Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Zohar series)

For more teachings on Yom ha-Atzmaut, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Are We Still Zionists?

Some months ago, one of our guests at Friday night dinner was a woman who had grown up in the same Zionist youth movement as myself, who came on aliyah shortly after graduating college, has spent her entire adult life here, working primarily in the fields of Jewish and Zionist education, and who like myself had undertaken and maintained a commitment to religious observance from early adulthood on.

At one point the conversation turned to what sociologist Daniel Bell, nearly half a century ago, called ”the end of ideologies.” I mentioned that during my parents youth, in the 1930’s, they believed in building a better world through socialism and in the possibility of a revolution that would leave the world a more equitable, just and good place for all; as people began to learn about the cruelty and despotism of Stalin’s rule, their passionate intensity was replaced by disillusionment. Similar disappointments were felt regarding other dreams and ideologies: not only the obviously demonic ideologies of Nazism, fascism and jingoistic nationalism, but also liberal democracy, the somewhat inchoate neo-Rousseauvian ideology of the hippies, and even civil rights and racial equality (soured by the “reversed racism” of the Black Power movement of the later ‘60s). And some would add, in light of the present world-wide economic crisis, neo-liberal capitalism must be added to this list. The problem, it would seem, is not that of one or another ideology, but of ideology itself. Many of us find it difficult to believe in any vision of social change that will bring about a better world—not only because we have become the “older generation” and feel that we’ve seen everything, but because something has changed in the world itself. The younger generation, our own children, the hope of today’s world, seem more cynical, more self-involved, more concerned with advancing their own careers and building their own economic and personal niche than they are with the broader problems of society, urgent as these may be.

At this point, our guest asked the question: among all those ideologies that have disappointed, would you also include one ideology that is very close to us: namely, Zionism? Do you still think of yourself as a Zionist? Has Zionism, too, failed?

My initial response was to recall a brief encounter, a year earlier, just about the time of the Winograd Commission’s report, when one Shabbat morning I ran into the wife of the well-known “post-Zionist” thinker (and erstwhile friend and neighbor of my late parents) Daniel Boyarin. My spontaneous reaction upon seeing her was to say: “You know, I’d like to talk to Danny; I’m beginning to think that I have a common language with him after all.” (That is, that I was beginning to question my own Zionism.)

Since that Shabbat I have found myself returning again and again to this question; hence, I decided to devote this year’s Yom Ha-Atzmaut issue to discussion of this issue.

There are many arguments in support of a kind of “post-Zionist” attitude, even on the part of “good” Jews and loyal, patriotic Israelis. One may well argue that the task of Zionism was to create the State, and this has been done; hence, Zionism is superannuated. Or one may fell a deep sense of disappointment in the reality of the State vs. the dream, especially in light of the widespread corruption of recent years, reaching to the highest echelons; the launching of two problematic wars during the last government’s term of office, in which there was massive bloodshed and destruction without a clear sense of either purpose or goals accomplished; a sense of lack of clear direction on the part of the leadership, beyond empty rhetoric; and the apathy of the public and the decline of public movements of protest, particularly on the Left.

We must begin with the matter of definition. The term Zionism is used today to refer to many phenomena which don’t really get to the heart of the matter. For many Jews in the Diaspora, Zionism simply means being pro-Israel; having a warm fuzzy feeling for Israel as a Jew. Closely related to this is the idea that being a Zionist means defending Israel, its policies, its right to exist in a hostile world, whenever it comes under attack. A Zionist is on the front line of hasbarah against the challenges of the Left, of such things as the academic boycott now being considered in the US, etc. (and, by extension, a Zionist never criticizes anything about Israel). Again, there is the notion that some sort of amorphous “connection” to Israel will save the Jewish people from assimilation; that visiting Israel will convince young people to be committed Jews; that Zionism and Israel (along with the Shoah!) can serve as a focus for Jewish identity, survival and continuity in a world where the role of religion is in decline. While all these sentiments are praiseworthy, I find it difficult to identify them in a serious way with Zionism.

There are also those who identify Zionism with the specific organizational form it has taken, of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a challenge to one being seen as a challenge to the other. Thus, in some circles one cannot criticize the WZO as an unwieldy bureaucracy without being labelled a Post-Zionist, rahmana litzlan.

In our youth movement days, many of us cultivated hopes for Israel as the harbinger of a new kind of society. The notion was that Israel would somehow serve as the locus of a new and better society, a place in which the social ideals of Judaism could and would be realized in practice. The ideas of such thinkers as A. D. Gordon, Berl Katzenelson, Ber Borochov and, in a somewhat different way, Martin Buber, all combined in a vague way with the hopes held out by the kibbutz movement, spoke to many of us. Meanwhile, both Israel and the kibbutz movement have fallen on hard times, belying the promise of earlier days.

