All Writings
February 11, 1989

Statehood and Redemption

The contemporary Jew, who survived the German horrors of World War II and saw the creation of Israel, is vividly represented by two extraordinary generations. The first generation–the heirs of the Holocaust–witnessed the near destruction of the Jewish people, and the second–the generation of redemption–is symbolized by the establishment of Israel. The two generations stand in total contrast: the former was filled with utter despair and hopelessness, while the latter was immersed in exhilaration and glory.

The years of Nazi ferocity left many millions of Jews disillusioned, scarred, and frightened. Yet the years of redemption generated intense mixtures of hope and anxiety, courage and fear, confidence and uncertainty. The realization that even Jews could now proclaim liberty and political independence was so overwhelming that it evoked mystical feelings. Many Jews came to believe that some transcendent exchange, some divine compensation was decreed: six million Jews perished so thai", the remnant could live. One-third of all Jewry was sacrificed on the altar of man's insanity so that the survivors could find a sanctuary, build a home, and at long last, live in dignity and with self-respect.

Although such a notion may have been accepted by a limited number of Jews who survived the Holocaust, the majority, however, believed that one of the main effects of the Holocaust was to accelerate the establishment of Israel. Yet the price was exorbitant; it was a price that left hundreds of thousands of Jews emotionally drained and psychologically traumatized. The creation of the State of Israel did very little to alter their condition. Deep within their hearts, these disillusioned but determined Jews believed that Israel would have been established eventually, with or without the Holocaust. After all, Jews had yearned for statehood for more than 2,000 years: what would another two or three decades have mattered?

There was a mystery here: perhaps the same one that surrounded the survival of the Jews throughout millennia. A powerless and dispersed people, subjected to unending traumas defying all rationality, have withstood history's most turbulent time, and they have not only managed to survive, but to survive in style. The survival of the Jew, however, is not a historical accident. It is nothing less than a testimonial to the Jews's vigilance, his ability to adapt to situations, his commitment to help and care about others, his thirst for knowledge, his refusal to accept what appeared to be inevitable, and finally, his resolve to rely on his own resources and not to die in vain.

Although Jews may remain scapegoats and anti-Semitism may persist, together they provide a constant reminder to Jews and their detractors that Jewish survival transcends human grasp and may remain a mystery. The Holocaust was intended to defy that historical mystery. It was engineered to provide a solution–a "final" solution– to the Jewish "problem." The best German minds were assembled to execute a plan that would revoke the Jewish presence, erase the Jewish past, and make continued Jewish existence impossible.

The Holocaust was designed to obliterate Jews, thereby ending, once and for all, their mysterious existence and stubborn will to survive. The Holocaust was therefore a deliberate act to eradicate the Jewish body. The failure of the Germans was not limited to their inability to physically eliminate every Jew, but that the Jewish body was survived by the Jewish idea.

Judaism, as a way of life, as a philosophy, as a culture could not and would not have been destroyed. It was those ideals which Jewishness withholds that makes Jewish existence beyond the reach of any antagonist. As such, the Holocaust came to symbolize Jewish resiliency and formidable inner strength and therefore it cannot be–a cause for redemption. It must always be remembered, however, as the symbol of a stigma – an ascribed human stigma–from which there is no absolution.

The Ideals of Redemption

The question that faces us today is how should we go about the process of redemption–the creation of a strong and wholesome Jewish existence–and at the same time, discourage future antagonists from perpetrating another Holocaust upon us. In this context, what is the role of the State oflsrael and how can we reconcile the centrality of Israel with continued Jewish dispersion? And how will that impact upon redemption itself? The first tangible evidence of redemption was the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Here, on the ancient land of Israel, the Jews were expected by their own religious and historical orientation and beliefs to produce a great national culture which would gradually produce a "new" Jewish personality. This distinct Jewish personality would be assertive and self-confident, free of immemorial burdens of subordination and second-class citizenship.

