The Future Of Israel/Judaism

Daniel Gordis released another dispatch. It is worth reading the whole thing, but for now try this.

“Jimmy Carter writes a book calling Israel an Apartheid state, and despite the numerous reviews which point to the book’s unfairness and numerous errors of fact, the book rockets to the bestseller list. In the United States, not Egypt. It should be lost on no one that people tend to buy books that espouse positions with which they agree.

Who cares how Jimmy Carter tosses the Apartheid word around? We should care. Recall the comments of Jostein Gaarder, the author of “Sophie’s World” and a well known Norwegian intellectual. Gaarder didn’t like Israel’s policies during this summer’s war in Lebanon. His reaction? “We could not recognize the Apartheid regime,” he recalls about South Africa, so therefore, “We no longer recognize the State of Israel. We need to get used to the idea: The State of Israel, in its current form, is history.”

When any other country in the world does something people object to, they object to the leader, or the policy. Does anyone opposing the war in Iraq say that the United States no longer has a right to exist? Or that Britain ought to be dismembered? Or that Turkey (an aptly named country if there ever was one) should be shunned because of its treatment of political opposition and its denial of the Armenian genocide?

One hundred and ten years after Herzl, Zionism has not brought normalcy to the Jews. Not in Israel, and not in Europe. Just ask the Jews of France, where the police removed Jewish kids from the Champs Elysees because they couldn’t keep them safe from the mobs of Muslim teenagers (how’s that for a repeat of a European precedent?). Or in Germany, where the first rabbi ordained since the war recently noted that he can’t wear a kippah in public because the far right now knows that they own the streets?

Israel has progressed, but the world hasn’t changed much. Normalcy hasn’t come. And it isn’t likely to. Exit Herzl and Nordau. Enter the desperation.

When faced with the realization that Zionism has brought neither safe refuge nor normalcy to the Jewish people, how hard is it to understand state of Israelis’ morale? “What’s the fight about?” they ask. If the experiment called the State of Israel still leaves us vulnerable both at home and throughout the world, why pay the price? Why send generation after generation to the front, with thousands of mothers and fathers waiting up at night, night after night after night, anxiously waiting for their son to call, so they’ll know he made it back once again? If we got security, or normalcy, then maybe it would be worth it. But all this, just to remain vulnerable? All this, just to remain the only country in the world without a right to be?

It’s not hard to understand the fact that there are no protesters in the streets. This is something way too big for mere protests.

The issue, of course, isn’t really Israel, or even Zionism. It’s the Jews. Again. Amos Oz has written with sadness about the irony that when his father was growing up in Europe, he saw signs that said “Jews Go Home to Palestine,” but that when he, Amos, was growing up in Palestine, the signs said “Jews out of Palestine.” Oz, one of Israel’s best known left-wing intellectuals, summarizes the unavoidable point. “Don’t be here. Don’t be there. In short, don’t be.” An exaggeration? I don’t think so. What did Gaarder call his editorial objecting to Israel’s military policy, claiming that Israel is now “history”? “God’s Chosen People.” How on earth is the issue of Israel’s conduct of the Lebanon war connected to “God’s Chosen People,” unless the issue really isn’t Israel?

It’s not.

Which leaves us with a decision – the Jews have to decide, once again, if we want to survive. If we want to make it, then we need to rekindle one of the basic premises of Zionism, and take matters into our own hands. It’s not enough to simply feel that we’re back where we started, 110 years ago. The question is what we’re going to do about it. The question is, how do we restore hope?

Amazingly, very few people, either in Israel or beyond, are talking about that. The tragedy of today’s situation is that you ask young American Jews to free associate with the word “Israel,” the first thing you’re likely to hear is “Palestinians,” or “war,” or “fence.” But the State wasn’t created for any of these things. Most young Jews, both in Israel and outside, can’t say an intelligent word about why the State was created. They might mention the Shoah. Or the refuge issue. But they’ll miss the major point – that the purpose of Israel was not Statehood. It was hope.

They don’t know, anymore, that the Zionist movement, and then the State, took as its national anthem a poem called “The Hope.” They know the melody, and Israelis know the words. But they have no idea what it’s about. They can’t begin to articulate the notion that Israel represented to Jews across the globe, after the worst century we’d known, life over death. Continuity instead of extermination. A homeland instead of exile. Rebirth instead of extinction.

