Elyakim Ha’etzni

By Elyakim Ha’etzni

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The chosen people—declared Ben-Gurion, referring to the socialist ideals he brought with him from Europe at the beginning of the century, and applied in forming an etatist regime that was democratic in name only.
The chosen people—declare Reform Jews in the United States and post-Zionists in Israel, meaning the Judaism-on-one-leg of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as understood through a Christian interpretation. Heading their list of “neighbors” are the enemy and the alien. And to express this view politically, they repudiate the Jewish nation-state and transform it into a “state of all its citizens.”
The chosen people—declare the Haredim, referring to the normative self-rule which developed in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. They propose “Rule by Tora” for the state, with no actual belief in its viability, so long as the Messiah has not come and the Temple has not been rebuilt. In short, the state as one grand kehila.
The chosen people—says Aharon Barak’s “enlightened public,” referring to a menu of moderation: A moderate portion of Jewish custom, mixed with extract of mainstream American democracy, a pinch of mild political Zionism, all dipped in petit bourgeois governmental orderliness, European-style.
Presented with these choices, the Jewish people has no idea what is expected of it. Jews make their choices pragmatically, in educating their children, in fashioning their festivals and holidays, in their marriages and divorces, in their responses and votes on issues of land and nation. They weave the great national tapestry knot by knot, without any design for the finished product—which, after all, will be seen only by historians, and then only after the fact.
The rumblings of a cold civil war in Israel make it impossible to formulate even a single vision of the “chosen” state that does not result from a traumatic civil war. See entry: The slaughter at the base of Mount Sinai after the sin of the Golden Calf; the near-annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin in the episode of the concubine at Gibeah; the division of the united monarchy in the time of Rehav’am and Yarov’am; King Ahab’s annihilation of the prophets of God, and Elijah’s destruction of Ba’al’s prophets at Mount Car-mel; Ezra the Scribe’s expulsion of the foreign wives; Maccabees and Hellenists, Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and Sicarii.
After we lost the last remnants of independence, our disagreements about national and religious identity continued but were no longer expressed through force. Agnostics, Christians, Karaites, Sabbateans, Frankists, those who assimilated without converting, all departed from us, each in his own way, a painless kiss of death without drama or friction. This is because in the diaspora there are no national decisions: There, others decide for us. Only in the State of Israel is the struggle over Jewish consciousness and its mission renewed, as a natural result of our regaining independence. In Israel, however, an ideological decision is impossible without a resolution based on force, which itself is liable to lead to destruction. Therefore, we must learn to manage the cultural crisis as we would a chronic disease, one that can be survived only by learning to live with it.
How do you “manage” a crisis? First, by deciding not to decide, by living with the contradictions. Just like the conflict with the Arabs, which only became unbearable with the attempt to impose upon it a “solution” called Oslo. It could have been tolerable if only we had set out a more modest goal, a modus vivendi—not the direct line of a “process” and a “solution,” but a circular path that revisits the same problems time and again, and, under direct and indirect influences, effects incremental change. The democratic context in particular is the ideal arena for crisis management, since it is an open marketplace of ideas.
If the goal in the next fifty years is not “Solutions Now” or a “light unto the nations,” it will be far easier for coming generations to turn to such prosaic tasks as preserving the state, which will continue to be threatened; or to the continuing duty to rescue whomever we can from the torrent of Jewish assimilation in the diaspora; or to the race against time to preserve the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in Israel, which will require government intervention to encourage Jewish families to have more than two children, as did France after the Second World War. In short, the Zionist enterprise will continue.
But we still have not decided which is to be the ideal to rally the people around, to bind them into a nation, to build an economy, to go forth to war, and to withstand international pressures. The lesson of the past is that we cannot rally the people around a message of elitism and “chosenness.” Efforts to condition Zionism upon utopian ends only confused and hindered Zionist achievement: Immigration certificates under the Mandate were withheld from “non-pioneering” elements; even after the establishment of the state, the private sector was dried out and discriminated against; education, health services, labor, defense and the media were all commandeered by “the party”; secularization and regimentation were forced upon the public. The Zionist undertaking was made a laboratory for experimentation in “socialism for our time” and “the world of tomorrow.”
Now that the “light” of equalization and of the brotherhood of peoples has gone dark, the same circles that visited the crisis of socialism upon us are kindling a new illusory flame. In essence the slogans have not changed: “A new world” has become “a new Middle East,” “equality” has become “peace,” the “workers’ paradise” has become enlightened Western liberalism. And all of this is “progress.”
But the first signs of impending failure are already on the horizon: The reputation of the Supreme Court has become increasingly tarnished, the standing of the Justice Ministry has suffered, heretical voices have spoken out against the new secular religion and the misuse of the media in service of a secular-democratic crusade. Clearly, the state can no longer be harnessed to any ideological task beyond the basic Zionist platform: The return of the Jewish people to sovereignty in the Land of Israel—in other words, Jabotinsky’s idea of a “single banner” to unite the Zionist cause.
During the Enlightenment, German Jews on the brink of assimilation used the slogan a “light unto the nations” to define the Jews’ role among non-Jewish peoples, to affirm their place in the diaspora. Indeed, over the course of two centuries, the Jews made amazing contributions to the spiritual and scientific world of the West—until the West extinguished the “light unto the nations” in the crematoria of Auschwitz and on the steppes of Siberia. And even then, there was no end to the insistence upon directing the Zionist enterprise toward cosmopolitan ideals, instead of understanding that the idea of a Jewish “mission” among nations is the antithesis of normalization. Apparently, Messianism is in our blood. Herzl too wanted to establish a great society, outlining his utopian visions in his writings.
We may learn of the danger inherent in such visions from the words of a young media consultant, interviewed recently in Ma’ariv, on the eve of his emigration to the United States: “We are not a light unto any nations, just a group of human beings like any other.” As if in America he will find his “Òlight unto the nations.” Dashed expectations, like false messianism, give birth to disappointment and frustration; “all or nothing” ends in nothing.
Lowering the sights of the Jewish state will also put a stop to the manipulation of such expectations by Israel’s enemies. Attributing a mission to the state created a double standard, the higher standard being the one we were expected to meet. Although our (moral) achievements are no less than those of any Western nation, we have been castigated as power-mongers and fascists, because we have not maintained some exalted ideal of a “chosen people.” An example of this appeared a few months ago in the weekly Makor Rishon, quoting Le Monde Diplomatique:
Is Zionism only a national enterprise? Was it not also intended to be a moral undertaking? The religious minority distances Zionism from its humanist goals: Expelling the Arabs in the War of Independence, the attitude toward immigrants from Arab countries after establishment of the state. Israel will one day be the most awful missed opportunity for the hope of an enlightened, progressive state in the Middle East.
Despite the blatant bias here, the fact is that through our utopianism, we have provided the anvil for the hammer’s blow.
Even from our own perspective, forging the state according to a program of “chosenness” is likely to degenerate from a noble dream into arrogant arbitrariness. In their ideological zeal, totalitarian states dictated Five-Year Plans to push through achievements at any price. The result was fabricated reports, counterfeit medals, hypocrisy, corruption and, in the end, economic, social, moral and political collapse.
The Jewish state must allow itself the freedom and luxury not to excel, not to feel obliged to sit at the head of the class like the Jewish child in exile who had to work harder than the native schoolchildren in order to reach the same place, and thereby often attained excellence. We decided to end this abnormal situation, because excellence of this type carried a price which we were tired of paying. Indeed, if there is some realm in which we excel, we should downplay it, to be able to make our point: Not to be necessarily a brilliant Jewish collective, but a country like all the others, which has no need to showcase its noble-mindedness and astounding achievements in order to earn a “place among the nations”; to end the glaring inconsistency of being castigated, on the one hand, as a state out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and at the same time obligated to turn the other cheek, as if it is the mission of the Jews, of all peoples on earth, to fulfill the lofty, impossible tenets of the New Testament.
This is not to say that we should aspire to mediocrity, or abdicate our desire to reach a high moral level. On the contrary, let a dozen schools of thought, each according to its own philosophy, continue to urge the people of Israel to be “chosen,” as long as no such mission is registered in the state’s official re-cord. A normal country has no need for a program. We should have programs only in those areas where we have not attained normalcy and where we have not yet completed the Zionist enterprise: Ingathering the exiles, liberating parts of our homeland, strengthening the bond with Jews of the diaspora.
The State of Israel is a living organism. As such, it needs no justification for its existence. Its existence is its justification.

Elyakim Ha’etzni is an attorney, publicist and former Member of Knesset, living in Kiryat Arba.

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