To maximize the development of this new Jewish character, a Jewish State had to be established only in the promised land of Israel. Furthermore, it became an article of dogma among some Zionists that a Jew's potential could not be fully attained unless he lived within this state. In fact, the environment of a Jewish State would not only offer the new Jew a natural habitat, but would also encourage, complement, and instill in him a set of values.

In the land of Israel, it was accepted, the Jew feels closest to God; in the land of Israel, he enters into a partnership with God; and only in the land of Israel can a Jew achieve his goals and fulfill his true destiny. Thus, Israel was posited not only as an answer to the plight of the Jews, but also as the clear and unmitigated expression of his cultural and religious experience and psychological and emotional rejuvenation. In this sense, the state comes to be seen as the prime requisite to the process of complete and total redemption.

These, then, were the principal expectations of the soul-redeeming process. Indeed, the early years of Israeli statehood can be seen as a golden era of spiritual rejuvenation, an era during which Jews, both inside and outside of Israel, began to view their individuality in a different light. Self-esteem, pride, self-assurance, a new sense of responsibility, renewed hope, and much higher expectations all further strengthened their unity and solidarity. The national fever was overwhelming; the commitment to sacrifice and build overshadowed the danger posed by the Arab states. The will of the people and their national purpose emerged as the most formidable weapons the Jew ever possessed.

It was on the basis of this self-reevaluation of the Jewish character that the partnership between diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel was woven. The Jewish State was now seen as a model society, one that stood for justice, equality, and freedom. It was viewed as the center from which spiritual, emotional, and intellectual fulfillment could be derived. The Israelis were expected to be an example to the world by maintaining the highest levels of moral and ethical conduct. Purity of mind and spirit was expected to guide Israel's leaders and its people- a perfect and just society in a perfect environment and at a perfect junction in the history of mankind.

To be sure, the redemption had to be wholesome, invigorating, and complete. Israel could not be compared with any other country. It had to develop a distinct national character and personality and to protect and preserve its own values within socio-economic and political structures developed at its own pace and time.

In this view, Israel was expected to provide the answer to the "Jewish problem." After all, this was the foremost consideration in the minds of Israel's creators. Once the unwanted, disinherited, and persecuted Jew had emigrated from alien soil and returned to his true homeland, his psychological and emotional well-being would be restored and his former hosts, be they friends or foes, would be relieved of their "burden."

The Expectations Fall Short

Although the first two decades of statehood gave considerable credence to these expectations, with the advent of the third decade, Jewish intellectuals and spiritual leaders began to voice some skepticism. The redemption of the Jews, solely through the creation of the state, was not possible. For the majority of Jews who continued to live in the diaspora, Israel could not provide total fulfillment. Although Israel, as a political institution, provided some psychological security for diaspora Jews, their survival remained largely beyond the scope of Israel and its promise.

Both dormant and activist Jews saw in their orientation a greater measure of survivability; that is, Israel was viewed as a high premium insurance policy that would give certain coverage after the injury had already occurred rather than as a shield to prevent injury in the first place. Although diaspora Jews believe deeply in Israel's importance as a cultural and inspirational source, they are fully entrenched in their own milieu and take pride in their contributions to Jewish communal and civic life of their respective countries of residence.

The establishment of a new and free Jewish society in Israel did not liberate the Jew entirely from the "galut", the diaspora, mentality. The regeneration of Jewish communal life remained a combination of diaspora and statehood, each simultaneously pushing and pulling in opposite directions. The diaspora's consciousness formed the basis for Jewish communal life. In this respect, Israel failed to provide a cohesive and compelling program by which its cultural developments could be transmitted to the many scores of communities that yearned for a renewed sense of fulfillment.

