Monday, November 3, 2014
Israel and Zionism
There is a crisis in Zionism combined with a worldwide crisis filled with sectarian and nationalistic wars, disease and economic malaise. Yet, part of the crisis of Zionism stems from a blurring of the line between political Zionism—a nationalistic struggle for a Jewish state—and a Messianic, utopian Zionism embedded within traditional Jewish religion. For the sake of both of these visions, the boundary between them should be consciously reestablished.
There is a crisis in Zionism. I suppose it’s but one element of the overall crisis that confronts the world today. There is so much violence, so much anger, so much of the demonization of the other and a sense of religious and national triumphalism that it is hard to imagine a way out. It seems as though everyone is egging for a major apocalyptic battle believing that their side will prevail and bring about whatever image of utopia their particular culture might bear. Add to this the demon of Ebola and I dare say that it seems that something of the end days are upon us. For Jewish Zionists of all stripes, it would appear that the many threats faced by Israel could spell an end to the Zionist dream, the demise of the State of Israel.
At this threshold moment it may be worthwhile to take a look back at what we actually mean by Zionism, and perhaps use this as a spotlight for showing the way forward. If you look at the way the word Israel is used in Jewish tradition—at least since the close of the biblical period—it is used to refer to a land and a people. The reference to a land is clear. But in 1970 an article by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel originally published in Hebrew as Torah min ha-shamayim, “Torah from Heaven,” appeared in English translation as “God, Torah and Israel.” Heschel used as his starting point the Jewish expression declaring the unity of these three elements. Throughout the article, Heschel reflects on the interdependence of Torah and the people of Israel. Indeed, it becomes abundantly clear that Heschel, writing 22 years after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is using the term Israel to refer to the covenant community, not the State of Israel.
“Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals may be a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.”
In this short pronouncement, “Israel” and “Jewish community” are synonymous.
If we take a brief survey of the traditional Jewish expressions of the connection between the land of Israel and the people of Israel, i.e., the Jewish people, we see that it is essentially a mystical connection. Perhaps the most profound expression of this is found in the berakha, the benediction that immediately precedes the recitation of the shema in Jewish liturgy. We ask God to bring us upright into the land of Israel “to thank You and to declare Your unity.” We then proceed to declare the Oneness and unity of God. The Oneness of the divine is existentially connected to the unity of Israel—the people and the land.
Jewish mystical tradition understands that Israel’s galut, its exile from the land of Israel, is coincident with or an emblem of God’s galut, the separation of the shekhinah—God’s indwelling presence in the world—from God’s cosmic unity. This breach will only be corrected by a return of the people of Israel to their ancestral homeland. This is a vision of a Messianic world, a world in which all breeches have been filled and all brokenness has been repaired. It is a vision of human and cosmic unity and harmony.
This is a truly utopian vision, a Messianic vision, one for which every religious Jew longs. It is, in a certain respect, Zionism before there ever was Zionism. However, as a religious, Messianic, utopian vision, we must separate it from the modern State of Israel. This is a terribly painful confession for many of us who both cherish the State of Israel and at the same time long for that utopian vision. Yet, this attempt to connect the utopian, Messianic vision with modern political Zionism, i.e., the State of Israel, is perhaps the greatest flaw in the unfolding of modern Zionism, one which Zionists must overcome if we expect both visions to survive. This flaw is most notably demonstrated in the words found in the contemporary prayer for the State of Israel that define the state as reishit tsemihat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our redemption.” These words refer to the religious, Messianic, utopian vision noted above.
While early political Zionism may have contained elements of a socialist, utopian vision, I must recall the vision attributed to David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel. It is said that he envisioned the State of Israel as a normal state like other states. When there would be Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes in the State of Israel, only then would we know that the Zionist vision had been fulfilled; that the State of Israel was a normal state, a normal nation among the community of nations.
I have become convinced that we Zionists have to return to Ben-Gurion’s vision. We make a serious mistake in allowing utopian, Messianic visions to interfere with what is an essentially political response to Jewish powerlessness in the modern world. With what now appears to be a Christian apocalyptic element added to the mix, we are faced with a volatile concoction. Unlike much of the Jewish Messianic tradition, Christian apocalyptic end-days visions include a cataclysmic cosmic war based on the New Testament Book of Revelation. If anyone doubts the danger to Israel, the Jewish people and, in fact, the whole world presented by this vision, I would recommend the book Jerusalem Countdown by Pastor John Hagee, founder and executive director of Christians United for Israel. Connecting political Zionism—Israel as a state among states—to a Messianic, apocalyptic vision is, as I’ve written elsewhere, “a dangerous and delusional mix.”
So often I am told that I have to be realistic about the existential danger facing Israel. So let’s be realistic. Despite the efforts of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian village of Silwan, King David is not about to return and take his seat on the throne in the City of David. In the event of a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran as predicted with great anticipation by John Hagee, there will be no rapture to translate the faithful to heaven, only death and destruction. Hearing the footsteps of the Messiah, as Hagee claims he does, should be sending him to an audiologist—or better yet, a psychiatrist—not to an AIPAC conference as keynote speaker.
This is not to say that Jews should reject the hope and aspirations that our Messianic visions provide. It is to say that we must separate these Messianic visions from our understanding of modern political Zionism. We can begin by excising the words “the first flowering of our redemption” from our prayer for the State of Israel. We have to arrive at the understanding that Israel is a state like all other states. Like other states—like the United States—Israel has Nobel Prize winners, great artists and philosophers, writers and scholars and high tech manufacturers. Like other states—like the United States—it has thieves and swindlers and prostitutes. And yes, like other states—like the Unites States—it has chickens**t politicians who place their own political necks ahead of the welfare of their people and their nation.