Yoram Hazony

By Yoram Hazony

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Dogmatism is a condition of mind in which essential practical concepts are perceived with such clarity that only one possible interpretation of reality exists. In such a case, all evidence suggesting contrary interpretations—and therefore alternate courses of action—simply disappears from sight, indeed is inconceivable. But there also exists an opposite condition, one of conceptual decadence, in which a central concept is perceived so dimly, with such feebleness, that even its adherents can no longer grasp it amid the din of competing facts and concepts springing out of the fabric of reality.
It is well known that the dogmatist—regardless of his particular faith or persuasion—is capable of sustaining protracted, consistent, and even fanatical activity on behalf of his idea—precisely because he can see it so well; precisely because, to his mind, the idea never falters, or changes form, or disappears from sight. But the decadent, even when he professes loyalty to the very same idea as the dogmatist, sees his concept so poorly that it is never clear to him what it entails, either in terms of thought or action; thus he is forever confusing it and superseding it with other concepts, never quite aware when he has accidentally eroded some peripheral aspect, nor even when he has succeeded in inadvertently demolishing its essence. It goes without saying that the decadent is incapable of protracted and consistent efforts on behalf of his idea; the concept in his head is in such a state of dissolution that when he tries to apply it, half the time he ends up shooting at his own forces.
The concept of the Jewish state, once a matter of dogma among Jews and their friends, has now reached a condition of decadence. For Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist Organization, it was a matter of course that the Jewish state would be the political “guardian of the Jews,” that it would serve as a homeland open to every Jew the world over, and that its essential legal and philosophical basis must be in the establishment of a Jewish sovereignty: “Let sovereignty be granted us on a portion of the earth’s surface large enough to satisfy the requirements of the nation,” he wrote in The Jewish State, “and we shall do the rest.” Similarly, David Ben-Gurion and the authors of the Israeli Declaration of Independence spoke for a consensus of Jewish opinion when they declared the essence of the new state of Israel to be Jewish sovereignty—redeeming the “right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate É in their own sovereign state.” Certainly, all of the important Jewish nationalist leaders recognized the need to ensure that non-Jews would not be unfairly treated in the Jewish state. But their central concern was—as it should have been—the creation of a Jewish state power which would be used in the service of the needs of the Jewish people. 
Yet since the end of Ben-Gurion’s leadership of Israel in 1963, the concept of the Jewish state has gradually receded into the background, and the Jewish world has moved on to other matters, which have seemed more pressing: Israeli Jews have come to think of their personal political identity almost exclusively in terms of their views regarding Israel’s physical, territorial dimension. American Jews have similarly tended to define themselves in terms of their own particular obsession: The political feud between Orthodoxy and Reform, almost comically transformed into an “Israeli” issue through a remote-control political struggle over whether the Israeli bureaucracy will or will not endorse the validity of Reform Jewish conversions. 
The obvious reason for this “moving on” to other issues was the widespread sense that the Jewish state had gained a concrete, positive and final existence in the immediate years after independence, or at least after the victory of the Six Day War in 1967. Yet this premature sense of closure has been disastrous for the idea of the Jewish state. Israel was at birth led by individuals who, heroic though they were, lacked any tradition of the operation of a state—much less a Jewish state—which could serve to anchor and deepen the concept of the state in their minds. The Labor Zionism which brought the state into being was particularly removed from political philosophy, constitutional thought and other traditions of ideas which might have assisted in defining the Jewish state and stabilizing it. And in the five decades since independence, the concept of the Jewish state has received almost no further elaboration and development: In Israeli universities, the tone has been set by Kantian political and moral theories which leave no room for the national or religious particularism of a Jewish state; virtually nothing has been done to systematically develop the idea of a Jewish constitution, with the result that Israel’s legal system has lurched ever closer to the idea of a “neutral” post-Jewish regime; and many leading Jewish cultural figures have thrown their weight into the unceasing struggle to delegitimize—rather than to deepen—the concept of the Jewish state itself in the public mind. (Israel’s most prominent novelist, Amos Oz: “A state cannot be Jewish, just as a chair or a bus cannot be Jewish…. The state is no more than a tool…. The concept of a ‘Jewish state’ is nothing other than a snare.”)
More than thirty years of obsessive Jewish entanglement in arguments over the West Bank, the PLO and “Who is a Jew”—combined with the almost total disinterest in the problem of developing a conception and a tradition of Jewish national sovereignty—have thus brought the idea of the Jewish state to the verge of complete decadence. This situation has expressed itself in the “post-Zionist” project of deconstructing the historical, political and religious beliefs that have held the idea of the Jewish state together—a project in which hundreds of Israeli academics, writers, artists and politicians have lent a hand, and which has now spread to Jewish academics in the diaspora as well.