They’re so consumed with the plight of the Palestinians (a horrific plight, obviously, that has to be addressed – as soon as the Palestinians make that their priority) that they don’t resonate at all to the pride Jews once felt about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, or the rescue at Entebbe, or the technological prowess of Israeli companies, or by the now stereotypical tanned and hardened Israeli youth, stark contrasts to the common portrayal of Europe’s Jews as pale and passive. They don’t understand that it’s because hope – life over death – was at the core of this country that explains why there are still huge book fairs in this country, celebrating the mere simple fact that thousands of books are published each year in a language that 150 years ago, virtually no one in the world spoke. It was why dance became an integral part of this culture, and why Jews got excited about a song celebrating a sprinkler, written when the National Water Carrier project was completed. What person in their right mind sings about a sprinkler? Who dances to the idea of a sprinkler? Jews did, and do, when the sprinkler brings water from the north to the south, when it bring life to the desert, when it bespeaks not just the flow of water, but the possibility of hope when there could have been nothing but despair.

Songs like that strike our kids’ generation as kitsch, as relics of an era that’s long since gone. But we can’t afford the cynicism. What strikes them as kitsch was what struck Jews a generation ago as rebirth. If today’s Jews are ambivalent about the image of the Jew as soldier, other Jews understood until recently that the Jew as soldier, with all the complexity it would entail, meant that finally, Jews would determine their own fate. If there’s anything that Lebanon II, Iran, Judt, Gaarder, Carter and all the rest have in common, it’s that they afford us a reminder that once again, this place called hope, needs to take control of its destiny,.

If the government is hopelessly corrupt, then it won’t be enough to topple it (it will do that on its own). We’d better build an institution, maybe like Harvard’s Kennedy School, or France’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration, to finally train a decent cadre of leaders. If the system’s broken, let’s fix it.

If it’s unthinkable that more than half the world’s Jews could live in Ahmadenijad’s crosshairs, then we’d better figure out what we’re going to do. The world won’t stop him. Will we? What kind of power would we be willing to use to put an end to Iran’s nuclear capabilities? Would be it moral to use weapons we’ve never used if that’s what it would take? Would be it moral not to, if the future of the Jewish people is at stake? How much are the Jews willing to do in order to survive?

Hizbollah has no territorial quarrel with Israel, but still went to war. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, and says that it never will. Why the hand-wringing? Let’s pick borders, and defend them. That much, at least, Sharon understood. The rest of the world doesn’t like unilateralism? What, exactly, does the world actually like about us? The question ought not be what the world wants. The question is whether Zionism can reassert the basic question – what do we want?

We want a Jewish country, and we want a democracy. And we’ve got a huge Arab minority that is growing. Are we going to do something about that, something morally defensible? Can we have a State that is both Jewish and that is democratic? What would it take to have both? It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t all be pretty, but it could be done. Do we want to survive badly enough to start? Or even to ask the question?

Or how about poverty? Or an educational system badly in need of repair? Or the slave trade of women in this country? Does anyone really think that a state can generate hope without tackling those issues? Do we have it ourselves to roll up our sleeves and to get to work? Would it help if we understood finally that it’s not only about poor people, or literacy, or helpless women – but that it’s about hope, about a future? About the survival of the Jewish people?”

Read the whole thing. There is an awful lot to digest.

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4 Comments

  1. Jack's Shack January 28, 2007 at 7:49 am

    Stephen,

    There are all sorts of rumors that Carter has been a closet antisemite. I don’t have any proof of that.

    All I can say is that he has truly gone off the deep end with this.

  2. Stephen January 27, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Don’t be here. Don’t be there. In short, don’t be.

    Very sad. As for Carter, I don’t know how he came to such a skewed perspective. I’m generally left-leaning, but the left has totally lost rationality where Israel is concerned.

  3. Jack's Shack January 26, 2007 at 6:53 am

    I am still processing this.

  4. Sheyna Galyan January 25, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    After reading the whole dispatch, I started to write a reply until I realized it was way too long for a comment. So I put my first impressions here instead, with a link to your site and Gordis’ article.

    Thanks for bringing this up. It’s a lot, as you said, but it needs to be said. And understood.

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