What, then, is Zionism? Classical Zionist ideology propounded a certain interpretation of Jewish history: quite simply, it saw “the Jewish Problem”—that is, the periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism, which became increasingly vociferous in the later 19th century, long before the Holocaust—as an inevitable consequence of Exile, of the anomaly of Jewish existence as a beleaguered minority throughout the world. The solution lay in the Jews, as a people in Exile, returning to a normal state of national existence in its ancient homeland. Thus, what some might see as classical religious categories of Galut and Geulah, of exile and redemption, were applied to real, concrete history. (Thus, in the Haggadot written by and for many of the secular kibbutzim during the early years of the state, the story of the Pesah Seder was retold in terms of the contemporary drama of national renascence in Israel.)

Before continuing, perhaps we ought to pause a moment, on this 61st anniversary of Israel’s Independence, to reflect upon the simple, well-known facts of how the State came into existence: of the daring and courage shown, both by those who conceived the above vision and those who brought it to being, especially during the difficulties and overwhelming odds against the state during the 1948 war. During the course of the everyday routine of life, and the inevitable gripes and complaints about all the things wrong with Israeli society, one loses sight of what a remarkable story the creation of Israel was: creating the institutions of statehood, the ingathering of a large portion of the Jewish people, the forging of the exiles of different cultures and drastically different backgrounds into a single nation, the resurrection of a dead language, the “making the desert to bloom” (corny a cliche as it may be), the building of a serious fighting force from a people without any military tradition, and the defending of the country against repeated attacks—all these are truly remarkable accomplishments. In between the grilled meats, the nature hikes (or drives), the evenings of group singing, one should stop to think about these things.

To return to the ideology of Zionism: three covert assumptions underlie the above reading of Jewish history. First, that the Jews are primarily a nation, and not a religious confession or church, as these words are generally understood—a point hardly self-evident even today. Many young Jews abandon their Jewishness because of the confusion over this point, because they fail to understand the simple and historically obvious but seemingly paradoxical point that many of the best Jews have been atheist, or at least agnostics (I cannot elaborate now, but have discussed this many times in the past). The corollary of this is that, as a nation, the Jews have a history; and, third, that the time has come for the Jewish people to return to history as actors, and not as passive objects dependent upon the good graces of others. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the ideological revolution wrought by Zionism.

But there is a problem in this classical Zionist ideology: the history of Israel over the past 61 years seems to belie the idea that national sovereignty would “solve” the “Jewish problem”; that a country of our own would lead to normalization and acceptance in the family of nations. Developments in the Middle East have raised unanticipated problems, and Arab hostility to the state is far greater than anyone seems to have anticipated—so much so that Israel’s acceptance in the family of nations has been limited and problematic—an anomaly among the nations.

There are, of course, broadly speaking two schools of interpretation concerning the reasons for this: the Left (both in Israel and without) see this as a result of mistakes made by the Zionist enterprise, especially the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, creating a Palestinian people who rankled under feelings of oppression, deprivation of basic human rights, chronic unemployment, endless hassles at Army barricades, etc. The Right points to the element of triumphalism inherent within Islam: the concept of Dar al-islam, of the entire Middle East as waqf, as territory that somehow belongs to Islam, in which there is no room for non-Islamic, and certainly not for Jewish, sovereignty; the sense that we are an alien, unwanted presence. Some religious people might add: Sinat olam le-Am Olam (“An eternal hatred to the eternal people”)—anti-Semitism as an almost cosmic, metaphysical force. Most probably, as in all human situations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Be that as it may: the idea of Israel as a safe haven is, at least for the present and the foreseeable future, certainly the next generation or two, at best a half truth. Some even say: Israel has somehow begat its own variety of anti-Semitism; as a result, they might add, Israel is, in pragmatic terms, the least safe place for Jews to be.

