Israel is still largely shaped by the unresolved
trauma of its birth
My favorite Israeli newspaper Haaretz (the best paper in the Middle East, along with Lebanon’s Daily Star) asked me to contribute to a debate in their pages on the question of Jewish identity, sparked by the author A.B. Yehoshua’s recent ruffling of feathers in the U.S. by reiterating the long-time Zionist claim that Jewish identity can’t survive outside of a Jewish state. My own response was to turn the question on its head, and ask whether Israel, in fact, is able to live up to the ethical challenges at the heart of Judaism. Extract:
If we concede A.B. Yehoshua’s claim that Israel is the source of Jewish identity in today’s world, we reduce Jewish identity to a conversation between anti-Semitism and a blood-and-soil nationalism that is Jewish only in the sense that anti-Semites use the term i.e., racial. But if, instead, we define “Jewish” on the basis of the universal ethical challenges at the core of Judaism, then not only is the Diaspora an essential condition of Jewishness, but Israel’s own claim to a Jewish identity is open to question.
The idea that the modern State of Israel expresses some ageless desire among Jews across the Diaspora to live in a Jewish nation state is wishful thinking. Before the Holocaust, Zionism had been a minority tendency among Western Jews, and scarcely existed among those living in the Muslim world. And a half century after Israel’s emergence, most of us choose freely to live, as Jews have for centuries, among the nations. That choice is becoming increasingly popular among Israeli Jews, too: 750,000 at last count – hardly surprising in an age of accelerated globalization that feeds dozens of diasporas and scorns national boundaries.
The State of Israel was created by an act of international law in 1948, largely in response to the Holocaust. It was violently rejected by an Arab world that saw it as a new Western conquest of the territory over which so much blood had been spilled to defend Muslim sovereignty during the Crusades, so like most nation states Israel had to fight its way into existence. Its victory came at the expense of another people, whose dispossession was the precondition for Israel achieving an ethnic Jewish majority. And the conflict fueled by the unresolved trauma of its birth has condemned the Jewish state to behave in ways that mock the progressive Zionist dream of Israel fulfilling the biblical injunction to Jews to be a “light unto the nations.”
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