Ammiel Hirsch

By Ammiel Hirsch

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The Jewish people has the right to be master of its own fate in a state of its own. This right transcends the recognition granted the State of Israel in international law. From the religious perspective, Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel forms the very heart of our faith. The foundation of Judaism is Tora. From the believer’s perspective, God’s blueprint for humanity ordained that the Jewish people be granted sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The purpose of Abraham’s selection was to be a blessing to humanity—or, as stated in the liturgy, to perfect the world under the sovereignty of God.
For centuries, the Jews did not control the Land of Israel. Judaism, therefore, was unfulfilled. Our understanding of destiny sees sovereignty in the Land of Israel as a prerequisite for the messianic era. Rashi’s very first comment on the Tora exemplifies this concept. Rashi explores why Genesis begins with the account of creation; after all, he asks, since the Bible is a book of law, should it not begin with the first commandment delineated in Exodus? Rashi emphatically declares No: The Bible commences with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” specifically to establish the principle that if God created the heavens and the earth, then God has the right to give the Land of Israel to whomever he chooses. Accordingly, no nation could later claim that the Jews obtained the Land of Israel in an unwarranted fashion from others.
The State of Israel is unlike any other state. Of course, in a secular sense, it is similar to other states through its standing in international law. But Israel should do more than merely exist as a nation-state: Israel should manifest Judaism’s core ideals and deepest aspirations for humanity. The task of the Jewish people is to perfect the world under the sovereignty of God. The Jewish state should be the instrument—perhaps the most potent instrument—to exemplify that core understanding of Judaism.
To meet this historic task, Israel must be a liberal democracy, one that recognizes the value of pluralism because, as Isaiah Berlin succinctly argued, reality is plural. All values are not equal, but the state has to embrace and recognize a plurality of values. Pluralism does not conflict with the aspiration to embody core Jewish values.
There are those who argue that halacha and democracy do not mix, because halacha is grounded in God’s will, and democracy, by definition, is grounded in the will of the people. To the extent that these do clash, for the purposes of the state, democracy must prevail. Without democracy, Israel cannot fulfill its calling to be a light unto the nations. There is no shortage of states that are not democratic; none of them are moral exemplars. Each has violated humanitarian values.
Israel, furthermore, plays a central role in the struggle for Jewish continuity. Israel is the testing ground of Jewish moral relevance: The only place in the world where Jewish values are applied or ignored. Israel is the only place in the world where Jewish values can be manifested collectively and where Jews have the power to implement Jewish policy. In other places, in the United States for example, Jews may be active in debates, on social and fiscal policy, but the policies that result are not necessarily Jewish policies. In Israel, however, state policy becomes Jewish policy. Whether or not these policies reflect authentic Jewish values is another question. But the State of Israel affords the Jewish people for the first time in two millennia the opportunity to express its collective will and test its values in reality. This challenge will prove absolutely critical to the development of Judaism.
Israel also represents a safe haven, a sanctuary for world Jewry. Within the next ten years, demographers tell us, more Jews will live in Israel than the United States. And within the next generation, more Jews will live in Israel than in the rest of the world combined. For that reason alone, Israel is critical for Jewish continuity. Furthermore, if diaspora communities are to be tied to something beyond themselves, to the Jewish national spirit, then Israel could and should be the center around which the Jewish experience is defined. Given Israel’s centrality to Judaism, those Jewish organizations denied a place at the table in Israel risk losing their vitality and future in the diaspora.
Post-Zionism is a symptom of the struggle to find meaning in Israel. Most Israelis have no outlet in religion for the sort of humanitarian, liberal-democratic spirit which, I believe, is at the foundation of Judaism. The dominant religious element in Israel is, by and large, either militant-nationalist in its political outlook or pre-modern in its Jewish expression. Various segments of Israeli society are thrusting about, seeking relevance beyond the mere market economy, beyond the mere acquisition and purchase of chattel. Secular Jews appalled by Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy see no spiritual outlet within the framework of Jewish tradition. Thus, they devise theories based on the misunderstanding that religion is evil and that, therefore, the focus on Jewish peoplehood in Israel is abhorrent. Were there to be a wider gamut of religious expression in Israel, the phenomenon of post-Zionism would diminish.

R. Ammiel Hirsch is executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union. This article is based on an interview with R. Hirsch.

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