Natan Yonatan

By Natan Yonatan

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From the day the Jewish people were exiled from their land, the dream of the Return to Zion led them in all their journeys, on all the paths of their wanderings. This dream united this dispersed people, imparted significance to their hopes and provided them with the strength and courage to sustain the nation through its countless sufferings over the course of two millennia. The Jewish religion, with all its schisms and disputes, offered a faith and a social context which enabled the continued existence of congregation and individual, even without territorial unity or political sovereignty. For the most part, this arrangement likewise suited the regimes and societies of antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, right up until the dynamic of the modern period that was created by the French Revolution. The modern age left no room, either political or economic, for the organizational structure of the Jewish community. The result was that at the very time the Jewish people were experiencing the universal process of Enlightenment, and were aspiring to the cultural and social norms the modern world demanded of them, the future of the Jewish nation itself was placed in terrible doubt. This would play itself out in the most violent and horrifying way, with the obliteration of European Jewry at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Theodor Herzl and his contemporaries translated the dream of the Return to Zion into ideational terms, which presented an urgent mission: To secure for the Jewish people a territory and the people’s sovereignty over that territory. The establishment of an independent state recognized by the other nations became an objective that united increasingly broader segments of the Jewish people. For our generation, the goal of establishing a state, giving the Jewish people political independence in its land, was axiomatic. After Auschwitz, any political position that questioned this fundamental assumption seemed beyond the pale.
As a result, David Ben-Gurion and the Provisional Government in 1948 showed great wisdom in choosing “Israel” as the name of the new-old state. This is, above all, the name of the state’s geographical area, and is anchored in historical and legal documents and ceremonies. It is pointless to bicker over whether it would have been preferable to call it a “Jewish state” or a “state of the Jews,” thereby adding another controversy to those that already exist. This is the State of “Israel,” the name of a land and the name of a people.
The essence and purpose of the state, however, must indeed be examined. At the two extremes of the debate are, on the one hand, religious elements which deny that a state is needed in order to ensure the survival of Judaism, and, on the other, “liberal” groups who insist upon a Jewish state cleansed—if need be, even by the frightening means of population transfer—of any minorities large enough to dilute its Jewishness. Even after removing these two extreme viewpoints from the discussion, what remains is marked by sharp conflict. The most intractable is the demand by some mainstream religious circles for a halachic state in which religious law will dictate the form of government, the laws of citizenship, the entire judicial system (not merely some elements in it, as now) and, needless to say, public education, culture and national symbols.
Beyond the disagreements, however, we must remind ourselves that democracy is the sole form of government that makes possible the state’s membership in the community of nations, to say nothing of its surviving as a united body, in spite of its many national, religious, ethnic, social and, obviously, cultural contrasts. The religious community, in all its diversity, has a hard time accepting this. For example, the structure of religion is not built along democratic lines, and faith repudiates any authority that is not inspired by the halacha and a belief in God. As time passes, however, enlightened leaders of religious Zionism are accepting the fundamental need for a democratic basis for the state, without which even the religious community cannot survive in today’s world.
Another subject to ponder with regard to considering Israel’s future is nationalism and the efforts to combat it. After fifty years of statehood we can congratulate ourselves upon wondrous achievements, the most impressive being that almost half the world’s Jews now dwell in their historic homeland. What is astounding, however, is to hear the suggestion that the state’s Zionist-Jewish goal, in whose name the country was founded, should be abandoned. The world and the Middle East, it is said, have no need for another country; and in geopolitical terms, the regional map would appear more logical if Israel were omitted. True, the State of Israel cannot exist without democracy, but take away the realization of its national aims and it will lack any meaning at all; the very need for such a state will likely be called into question. Obviously, Israel is a state of all its citizens, but it is also a state with a Jewish majority maintaining the Jewish people’s sovereignty in its homeland.
