Last year the Hale-Bopp comet traversed our skies. It was paying its first visit to the inner solar system for two and a half thousand years. The last time that Jews looked up and gazed in wonderment was during that terrible period of exile and return. Carrying with them the harrowing memory of the destruction of Jerusalem as well as the attraction of Babylon, a small group returned to build a new Jewish commonwealth. The events of so long ago have been a fundamental determinant in the evolution of Jewish history. Every generation has carried that memory — and that experience has shaped us.
For our generation, the rise of the State of Israel has been the most significant event of our time. Certainly it can be interpreted as a repetition of Jewish history. It marked the return of the national Jew to history from subservience at its margins. It served notice that the Jews had survived a series of unimaginable catastrophes — and had outlived their persecutors.
The wine of countless generations
Has strengthened me in my wandering,
The angry sword of pain and sorrow
Could not destroy my existence —
My people, my faith, and my freedom.
From under the sword I shouted:
I am a Jew!
(Itzik Pfeffer, 1900-1952)
Jews greeted the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948 all over the world with great emotion and a justified triumphalism. From the strict regime labour camps of the Russian Arctic to the plush suburbs of Beverley Hills, from the slums of Buenos Aires to the Atlas Mountains, Jews wept with defiance and thanked God for allowing them to have lived to see that day. They had survived to dance on Hitler’s grave and now they expressed their solidarity with their fighting brothers and sisters in the beleaguered State of Israel.
There were, of course, many who viewed the establishment of the state as an unmitigated disaster. This included a strange amalgam of communists and the haredim, assimilationists and Bundists. From within the Zionist fold, there were those who dissented because a Jewish State had been attained at the expense of partition. Menachem Begin from the far Right mourned the loss of ‘the fields of Gilead’ on the East Bank of the Jordan and spoke about ‘a crime, a blasphemy, an abortion’. Yitzhak Tabenkin from the far Left and his followers in Achdut Ha’Avodah declared a hunger strike to mark the birth of the Jewish statelet on 14 May 1948.
The religious world was also sharply divided. Many sections of the ultra-orthodox in particular viewed the work of the secular socialist pioneers as the work of Satan. The greatest sin of the Zionists was that they had upset the ahistorical no-lion of history. By accepting the self-containment of the Torah, the Jewish people, it was argued, had stepped outside of history and disciplined itself to remain outside of earthly politics. Spirituality became synonymous with passivity. Persecution and pogroms were accepted with resignation — an attitude deemed to be essential to the Jewish condition. But in pre-empting the messiah, the Zionists had led an illegal and forced entry into human history.
In seeking the normalisation of the Jewish people on a purely mundane, historical level, the national movement deliberately called into question the transcendent law that had governed all of Jewish history: the ahistorical law of divine reward and punishment, exile and redemption; the Divine Providence which had delivered Israel from the rule of physical causality prevailing in nature and ‘normal’ human affairs. (Avi Ravitsky, Messianism Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism)
It contradicted Maimonides’ proclamation that Israel would be redeemed by penitence alone. Harnessing Jewish history to the Zionist engine was an affront to God.
Those haredim who lived in Israel still regarded themselves in exile in time rather than in terms of geographical location. A state of the Jews had arisen but this was not a Jewish state — it was simply an earthly state governed by Jews and not by non-Jews. It was not the true Israel — an entity which would arise at the appointed time with the coming of the messiah. And yet the barrens had to take into-account the realities of living in the State and their responsibilities to it such as serving in the army. They had to go beyond the concept of a ghetto community led by shtadlanim who would traditionally intercede with the ruler of the land. The entry of the haredim into the world of Israeli politics was galvanised by the desire to maintain and develop their communities as viable but separate entities. It did not mean putting forward an ideological programme to bring about a Torah state, which would be the task of the messiah. The ideological raison d’être was therefore to gain sufficient power not to change the Zionist nature of the state into a theocracy, but to force the Zionist parties to maintain the hare& separation through material support in anticipation of the messianic era. The very idea that the Zionist experiment was at the forefront of contemporary Jewish history is ridiculed. Exile, as Alef Bet Yehoshua has remarked about the haredi attitude, was an escape from the need to take on the full burden of national, earthly responsibility. Exile was comfortable in that only religious rather than national problems had to be faced.
The meaning of ‘Jewish history’ therefore lies at the heart of today’s political dilemmas and perhaps provides the key to the future. A rationalist approach would suggest that Jews like non-Jews are moulded by the time in which they live and the social and economic forces, which affect them. The ahistorical view suggests that human history is at best an irrelevance and at worst an obstacle in the path of redemption. Action must thus be taken to remove such obstacles and thereby to smooth the path for the messiah. At one level this means settling the entire Land of Israel and not part of it — the Land is not to be shared. At another level, it suggests that the government of the day be not to be obeyed. Yigal Amir, it should be remembered, came out of the religious Zionist tradition. Before his murder of Yitzhak Rabin, his political views were not considered to be extraordinary and he was not thought to be unstable.
And yet there was a period when there was a consensus between the religious Zionist and the secular Zionist about building the Land and being built by it. The success of the Zionist experiment and Israel’s victories in war have now preoccupied religious Zionists not so much with the coming of the messiah but with his actual arrival. The influence of the haredim on religious Zionism has been profound in recent years and the aura of political infallibility of the rabbi-leader has become a dominant factor.
If the religious Zionists have moved to the right, the secularists have moved from a position of knowledge about Jewish tradition to a position of ignorance. They have forgotten the teachings of Ahad Ha’am and Bialik. Moreover, an abandonment of the traditions in a time of identity confusion allows the religious parties to parade as the standard bearers not only of Judaism but of Jewishness as well.
The 1996 elections in Israel produced a massive 23 seats for the three religious parties — and part of that increase came from secular voters. Why then should secularists vote for religious parties? The answer lies in the inability of both Labour and Likud to promote an Israeli identity based on Jewish values and tradition. Together they polled just over 50% of the total votes cast — a remarkably poor showing for the two major parties. What Labour and Likud have failed to offer is a coherent ideology of identity. From their perspective Israel is just another western country.
Andrei Amalrik, a leading Soviet dissident writer wrote a remarkable book in the 1960s Will the USSR Survive until 1984? That Orwellian landmark came and went and the USSR lasted only seven more years. Will, then, the State of Israel survive until 2048? Few Jews doubt that it will, but there is deep concern about the sort of state that will survive. Clearly the heroic period is over, but the forces that produced consensus within diversity have polarised. The schism in Yeshivat Mercaz ha’Rav because of a refusal to participate in a state sponsored course for training teachers in religious schools is a sign of the times. Moreover, a recent study suggests that ultra-orthodox men prefer to learn in yeshivot than work. The average length of study is 36 years and the student leaves aged 42. It is estimated that by 2006, 10% of all Israeli children will have non-working fathers.
Today’s successor generation seems only to be able to grasp at short-term fixes for short-term gains. That vision of Israel as a spiritual centre needs to be reinforced by an interventionist Diaspora that would work with political and religious leaders to prevent fragmentation while preserving the right to ideological difference and freedom of expression. The Diaspora as an outside arbitrator sounds far-fetched but it is certainly a step up from a status of rotten borough. Yitzhak Rabin’s murder does not seem to have forced Israelis to confront this free fall from spiritual grace. On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish State, the time is right for a Diaspora initiative — the alternative of wringing one’s hands at the present situation in private achieves nothing.
Judaism Today Spring 1998