But the surest sign of the decadence of the concept of the Jewish state is the fact that even some of the most outspoken critics of post-Zionism have themselves joined the ranks of those working to undermine the idea of Jewish national sovereignty. One of the more striking examples is former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, who has been so angered by the rise of post-Zionism among Israeli academics that his new book, From Herzl to Rabin and Beyond, devotes no fewer than eighty pages to rebutting their arguments. And yet at the same time, Rubinstein has himself publicly advocated the dissolution of Jewish sovereignty in Israel through the immurement of the state in the European Union, and the subjugation of all of Israel’s laws to the decisions of the European High Court. Similarly telling is the recent attempt by Eliezer Schweid of Hebrew University—widely held to be one of Israel’s most important Zionist thinkers—to devise a new Zionism suited to contemporary Israel. This effort leads him to propose a “universal Zionism” which would add to the Israeli flag “a symbol that will represent the participation of the Arab minority”—a crescent moon, perhaps?—and which would compose a new national anthem “that will express the Zionist purpose on a universal level: Loyalty to the Land of Israel, to Jerusalem and to the State of Israel as symbols which express the hope of redemption, brotherhood and peace for all who are called by the name ‘Israel’ and among all peoples. Such an anthem could unite all the citizens of the state, even though each one of them would use it to express his own national or religious identity….”
And Rubinstein and Schweid are the defenders of the idea of the Jewish state. As I say, this idea is in such a state of dissolution in the minds of its adherents that when they try to apply it—to simple questions such as “Should Germany, France and Britain have the authority to strike down Israeli legislation?” or “Should the flag of Israel have a crescent moon added to it?”—half the time they end up shooting at their own forces.
This same conceptual decadence cannot, unfortunately, be said to characterize the camp of the post-Zionists. They have a clearly defined agenda which has proved comprehensible to virtually everyone: The renunciation of the concept of the Jewish state, and the reconstruction of Israel as a Kantian “state of its citizens” without any particularistic national or religious attributes; without any formal or informal interest in the well-being of the Jewish people; and without constitutional legitimacy for political, military, or cultural policies taken on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole—up to and including the repeal of the Law of Return and the relegation of diaspora Jews to the status of “foreigners” in the Land of Israel. As Yaron London, one of Israel’s most distinguished commentators in the print and broadcast media has written of the Law of Return: “This law is a symbol, the last redoubt of the outdated ideas [of Zionism]. Symbols live on even after that which they represent has itself passed away…. Such is the Law of Return…. Our citizenship laws need to serve us, the Israelis—religious and secular, Arabs and Jews…—and not the Jews of the diaspora.”
As in every case in which a clear, cogent idea is locked in combat with an idea so decayed that it continues to exist in name only, the idea of the Jewish state has been in virtually unbroken retreat now for decades.
It is important that we not mislead ourselves as to where we are headed. The decayed idea of the Jewish state will be restored in the coming years—that is, it will be critiqued, rebuilt, and refined by its advocates, until it is a clear, cogent idea that can be grasped and defended and transformed into a living tradition of government; or else the Jewish state will, as Franz Rosenzweig predicted, simply disappear, leaving in its place yet another irrelevant Bulgaria or Montenegro on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The time has come for a change in the direction of Jewish public discussion, both in Israel and in the diaspora. We must admit that the arguments which have absorbed our attention these last thirty years have been overtaken by events; indeed, in comparison to the looming dissolution of the Jewish state at the hands of its own intellectual and political leadership, they are irrelevant. For what possible difference does it make whether or not the Israeli bureaucracy recognizes Reform Jewish converts as Jews for the purposes of citizenship under the Law of Return—if a few years from now there isn’t going to be a Law of Return? (Hanoch Marmari, editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, Israel’s most prestigious daily, has launched a crusade to name 2023 as the year of its repeal.) And what possible difference does it make whether it is the sovereignty of one state or another that ultimately holds sway in places of great Jewish significance such as Hebron or the Old City of Jerusalem—if a few years from now there isn’t going to be a Jewish state, whose mission is to protect the interests and dreams of the Jewish people, in such places or anywhere else?
If we reason to the root of the issues which preoccupy our political agenda, we will discover that all of them are relevant to us only because there exists a Jewish state, whose authority and power can be wielded in ways that are more to our liking, or less so. But if the Jewish state is to be dismantled, then all of the great “issues” on which we have spent our time for a generation will evaporate as though they (and we) had never been.
Let us return our attention to fundamentals: Today the material basis of the Jewish state—its armed forces, its economy—is probably more solid than at any time since the founding of the Zionist movement a century ago. But the idea of the Jewish state has never been more confused, incoherent, uninspiring and vulnerable to complete erasure from the map of our world. And without this idea, the material basis for this state might as well be a butterfly in the glass box of a sovereign Europe—where the post-Jewish state will, if fortune shines upon it, in fact be.

Dr. Yoram Hazony is director of The Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

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