At this point, a few words about cosmopolitanism are in order. Ever since it became an am olam (“a people of the world”), in the sense of being dispersed throughout the world, the Jewish people has been cosmopolitan. Even during the ages when the Jewish people zealously guarded its religious framework, it was characterized by a universal consciousness. In the modern period, when the ghetto walls and the shtetl fences were breached, and the Enlightenment materialized on the Jewish street, some Jewish thinkers, especially those close to the socialist-liberal wing, championed cosmopolitanism. Initially this was an expression of broad-mindedness, of noble aspirations concerning the potential for society to exist free of racial, religious and national differences. The cosmopolitan ideal was the “citizen of the world,” who knows no limits defined by nationalism or culture, or any commitment other than that of being human, and whose only boundaries are the boundaries of the world.
This worldview quickly evolved into a movement without roots in either culture or society, and the Jews, who were prominent among its thinkers, became its most prominent victims. Hitlerism exposed the identity of the Jews, however assimilated and cosmopolitan they might have been, and then destroyed them; the Russian Revolution used them to further its interests and then, when their cosmopolitanism threatened the Russian national renaissance in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, likewise eliminated them.
Therefore it is important to acknowledge that in this world, all of human existence on all levels, and especially on the spiritual-cultural plane, is cast in the national mold. Human life in anything other than its national form and character is nowhere to be found.
If until now we have considered democracy and nationalism as fundamental principles, we must now examine their application to the State of Israel, since the primary responsibility for the Jewish people lies with those of its people who dwell in Zion. Either the state’s national character will be preserved by imbuing it with content, patterns and symbols which will unite it, or it will be dissolved, and the enterprise of generations will, God forbid, have been for naught.
We must somehow answer the question of how both to maintain democracy in Israel and to ensure its Jewish character. This requires taking into account two important facts. The first is that most modern countries have a distinct national flavor but also have sizeable minorities who enjoy equal rights. In other words, our dilemma on this front is not unique, but something that many other countries have faced. Second, Jewish sovereignty is not just an option, something that can be exchanged for something else: There is no alternative to Jewish sovereignty. Our generation understands that in the question of Jewish sovereignty lies the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. If we are responsible for the people’s continued survival, our only recourse is Jewish sovereignty. This existential certainty also obligates the Jewish majority to guard zealously the rights of the Arab minority, the largest minority in the country, and, indeed, the rights of all minorities and citizens; to strive, for the good of the state and to buttress our moral authority, to ensure equality of opportunity and basic living conditions for everyone in Israel.
The young State of Israel is taking its first steps toward realizing its national aims. The complexity of the Israeli experience also embraces the special connection between Israeli Arabs and the Arabs of other nations on or near Israel’s borders, the fateful link between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jewry, and the tension between those who desire a halachic state and those striving for a democratic, liberal and pluralistic one. But no situation is so complex or difficult that a modus vivendi cannot be found, provided that leaders and thinkers are determined to apply their full abilities to resolving it through compromise and mutual consent. Compulsion and violence will not resolve society’s dilemmas.
Theodor Herzl introduces his utopian work Altneuland with the words “If you will it, it is no dream.” At the end of the book, he continues his opening thought:
But if you do not will it, all that I have related to you is and will remain a dream.... Now, dear Book, after three years of labor, we must part. And your sufferings will begin. You will have to make your way through enmity and misrepresentation as through a dark forest. When, however, you come among friendly folk, give them greetings from your father. Tell them that he believes dreams also are a fulfillment of the days of our sojourn on Earth. Dreams are not so different from deeds as some may think. All the deeds of men are only dreams at first. And in the end, their deeds dissolve into dreams.
The Jewish people willed it, Herzl’s dream came to pass, and the reality exceeded even the bounds of the daring visionary’s imagination. What Herzl’s wonderful utopia did not include were the difficult, sometimes terrible, obstacles that reality would place before those who would fulfill his dream; what he did not imagine were the national and political forces that beset the developing country from without, or the ethnic, religious and cultural tensions from within. To preserve the Zionist vision, our generation must also produce its dreamers and visionaries who, in a world that has changed so profoundly, will lead our people and state into the future, into the third millennium.

Natan Yonatan is a poet and author, and the president of the Hebrew Writers’ Association in Israel. His most recent book is Poems on the Book of the Righteous (Or Am, 1998).

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