The Story of Israel

Posted on May 05, 2014

At least one thing has changed between last Yom Ha’atzma’ut and this one in the relationship between many American Jews and Israel: we have read and thought about two challenging and highly personal books that came out this year on the subject of the past, present, and possible futures of the Zionist project. Just before Passover, Ari Shavit discussed his groundbreaking book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, at a private meeting (cosponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with rabbinical students of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Yossi Klein Halevi shared the thinking laid out in his award-winning book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, at a public lecture at JTS one evening last fall. He also taught two courses about Israel and Zionism during that semester, one of them in Hebrew, to JTS undergraduate and rabbinical students. Both books have deeply affected me. I want to share two responses to them as we approach Israel’s 66th birthday. My hope is to add a small measure of optimism at a moment when yet another apparently failed peace process threatens to drown our celebration in despair for Israel’s future.

Shavit’s presentation to JTS students was far more about triumph than tragedy. He stressed the good that has been accomplished in Israel since its founding—and still is achieved daily—even while paying full attention to the existential threat that continues to hang over the State and the moral price paid at every stage of Israel’s history—including the present moment—in order to achieve and safeguard that accomplishment. No less important, in my view, Shavit put the emphasis on what needs to be done by Jews here and in Israel in order to secure the future of the Jewish State. “A new narrative is required,” he said again and again with real passion; a story about Israel’s past that points toward an inspiring future; a new way of talking about why the State came to be and why it is important (for Jews and for the world) that it continue to thrive. Exactly. Even as we continue to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and seek peace among the various sorts of Jews that make up Israeli society, let’s work on telling and retelling that story, to ourselves and others, of why Israel matters so much.

On this point, for all my admiration for Shavit’s book, I have to say that, in my view, it falls short. There is little room in Shavit’s narrative for any part of Diaspora Jewish history, except the history of assimilation in modern times and of anti-Semitism in alltimes. There is equally little place for Judaism in the story Shavit tells, except as the source of the language, values, and aspirations that fueled the return to Zion but now must be transmuted into a distinctly Israeli version of enlightened Western civilization. All too often, Shavit’s case for Israel—the reason why the State is needed, the cause that justifies the suffering and injustice inflicted as part of the effort to build and protect the State—comes down to the claim that ein makom acher (there is no other place). Diaspora existence, according to this version of Israel’s story, means anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, Holocaust, whenever it does not mean (outside of Orthodoxy) assimilation, intermarriage, disappearance. There is, of course, some truth in this standard Zionist argument. Much 20th-century Jewish history supports it. The Holocaust does make Israel’s existence essential to Jewish survival. The Pew Report does demonstrate, once again, that assimilation remains a clear and present danger to Diaspora Jewry. There is good reason to believe that if anti-Semitism does not “get” Jews, assimilation will. Over against both of those dangers, riding to the rescue of Jews and Judaism, there is Israel.

But the truth also includes much else. I stand with the many Israelis who believe that the State cannot survive, let alone thrive, if it attempts to “declare independence” from Jewish history, as Ben-Gurion once put it, or—another well-known Zionist trope—“bring the Jews back into history,” as if we had been elsewhere for the 20 centuries in which Jews lived somewhere other than in the Holy Land. Similarly, while alert and vigilant to the declining rates of Jewish knowledge, belief, and practice in North America, we should not minimize the tremendous achievements that have taken place recently in Jewish life on this continent, in part thanks to close interaction with the “spiritual center” in Israel. Many of these developments—religious and cultural, institutional and personal—have been reexported to Israel, enriching the Jewish State and its citizens. Diaspora Jews are an integral part of the story of Israel’s success, and must remain so. Israelis should not write us off, but work to bring us closer.

Put another way the case for Israel cannot rest exclusively on the evils from which Israel saves Jews. It needs to focus on the enormous good that Israel achieves, and the still greater good that it can achieve, in close partnership with the Jewish people worldwide, guided by the eternal wisdom of Judaism.

That, I think, is the principal contribution of Klein Halevi’s book. By presenting the rich kaleidoscope of Israel since 1967—religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, left and right—and the movement of individuals and families among and between these groups and their shifting self-definition, Like Dreamers shows us a society in motion. That movement itself gives hope that something new and positive will come from the intersection of apparent opposites that turn out, on closer examination of Israel’s rich mosaic, not to be as opposite to each other as one might have thought. Klein Halevi does not try to tie things up neatly. He has no quick fixes for the divisions among Jews that plague Israel today, any more than for the divisions between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. But the story he tells is a guide to the story that we must tell together from now on: all-inclusive, grounded in where Jews and Judaism have come from, attentive to Israel’s immense varieties, and powered by the Jewish hopes that got us here and the determination that Israel represents a major new chapter in Jewish history rather than a break from past Jewish history. It certainly cannot represent a break from us, the Jews who do not live in Israel full-time, or our Judaism.

The Israeli paratroopers who conquered the Old City in 1967 were like dreamers. They knew that they were making history, fulfilling ancient fantasies, and were in awe of that fact. Israeli Jews, as a whole, have been like dreamers ever since, some of them pursuing messianic outcomes that have taken the State off course. Now, nearly 50 years after the Six-Day War, all those dreams are harder to sustain. And yet—and yet—there is something in us Jews that refuses to believe it has all been no more than a dream, or that the dream will dissolve into a nightmare. Like Psalm 126, from which Klein Halevi took his title, the dream of Zion transpires not only in past tense but in future tense, and moves back and forth between past and future. It says: even if no solution to Israel’s many problems is at hand; even if one cannot, at this point, foresee what those solutions would look like or even move nearer to them; the rich and diverse set of elements that make up modern Israel encourages hope and staves off despair.

Telling a new story is no substitute for peacemaking. Shavit and Klein Halevi agree about that. Getting Israelis to look more carefully into the Jewish past, and to listen more attentively to Jewish voices outside Israel, is not a substitute for getting Israelis to look more directly at Palestinians whom they have often preferred to ignore. But I look forward to the publication this year of the two books in Hebrew, and to the debate inside Israel that will ensue. I hope Diaspora Zionists will participate passionately. “I fell in love for the first time when I was 18 years old,” wrote one of the JTS students in Klein Halevi’s course on Zionism, speaking for many Diaspora Jews. “As soon as the plane landed in Tel Aviv, something stirred within me that has not lain dormant since . . . As a religious Jew and a lover of Israel, I find myself constantly struggling with my competing ideals, dreams, and homes.” That, too, is part of the story of Israel, I think—one I hope we will learn to tell better and better as the years go by.