Israel’s future depends more on repairing a modicum of national unity and even global Jewish accord than it does on countering Iran. But competing visions of Israel’s essence and identity are at play…
Published in The Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2023; and Israel Hayom, April 30, 2023. Print-friendly copy
It is clear to almost any observer of this country that internal disputes are more threatening than external threats; that Israel’s future depends more on repairing a modicum of national unity and even global Jewish accord than it does on countering Iran. In fact, the latter may be impossible without the former.
One can even argue that there is a significant correlation between Israel’s social and spiritual state and the geopolitical reality it faces.
The Divine promise in the Bible to help Israel surmount its enemies is conditional. It is predicated upon Israel’s adherence to a rigorous code of law and ethics.
Central to this code is a rejection of over-confidence and other idols, appreciation of God’s providence, fostering of brotherhood, and adherence to standards of social morality and justice. “Do justice for the orphan and the widow and love the stranger.”
In other words, the Torah creates an explicit link between Israel’s national security and its national decency; between the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry; between the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Israel’s success in the former arenas is dependent on its virtue in the latter.
Of course, it is theologically facile and simplistic to suggest that if all Israelis just gave a bit more charity and smiled at each other, then Israel’s strategic challenges would pass and no more IDF soldiers would fall in battle.
But Jewish tradition does suggest that military might and diplomatic power is partially a function of moral strength; that when Israel is strong socially and spiritually it indeed will earn the respect of friends and successfully deter its foes.
To put it another way, Israelis can spiritually navigate themselves out of internal and external difficulties.
More refined use of language in public discourse, a little less hacking at each other politically, a touch more tolerance in education, more honesty in business and increased philanthropy, fairer distribution of the national burden, some reverence for heritage, and most of all a renewed emphasis on what binds people together instead of what divides them – all this can go a long way in drawing down the blessings of the Heavens.
IN THIS REGARD, one must welcome Israeli President Herzog’s new initiative, Kol Ha’am – Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue, which he describes as a newly-launched global council for Jewish dialogue.
Herzog says that this will be a “Jewish Davos, a nonpartisan and apolitical collaborative forum that can hold and reflect the full and diverse range of Jewish voices.”
The one catch is that broad-based dialogue which is not rooted in a substantive ideological framework is likely to result in tepid and transitory outcomes.
This is what Rabbi Doron Perez, the executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, argues in his new book The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity (Gefen Publishing). He avers that renewed Jewish unity requires a religious-nationalist-humanist scaffolding.
With clairvoyance that preceded the current terrifying conflict over judicial reform and matters of religion and state, Perez seeks to subsume the fissures of modern Israel by postulating a paradigm of community and “covenant” based on the fundamentals of Religious Zionist thought. These are the interlocking building blocks of religion, nationalism, and universalism (or ethical humanism).
Each of these three foundations, he explains, can lead to extremism and conflict. But in proper balance and perspective, they can complement and complete each other, and build Jewish sovereign strength.
The hankering for “covenant” does not mean coercive religion, Perez emphasizes, “because any attempt to coerce the fulfilment of mitzvot would cause great backlash, hatred, and even G-d forbid civil war.”
Rather, covenantal understandings must be brought about, he writes, by wise political, spiritual, and educational leaders, acting in “Davidian” fashion, meaning leaders who forgive others for the sake of unity, who overcome tribalism and eschew extremism, and instead advance “synthesis and moderation.”
“Isaiah’s vision of a Jewish state being ‘a light unto the nations’ means being a positive example of how modernity and morality, statecraft and spirituality, particularity and universality can be woven together for the sake of a better spiritual and ethical world.”
Rabbi Perez offers no practical solutions for the many conflicts between religion and state – between the rabbinical and secular courts, between haredim and hilonim, between hametz laws and homosexual rights, and between annexationists and two-state solutionists.
Nevertheless, Perez’s inspiring book stands as a manifesto, a cri de Coeur, for a newfound accord between all Jews in building and defending the first Jewish state in 2,000 years.
[For a fuller review of Rabbi Perez’s book, see here.]
A FAR DARKER and more depressing read on Israel’s current predicament appears in this month’s Tablet Magazine, where Liel Leibovitz predicts continuing civil war over the century-old question: Is Israel a Jewish state or state for Jews?
He warns that there will be no easy, sane, or rational end to the protest movement that erupted in response to the ruling coalition’s proposed judicial reforms, because “Israelis are no longer arguing about a series of proposed bills designed to change the balance of power between the executive and the judiciary branches. Nor are they arguing about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition, or about a future Palestinian state.”
“Israelis aren’t arguing about politics anymore. They are fighting about the future, not only of Israel but of Zionism… The fight pits the promise of universalism against Jewish particularity….” The fight pits secular Israel (“First Israel”) that wants Israel to be a “normal” country like any other, say like Sweden, and traditional Israel (“Second Israel”) that wants this country to be unique, especially more national-religious.
“The First Israel measures success by how closely Israel resembles the West, which means celebrating everything from big IPOs to Netflix deals. The Second Israel realizes that it is very much a product of the East, which means doubling down on family, tradition, and nation.”
“For the First Israel, Jewish values are tolerable only as long as they don’t interfere with the dictates of cosmopolitanism; for the Second Israel, democracy is just another name for the sort of compromises that Judaism, in its most moderate and open-minded iteration, generates naturally and with ease.”
“If you believe Zionism to be merely a movement for Jewish sovereignty in Israel, then it accomplished its historic mission 75 years ago, and ought to be retired. But if you believe that it is a Jewish liberation movement whose work begins, not ends, with the establishment of a Jewish state and whose energies come from the redemptive vision of the prophets of Israel, then Zionism ought to be recharged and tasked with nothing less than the re-founding of the State of Israel – this time as a Jewish state, rather than simply a state for Jews. Two-thirds of Israelis, more or less, want just that.”
Leibovitz: “The fight that Israelis are engaged in now is about where they wish to live – not geographically, but within two radically different historical contexts, offering two radically different visions of Israel’s future. Israelis are choosing between, on the one hand, a state that offers Jews the freedom to live according to the dictates of their tradition, and on the other one that insists on strict adherence to universalist values as the price for the acceptance of Jews as a people like any other.”
“What is obvious is that soft appeals to brotherhood and shared destiny aren’t likely to resolve this struggle,” concludes Leibovitz.
I fear that he is right. It will take more than polite dialogue to forge a clear path for Israel.
But I also sense that Leibovitz paints too binary a picture of Israeli society. Radical theocracy and radical democracy are not the only models of identity and government for Israelis.
I suspect that this country will end up somewhere on the continuum between these two poles, in a complicated, sophisticated, and hopefully workable middle ground that offers meaning and freedom for all.