to achieve security, rather than a worldview, implicit in the Torah command of loving the Other, that security comes through generosity and caring toward others?

At times, in our frustration with the very real problems confronting Israel, we forget the great accomplishments of the past 60 years (and of the pre-State Yishuv), and that it is important to “count our blessings,” and not only criticize: the revival of the Hebrew language, the creation of a new Hebrew culture, and of a flourishing center of Jewish knowledge, study, and research; the ingathering of exiles from diverse and far-flung places, many of whom had literally no other place to go where they could live without fear or repression; the creation of a flourishing economy, with particularly outstanding accomplishments in the areas of computer software and medical technology—the latter, in particular, being of great humane value; the creation, with all its warts and imperfections, of a free, democratic society; etc.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to celebrate this sixtieth year of independence with a full and unfettered heart; indeed, the hoopla surrounding this anniversary somehow seems hollow and artificial, on the order of “bread and circuses.” This is so for three main reasons:

1. Corruption of Political Leadership: Slightly over a year ago our ceremonial head of state, President Katzav, was removed from office on strong suspicion of sexual offenses, including actual rape of women working under his aegis. Just a few days ago, the head of our government, Prime Minister Olmert, was questioned by the police “under warning”—i.e., on suspicion of serious offenses. While a heavy veil of secrecy has been imposed on the investigation, it would appear that the charges involved major involvement in bribery and other corruption, and there is a feeling that this time he may well lead be forced to resign. In light of this, his pompous remarks at the various Independence Day celebrations will sound even more hollow than usual. Moreover, Olmert in this respect as first among equals”—he heads a long list of other ministers and Knesset members who have been subject to investigations and indictments in recent years. Thank goodness for Shimon Peres, who manages to project a sense of dignity and vision.

2. Lack of Social Cohesion. The “miracle” of the creation of a vital Jewish society and state in Eretz Yisrael occurred largely thanks to the sense of solidarity, social cohesion, and common purpose which existed at the time of its creation. In recent years there has been a growing sense of fragmentation. Israel has come to seem more like a pastiche of diverse sub-cultures and sectors—Mizrahim, Russians, Haredim, Westernizing secularists, West Bank settlers, and of course Arabs—than it does a unified society. More troubling, over the course of the past thirty years the social gap has grown enormously, in the sense that the gap in wealth and income between the richest and poorest is far greater than it was in, say, 1975. From one of the most egalitarian societies in the developed world, it has become one of the least so. Many Israelis seem enamored with American culture and the ethos of “management” in an uncritical way, without taking into account its shortcomings. Under the guidance of an ideology of unfettered capitalism, numerous functions formerly assumed by government have been “privatized”—largely to their detriment. The universities, once the pride of those who saw in them a focal point in which the Jewish love of learning was translated into secular, universal terms, producing intellectual accomplishment and Nobel Prizes, are on the decline, and seem on the way towards becoming institutions for preparing young people for remunerative careers rather than as centers of research and creativity; the humanities and history are suffering particularly. Elementary and secondary education are also on the decline, and seem less likely in the future to provide opportunities for bright but disadvantaged children to advance in life. How long can Israel continue to be what it was if this trend continues? (On all this, see the interview with Yaakov Weinrot in Musaf ha-Aretz, 2 May 08.)

3. The Palestinian Issue: But the most vexing problem is the ongoing conflict with the Palestinian and many parts of the Islamic world. Put simply: Israel cannot survive as the country it is if the occupation and bitterness and hatred surrounding it continue for another forty years, or even much less. In this area, I am filled with fear and trepidation, and I do not know, at this point, what if any is the solution to this problem. Many liberal intellectuals in the West condemn Israel for the situation almost exclusively, seeing the Palestinians as an oppressed Third-World people. It is important to realize that much of the blame lies on the other side: Arab Islamic culture is still largely stuck in Medieval world, in which the concept of religious toleration, one of the fundaments of modernity, hardly exists. Hence, the triumphalist and jingoist rhetoric of extreme Islamicists finds ready ears, and even when they do negotiate their positions are often intransigent. That, plus a deep-seated ressentiment against the West, represented by Israel, makes me despair.

But as a Jew, and an Israeli, I must make the moral reckoning of my own side. Israel ought to have yielded, in at least equal measure, the carrot and the stick. After all these years, we still do not seem to have realized that oppression and constant restriction of people in their everyday life breeds hatred and the desire for revenge, and can never bring about a solution. At times, I think that the words of Abraham Lincoln, “No nation can long endure half slave and half free,” are peculiarly apropos to our own situation. Fantasies of “crushing” the enemy are just that: fantasies that are either impossible or, if theoretically possible, ones whose moral price and international stigma would be too heavy to bear. We must free ourselves of the “occupation”—for our own good!

Some of my friends on the Left blame the Mitnahalim, the West Bank settlers and their political lobby, for all our troubles. But I believe the basic problem goes far beyond the West Bank and the Palestinians, or even beyond the specific problems encountered in negotiations. I see the Achilles Heel of Zionism in what is commonly known as Bithonism—the ideology of defense, of reliance on our own military power and/or powerful patrons, as the central assurance of our survival here. It is this syndrome which, among other things, has brought retired generals with an essentially military-centered world-view to political power, time and time again.

This problem has its roots, via a rather strange dialectic, in what is most healthy in Zionism. Zionism began, inter alia, as a reaction to the historical passivity of the Jew of the Galut (a far more powerful word than Diaspora) in the face of history. Early Zionist thinkers spoke of creating a “New Jew”—strong, healthy, at home in his own body and, during the early years, paradigmatically an agricultural laborer. It was this notion that led to the creation of Hashomer—the first self-defense group—the Haganah, and ultimately the IDF.

But in the process of creating this new type, the Zionist movement threw out the baby with the bath water. It rejected, not only Exilic culture and religious creativity, but was also so ashamed of “weakness” and galutiut that it was unable psychologically to deal with enemies in ways that would bridge differences, and help to cultivate and encourage moderate forces in the Arab side. Many of our leaders forgot that (as I once heard Yitzhak Rabin say, quoting Von Clausewitz), militarism must be an instrument to achieve national goals, not an end in itself. By implication, the use of force must go hand in hand with diplomacy. Instead, the covert belief of many otherwise intelligent people—and I refer here, not only to the Right Wing, but to the mainstream, central movement in Israeli politics—is that every problem has a military solution, and that every aggressive move by the enemy must be met by counter-force. We thus have the present pattern in Gaza of escalation, revenge and counter-revenge, and of a persuasive and populist Right Wing that denounces the smallest move towards calm and compromise as treason. In recent years, this pattern has repeated itself ad nauseum.

* * * * *

But despite all the problems and difficulties, today is a day to celebrate our sovereignty—which, in the memory of many people still alive today, is a great hiddush. We can only conclude with a prayer and hope that, with the help of the Almighty, and with the help of Jewish wisdom, resourcefulness and ingenuity, the State of Israel will prevail and go on to many more years, decades and even centuries of freedom and growth, ad bi’at go’el tzedek.


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