By Assaf Sagiv

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n the winter of 1883, a unique celebration was held in Vienna, on the Jewish festival of Hanuka. Organized by the newly created Association of Jewish Students, the event was held in honor of the Maccabees—Jewish rebels who overthrew Hellenistic rule to establish an independent state in the land of Israel in the first century B.C.E. Those who attended were, for the most part, educated young men and women from Eastern Europe who sought to restore Jewish honor to its former heights. The event proved seminal to the history of modern Zionism: The tales of bravery and sacrifice of Judah Maccabee and his brothers provided an ideal rallying point for a sense of collective pride, which in turn helped inspire the movement for a Jewish national revival. The name of the student association was Kadima, meaning “forward.”
One hundred twenty-three years later, on March 26 of this year, a newly formed Israeli political party with the same name held a rally two days before the national elections. One of the event’s main speakers, Minister of Education Meir Sheetrit, took the opportunity to explain what set the new centrist party apart from its competitors. Kadima owed its uniqueness, he asserted, to the repudiation of the old ideologies. “We have former members of the Labor party here today, former members of the Likud, and members who never belonged to any political party until now,” he said. “We’re not weighed down by the baggage of the legacies of Ze’ev Jabotinsky or Berl Katznelson. We look only to the future.” To bring his point home, he added that Kadima “no longer says that it is ‘good to die for our country,’ but rather that it is better to live in it.”
Sheetrit was referring, of course, to the dying words of the Zionist pioneer Joseph Trumpeldor, whose life and death became a symbol for the heroism of the Zionist movement. In downplaying the Trumpeldor ethos, however, Sheetrit is far from alone: Similar declarations are often made by Israeli public figures, artists, and writers, and it is safe to assume that they reflect an attitude widely held in Israeli society today. Indeed, many Israelis are tired of the stifling intensity that characterizes the country’s political, religious, and social life. They long for a measure of normalcy; they yearn for room to breathe, and to shake off the yoke of the ideologies that they perceive as giving rise to a conflicted, and often violent, reality. And as the results of the latest elections and the low voter turnout make clear, more and more Israelis prefer to opt out of any kind of public involvement, choosing instead to retreat into their own private bubbles, and to pursue a comfortable, bourgeois life. In the exhaustive 2004 study Farewell to Srulik: Changing Values Among the Israeli Elite, Israeli sociologist Oz Almog dealt at length with this phenomenon, which he described as the “erosion of the gravitational pull of Zionist idealism and the culture of patriotism which it created.” The cause of this erosion, says Almog, is not rebellion, but rather detachment, “because we live in an era when the personal, the intimate, and the private gain complete preference over the general, the social, and the communal.” Yet the cause of this growing weariness of the old, ideological Zionism can also be traced to the all-too-high price it often exacts—self-sacrifice, or the readiness “to die for our country.”
It is hard to blame people who recoil from the demand to make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of an abstract idea such as “our country.” Nevertheless, abandoning the call for self-sacrifice is a luxury that no nation, and certainly not Israel, can afford. We can argue about the moral validity of this requirement from the vantage point of the individual; so, too, can we mourn the loss of cherished human life it entails. But the fact remains: We cannot ignore the necessity of this demand to the existence of the Jewish state—no less now than at any time in the past....

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