In fact, Israel, to a great extent, was a divisive element in the practice of religion and in the end, provided a poor model for both political and organizational conduct. Moreover, Israel was unable to become the spiritual center for the Jewish people, that center which is the true pillar of redemption. Finally, Israel's economic conditions made the country appear more dependent on outside help which further weakened its ability to draw greater numbers of Jews into its fold. The problem was further compounded by the greater attraction of the United States.(The Soviet Jewish drop-outs are a case in point.) Moreover, it was also recognized by diaspora intellectuals that if there was an historic goal to the process of redemption, the Jewish diaspora must play an independent role today, as it did in the past. Although peripheral at times, it should still play an active role. Jewish continuity, they reasoned, is not static: separate Jewish creativity and growth is fundamental to Jewish continuity. Although there may be an intrinsic relationship between creativity and the land of Israel, this association does not necessarily mean that the Jews' presence on the land is a necessary precondition for Jewish creativity and continuity. Insofar as diaspora Jews remain an ideological minority, their intellectual activism and contribution should not only be tolerated, but actively sought.

Although the reality of Israel, as witnessed by diaspora Jewry, was inconsistent with initial expectations, diaspora Jews now have come to realize that a certain equation between Israel and world Jewry must be drawn. Certainly, neither side could derive its entire psychological, emotional, cultural, and intellectual needs exclusively from the other. Although the exchange between them became a cornerstone to their normal functioning as free entities, each side developed its own special and unique needs.

The fulfillment of these became the main requisite for their independent and interdependent survival. This recognition further led diaspora intellectuals to play a critical role not only in promoting their special interests, but also in extending their sphere of influence or even interfering in matters of exclusive concern to Israel. This newly adopted attitude was predicated on a variety of common interests shared by both diaspora Jewry and Israel, but primarily on the fact that Israel's conduct and the consequences of that conduct are no longer limited to its own boundaries.

Who is a Jew?

The question of who is a Jew recently brought into focus the essence of the Israel-diaspora relationship. In an effort to form a coalition government after the last election in Israel, the heads of the two leading parties, Likud and Labor, competed vigorously to lure the religious parties into a narrow coalition government. Realizing their importance, the religious parties set out to extract every conceivable concession, the most egregious being the redefinition of what constitutes a Jew, an act which would require an amendment of the Law of Return. In effect, this could have invalidated all conversions to Judaism performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis especially in the U.S.

There was nothing new in the religious parties' quest for such an amendment. Throughout Israel's existence the question of who is a Jew has been debated constantly. The religious parties were consistent in their demands. However, the two leading parties had always resisted these demands, fearing an uproar by American Jews and by those Israelis afraid that such an act would undermine Israel's character as a home for all Jews regardless of their religious affiliation.

For the last four decades, the religious parties have worked very diligently to move Israel toward greater orthodoxy. They have always viewed themselves as religiously pure and the only ones fit to be the true keepers of the faith and caretakers of the holy places. To that end, they extracted a wide range of concessions from each leading party in exchange for joining a coalition government.

These concessions have included government funding for religious education, strict sabbath observance, religious control of marriage and divorce laws, exemption from military service, and maintenance of kashrut in public eating places. Then, at the risk of disenfranchising Reform and Conservative Jews, they insisted on redefining who is a Jew. If such an amendment had passed, it would have given the religious parties a complete monopoly on the interpretation of Judaism and moved Israel closer toward an autocratic state.

Who is a Jew? Since when is Jewish identity, many American Jews asked, a political issue? The question of Jewish identity touches the very heart of Judaism. No political party or coalition of parties inside or outside Israel has the right to redefine or amend a law that could affect the lives of diaspora Jewry. By raising the question in a political context, those who supported such an act, in fact, have exposed themselves as nothing less than hypocrites.

Jewish identity, American Jewish leaders maintained, is not a commodity to be traded by Israel's political merchants; it is not a property to be sold in the murky exchange of Israel's politics. How sad that in their zealous grasp for power, Israeli politicians have managed to reduce Jewish rootedness to political expediency. In the final analysis, they have surrendered the riches of the Jewish faith to the whims of fanatics and in the process, have sacrificed Israel's standing as a democratic secular state in which all religious denominations can flourish and thrive.

American Reform and Conservative Jews, whose religious standing was in question, had every right to be indignant. They felt betrayed, disowned, and disinherited. The passage of such a law, they rightfully insisted, would have made every convert to Judaism feel like a mamzer (bastard) in the eyes of everything he most cherishes. The rift between diaspora Jewry and Israel would have become real, anger and rage would have set in, barriers would have been built inadvertently and the prospect of disintegration would have loomed so high. For the American Reform and Conservative movements this runs not only against the principle of redemption, but it would have rendered the whole concept hollow.

