Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Wanderings)

The State of the Nation, the State of the People

An ad broadcast recently on Israeli radio, announcing a special entertainment program for Yom ha-Atzmaut, used the song written by the Beatles, “When I’m 64,” as a lead-in to the 64th anniversary of the founding of the Sate of Israel. But notwithstanding its upbeat, lively tune, this song (written when the Beatles were young, and could not imagine reaching the “advanced” age of 64; two of them in fact died well before that age) bears a troubling message in its repeated refrain “Will you still need me, when you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”
One might well add that this song reflects a certain mood in the country: “Will you still need me.” Does Diaspora Jewry still need Israel? And will world Jewry stand beside Israel in possible future times of trouble, or will they shrug their collective shoulders in philosophical resignation, as if to say: we brought our troubles on ourselves by decades of [possibly?] misguided policies?

The mood in Israel on this festival day is somewhat glum and pessimistic. First and foremost, the possibility of war with Iran, and the somewhat too facile talk about the military option, casts a cloud over all else (this was the background of my rather pessimistic essay here for Purim, which was preoccupied with anti-Semitism). No one knows whether such a war will in fact happen and, if so, what its consequences will be, both immediate and long-run. Many—including such notable figures of Israel’s political, intelligence and security establishments as Shimon Peres, Meir Dagan, a long line of generals, and even the hawkish Uzi Arad—think that for many reasons it is not such a good idea—but this is not the place to elaborate.

Second: the sense of growing criticism of Israel on the part of the “intelligentsia” in Western Europe and Britain. It is fashionable in many Left Wing and liberal circles to criticize Israel, even to the point of seeing its very existence as illegitimate. There is an international movement to disinvest from or boycott Israel—and not only products of the West Bank or the Golan Heights, but even those of Israel itself, and even to boycott Israeli academics—many of whom, ironically, are among the most outspoken critics of government policies. (See the data gathered by Phyllis Chesler in her The New Anti-Semitism; although written nearly ten years ago, and thus lacking in more recent examples, her argument is still highly relevant)

One of the central roots of the problem is the ongoing unresolved conflict with the Palestinians and the sense that there is no progress being made towards the declared goal of “two states for two peoples.” Opinions differ as to whether the Palestinians or the Israeli leadership are more stubborn and intransigent; what is clear is that the problem remains a festering sore, which can only grow worse as time passes. Contrary to the advice of the Psalmist, even if Israel is seeking peace, it is not pursuing it.

Third: It is now apparent that the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011 has produced a wave of Islamist or pro-Islamic governments: an absolute majority of Egyptians supported Islamic parties—the Muslim Brothers or the Salaphis—in the recent parliamentary elections. The outcome of the uprisings in Libya and Tunisia have yielded similar results; if and when Bashir Assad falls, Syria will no doubt go the same way, and people are wondering how long other moderate, pro-Western governments in the region—Jordan, the Gulf states, etc.—can survive. An Israel surrounded by Islamic states is not a pretty prospect. Whether these countries will follow a more fanatical or moderate version, Islam at this point in time is a religion that has yet to undergo the process of modernization; in principle, it is deeply rooted in intolerance to other religions (witness the violent attacks upon the Coptic Christians in Egypt), triumphalism, and the belief that any non-Muslim presence in the Middle East is a desecration of the Waqf—territory sacred to Islam.

There are also disturbing trends within Israel: economic conflicts; new anti-democratic legislation curbing, for example, certain minority rights and the power of the Supreme Court; and a host of smaller things, symptomatic of social decay (just in the last two weeks: a sex party or worse in broad daylight on the Tel Aviv Beach; a woman soldier killed by a falling lighting unit while setting up for Yom Ha-Atzmaut celebrations on Mt Herzl, the result of gross negligence; an officer hitting a non-violent demonstrator with the back of his gun; etc.). The level of Israeli education is declining, leading to fears that the “Jewish genius” may become a thing of the past within a few decades; the sense of “tribalism”—that Israel is divided into a series of different sectors—Haredim, religious settlers, Russian immigrants, Tel Aviv secularists, Mizrahim—without a real sense of common culture or values.

But, from the viewpoint of Zionism, what is most disturbing are certain developments in internal values and attitudes within Israel. First, there is a sense that the solidarity and common purpose which so marked the country during its early years has deteriorated over time. One could say that, even if there are external threats, if everyone would be ready to grit their teeth and join in fighting the good fight (the Churchillian “Blood, sweat and tears” that Netanyahu invokes from time to time), we will nevertheless prevail. But what happens when that feeling is gone?

