Aharon Megged

By Aharon Megged

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The prophecy of the Aramean Balaam, who was asked to curse Israel on its way from slavery in Egypt to the promised land but instead ended up blessing them (“Whoever you bless shall be blessed, and whoever you curse shall be cursed”; Numbers 22:6), was nonetheless an ambivalent prophecy—perhaps a blessing, perhaps a curse. The verse, “This people shall dwell alone, and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9), contains an astonishing vision, beyond all comprehension, of the people’s actual fate for untold generations. For thousands of years, this people did in fact dwell alone, different from any other people, an impassable border separating it from the others. Its religion, unlike Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and so forth, is exclusively its own; no other people shares it. The phrase “and not be reckoned among the nations” (uvagoyim lo yit’hashav) can be read in two ways: The Jewish people was neither reckoned among the nations, nor did it reckon them, neither when dispersed among them (since most Jews refused to assimilate, and the few who tried failed), nor as a free people in its own land. (Ben-Gurion’s proud, “arrogant” comment that “it is unimportant what the Gentiles say; what is important is what the Jews do” is the ultimate expression of this view.)
The “otherness” of the Jewish people—or if you prefer, its “uniqueness”—has accompanied it throughout its history, and it even would seem that this uniqueness was imprinted at its birth. Unlike the epics of other ancient nations—the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and others—our epic is one not of war and heroism, but of wandering. It begins with the command “Get ye gone,” from Haran to Canaan, and has continued for millennia, its end nowhere in sight. Jacob went down to Egypt with his sons; even after settling in the promised land, the Israelite migration to other lands continued—and not necessarily as the result of expulsions. During the First Temple period, the Israelites had already established settlements in Egypt and other lands of the Middle East. After the proclamation by Cyrus, only a small portion of the people, and not its elite, seized the opportunity to return to its homeland. In the Second Temple period, long before the Temple was destroyed and the people expelled, the Jews ventured from the Land of Israel to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, Spain, even as far as Persia and India, and again to Egypt. They established important religious centers in these settlements, some of which, such as Babylonia, far surpassed the Jewish center in the Land of Israel, both spiritually and economically. And throughout the centuries of the Jewish dispersal throughout the world, very few immigrated to the Land of Israel, even when opportunities lay before them.
Yet for the entirety of those two thousand years and more, the words “May our eyes behold your return to Zion,” “God, may the Temple be re-built,” “next year in Jerusalem” and many other similar expressions never ceased to be uttered in prayer—weekdays and holidays, morning, noon and night.
A dichotomy which has no parallel in any other people is imprinted in the fate and character of this people: This nation is, on the one hand, totally focused on a single land, and all its prayers, religious laws, messianic hopes and poetic longings yearn for that land; at the same time, it sees itself as a people of the world, a world in which it has been forcibly dispersed, hated and persecuted, but nevertheless a world for whose existence and morality it seems to feel responsible, as it rushes to join the vanguard of every social, ideological and cultural movement.
Political Zionism hoped (naively, perhaps?) to bring an end to this dichotomy, once and for all.
After a hundred years of Zionist fulfillment inthe Land of Israel, and fifty years of the State of Israel, this hope has proven false. The territorial center has strengthened and become an unquestionable political, social and cultural fact, what people call “the greatest success story of the twentieth century”; yet at the same time, it has not eliminated, and is not expected to eliminate, the Jewish centers in the diaspora. Today as well, the majority of diaspora Jews can say in all sincerity that their eyes “gaze toward Zion,” but the people whose political center is in Zion is, at the same time, still a people of the world.
Moreover, as in the Second Temple period, we are witness to the continued drifting of our people from the center outwards, from Israel to other countries. Two forces, one centripetal and the other centrifugal, are at play simultaneously, struggling with one another. Which will emerge victorious is yet to be known. What was in the 1950s known as the “sneaking out” of individuals to other countries, and in the 1960s and 1970s referred to as the act of “dregs of weaklings,” in which anyone leaving felt compelled to hide, feel embarrassed or search for bizarre justifications for his behavior, ever vowing to return—has in recent years become something that is not only unembarrassing, but can now be undertaken proudly, head held high. Thus, an Israeli newspaper only recently carried a feature in which educated, well-off youths from established families were interviewed; these had decided to leave Israel and declared they were doing so without hesitation. Israel had disappointed them, they reported, or they had discovered greater chances for success elsewhere. They are joined by thousands of kibbutznik children of the pioneering Zionist socialists. Upon arriving in the capitalist world, the “pride of the Zionist enterprise” discover within themselves the eternal, atavistic Jewish talent—for making money—reaping success in everything they touch, and settling permanently in any country upon which they happened to stumble.
One of the greatest dangers facing us in coming years is emigration from Israel. Even if this does not become a mass movement (as is unlikely considering the restrictive nature of many countries’ immigration laws), it will weaken the Jewish community in Israel from a demographic and economic standpoint and, as a necessary result, from a security standpoint as well.