Although the number affected would not have been great, what irked the American Jewish community is that Israel was questioning, in fact, who is a rabbi and what are the parameters of their practices. Such an amendment would run against the principle on which the whole idea of redemption rests. Many who have converted to Judaism have done so with much pain and anguish. Some have had to endure ridicule; others were rebuked and criticized by friends and family. But they all embraced Judaism with passion.

To them it was coming home to the warmth of a spiritual hearth. They did not join a cult or a clique; they found a universe of human experience. To them and to every enlightened Jew, all branches of Judaism are equal. None can dominate nor dictate to the others and certainly, none can invalidate a Reform or Conservative conversion. Such an act would have been nothing less than an assault on their faith, a ruthless attack on their legitimacy, an affront to their dignity and a deep injury to their pride.

The whole debacle over the issue of who is a Jew and the intense controversy that surrounded it ought to provide a constructive lesson. For indeed, as Jews continue to traverse the treacherous road of salvation and redemption they must realize that the danger to their existence as Jews and the danger to Judaism itself emanates from within. When Jews begin to doubt each other, when they infringe upon each other's inherent rights, when fanaticism of any color sets in, when narrow self-interest becomes the order of the day and alienation marks Jews, not only will they self-destruct, but they invite new detractors to test their will and right.

Jews who are destined to live in constant dispersion must reach for each other, must maintain the common thread of Judaism in its infinite expanse and its boundless breadth. Nothing is more perilous to Judaism than self-consuming fanaticism and the blind pursuit of self-centered objectives no matter how noble they may seem to those who seek them. The Law of Return grants any Jew Israeli citizenship, a place under the sun. The law is not a gift but a right–the right to come to the shores of Israel, the right of every Jew to live free, the right to be a devout or a moderate, Conservative or Reform or just the right to be–a Jew. These are the tenents of redemption.

Those who try to tamper with our religious affiliation simply because it does not conform with theirs must not forget the time when being a Jew was a crime. Our assailants asked not who was a Jew by birth, who was Orthodox, who was not. They did not ask who was converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi and who followed tradition to the dot. Yes, we were equal in the eyes of our persecutors–yet sadly, are not so in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. And yet, everyone felt he was a Jew, too.

Israeli and diaspora leaders will remember from this sad episode that Israel was created to answer the call. Israel was built to provide a home. Israel is the base of our ingathering, the symbol of our salvation and the core of our faith. Israel is the refuge to which we can turn. It symbolizes the totality of Jewish experience and exemplifies the entire Jewish body. Every organ of Jewish existence has its function, every movement and organization has its mission. None can usurp the other. For in the end, all streams of Judaism must forever flow freely to reach the height that God bestowed on both Judaism and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Dilemma

Another issue that could cause dire consequences for both Israel and diaspora Jewry and for the whole process of redemption is the seemingly intractable Palestinian crisis. In this respect, the blame may be placed on the laps of both camps. Israel's efforts to persuade the American Jewish community that a Palestinian state on the West Bank will present a mortal danger to Israel had succeeded in leaving a deep impression. In fact, many American Jews have become violently vocal in their opposition to any peaceful overture toward the Palestinians that includes even a semblance of territorial concession.

"How can we trust the Arabs?" they maintain. "Now they (the PLO) want to regain the West Bank and Gaza. The next step will be Jaffa and Tel Aviv." "If they don't want to live under Israeli rule, they should leave and if they continue to cause trouble, they should be expelled."

What is disturbing is the inability of these vocal groups to grasp that the Palestinians harbor the same distrust. Palestinians fear that Israel's ultimate goal is to establish "greater Israel" and render them completely and indefinitely homeless.

