The Return to Jewish History

As a moment in time, the Oct. 7 massacre was, paradoxically, an event both anomalous and familiar, at once exceptional and routine.
July 11, 2024
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As a moment in time, the Oct. 7 massacre was, paradoxically, an event both anomalous and familiar, at once exceptional and routine. It was horrifying and shocking to the extreme, yet, given the historical memories that we, as Jews, carry with us, it was typical — even expected, almost preordained. Strictly speaking, the calamity we suffered on Simchat Torah 5784 was a very Jewish calamity.

Strictly speaking, the calamity we suffered on Simchat Torah 5784 was a very Jewish calamity.

The murder, burnings, rape and torture — as well as the fact that there was no help, that hours passed before the army finally showed up — shaped the terrible disaster that we suffered into an event that differed from anything we had experienced, making the unfamiliar, and that which we had assumed would never become familiar, a part of our lives. We experienced things we had only heard about and learned about, a reality we had faced momentarily during memorial days. The massacre brought Jewish history back into our lives, while also making us a part of Jewish history. It infused the hardships of the Jewish people into us, welding us with hellfire in the historical continuum of Jewish suffering.

The massacre brought Jewish history back into our lives, while also making us a part of Jewish history. It infused the hardships of the Jewish people into us, welding us with hellfire in the historical continuum of Jewish suffering.

The massacre brought us back to Jewish history.

Two thousand years of suffering

Returning to history was Zionism’s ancient desire, but for the Zionist movement, this meant returning to the history of mankind while departing from the history of the Jews. This aspiration stemmed from a negative perception of the Diaspora, which included a rejection of the passive stance and victimhood that traditional Judaism had taken upon itself, contented with eternal wanderings. The Zionists wished to put an end to these wanderings, and thus also to the victimhood. Agency would replace passivity, sovereignty would replace being subject to the will of others, and self-determination and control of our own fate would replace helplessness. The Jew would once again take part in the history of mankind.

A return to Jewish history moves in the opposite direction.  Oct. 7 — during the interminable hours of Saturday and Sunday we listened to the voices of our brothers and sisters pleading for the help that didn’t come, we slowly realized, and were astounded, and astounded again, and again, by the unbelievable scope of the disaster — threw us back into passivity, into victimization, into the miserable existence of the pre-1948 Jew.

We had known about pogroms, some of us being third-generation, or even second-generation relatives of Holocaust survivors. We are all familiar with Jewish history. But that is exactly the point: We had assumed it was history. We thought we were past it, disconnected from it, that we now live in different times, in a new era. We thought we had become part of modern world history, a part of universal, normal, banal reality. That we live in a time when Jews are completely accepted and receive equal rights in the Diaspora, and alternatively enjoy solid protection in their own sovereign state. That what had been will no longer be. We thought, Never Again.

We had known about pogroms, some of us being third-generation, or even second-generation, relatives of Holocaust survivors. We are all familiar with Jewish history. But that is exactly the point: We had assumed it was history.

The massacre executed in the kibbutzim and towns surrounding the Gaza Strip, and the cruel sadism and unspeakable barbarity with which it was carried out, connected us instantly and viscerally as yet another link in the long Jewish chain that goes back to the First Temple period — and even beyond. Human history took a sharp turn, flinging us back into Jewish history — from independence to exile, from security to pogroms, from revival back to the Holocaust — while every dream that we had of the end of our suffering, the end of history, of better and different times — dissipated in one cruel awakening.

Desecration of the Sanctuary bauhaus1000/Getty Images

To the crisis caused by the pogroms on the Gaza border we can add the blunt antisemitic sentiments now flooding the global scene, from the United States to China, like ancient demons released from the depths. Who would have believed that in 2023 so many people would be attracted to the hatred of Jews? Only a few months ago, most of us were sure that the Jewish people had finally found its place in the world, both in its independent State and in its complete integration within liberal societies in Europe and the United States. If we thought that we were living in a new era, and that after 2,000 years of exile we had finally escaped the eternal curse of the wandering Jew — that very stable and comforting proverbial rug had been suddenly pulled from under our collective feet. We have returned to Jewish history, or to be more precise, we have discovered that we had never really left it. We have never been disconnected from the same fate, from the same decree, from the same distress, from the same two-thousand-year-old suffering.

In 1934, the Jewish Romanian playwright and author Mihail Sebastian published his novel “For Two Thousand Years.” Sebastian was one of the outstanding names in Romanian culture at the time. He viewed himself nationally as a Romanian, while personally and publicly fighting against the escalating antisemitism that surrounded him.

