In memory of BatSheva Nechama Unterman z.l.
(Daughter of a Dutch acquaintance of mine who was killed yesterday in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. May her soul dwell in the Divine Presence.)
As we watch the Israeli government’s handling of the most sensitive issues, such as security, its dealings and negotiations with our enemies, and the freeing of arch terrorists, we realize that the State is run by people who are thoroughly confused about the most fundamental issues which confront the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora. A loss of purpose and direction has overtaken Israel’s leadership. Bewilderment and a feeling of hopelessness has become the order of the day among some of Israel’s most influential leaders. Weakness and lack of backbone have become their second nature. While they do their utmost to convince us otherwise, it takes little to realize this truth.
When searching for the cause of this confusion, however, it is crucial not to become confused about the confusion. While many may believe that this feeling of hopelessness is the result of Israel’s sudden realization that it has a Hamas state at its doorstep, or that Iran is seriously preparing itself to destroy the State of Israel, it is important to realize that this is actually confusing the symptom with the cause. What is at the core of this crisis is a fundamental misreading of the nature and destiny of the Jewish people and the total lack of Jewish pride among our leaders.
The attempt to transform the Jewish people into a “normal” nation once it has its own homeland has, by now, thoroughly failed. To anybody who takes a careful look at Israeli society and its standing in the world, this is as clear as can be. No matter what Israel does, it will always be the exception to the rule and will never be fully accepted as just another nation among the world community. Many intelligent Israelis today are beginning to realize this fact, which is apparent in every corner of Israeli reality. The only people who do not seem to realize it are the Israeli leaders themselves. While they are daily confronted with the “facts of life”, they seem to do everything in their power to bury their heads in the sand. Instead of confronting the problems head-on, they hide behind self-delusion, unrealistic dreams and severe self-deception. As the reality explodes right in their faces, they continue to live in consistent denial.
The old secular Zionist dream promised the citizens of the State of Israel that once they had their own homeland, anti-Semitism would cease to exist. Not only has it become clear that this is completely untrue, in fact, the tables have turned and we are now told that the main reason for anti-Semitism is the very existence of the State of Israel. Anti-Semitism and Islamic hate are stronger than ever. A normal Israeli state, with a normal army, government and population, has not transformed the Jewish people into a normal nation.
At this hour, nothing is clearer than the old biblical truth that “Israel dwells alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (1) Whether we like it or not, we are not a “normal” people and we can make no greater mistake than to try and “normalize” ourselves. The Jewish people’s long history is, by definition, one of existential oddity.
“I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed inexplicable… Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions, are the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.” (Nicolay Berdyaev, in his “The Meaning of History”) (2)
Indeed, no other nation has overturned the destiny of all mankind as much as this nation has. It conferred upon the world the Bible and gave birth to the greatest prophets and men of spirit. Its spiritual ideas and moral laws still hold sway over all of mankind, influencing entire civilizations. It gave birth to a man who is seen by millions as their Messiah, and laid the foundations on which moderate Christianity, Islam and much of secular moral teachings were built. It provided all of mankind with a messianic hope for the future, and endowed the human individual with dignity and responsibility. As no other nation, the Jews gave the gentile world the Outside and the Inside, their outlook and inner life. “We (gentiles) can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We (gentiles) dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.”(3) All of this proves the fact that Jews have a destiny and a mission radically different from any other nation. They are an eternal people with an eternal message, and their history is one of extreme “a-normality”. They are a people of unprecedented greatness of which they should be infinitely proud.
It is for this reason that the attempt to “normalize” the Jewish people has failed and always will fail. No nation can live with a borrowed national identity. In fact, it is the attempt at normalization which ultimately threatens the very existence of the State. The desire to escape Jewish destiny has undermined the moral security of the people that dwell in Zion. Now that extreme Israeli secularism has spent its inherited resources, large segments of Israeli society have been left without roots, without memories, and therefore, without expectations. Wide sections of Israeli society have been alienated from the historic continuity of the Jewish people and have become unsure of the moral validity of our claim to the land of our forefathers.
But matters are changing. Many Israeli citizens, slowly but surely, are waking up and realize that there is a serious need to change their minds about the very foundations of the State of Israel and its ideological and political future. They search for their Jewish roots and become more and more aware that, without some kind of Judaism, there is no future. More moderate, Religious-Zionist-oriented outreach programs are founded, and even “secular Yeshivoth” have made their way into Israeli society.
Many begin to realize that there is no Israeli claim to the land, that there can only be a Jewish claim. Where there is no continuity, there can be no return. Only in the uninterrupted chain of Jewish generations is the certainty to be found that this has been our land all through our exile, and that this land has been taken from us by force. Our forever articulated faith in our rights to this land has been our eternal protest against anyone who held or wants to hold possession of the land of our fathers. But this faith is inseparable from our Jewish destiny. Once we reject this fact, our claim to the land has no leg to stand on. We either turn to the Holy land or there is no land to return to.
No doubt the time will come, sooner or later, when the government of Israel will have to wake up. It will need to realize that it has brought havoc upon its people by denying them their Jewish roots. It will then come on its knees, begging for help from those very same people it now sees fit to reject: those who have been warning that political weakness and the refusal to understand what Jewish history and Jewish destiny is all about will lead to a dangerous situation and could, in fact, undermine the State of Israel and cause its disintegration. It will not be the Iranian bomb, but rather our own stubbornness, which could bring an end to the Jewish State, God forbid.
What we need is Jewish pride: In our Jewish Tradition, in our Jewish Destiny, in our Radical Otherness and in our right to our four-thousand-year-old homeland. But only when all these elements become one, will it be possible to secure our physical and existential place in the world.
We must stop playing the role of the “conversos” of 15th century Spain who outwardly were forced to live like Christians so as to save their skin. They had to. For us to have a great future we need to do the reverse. We can only save our skin and create a great future for our children when we stop our ambivalence about who we are and what we stand for. Our irresolution to confront ourselves with the question of who we really are only haunts us, creating enormous conflicts and tearing us apart. Were the “conversos” living with us today, they would tell us that it is only Jewish pride that can save us from our own self-destructive attitudes.
While more and more Israelis begin to realize this, our political leadership has, instead, convinced itself that we can only buy our ticket into the world community through weakness and indecision. But, as Montaigne once said, “No wind serves him who addresses his voyage to no certain port.” It is this that the Israeli government will have to learn. May it soon wake up.
1. Bamidbar 23:9
2. Quoted by Isadore Twersky: Survival, Normalcy, Modernity, in Zionism in Transition,
Moshe Davis (ed), Arno Press, New York, 1980, p. 349.
3. Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, Doubleday, NY; 1998, p. 240-1.