Caught between the historically tragic experiences of oppression, persecution, and expulsions which culminated in the Holocaust, and the desire for security and safety, many Israeli and American Jews understandably feel uncertain and anxious about the future. This is also why these Jews who espouse the extreme right position refuse to accept the changing realities of the Middle East: five wars, the rise of the PLO as the sole accepted representative of the Palestinian people, peace between Israel and Egypt, and finally, the uprisings in the occupied territories have introduced entirely new military, political, and psychological dimensions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Territory for peace is no longer one of many options but the only option that can meet the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Mutual suspicion and distrust runs deep. It has obscured any sense of proportion and to some extent, blinded both sides to the simple truth. What are the options? Can Israel continue to rule the West Bank and the Gaza Strip indefinitely and expect a whole generation of Palestinians to give up in despair? What kind of state will Israel become? Is this the Zionist dream? Can the Israelis expel over one and a half million Palestinians? Does it not run against the moral grain of the vast majority of Jews? Wouldn't that dangerously undermine the whole concept of redemption?

Neither the Likud nor Labor Party has ever advocated expulsion en masse. This extremist minority living in Israel and the U.S. who claim total commitment to Israel's future well-being can afford to suggest such drastic measures as long as it is someone else who is forced to perpetrate this travesty upon other people.

Those who advocate annexation of the territories without considering the demographic ramifications are committing as great an error as those who advocate expulsion. Annexation will convert Israel into a binational state within two decades. If Israel offers political equality to the Palestinians, it will lose its Jewish identity. If Israel insists on retaining its Jewish identity, it will lose its democratic character. It cannot be both ways.

There is growing anguish among American Jews over the course of the Palestinian uprising. Every time a Palestinian or Israeli Jew is killed or maimed, another brick is added to the wall of hatred and suspicion that separates two peoples who are destined to live together. And that is tragic.

What can be done to allow the Palestinians self-determination without compromising Israel's security? The two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is a Palestinian independent entity necessarily a mortal danger to Israel. The greatest danger to Israel comes not from the Palestinians, but from within–from vacillation and equivocation, from severe economic dislocation, from social schism and from a lack of unity of purpose. The danger to Israel is compounded by those Jews, inside and outside Israel, who are prisoners of the past. Those who advocate an iron fist policy and prepared to doom another generation of Israelis and Palestinians to hatred and distrust.

An Added Dimension

The process of redemption, as symbolized by the creation of Israel, has now been given an added dimension–diaspora Jewry–which emerged to complete the cycle. World Jewry's partnership with Israel has thus moved from a position of passive receipt to one of active participation. Both sides came to the conclusion that the process of Jewish redemption cannot be limited to Israel. Israel, envisioned as a model of a perfect society, simply could not live up to such an unrealistic expectation. Instead, constant feedback, mutually constructive criticism, and active participation are all necessary to reach greater heights and deeper meaning in the interaction between the two sides.

One other aspect must be noted: Jewish national reconstruction has been subject to the forces of secularization and modernization. Although these forces were and are not incompatible with the process of redemption, they have affected a large segment of diaspora Jewry. The effect was noticeable within the U.S. Jewish community, whose members suffered neither from a "push," nor were attracted to Israel by a 'pull.' Thus, the lack of a strong cultural center in Israel inadvertently precipitated the loss of Jewish identity among many young Jews.

During this transitional period, Jews have suffered and will continue to suffer heavy casualties. Spiritual alienation is on the rise, intermarriage has reached unprecedented proportions, and disenchantment with Jewish communal life has become routine. Israel, unfortunately, has lost its innate attractiveness and the flavor of a supposedly dynamic society. Military victories no longer impress young Jews. Certainly, the relationship between the two camps, which had been one of the utmost confidence and mutual respect, has become turbulent and often very disappointing and discouraging. Finally, after four decades of rapid change, uncertainty, and political and ideological infighting, both camps realize their own and each other's shortcomings and have begun to take a new and hard look at the reality of the "redeemed" Jew.

Yet, this counterpoint of disillusionment and reassessment has yielded benefits. The partnership was given a renewed chance for reevaluation, crucially, by the acceptance of the basic premise that redemption is not limited to a single Jewish center, including Israel.