A national purpose

ERETZ-ISRAEL was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. – Beginning of  Israel’s Declaration of Independence, May 14, 1948

Today there is a deepening ideological divide on one important issue among Israeli Jews. It’s not especially useful to simply refer to it as “left vs. right,” although one’s opinion on this issue usually predicts where one falls on the political spectrum. It is a divergence of opinion about what kind of country we want to have. It’s the disagreement about defining a “Jewish state.”

To see how diverse views are on this subject, here are two quotations. The first is from Aharon Barak, Israeli Supreme Court Chief President from 1995-2006, the person most responsible for the “constitutional revolution” that has made the Court the most powerful branch of government in Israel, more so than the Cabinet and the Knesset combined:

The content of the phrase “Jewish state” will be determined by the level of abstraction which shall be given it. In my opinion, one should give this phrase meaning on a high level of abstraction, which will unite all members of society and find the common among them. The level of abstraction should be so high, until it becomes identical to the democratic nature of the state. The state is Jewish not in a halachic-religious sense, but in the sense that Jews have the right to immigrate to it, and their national experience is the experience of the state (this is expressed, inter alia, in the language and the holidays). …

The basic values of Judaism are the basic values of the state. I mean the values of love of man, the sanctity of life, social justice, doing what is good and just, protecting human dignity, the rule of law over the legislator and the like, values which Judaism bequeathed to the whole world. Reference to those values is on their universal level of abstraction, which suits Israel’s democratic character, thus one should not identify the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish state with the traditional Jewish civil law. It should not be forgotten that in Israel there is a considerable non-Jewish minority. Indeed, the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish state are those universal values common to members of democratic society, which grew from Jewish tradition and history.

What Barak did (Hillel Neuer, in the article in which this appears, calls it “breathtaking intellectual legerdemain”) was to stipulate that Jewish values are identical to the liberal humanistic ones that underlie the secular Western morality that characterizes the most progressive elements in Europe and the US, apparently on the grounds that the latter “grew from Jewish tradition and history.”

If anything specifically Jewish were to remain from this creative abstraction, Barak noted further that there is “a considerable non-Jewish minority” who, it is implied, must not be coerced by laws derived from Jewish tradition that were not subsequently adopted by secular progressive humanists.

In other words, according to Barak, democracy demands that only that part of Jewish tradition with which non-Jews agree can have a part in the definition of the Jewish state. Barak’s idea of a “Jewish state” is a Hebrew-speaking liberal democracy with a Jewish majority, a Law of Return, Jewish holidays, and so forth.

Now let us look at another point of view, this one from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which was quoted by Menachem Begin when he presented his government to the 9th Knesset in 1977:

Indeed, the true nucleus of our national uniqueness is the pure fruit of the Land of Israel. Before coming to the Land of Israel we were not a nation and we did not exist. On the soil of the Land of Israel the Jewish nation was forged from the fragments of various peoples. On the soil of the Land of Israel we grew and became citizens; we harvested the belief in one god, breathing in the winds of the land, and as we struggle for independence and sovereignty we were enveloped by the winds and our bodies were fed by the grain which grew on our soil. The ideas of our prophets developed in the Land of Israel, and it was there that the Song of Songs was penned. Everything that is Jewish in us was given to us by the Land of Israel. Everything else that is in us is not Jewish. The Jewish people and the Land of Israel are one and the same thing.

Neither Jabotinsky nor Begin were ‘religious’ in the sense that the term is used in Israel today. Both of them believed in democratic governance and in granting full civil rights to non-Jewish citizens of Israel. And yet both were firmly committed to the idea that there was a transcendent connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Either would have been strongly opposed to the view of the state as no more than a Hebrew-speaking democracy with a right of return for Jews (although Begin personally respected Aharon Barak and appointed him legal adviser for the Camp David negotiations with Anwar Sadat).

We could put it this way: Barak wants a state whose essence is liberal democracy, and which is “accidentally” – by virtue of its Jewish majority – Jewish; and Jabotinsky and Begin wanted one whose essence is to be an expression of Jewish nationhood on its land, and which has chosen to accomplish this in the form of a liberal democracy.

These two competing visions imply seriously different directions in policy, particularly in connection with questions of sovereignty in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Leaving aside the question of whether territorial compromise would be more likely to lead to peace or war – which is at the heart of the left-right divide – the Jabotinsky-Begin people believe that the historical and religious heart of the Jewish nation is located across the Green Line, and that giving up sovereignty over them would make it impossible for the state to carry out its true purpose: to be a vehicle for the restoration of the Jewish nation to its own land. Barak’s followers, conversely, think that keeping sovereignty is dangerous to the state’s primary purpose, which is to be a liberal democracy.

I’m with Begin and Jabotinsky – and the Declaration of Independence. Barak’s vision contradicts itself. He wants to keep the Law of Return, the Hebrew language, the Jewish holidays and so forth. But he has no way to justify this on purely democratic grounds. Arab citizens of Israel have called for a “democratic state founded on equality between the two national groups” with a Law of Return for “Palestinians,” equal status between Hebrew and Arabic, and more. Barak’s principle that “Jewish = democratic” factors out the “Jewish” part, and leaves him with no argument against them. It also leaves the state with no ideological foundation. Liberal democracy is a form of government, not a reason for being.

Is such a foundation necessary for national survival? I think it is. France, Germany and Sweden are (or were) nation-states, created to provide an expression for the national aspirations of their peoples. But Europe decided to reject nationalism, to declare national aspirations dangerous. Now Europe is struggling with birthrates below replacement level, and some leaders have even chosen to commit national suicide by inviting migrants to solve their manpower problems — and in the process wash away their native cultures.

Most ordinary Israeli Jews understand that Zionism is more than liberalism, that a Jewish state is more than a democratic state, and that Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem are more than bargaining chips in a “peace process.” Most of them are uneasy about what is happening to Amona. Most of them, religious or not, think Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.

Israel needs a national purpose greater than just being a refuge or a neighborhood. Such a transcendent purpose is found in Judaism and the Torah. That’s why those whom we call “religious” tend to agree with Jabotinsky and Begin on this issue. But following their example, it is not necessary to be observant in order to understand and respect the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and to see its settlement by Jews as the overriding national goal of a Jewish, Zionist state.

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1 Response to A national purpose

  1. Stuart Kaufman says:

    “the historical and religious heart of the Jewish nation is located across the Green Line, and… giving up sovereignty over them would make it impossible for the state to carry out its true purpose: to be a vehicle for the restoration of the Jewish nation to its own land.”

    A few years ago, I had a “discussion” with an Israeli who argued that all they want is to be just like every other state. My response was that, if that is the case, why have an Israel at all? Israel’s purpose is unique. It is the only “Jewish” state in the world. And Judea and Samaria (called by some the “West Bank,” and called by Israel haters the “occupied territories) are the heart and soul of Jewish history and Jewish existence.
    For those who say that since I don’t live in Israel, it is not my business, my reply is that I am a Jew, and that as such I have equity in the Jewish state. True, I have less equity than someone who lives in Israel and who serves or has served in the Israel Defense Forces, but I have equity. And as a Jew, it is not only my right, it is my DUTY to express my opinion about Israel’s future.

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