The hero of his novel, with overt autobiographical characteristics, tries to find his bearing in life. He is attracted to the Zionist movement on the one hand, and to the hope of integrating into Romanian society on the other. He meets an old Jewish merchant, a Mr. Sulitzer, who tries to get him to sober up and abandon both these hopes. He invites him to take pleasure in the “mysticism of the synagogue” and the “folklore of the Jewish neighborhood in the ghetto.” When the hero rejects these as irrelevant anachronisms, the old man angrily replies:

“Have you forgotten that, luckily, there are still antisemites? And, thank God, that there are still pogroms from time to time? However much you’re assimilated in a hundred years, you’ll be set back ten times as much by a single day’s pogrom. And then the poor ghetto will be ready to take you back in.”

1881: Jews indiscriminately persecuted and kept in the arsenal at Kiev during the first pogrom. (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

Indeed, a single day’s pogrom set us back. Back to the ghetto. Returning to Jewish history means that we all — against our will! — are now more connected to our Jewish identity than we were before October 2023. We are now connected not only horizontally to all those surrounding us, in the cruel bonding of the destiny forced upon us, but also vertically, to the Jewish story of the past and of the future.

In practice, we are of course not in the ghetto, or even in the Diaspora. The State of Israel exists, and it is strong. But the singular dimension of victimhood that reappeared in our lives will not disappear over the coming decades. We are different Jews now, we are Jews of old. “Two thousand years through flames, through disasters, through wandering come to us through the history of the ghetto,” Sulitzer concludes in Sebastian’s book. “It’s a history lived under lamplight. ‘We want sunshine,’ [the Zionists] shout. Good luck to them — and let them become footballers. They’ll get plenty of sunshine then. But this lamp by which I’ve read so many hundreds of years, this lamp is Judaism – not their sunlight.

“‘You’re old, Mr. Sulitzer. That’s why you talk like that.’

“‘I’m not old! I’m a Jew – that’s what I am.’”

Our new Jewish identity collapses into the historical, ancient (and perhaps — eternal) Jewish identity. Modern Jewish identity crumbles, and its crumbs are molded by the horrors of Oct. 7, into a pre-modern Jewish identity. We are now more Jewish, in the deep-rooted sense, but also in the victimized sense. Sunlight is now a bit less inviting, a bit less familiar. We once again read by the lamp.

Where will Jewish history take us?

What could this shift in our self-perception lead to? I believe that several trajectories are possible.

Before the war, especially during Netanyahu’s latest government, the fault line between the religious and the secular in Israel had flared up into unending struggles, reaching a climax in the interrupted Yom Kippur prayer services in Tel Aviv. An agenda that is focused on security and national matters, which will certainly take prominence on the political and social stage in Israel, will also relegate the religious issues to the back burner; though the fault lines between the religious and the secular will become dulled in other ways as well.

Israelis feel more Jewish, and this feeling may be translated into an increased tolerance of the Jewish religion in general, and of Orthodoxy in particular, since it is perceived as preserving tradition. The differences of opinion are not forgotten, and the next government, which will decrease the representation of the religious parties (the current government has the highest number of religious Jews ever – more than half), will probably also have to tackle the age-old problem of ultra-Orthodox conscription to the IDF, and will probably cut budgets allocated to them. But a wider change in the so-called religious and national “status quo” will have to wait.

In addition, Israel may well experience a wave of religious revival, where more people will turn to Orthodoxy and become observant. This kind of wave took place in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, and now it will presumably be even greater. Back then, the fracture in the Zionist ethos caused many to search for meaning and identity in other places. Now that same ethos has been broken again, even more sharply, for in contrast to the Yom Kippur war, the victims of Oct. 7 were not soldiers in the outposts, but families in their homes (hence, again the return to Jewish history). This sort of return to religion wave will not be significant as far as demographics go, but it will become a social and cultural phenomenon with far-reaching repercussions, which will push Israeli society even closer to accommodating the interests of the religious and to an ethnocentric Jewish political outlook.

From the social activism point of view, we can expect a myriad of initiatives and enterprises that try to elevate public morals and “build back better” by setting up ambitious ideals and social goals. We can, for example, expect the Ahim Laneshek (Brothers in Arms) organization, which was established as a civil opposition group against Netanyahu’s last government and became an auxiliary support group to the IDF, helping soldiers and civilians evacuated during the war, to initiate new enterprises and also try to breathe new life into Zionism. Alongside these initiatives, we can assume that the religious Zionists will once again take it upon themselves to “lift the nation’s spirit,” probably by increasing its presence in secular cities with its enterprise of small Orthodox communities. We can also expect the construction of new religious settlements around the Gaza Strip (assuming that building them in Gaza would not be possible). We can also expect an increase in activity surrounding the Temple Mount, which has become, over the past 20 years, an alternative Messianic outlet to the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. The current yearning for an immediate magical solution to our woes will push many others toward the Mount.

