Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Yom ha-Atzmaut, including texts of the proposed Al ha-Nissim prayer for this holiday, see the archives to thsi blog for April 2006, May 2007 and 2008, and April 2009.

On Zionism and Post-Zionism

Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) this year is taking place against a rather bleak mood. The latest bribery scandal involving highly placed officials and the construction of a particularly ugly project that mars the Jerusalem sky-line; the stalemate in negotiations with the Palestinians, and the sense among many that the government lacks a clear direction or long-term strategy; the ongoing crisis with America and the Obama administration; the growing delegitimation of Israel as such in much of Europe and Britain and among certain intellectual circles; the Iranian nuclear threat—all these add up to a generally melancholy if not downright pessimistic mood as the country enters its 63rd year.

r the past decade or so various individuals and groups have emerged that define themselves as “post-Zionists.” Indeed, a few months ago my synagogue, a liberal-Orthodox one, held a discussion on the topic: “Opening dialogue Between Zionists and Post-Zionists in Our Community.” This raised for me the question, particularly apt on Yom ha-Atzmaut, as to what it means to be a Zionist, anyway, and whether, on the personal level, I am still a Zionist?

In past, opposition to Zionism tended to be one of two types: there were the Ultra-Orthodox, Naturei Karta and Satmar and the like, who opposed the State because it is not a Torah state, because it is in fact based on a secular ideology, and that in any event, as the Messiah has not yet come, the Zionist enterprise openly defies the “oath” taken by the Jewish people, according to Ketubot 111a, to not hasten or force the End, or to “go up [to the Land of Israel] as a wall”—i.e., en masse. On the other hand, there were the classical Reformers, who defined Judaism in purely religious terms—albeit their religion was defined, not in terms of halakhah or strict adherence to Rabbinic teachings, but in respectable bourgeois terms, modeled after Protestantism, amenable to acculturation within liberal Western society, which left no room for a distinct national identity

Today’s “post-Zionism” starts with the perception of the State of Israel as having betrayed Jewish humanistic values, as having become an apartheid, racist state which denies basic human rights to its Palestinian minority. As an alternative focus for Jewish identity, they propose, as far as I understand it, a Diaspora-centered ethical universalism, which may or may not entail elements of religious faith, halakhah, etc. Thus, one of the thinkers of this group, Daniel Boyarin, seems to revel in the idea of the Jew as an alienated, cosmopolitan human being, as a kind of avatar of modern rootlessness; as a post-nationalist who, through his Jewish wandering and detachment, harbingers the gradual decline of national particularism in post-modern culture (as witnessed by, e.g., the present milieu of the new Europe). This Jew is passive, feminine, cerebral, scholarly; Boyarin’s rejection of Zionism seems to go hand-in-hand with a rejection of Zionism’s attempt to create a “new Jew,” who would be physically strong, masculine, even machoistic, skilled in military arts if not actually militaristic, athletic, rooted in the soil—in short, everything that was the antithesis of Rabbinic, and especially Eastern European shtetl culture. (Woody Allen as a cultural archetype?). This affirmation of Jewish rootlessness and alienation seems to bear a certain affinity to the thought of George Steiner, the literary critic and philosopher, who celebrates the modern Diaspora Jew as the quintessential modern man and outsider, seeing Jewish prominence in such fields as psychoanalysis, sociology, literary criticism, etc., based on viewing society and the individual from without, as positive expression of this.

The problem is that the post-Zionist critique, particularly as regards Israel’s handling of the Arab question, contains enough truth to be plausible. As a young man, I saw in Israel the embodiment of my ideals—of humanism, of a kind of Buberian utopian socialism, of Jewish religion and of a healthy, non-alienated Jewish identity all wrapped into one. Today, when the reality of Israel is disappointing on several of these counts, I ask myself whether I still believe in Zionism, and I don’t entirely know how to answer.