But turning to the other side: assuming that one wishes to see the Jewish people, its civilization, culture and religion survive and flourish in the modern world: are the alternative solutions any more viable? Is Jewish life really viable in free Diaspora? Granted that modernity, secularization, democracy, the pluralistic, tolerant society have largely eliminated anti-Semitism. Is America (and the other Western democracies) the new Jewish homeland? It would seem that we have exchanged the Scylla of anti-Semitism for the Charybdis of assimilation. I am not among the woe-sayers; I am well aware of the renaissance, be it major or minor, of Jewish life in America (and elsewhere in the world). Some of my best friends are professional Jews in America —educators, rabbis, professors of Judaic studies, etc. As I have indicated in my essay on Simon Rawidowicz, the tension between Babylon and Jerusalem is essential to productive, creative Jewish life. Nevertheless, , for the average American Jew, simple survival as a Jew is an uphill struggle, and one must take extreme measures to “assure” that one’s children and grandchildren will not marry out, let alone live vibrant, active Jewish lives. The United States is no Babylonia, and lacks the natural Jewishness of Jews in such the Diasporas of pre-modern times, or even of pre-Shoah Europe, who knew who they were in a natural way (this case has recently been eloquently presented by Eli Kavon, “America is no Babylonia,” Jerusalem Post, March 3 2009).

More important: how much of all this is owed to Israel? Had the State of Israel never been created, what would Jewish life in the “free” Diaspora be like? Of course, this question is unanswerable, and hence perhaps meaningless. (Just as the noted demographer Sergio Della Pergola recently said that had the Holocaust not occurred world Jewish population would have been two or three times greater, because of the vast number of Jews in prime child-bearing years or soon would have reached them who were killed. But what would have happened in the intervening sixty years? No one can ever know) Nevertheless, conventional wisdom holds that the existence of Israel gave world Jewry an infusion of pride and self-confidence which enhanced their lives as Jews wherever they lived.

I will conclude with a few comments on an issue increasingly raised among liberal circles in Israel and outside: what exactly does it mean to have a state that is both “Jewish” and “democratic”? Which of the two takes priority? And is the concept of a nation-state, based upon a specific ethnic-national- group compatible with contemporary ideas of democracy and human rights?

This is a complex question, which wiser and more learned minds than myself have addressed. I am not sure to what extent it is a real or meaningful question in the context of the Middle East, in which societies and states define themselves in ethnic-religious-tribal terms. At times I wonder whether the advocates of a “state of all its citizens,” who suggest changing the flag and anthem (and perhaps even the name) of the State of Israel to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Arab minority, know where they live. May they not be leaning over backwards, perhaps even falling into a cynical trap planned by clever pan-Islamicists who have figured out who to use liberal concepts in which they themselves do not believe to trip up the Jews.

My answer, in brief, is this: so long as a state gives equal opportunities and rights —including not only individual rights, but equally importantly, equitable budgeting of resources for the infra-structures and other needs of the minority and their municipalities and regional councils—there is nothing “undemocratic” about a state having a certain historical tradition, and expressing it in its “civil religion.”

A New Al Hanissim for Yom ha-Atzmaut

Long time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan know that I have long been interested in the creation of a meaningful and appropriate liturgy for Yom ha-Atzmaut, including the need for an Al ha-Nissim prayer to be inserted in the appropriate places in the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. Yesterday I received an email from Avi Shmidman, containing a new Al ha-Nissim prayer, written by himself and Ben-Tzion Spitz. The text follows below.

About the authors: Avi Shmidman, an Alon Shvut resident, teaches at Bar-Ilan University in the Department of the Literature of the Jewish People. He recently completed his doctorate in Medieval Hebrew Poetry at Bar-Ilan University, entitled “The Poetic Versions of the Grace after Meals from the Cairo Genizah.” His academic articles have appeared in such journals as Ginzei Qedem and Pirkei Shirah. Ben-Tzion Spitz, also an Alon Shvut resident, is an engineer, entrepreneur, and graduate of Yeshiva and Columbia Universities. He has studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, Merkaz HaRav, and Har Etzion, and occasionally writes and lectures on Bible, Talmud and other Jewish topics. Recent writings may be found at meromtzion.wordpress.com. The authors have also set up a website for discussion of this text at http://alhanisim.blogspot.com.

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועת המלחמות שעשית לנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה: בימי קיבוץ שרידי ישראל מארצות חושך וצלמות לחמדת נחלתם, קמו חלוצי אומה , הרימו נס וחברו מגילה, ותבעו את זכות העם לעמוד ברשות עצמו, כממלכה יהודית בארץ מולדתו. בתופים ובמחולות רקדו בחוצות, טף ונשים, זקנים ונערים, בקולות שמחה ובצהלה. באותה שעה תקפום בני עוולה להכחיד מן הארץ שם ושארית, ולים לזרוק כל שומרי אמוניה. ואתה לישע עמך מיהרת, ידי מגיניהם חיזקת, וכלי אויביהם נפצת. תקומת פאר עשית ומדינת הדר הקמת, ראשית שאפת דורותיך, מחסה ומעוז לכל שבות עמיך.


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