A ruined synagogue, Poland, circa 1941. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Concurrent with these trends, the return to Jewish history creates the opportunity to harness the increased emotional ties to Jewish identity and create a national, republican and liberal Jewish identity, that may serve as an alternative to religious Judaism for secular Jews. There is nothing novel here – this kind of shift formed the foundation of the Zionist movement. A national Jewish identity that emphasizes Jewish continuity explicitly through nationality and Israeli statehood, and not through religious worship or religious law, ceased to be a viable alternative for many secular Israelis since the 1970s (perhaps excluding individuals such as A.B. Yehoshua, whose anomaly in the Israeli landscape testifies to the norm). If organizations such as Ahim Laneshek — the most impressive and effective movement that secular Jewish society has produced in decades — emphasize that their activities stem not only from loyalty to the State but also from their loyalty to their Judaism, this may attain significance beyond developments taking place in the upcoming years, presenting a new-old way to be a Jewish Zionist in Israel.

We can also hope that these trends will be augmented by additional social enterprises that will present a principled vision of humanistic Judaism and a liberal public space, perhaps as part of constructing a “model society,” an aspiration that was always part of the Zionist movement. A national and republican Israeli outlook can be reinforced by an emphasis on progressive, liberal Judaism that underscores the perception of humanity being created in the image of God, and places, at its core, commandments such as loving the stranger. In these two senses, the renewed emphasis on Jewish identity will not be limited to individuals becoming more religious or ethnocentric. We must act to encourage such directions.

Destroyed houses in Be’eri, Israel. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Returning the membership card

But the return to Jewish history will also lead to developments in the other direction: Disengagement. The understanding that we are an integral part of the Jewish story will make many wish to leave it permanently. Despair at the price exacted by Jewish identity will make some decide to quit, to return their membership card. This is not a new phenomenon. Many Jews left the Jewish story throughout the generations, usually by converting to Christianity or Islam, and, since the 19th century, by assimilating into Western society. Indeed the Jewish people would have been much more numerous were this not the case.

For Israelis today, this assimilation will entail immigrating to Europe, Australia, Canada, or the United States. This will not be an immigration that leads to assimilation due to lack of willpower or concern. Rather, it will be an immigration for the express purpose – certainly given worldwide antisemitism – that the next generation, or at most the generation after, would no longer suffer from being connected in any way to Judaism. That they will no longer be part of the Jewish story. 

Another aspect of that same movement toward detachment, this time while insisting on preserving a Jewish identity, would be to adopt a fierce anti-Zionist stance while abroad, including the complete negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist. Groups of young, politically active Jews would distance themselves, given their views, from the majority of Jews abroad, becoming closer to similar circles of non-Jewish young political activists. Their stances will, in practice, remove them from the story of the Jewish people, or at least from the story that most of it tells. Their Jewish identity will be based upon sanctifying a Diasporic, anti-Zionist Jewish existence, meaning, a perception of living in the Diaspora as an ideal, while adopting radical progressive ideologies. It will be expressed in declarations that they, as Jews, oppose any national perception of Judaism, and the State of Israel in particular. That Zionists and their supporters offend Judaism and distort it, while they are the ones who faithfully and correctly portray Judaism.

The return to Judaism and the Palestinian issue

These developments may well take place before Israel recovers from the war, when hostages are still held, when some of the kibbutzim around Gaza have not yet returned to their status as cherished sanctuaries, when Hezbollah threatens from the north. Beyond that, these developments will occur during the most forceful international demand we have ever known to reach some sort of arrangement with the Palestinians, one with an explicit horizon of ending Israeli occupation. This demand will come because the West understands that “managing the conflict” is no longer a viable option, and that the Palestinian problem threatens to destabilize the entire world. Furthermore, this demand will come because it is emotionally, ethically, and politically challenging for the West to watch Israel wage lethal war against Hamas, with devastating consequences for the Palestinians in Gaza. And this demand will come just when Israeli citizens find themselves at the height of their opposition to it. I will not expand here upon the social and political consequences of bringing the Palestinian issue back into the limelight; I will only speculate as to its implications for our Jewish identity.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Zionism posited that Judaism’s entrance into world history would generate from its national independence. For this to happen, Jews needed to break away from Jewish history, sometimes explicitly and callously dismissing it, famously negating Diasporic existence by rejecting the traditional Jewish lifestyle, traditions, and faith. It is only this rejection that enabled the early Zionists to forge a new path, one that allowed them to be everything their ancestors could not. The pioneers, Zionist politicos (today we would call them “activists”), members of kibbutzim, combatants in the underground movements and defense forces, leaders of the fledgling Yishuv, and Hebrew diplomats — all proffered a rich ethos that included a new and different Jewish identity, full of self-confidence and faith in the powers of reason, initiative, creativity, and intellect. The State of Israel was established with the explicit rejection of the hope for divine redemption, displaying, from its start, pragmatism, rationality, and a connection to the earth – in more than one sense.

