Throughout the centuries, historians, philosophers and anthropologists have struggled with the notion called Israel more than with nearly any other topic. While attempting to place Israel within the confines of conventional history, they experienced constant academic and philosophical frustration. Any definitions they suggested eventually broke down due to serious inconsistencies. Was Israel a nation, a religion or an altogether mysterious entity which would forever remain unexplainable? By some it was seen less as a nation and more as a religion; others believed the reverse to be true. And there were those who claimed that it could not fit into either of these categories.
It was clear to everyone, though, that “Israel” did not fit into any specific definition or known scheme. It resisted all historical concepts and generalities. Its uniqueness thwarted people’s natural desire for an explanation, since explanation generally implies arrangement in categories. Anything that flies in the face of such an attempt is alarming and terribly disturbing. This fact became even more obvious once Titus the Roman forced the Jews out of their country, and specifically after the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion. It was at that moment that the Jew was hurled into the abyss of the nations of the world. Since then, the Jew has been confronted with a new condition: ongoing insecurity. While mankind has always faced moments of insecurity, it is the Jews who have been denied even the smallest share of the dubious security that others possess. Whether Jews were aware of it or not, they always lived on ground that could, at any moment, give way beneath their feet.
In 1948 Israel once again became a country. But many forgot that while it became a country once more, it was not only a country. All the other dimensions, such as nationhood, religion, mystery, the lack of definition and insecurity continued to exist. Today, the people of Israel do not find themselves exclusively in the land of Israel, and instead of one Israel the world now has two. But the second new Israel has until now been seen as responding to the demands of history, geography, politics and journalism. One knows where it is. At least one thinks that one knows where it is. But it becomes clearer and clearer that this new and definable Israel is now seriously on the way to becoming as much a puzzle and mysterious entity as the old Israel always was. In fact, it already is.
Throughout its short history, the State of Israel has gone through the most mysterious events modern man has ever seen. After an exile of nearly two thousand years, during which the old Israel was able to survive in contradiction to all historical criteria, it returned to its homeland. There it found itself surrounded by a massive Arab population that was and is incapable of making peace with the idea that this small mysterious nation lives among them. After having experienced a Holocaust in which it lost six million of its members, it was not permitted to live a life of tranquility on its tiny piece of land. Once again, the Jew was denied the right to feel at home in his own country. From the outset Israel was forced to fight its enemies on all fronts. It was attacked and condemned for defending its population and fighting for its very existence. Over the years it had to endure the international community’s policy of double standards. Today, as in the past, when it calls for peace it is condemned for creating war. When it tries as no other nation to avoid hurting the citizens of the countries that declared war on it, it is told that it is more brutal than nations that committed and still commit atrocities against millions of people. Simultaneously and against all logic, this nation builds its country as no other has done, while fighting war after war. What took other nations hundreds of years it accomplished in only a few. While bombs and katyushas attack its cities, and calls for its total destruction are heard in many parts of the world, it continues to increase its population, generate unprecedented technology and create a stronger and more stable economy. But the more it succeeds, the more its enemies become frustrated and irritated, and the more dubious Israel’s security becomes. The more some nations aspire to destroy it, the more the world is forced to deal with this small people and its survival capacity. By now its news occupies more space in major newspapers than any other political issue or general topic – as if to say that its dubious security and irritating population are at the center of world history.
Jews must ask themselves what this non-classification really signifies. Is it due merely to lack of vision and insight on the part of the nations? Is it that Jews could really fit into a system but the nations have not yet allowed them entry? Is it a negative phenomenon? A temporary one, until it will rectify itself in the future?
We have only one way to comprehend the positive meaning of this otherwise negative phenomenon – the way of faith. From any other viewpoint, the inability of Jews to fit into any category would be intolerable and a meaningless absurdity. What we need to understand is that the Jews’ inability to fit into any category is the foundation and meaning of their living avowal of Israel’s uniqueness. Israel’s very existence is the manifestation of divine intervention in history to which Israel must attest. In Israel, history and revelation are one. Only in Israel do they coincide. While other nations exist as nations, the people of Israel exist as a reminder of God’s involvement in world history. Only in Israel is humanity touched by the divine.
The realization of this fact has become modern Israel’s great challenge. Its repeated attempts to overcome its geographic and political insecurity by employing world politics will not work. Driven by its desire to overcome its insecurity, it wavers from geography to nationhood, appealing to its history and religious culture while unable to find a place that it can call its existential habitat.
Reading Israel’s prophets, we see how they warned against such false notions of security. They predicted that Israel would perish if it would insist on existing only as a political structure. Yet it can survive – and this is the paradox of the reality of Israel – as long as it insists on its vocation of uniqueness.
Israel was summoned to remind the world of God’s existence, not only concerning religion but as a historical reality. There is no security for Israel unless it is secure in its own destiny. It must assume the burden of its own uniqueness which is nothing other than to assume its role as God’s witness. And it must draw strength from this phenomenon, especially in times such as ours when Israel’s very existence is again at stake. Once it recognizes its uniqueness, it will – paradoxically – enjoy security and undoubtedly be victorious.