My dilemma is this: I love Israel and have, by the decision to make aliyah, made it the focus of my life, but I feel that Israel has gone in a very bad direction. A single crucial decision, made about 40 years ago—to settle the West Bank and the other territories conquered in the Six Day War, and thereby to turn a temporary situation, which ought to have served as the basis for peace negotiations, into the ongoing occupation of a population of 2 or 3 million people without political rights—has become Israel’s Achilles’ heel, which has slowly poisoned everything Israel does, as well as souring its relations with the “enlightened” Western world. Even the more mundane forms of corruption—i.e., the bribery and graft and misuse of power which exist everywhere, but which seem to have become more widespread, or at least visible, in recent years—are somehow related, through an invisible moral calculus that I do not claim to understand, to be related to this “original sin.” As a result, all of Israel’s wonderful achievements—the hi-tech and advanced medical inventiveness, the Nobel Prize winners, the idea of serving as a “light to the nations”—become spoiled.

In what sense am I nevertheless a Zionist?

There are two basic axioms of Zionism, that bear repeating: first, the belief that the Jews are not primarily a religious group in the Western sense, but a nation or a people. Historically, Judaism has been based on a welding together of nation and Torah; on the notion of Klal Yisrael as an extended family-like group, with a unique covenant with God; conversion defined in quasi-biological terms, as being reborn as a member of the clan. But more than that: in the modern age, as many Jews have for better or worse rejected religious faith and practice, there has emerged such a thing, historically, culturally, and sociologically, as secular Judaism. (Indeed, a multi-volume encyclopedia of secular Judaism, edited by Yair Tzaban and Yirmiyahu Yovel, was recently published.) Clearly, then, Jewishness can be defined through cultural, linguistic terms, as much as by religion. Incidentally, re Boyarin’s earlier-mentioned thesis, Zionism revitalized the more natural, non-alienated, less exclusively cerebral side of Jewry. It strived to create an integration of body and spirit (see on this, from a religious perspective, Rav Kook)—even at times it went to other extreme and seemed to emphasize the body alone, or the value of the mind (the “Jewish genius”) redefined in utilitarian or economic terms.

The second basic axiom of Zionism is that the Diaspora is in some sense unnatural, not a desirable situation, ab initio. Even if, particularly in the modern age, it has produced universal geniuses—Freud, Marx, Einstein, etc.—it is not really workable as a home for a people. Even in a comfortable Diaspora such as the United States, in which Jews have been hugely successful in the professions and the economy and have become widely accepted as part of the mainstream; where many feel that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past or at most a marginal phenomenon; even so, the Diaspora is not a natural state for developing a truly healthy Jewish existence.

This is so because the Diaspora poses two basic alternatives. The one: rampant assimilation, intermarriage, and an uphill struggle to maintain Jewish identity and literacy on an increasingly rudimentary, simplified level. Even if Jewish creativity seems to be flourishing in new and exciting ways in certain circles, this is a negligible few, an exception that proves the rule.

The second alternative is that of a resurgent, buttressed orthodoxy, rebuilding ghetto walls in the open society. Demographically, at this point, uncompromising Orthodoxy seems to be the great white (or should I say black?) hope of survival for Diaspora Jewry. Unlike their more acculturated brethren, they show remarkable survival pattern. Not only do they marry predominantly with other Jews, but by and large only with other Orthodox Jews—and, in turn, are blessed with a high birth rate, thereby guaranteeing Jewish continuity into the next generation. But all this is at the price of a parochial outlook, of a narrowing of the scope and meaning of Judaism in ways which I, for one, find distasteful and unattractive.

The third axiom of Zionism—that Zionism is the definitive solution to the “Jewish problem,” that the Jewish state provides a “save haven” against anti-Semitism—is no longer true. In point of fact, the physical dangers to Jewish life are arguably greater in Israel than elsewhere; moreover, contemporary anti-Semitism, whether on the part of forces in Western society, and certainly among Muslims, has undergone a transformation to anti-Zionism.

So what is to be done? Those of us who care about the future of Israel, as a democratic, Jewish society, must continue to make our voices heard, to criticize what needs to be criticized—but as a “loyal opposition,” not as disaffected “post-Zionists.” Thus, despite the present clouds and misgivings, we should celebrate this day with as much joy as we can muster, as marking the modern rebirth of our nation, as the reemergence of the Jewish people into the history of nations. Hag Sameah!


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