The reality of the past few years, even before the current war, pointed to a slow departure from this ethos. Likud’s populism, alongside the type of fundamental Judaism that characterizes the Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit political parties, diverges from the Zionism of previous generations. It is not only alienated from Israeli sovereignty, but also disdains initiative, professionalism, and public service, showing contempt for experts, reason, and pragmatism, replacing these with a shallow and zealous belief system that prefers to rely on Heaven and miracles (as finance minister Smotrich said: “If we implement the Torah, we will merit financial prosperity and great blessing”).

This attitude brought Israel to an immense social crisis, to failing financial and security systems, the disintegration of public services and, finally, to the errors that enabled the Simchat Torah massacre. Returning to the Diaspora mentality led to a pogrom. In the wake of this trauma, we are now in danger of returning to Jewish history while continuing to bolster the trend that started over the past few years, namely, the departure from world history, to the point of erasing the mindset and achievements of the Zionist movement. We are in danger of having a one-day pogrom throw us back into the ghetto not only psychologically, but politically and geo-politically.

We are in danger of having a one-day pogrom throw us back into the ghetto not only psychologically, but politically and geo-politically.

This type of development will prompt an existential position of insecurity, seclusion, suspicion toward the world, ethnocentricity, and the fragile defiant pride of the “a people that dwells alone” sort. It will entail promises of divine intervention and miraculous salvation, justifying strategy based on biblical myths, and the increasing involvement of religious decrees in political considerations. Israel will curl, mentally and politically, into a fetal position, rejecting the sunlight and reverting back to reading by lamplight. In practice, this will be enacted through the rejection of any step toward an agreement with the Palestinians, in stockpiling arms, reducing the liberal space in the State, and creating a rift between Israel and its allies, including the Jews of the Diaspora.

Babylon and Jerusalem or Israel and Judaea

The current sense of brotherhood between Israeli Jews and European and North American Jews stems from our return to Jewish history. The covenant of destiny we share is underscored in terror and blood, out of which solidarity, mutual assistance, and incredible cooperation emerge. Yet, though we returned together to Jewish history, the lesson each side will learn from it will be different – just as it was different a hundred years ago.

The rift between the Zionist movement and Jews in the Diaspora touches upon a deep dispute regarding Jewish identity: Will the Jewish question be answered by integration into the liberal order, or by taking our destiny into our own hands and establishing a national homeland? A homeland in which the Jewish people will not ask for rights but uphold them, will not enjoy the protection of others but will protect themselves – and others such as Arab Israelis. 

In other words, while the covenant of fate is stronger than anything we have known over the past few decades, the covenant of destiny is different, leading to a divergent Jewish identity. While Israeli Jews find the essence of their Judaism in nationality – ethnicity, independence, and power – for European and American Jews, the values of liberalism, such as freedom, equality, and human rights, are those that best express their heritage.

From the early days of the Zionist movement until recently, Israeli liberalism emphasized the liberal and democratic dimension; beyond ethnic and historical ties, that is what enabled Israeli Jewry to maintain a deep relationship with Jews in the Diaspora. If, on the way to the ghetto, Israel surrenders the precepts of liberalism, it will also give up ties with the Jews of Europe and North America who view the movement toward a liberal world as the essence of Judaism. Limiting the return to Jewish history to a reinforcement of the Jewish-Israeli fortress, while rejecting the other nations and modern ethics, will lead to a rift between Israeli Jews and those in the Diaspora. Even the Zionists amongst the Diaspora Jews would not accept continued Jewish control over millions of Palestinian subjects with diminished rights. On the contrary, they would view these circumstances as treasonous to Judaism, as an abomination.