One reason commonly advanced of late by these “intelligent” emigrants is a presumed ideological, or at least political, justification: “This country is no longer ours.” This means something very specific: The country under the present government is no longer ours. This is a uniquely Israeli argument, the likes of which can hardly be found with such frequency in a population of Israel’s size in any other language or nation. Opposition to ruling governments exists in all democratic countries, with some opponents hurling the most grave accusations against those holding the reins of power, charging them with corruption, greed, adultery and so forth. The goal of democratic opposition is to fight, depose and replace the current regimes; none will ever assert that “this country is no longer ours” in order to justify leaving it. Have democratic elections ceased in Israel? Have the freedoms of organization and expression been abrogated here?
The “new historians” provide ideological support for those leaving Israel. Their views are spreading, not only in academia, but also farther afield, among all those who despair of Zionism, are embittered by government policy or seek intellectual justification for their hidden urge to “blow off” the entire country. Whether or not this is the historians’ intent, the conclusion derived from their teachings is that not only the state, but Zionism itself, was born in sin. It was not the Jewish people’s liberation movement, as it believed, but a movement to oppress another people, the Arab people. Its crimes did not begin with the “occupation” after the Six Day War, the failure to return disputed territories to their original owners, and the cruel trampling underfoot of those dwelling therein. Rather, from its first days, it stole, dispossessed, violated and repressed, acting with deceit to take control of lands to which it had no right. According to this philosophy, the “pale of settlement” allotted the Jews, that area and realm of activity which bears no moral stain, is becoming smaller and smaller with the publication of each additional study. Things have reached such a state that a recent work appeared claiming that even the center of Tel Aviv stands on land that was taken in deceit from its Arab owner. This is, in essence, the delegitimization of Zionism, identical to the Palestinian National Covenant’s denial of Israel’s right to exist, which relies upon more or less the same arguments.
This view has gained many followers in the Israeli media. Not a day passes that the newspapers, radio and television do not loudly repeat this message, having increasing influence upon a generation that “knew not Joseph.” If its dissemination continues, if greater numbers of Jews in Israel feel guilty over their very presence here, that this is not right but a terrible injustice to innocent people—where, then, will we find the strength in times of trial to stand against those fighting “to restore their right” to all of Israel?
Despite all this, and with the urgent need to refute the lies and inculcate the truth—that Zionism created and built this land not in order to oppress and kill, but to liberate and revive—Israel’s fateful problem in the coming years will not be the widening rift between the secular and the religious, nor the widening gap between rich and poor, nor even ethnic or political divisions, but rather the problem of peace. If there is peace with the Arabs—our neighbors within and beyond our borders—all of these problems, which are “natural” for a young immigrant state, will find their solution sooner or later, as in any “normal” democratic country. If, however, there is no peace, and war breaks out again—sowing ruin, destruction and bloodshed the likes of which were unknown in previous wars—our very survival will be in doubt.
Logic dictates an absolute equilibrium between the two political viewpoints—the one adhering to the Oslo accords, the other advocating the “Greater Land of Israel”—as to the dangers of war and the possibilities of peace. There is no way to prove that implementing the Oslo accords will ensure peace in the long term, because both the overt and covert goals of the Palestinians were, and remain, the “complete liberation of Palestine and the uprooting of the Zionist entity”; if and when the Palestinians think that it is in their reach, with the help of neighboring countries, it may reasonably be assumed that they will initiate a war. On the other hand, there is no way to prove that settlement in all parts of the historical Land of Israel will build our strength, fortify and bolster us, and prevent war—for the Arabs’ enmity will only increase under a foreign, repressive rule they do not accept. This will fan their belligerency against us and, again, if and when they and their allies (who are growing stronger in number and might) think that they have the power to defeat us, they will do everything to attain this goal.
Nonetheless, with our very survival hanging in the balance, we must at least leave open the possibility, and the hope, that even between long-standing enemies, peace treaties are capable of bringing about a change in views, attitudes, and aspirations over time, so long as they are accompanied by friendly relations based on common interests. We must strive to attain such agreements, without respite.
To strive—not out of weakness or despondency, guilt or flattery, but out of profound awareness of the justice inherent in Zionism, and the belief that the end of days known as “post-Zionism” has not yet arrived; for as long as the paths of immigration to Israel have not been deserted, as long as there are Jews in the world who still see it as a safe haven, or as the only land where their yearning for cultural revival and for freedom from fear and from the indignity of minority status can be fulfilled, Zionism has not reached the end of its road, and the justification for its aims remains as valid as when it came into being.

Aharon Megged is an author living in Tel Aviv. His most recent book is Mandrakes from the Holy Land (Am Oved, 1998).

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