As for the problem of the Jewishness of Israel: one hears more and more intellectuals rejecting the Jewishness of the state, and calling to change such symbols as the Hatikvah anthem, the Magen David flag, or the Law of Return. When talk is heard about Israel as a “Jewish state,” they object, saying that being “Jewish” is a religion. They seem not to have learned what I was taught at Camp Tel Yehudah fifty years ago: that the essence of Zionism was the redefining of Jewishness, not as a religion, or even as a “nation by virtue of its Torah” in R. Saadya Gaon’s famous phrase, but essentially a nation or people united by history, language, culture, and now, with the Zionist revival, by territory (and which, hence, can accept agnostics and atheists, and not only Talmudic Sages, among its leading sons). Perhaps this is a reaction to the ever-more-visible presence and political power of the Haredim; perhaps it’s leaning over backwards to be a “state of all its citizens” (ignoring Arab recidivism); perhaps it’s a kind of “post-modernity”; perhaps it’s simple ignorance.

This leads me to the inevitable question: Is secular Jewishness indeed possible? Has Israel created the high-quality secular Hebrew/Jewish culture imagined by such thinkers as Bialik and Ahad Haam? Was all this perhaps itself an illusion, based upon the deeply religious roots of the founding fathers, which dissipated after two or three generations, leaving as alternatives either Orthodoxy (represented, in the minds of many, by the most extreme version of the Haredi camp, which presents its own problems) or nothing—that is, a vapid, second-rate, “Tel-Aviv” version of American culture, combined with admitted technological excellence and creativity, but without humanistic values or vision?

In short, is Israel still a Zionist state or is it, de facto, simply a state of those who live here? I state this, not as an “anti-Israel” or “post-Zionist” ideological platform, but as a simple fact. It may be that aliyah won’t be that important in the future; that Israel may simply not be that attractive, culturally or otherwise, for Jews who are not passionately religious, or are otherwise, for one reason or another, unhappy in their native lands. Quite simply: we have in fact reached the stage of normalization of the state, whose heroic period is in its past. There are challenges, but these will be more like those faced by concerned citizens in any normal country, or in any event not ones integrally related to its Jewishness.

If such is the case, Israel and “Zionism” may no longer serve as the major focus fir Jewish identity in the Diaspora—again, all this leaving aside political controversies between Left and Right, pro and con Bibi and the Likud coalition, for and against J Street and Peter Beinart, etc. Apart from those who come on aliyah, Israel cannot serve as the focus of Jewish identity, because such an identity is vicarious, based upon something outside of one’s everyday life. Any form of Jewish identity—be it Orthodox religious, reconstructed, Renewal, cultural, Hebraist, Yiddishist, or even no more than a vaguely-defined Jewish “mentalité” or consciousness, based on a critical posture vis-à-vis mainstream bourgeois culture, a type of radical intellectualism (a la George Steiner—or perhaps Woody Allen)—in order to survive and to be transmitted to the next generation, must be rooted within the person’s own life, in his own behavior and experience, and not looking elsewhere for inspiration. Thus, in the end, America, and other centers of Jewry around the world, must create their own Jewish culture. Support Israel—by all means! Visit it, know it, be concerned about it~but not as a substitute for their own vital Jewish life.

What, then, do we celebrate on the 5th of Iyyar, if not reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, “the first flowering of our redemption”? First, if the State of Israel only came into the world to serve as a refuge from persecution—first, for the Jews suffering under pogroms in Czarist Russia around the turn of the last century, and later, a hundred-fold more so, for those who survived the nightmarish inferno that was Nazi-occupied Europe, Dayenu—it would have sufficed. If Israel nevertheless serves as a center (but not exclusively so) for Jewish culture, for research, for scholarship, for Jewish learning both sacred and secular, for archival collections—Dayenu. If Israel only serves to enable Jews, both within its boundaries and without, to stand a little bit prouder and taller (notwithstanding the current attacks on Israel), to not feel the need to apologize for being Jewish—Dayenu. Finally, if Israel represents, as I believe it does, not an eschatological, messianic state, but a return to history, with all its ambiguities, and all its opportunities for both great accomplishments and great failures—Dayenu!

Le-hayyei ha-Am ha-zeh! To the life of this people! Hag sameah!

Tazria-Metzora (Wanderings)


Shemini (Wanderings)


Hol Hamoed Pesah (Wanderings)

Tzav-Hagadol (Wanderings)

Vayikra (Wanderings)


Vayakhel-Pekudei (Wanderings)


Ki Tisa (Wanderings)