If Israel returns to the ghetto, refusing to express its consent to move toward some sort of arrangement with the Palestinian nation, if it desists from even pretending that one day the occupation will end, Jews in the Diaspora will perceive this as a writ of divorce between Israel and the principles of Judaism. In a case such as this, the disconnect between Israeli Jewry and Jews of the Diaspora will become broader, including not only the radical anti-Zionist extreme but also many from the liberal center. This scenario will mark a real split in the Jewish nation: Not a model of Babylon and Jerusalem, in which two communities compete while mutually enriching each other for the purpose of carrying on the Jewish tradition, but a model of Israel and Judaea, meaning, a model in which two kingdoms maintain hostile relations, each eagerly anticipating the demise of the other.

In addition, this path will lead Israeli Jews toward tragedy. They will be propelled forward, with no means of stopping, to an existence in which their sons and daughters are forced to pay with the currency of decent living for the very ability to live. Life in Israel will become increasingly difficult, and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian proxies surrounding the state will exact a price not only of blood, but of morality. Maintaining an existence in Israel — a necessary and supremely moral goal — will force Israel to repeatedly take part in campaigns that claim many innocent lives. Israel will be forced to keep committing morally compromised deeds in order to keep existing.

Many people worldwide would be happy to see our tradition dragged through the mud. Many will breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of the eternal victims turned villains, bullies responsible for horrors and suffering. The gap between Israelis and their brethren in the Diaspora will turn into hostility, while the latter will do all in their power to distance themselves and their Judaism from being identified with Israel in any way. This tragic scenario ends with the Jewish nation collapsing into an abyss of hatred and evil, the State of Israel becoming deformed and weak, and Judaism being branded a violent and evil religion.

Judaism has survived many disasters. It will not survive this one.

Do not give up on human history

There is another way.

The above scenario describes a shift from victimization to aggression while bypassing the Zionist chapter of Jewish history. Jews find themselves victims of a pogrom but also boasting one of the strongest armies in the world. They direct their rage, humiliation, and vengeance toward their enemies, while renouncing those same elements that had initially led them to their political and military power: The initiative, creativity, morality, responsibility, and pragmatism of the Zionist movement.

In other words, what we see today, what might (God forbid) unfold into the scenario described above, is the practical realization of a shtetl with weapons, a ghetto with an Air Force. The State of Israel feels like a helpless victim of murderous antisemitism and responds accordingly, but the means at its disposal are unprecedented within Jewish history. These means were purchased by Jews who deviated from that history by holding fast to the world and acting within it, succeeding in creating a different Jewish reality. They always understood the need for levelheadedness, pragmatism, and a vision. Israel’s prosperity, and financial and technological superiority, were achieved precisely by its entry into world history.

The State of Israel feels like a helpless victim of murderous antisemitism and responds accordingly, but the means at its disposal are unprecedented within Jewish history. 

Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Drei Konige Hotel during the first Zionist congress Aug. 29, 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo by GPO via Getty Images)

The danger of returning to Jewish history is, therefore, the relinquishing of the advantages brought about by our entry into world history, while dismissing the unique qualities we had to acquire in order to do so. The fathers of Zionism – Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, and their circles – were smart enough to introduce Judaism to the 20th century and the family of nations. They did so by embracing realism, by a pragmatic and informed geopolitical analysis, by joining the liberal forces within the international community, and by creating a positive vision, a vision that looks to the future, a vision that did not include a relapse into a mythical past. They did this while treating the verse “a people that dwells alone” not as a blessing, but as a warning.

The return to Jewish history must not incorporate a renunciation of the Zionist chapter, which tried to include Jews in the history of mankind. It will be a disaster if Israel undergoes a process of shtetlization and becomes a closed community, armed to the teeth and disconnected from reality. This kind of scenario may well lead to its destruction, just as it did in the days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judaea, in the days of the Hasmoneans, in the days of Bar Kokhba and from the Middle Ages onwards. Without Zionism, there will simply be no state. Without the pragmatism and realism of human history, there will also be no Jewish history.

It will be a disaster if Israel undergoes a process of shtetlization and becomes a closed community, armed to the teeth and disconnected from reality.

The first Zionist Congress in Basel (1897) formulated Zionism as follows: “Zionism aims at establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, according to international law.” The greatness of the fathers of Zionism lay in their understanding that having the Jewish nation enter world history is dependent upon their joining the liberal nations and accepting international law. The Zionist enterprise has no future without an ideological, political, and ethical integration into the family of nations. We returned to Jewish history, but it will be a tragedy if this will lead us to disengage from the history of mankind.

Tomer Persico is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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