Quo Vadis, Zionism?
This is insight 3 of 3.
I am afraid this Insight will make me persona non grata in Israel, the country I love with all my heart.
I am already in trouble in my birth country, Macedonia, where I dared to challenge the government for not settling its name dispute with Greece. The Macedonian prime minister actually took the time to denounce me on television.
But I follow the motto of Ha Olam Haze magazine: ” … with no fear and no pretensions.” So allow me to say what is bothering me, and if someone can convince me that I am wrong, I will be the first to admit it publicly.
What is it that is eating me up?
Zionism, the movement to create a national Jewish homeland in Israel, was born out of the infamous anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial in 1890s France: Journalist Theodore Herzl, while covering that trial, concluded and began to persuade others that the only way Jews could stop being the world’s oddballs and misfits was to return to their homeland, Israel, and become “ke kol ha amim” – “a normal country like all other countries.”
This expression – “ke kol ha amim” (being normal) – haunts me.
First, because, ironically, every Jewish prayer contains a sentence thanking God for not making us “ke goyey ha adama” (like the rest of the world).
We are the “chosen people,” whose role is to be “or la goyeem”: “a light to the world.”
And what happened when we tried being like the rest of the world? We succeeded. Now we have an army, and we rely on force rather than on spirit to solve our problems, even though it is precisely the spirit – our values system; the mutual help; and our developed, almost exaggerated, consciousness and conscience – that has distinguished the Jewish people for thousands of years. Ruah (spirit), rather than koah (force).
Today, Israel is no different from any other country. We have poverty. We have hungry children. We have Jewish prostitutes and Jewish robbers. Our education system is deteriorating rapidly; what was once the crown jewel of Jewish culture, education, is being devalued and lost. In other words, we are now “normal.”
Is that what we want? To be “normal”?
Zionists would like every Jew in the world to immigrate to Israel and be “normal.” But is that the destiny of the Jewish people? Is that our shared vision of Judaism? Should it be? What happened to the vision of being “or la goyeem” – providing moral benchmarks, acting as the whole world’s canary of consciousness?
In short, what happened to being “special,” “chosen,” “different”?
Second: Secular Israelis behave differently from secular Jews anywhere else in the world.
They have a country, an army, and supposedly feel secure – in other words, are “normal” – while other Jews, wherever they reside, are supposedly still a foreign body and thus “abnormal.”
But for Jews, the Israeli “normal” did not only convey a sense of security; it also legitimized being secular: A secular Zionist I.e, secular Israeli can still be a Jew, and a proud one, with no guilt for not practicing Judaism.
He or she is Jewish by default for being an Israeli.
That is not how a secular Jew in the Diaspora feels. If a Diaspora Jew does not practice the religion, or practices only some of the time, s/he doubts the authenticity, or at least the quality, of his/her Judaism.
With the establishment of the state of Israel, secular Zionism bifurcated nationality from religion: You could be a Jewish national – a secular Israeli – without sharing or practicing the religion.
I have often seen secular Israelis who live in the United States ignoring Judaism’s holiest days, openly having a BBQ on Yom Kippur and eating “white steaks” (i.e., pig meat) publicly.
Secular Israelis rarely, if ever, go to a synagogue. They feel Israeli first, second, and third. Jewish? Yes, but a different kind of Jewish. Or, as someone in Israel once quipped: “They are goyim who speak Hebrew.”
Israelis do not identify with world Jewry. When they emigrate from Israel, often they do not mix with the Jewish community in their new country. They feel out of touch with the Reform way of practicing religion (schoolchildren in Israel are taught to ridicule Reform Jews and their compromises with Orthodox practice), but they have no idea how to practice the Orthodox or even the Conservative way, because they have never learned it. Take me, for instance. I never learned any of the Jewish prayers or rituals when I was growing up in Israel. So whenever I find myself in a synagogue, anywhere in the world, I feel lost, alien; I have a painful sense that I don’t belong.
Secular Zionism has cut the chain that connected Jews for many generations. Young, non-religious Israelis have no religious roots and thus are alien to the Jewish community worldwide.
Efforts to bring young Jewish people from around the world to visit Israel and stay for a while are based on the assumption that this strengthens their bond to Judaism. I dare to disagree. Such trips may encourage them to make aliya (immigrate to Israel). But why would it make young people feel more connected to Judaism? In Israel, they discover a new way of being a Jew without being Jewish.
I repeat for emphasis: You do not have to be “Jewish” to be a Jew if you are an Israeli.
But what if the state of Israel, God forbid, ceased to exist? Scattered to the winds again without a homeland, would surviving secular Israelis revert to the religious traditions that once helped bind the Jewish people, or would they give up being Jewish altogether?
Or could we survive as Israeli Jews without our land – and if so, for how long?
In 1970, I saw a play by Yosef Mundy called It Turns, which still haunts me today. In it, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism and “father” of the state of Israel, is asked whether he is a “false messiah” like Sabbatai Zevi.
In 18th-century Turkey, Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah; thousands followed him, believing he would bring redemption to the Jewish people. Later, under threat to his life, he converted to Islam, inducing many of his followers to do the same. He cost the Jewish community thousands of conversions, and was ultimately declared to be a false messiah.
In the play, Herzl is asked, “Are you, too, a false messiah?”
I wonder. If so, the consequences of the movement he founded could be millions of people lost to Judaism.
Do we care? Should we do something? Is it time to redefine our mission ?
I do not think the solution can be found by reversing the wheels of history and challenging the right of Israel to exist for the Jewish people. There is no way back to the horrible past – and for that I am grateful.
Israel must exist for the Jewish people, who should have a country of their own, as all nations aim to have. The question is not why or what, but how. Here are some thoughts, just to start the discussion:
Point 1: Israel has to go back to its roots, back to its religious foundation, and teach Judaism with all the rituals from nursery school up. It is essential that we reconnect with world Jewry, and the way to do that is through our shared religion. What unites us with world Jewry is our religion, not the Jewish nationalism that Zionism promotes. Please note that by “religion” I do not necessarily mean Orthodox practice. Since world Jewry practices its religion in multiple ways, so should the Israelis. The current Orthodox monopoly in Israel over what it means to practice Judaism has been rejected by most secular Israelis for various reasons and this has caused them to alienate millions of born Jews from their own religion.
All Jews worldwide need to be able to pray together, to share a sense of being responsible for one another, and to share our commitment to tikkun olam (making the world a better place).
Point 2: Zionists can also be those who do not choose to live in Israel. To be a Zionist, one need only actively support the principle that a Jewish state should exist, and that any Jew who wants to live there, can.
Point 3: We need to start the discussion of how to redefine Zionism for the 21st century. What role should Israel play in the future of the Jewish people? How much added value does Israel offer – and at the same time, what liabilities does it bring to the table?
Let us get on with it.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes