Hillel Fradkin

By Hillel Fradkin

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“Does the Jewish people really have a right to be ‘master of its own fate in its own sovereign state’?” How extraordinary and even bizarre that it would appear necessary to address this question at this time. After all, no one can seriously dispute that the claim of the Jewish people to be a nation is the most ancient the world knows. Of course, in the modern world, antiquity may have lost its power to confer right, especially on the notion of nationhood. According to a certain view, modern universalism renders illegitimate all such rights, however ancient. Nevertheless, the past two centuries have been witness to the birth or rebirth of many nation-states. Since 1989 and the collapse of communism, still more nation-states have come into being. It has become clear through the accumulation of modern experience that the past, and especially the national past, exerts very strong claims upon us. If the exercise of these claims has not been an altogether happy experience, neither has been the pursuit of the most radical forms of universalism and their utopian fantasies. There is no reason to believe that the Middle East, wherein Israel resides, is exempt from this lesson of history. Indeed, there are many reasons to believe that it is as wedded to the past as any other region of the world. What, after all, was the meaning of the Iranian Revolution of 1979? What is the meaning of the many groups which have sprung up in this region to overthrow “modern” regimes in the name of the Islamic past?
This is, of course, to put the matter grimly. It deserves to be put grimly, at least at first. In our century, the world and especially the Jewish people have suffered quite enough from the indulgence of utopian fantasies.
Happily, the matter need not be regarded only from a grim perspective, especially at this time, a time when we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel and the hundredth anniversary of Zionism. Indeed, if there is a utopian fantasy of this century which deserves our admiration and respect, it is the Zionist fantasy. For not only did it succeed where so many other utopian endeavors failed, it produced a state which is decent, just and even noble, and in circumstances which made all three qualities unlikely. This is a second, more positive respect which renders our question extraordinary.
The failure to appreciate this, which presents itself as a form of moral righteousness, is actually a species of moral obtuseness. The damage this does to Israel is all too obvious. But it is damaging to our world generally as well. The fact is that the nation-state is likely to be with us for a good long time. This is a testament to the pull of the past, but not only. For the nation-state is by and large a modern creation, an attempt by modern man to reconcile the universal and the particular, and therewith the modern and the ancient. Again, this attempt has often been unsuccessful and, worse still, even monstrous.
Under such circumstances, what the world urgently requires is the lessons of its successes, among which Israel stands in the forefront. Perhaps this should not be too surprising. Not only does Israel partake of the blessings of modern democratic life. It also has its roots in the experience of the Jewish people and above all Jewish faith. That faith from the beginning embodied the combination of the universal and particular—the universality of God as the creator of all men in his image, and the particularity of the Jewish people, the descendants of a particular family, the family of Abraham. This fact is often regarded as simply paradoxical and as such an embarrassment. Perhaps so; but it seems to be an embarrassment in which we are all entangled, and in which we will remain entangled. On the one hand, it is true that we all share in a common humanity and as such owe respect to other men. On the other hand, we live our lives largely in association with a particular group of people and owe them special concern and loyalty. The paradox this represents can only be resolved by our ceasing to be human beings altogether.
In such circumstances, the lengthy and positive experience of the Jewish people and its state in addressing this paradox deserves to be appreciated both by its own citizens and by others. It also deserves to be studied for such guidance as it may offer. The best modern solution to this question has been a state at the same time national, democratic and liberal, in the sense of preserving the liberties of all. For the first fifty years of its existence, Israel has been such a state. Of course, it is to be hoped that it will remain so for its next fifty, and long after.
No doubt there are problems that need to be addressed. Israel’s democratic promise will remain partially unfulfilled so long as its electoral and economic systems remain unreformed. These features of Israeli life, the result of well-intentioned but abstract egalitarianism, have ironically concentrated power undemocratically in too few hands. This circumstance requires the most urgent attention. Israel also needs to address its current arrangements for the relationship between its religious institutions and political and social life. As indicated above, our ancient Jewish faith offers a profound basis for addressing the paradox of human life. Israel should have the benefit of religious vitality. But the blessings of that vitality are often vitiated by its current ecclesiastical struggles, which sometimes involve interests more bureaucratic than pious. Moreover they are all too often conducted in a spirit which lacks the humility and generosity which the Tora declares are our duty, and of which it gives us an eternal example in the life of Moses. It is particularly important that efforts to live up to that example prosper for both ourselves and others. For now we live in an era which is often described as “post-modern.” What this means, exactly, is a matter of much dispute. However, at the core of it is the weakening of the legitimacy of modern universal principles and the increased legitimacy of particular attachments. For reasons indicated above, Israel’s character as a Jewish state is a unique asset in these circumstances, both for Jews and others. But for that asset to be fruitful, the Jewish aspect of Israel must be thoughtful, healthy and decent.
In ancient times and at important junctures in the history of the Jewish polity, the Jewish people were reproved not for being a nation, but for wanting to be a nation like all the other nations. Our duty was to be a light to other nations. The fulfillment of this obligation was meant to confirm the Tora’s assertion that through the blessing of Abraham, all families and nations of the earth would be blessed. This is a great burden and requires a host of virtues, among them courage, wisdom and determination. In our long history, we have not always been up to this burden. But for fifty years the State of Israel has. Should it continue to be so, it would fulfill the ancient verse: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Psalms 118:22)

Dr. Hillel Fradkin is associate director of The Shalem Center, and director of the Center’s Washington office.

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