August 19, 2019

The New Jewish State

I have been reading a fascinating book, “The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul,””that has set me to thinking about Jewish identity — both in Israel and in the United States.The beauty of a book like this is that its impact is measured not by agreement with the author (or disagreement either, for that matter), but by its ability to provoke new ways of looking at present and past. It forces a reader — at least this one — to question accepted beliefs, and to engage once again in a redrawing of boundaries that contain the (my) Jewish map of the world.

The author, Yoram Hazony, is an Israeli, a former adviser to Likud’s last prime minister, BenjaminNetanyahu. Hazony now heads the Shalem Center, an institute for Jewish social thought and public policy in Jerusalem. His book arrives with strong endorsements from Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of the interior,and William Kristol, the editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard, an American neo-conservative journal.

Among other jeremiads, Hazony argues that today’s Israel is “altered beyond recognition.”Its people have lost their sense of purpose; and its post-Zionist leaders have begun to question the existence (and desirability) of a Jewish state. All this has come about because Israel is “devoid of any Jewish purpose and meaning.”

In short, Israel’s Jews lack direction, and after four wars, the intifada and Iraqi scud missiles, they are in a state of exhaustion and confusion. It is all, says the author, a far cry from the glory days of independence and therallying spirit generated by David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s founding fathers — pioneers, farmers, soldiers — men and women with Jewish souls who shaped the Zionist nation.

Viewed up close, this is a powerful cry of despair for a state that has just celebrated its 52nd year of existence. Hazony’s initial evidence is somewhat superficial and impressionistic, though not necessarily incorrect. While serving in the army, he meets an officer, an educated man, who knows little about Jewish history. Does not, for example, know who King David was, or what he contributed to his people.

Later, he finds himself with a military company on intifada duty during Passover. These were no Jewish soldiers having to make-do in some battle-torn outpost. The Israel Defense Forces had provided a rabbi along with all the ritual elements — food and objects — necessary to conduct a rich service. But it was a dismal failure, says Hazony. To be sure, there were some observant soldiers present who were familiar with the seder and the text; and a handful who could sing the traditional melodies, or at least hum along. But most of the troops were bored, disinterested and impatient, and eventually simply drifted away.

More recently he has encountered political leaders who are reshaping the textbooks for schoolchildren so as to eliminate any sense of Jewish chauvanism in the schools. There is even a move afoot on the partof some journalists and cultural leaders to repeal the Law of Return, cutting off Diaspora Jews from anunquestioned right to immigrate to Israel. Novelist David Grossman and historian-journalist Amos Elon are two of many such leaders, according to Hazony.

Surprise, the “enemies of the state” (my phrase, not his) turn out to be the intellectuals, writers,academics and some of the younger political leaders. These are the current critics who find Zionism outmoded,and who seem to be following in the footsteps of such anti-Zionists as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Theseare also the men and women who dominate and shape the culture of Israel, says Hazony. (Though surely there are antagonists who command a following within Israel’s cultural life.)

Does all this sound familiar? Change a few names and dates and we’re transported back to the United States. Our younger generation knows little of American history, and most of us can barely hum the American national anthem,let alone sing out its words. Intellectuals and academics are the well-poisoners when it comes to elevating secularismabove religion: They are the culprits keeping prayer out of the schools. And patriotism after Vietnam? Please.

It’s easy to locate the causes which have led to the decline of American morality and values. According to neoconservative journalists such as William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Hilton Kramer, the fall began withthe ascendancy of the sixties, the enshrinement of that generation’s values. We can also see the pernicious influence of our own media, adopting ’60s ideology and engulfing us with a destructive pop culture. Betweenthe two we are inundated with uninhibited and permissive sex at any age, casual use of drugs and the launchingof such movements as gay rights and feminism. These have all contributed to the decline of family life and the loss of national purpose, say the conservative critics.

National history and geographic size are irrelevant here. We could be talking about either society, Israel or America. Their interchangeability by itself does not negate the argument. But it sure gives me some pause.

The loss of patriotism is felt more keenly in Israel than in the U.S. It’s a younger nation, established in some ways on the bones and suffering of those who died in the Holocaust. With so many wars in so short a span of history, with so many enemies encircling its border, Israel’s movement away from a national triumphalism seems to me, at first, astonishing. But then I think of the changes in France in the 60 years after its revolution; and the loss of innocence in this nation over the last 65 years. And,if I can venture a guess, the first faint echoes of a modified fundamentalism in so new a governmentas theocratic Iran.

For better or ill, change has a way of erasing shibboleths as well as national policies and beliefs. Today change occurs with a rapidity that is difficult to contain. Of course not all change is beneficial, though often it ushers in benefits, often to those who have had the least amount of freedom or opportunity. Change in Israel means that sooner or later there will be a Palestinian state — carrying in its wake new problems and crises. It means that such factors as globalization and the instant communication afforded by the Internet will probably challenge the political influence of religion in this Jewish state. Democracy vs. theocracy is a headline, and so exaggerates the conflict by polarizing it. But the Jewish state will have to tilt in one direction or the other. It cannot remain static.

And we Jews — in Israel no less than in America — will have once again to redefine who we are andwho we wish to be. The fact is we have been doing this throughout history; those with a shorter attentionspan need only look at changes in American Jewry within this last century.

Each generation has taken a different turn in the road; has embraced a new identity as an American Jew. That grappling, that form of choosing, will continue regardless of intermarriage and lack of knowledge of Judaism The point to remember is that while numbers may rise or fall, we are a pluralistic society, with individual Jews following quite distinct and different paths.

Why should we expect less from Israelis? We may want them, even need them, to remain constant in the midst of our social upheavals. For us, they are the fixed point on the Jewish map, latitude and longitude just as they were in 1948. But for Israel to hold fast to its original terms of identity, would lead to a somewhat closed, iconoclastic society.

It would be akin, though not so dramatically, to our turning back to the first American government: Pure, virtuous, newly independent citizens living on a scale everyone could grasp. It sounds grand. But it would also include slavery, few rights for women, and only a fraction of eligible white men — those with adequate funds — able to vote. Come to think of it, I can identify any number of people who might long for that cultural climate.