Zionism's New Challenge

By Assaf Inbari

Why we need a Jewish melting pot.

Yeshayahu (Isaiah) Leibowitz, another religious Zionist, began to publish articles in the 1930s that called for a halachic renewal. “The religious problem in Israel has never been addressed. It will remain so until the rejuvenation of halacha, based on principles that are immanent in its very own nature, intended for a nation in its homeland-such that religion will seem a completely realistic way of life for the nation and the State of Israel.”13 So he wrote in 1953, at the age of fifty, when he was still a member of Hapoel Hamizrahi (the Mizrahi Labor Federation, later part of the National Religious party). Several months later, however, a single event would radically transform his worldview.
On October 14, 1953, an elite Israeli commando unit led by a young Ariel Sharon attacked the West Bank village of Qibya in retaliation for the murder of three Israelis in the town of Yehud several days before. A number of buildings were destroyed and sixty-nine residents were killed in the incursion. Leibowitz was outraged. In response, he published the first of what would be forty years’ worth of articles, all arguing that the State of Israel was morally corrupt, because it had exploited “the religious concept of holiness to further social, national, and political agendas and values.”14
Operation Kadesh in 1956 only strengthened these views. But it was the Six Day War that finally solidified Leibowitz’s aversion to any exultation of nation, land, and state. He railed against Israel’s occupation of the territories, lambasted the mass prayers at the Western Wall, and demanded the separation of religion and state.15 It is almost entirely for these views that he is remembered today. Indeed, very few people recall Leibowitz’s earlier, opposing convictions. So let us now remember: Until his fiftieth year-that is, until Qibya-Leibowitz advocated a state that would manifest the values of Judaism. He sought the renewal of halacha “for a nation in its state.”16
Why did Isaiah II make a greater impact than Isaiah I? Why does every educated person in Israel know about the elderly Leibowitz’s call for the separation of religion and state, and so few about the opposite, and equally passionate, stance taken by the younger Leibowitz?
The answer is simple: To supporters of the status quo, Leibowitz’s call for the separation of religion and state was music to their ears. In his aggressive, “radical” style, the elder Leibowitz gave the secular a free pass to unburden themselves of Judaism, and the Haredim a free pass to unburden themselves of citizenship. When he spoke about the occupation, Leibowitz was controversial; when he spoke about Judaism, he merely expressed the view of the majority-and in so doing, was controversial only insofar as he tended to yell.
Indeed, we may ask, what exactly was his innovation, and whom exactly did he challenge, when he reduced the Tora to its diaspora proportions? When he claimed, for example, that observing the halacha was a matter between man and God, or between man and his fellow? This had been the Haredim’s position all along, and the reason why all of us, secular and religious alike, feel justified in our estrangement from each other and our lack of motivation to alter the status quo.
To be sure, Leibowitz was both innovative and challenging when he campaigned for the creation of a Jewish state on the basis of a revitalized, Zionist halacha. Unfortunately, this stance won him little recognition: A small audience at Hakibbutz Hadati (the national religious movement’s kibbutzim) and a few polite listeners at Hapoel Hamizrahi assemblies. But outside this narrow group of moderate religious Zionists, his views held no weight. Most Israelis, if not all of them, were content to uphold the status quo.
This was the fate of Rabbi Kook’s halachic vision as well. As we know, religious Zionism never rose to his challenge of halachic renewal. In fact, the reverse came to pass: Religious Zionism has become more and more Haredi. Today’s gedolim (revered rabbis whose views are generally considered authoritative in religious communities) are unquestionably Haredim. This is not surprising: Rabbi Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, was the spiritual father of Gush Emunim. He thus provided national religious youth with the perfect alibi for evading his father’s call to renew and revive the halacha: The settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. His students fled to the hills beyond the Green Line and proceeded, for the next three decades, to deceive themselves. For there is no religious challenge, no halachic boldness, and no contribution to nation-building to be had in the settlement movement. If anything, the opposite is true: The settlers have made a great contribution to the nation’s coming undone.
Bialik, Katznelson, the elder Rabbi Kook, the young Leibowitz, Martin Buber, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon, Dov Sadan, Gershom Scholem-all of these Zionist thinkers sought to forge an Israeli national identity grounded in Judaism. They were all admired in their lifetimes and remembered long after their deaths, but the level of practical influence their ideas have had is negligible. Yes, there are streets named after them. There are prizes in their honor, and symposiums in their memory. But none of them put pen to paper in hopes of being designated a thoroughfare. They wrote in order to create a shared culture and a joint destiny for the Jewish people. They believed that a common fate and a past of shared troubles were not enough to bring about an ingathering of exiles. They may be enough to maintain a feeling of camaraderie among the world’s scattered Jewish communities, but this camaraderie-particularly if it is based solely on memories of persecution and victimhood-is not a strong enough foundation on which to build a life together in the same country.
After two thousand years of exile, the Jews who have come together to live in a sovereign state will become a single nation only when they are able to define positive aspirations for it, around which both secular and religious can unite. This was the working assumption of the above-mentioned thinkers. Unfortunately, they did not capture the hearts and minds of the nation. David Ben-Gurion did.
Ben-Gurion’s melting pot was fashioned from myths, symbols, memorials, songs, military parades, marches to Tel Hai and Masada, coins engraved with the seven species of the land of Israel, speeches, youth movements, air force expositions, sandals, kibbutz-style hats, national sports teams, national workers’ unions, national building projects, special IDF units, classic children’s stories, Independence Day celebrations, and hourly Voice of Israel newsflashes from Jerusalem.
To Sephardi Jews, who immigrated to Israel en masse in the 1950s, this particular brand of “Hebrewness” was far too narrow and constricting. Nor were they the only group to be hurt by Ben-Gurion’s model of nationalism. Literary critic Nissim Calderon notes that “[The Ashkenazi sabra] was strongly compelled to conform to the stereotype of himself, to measure up against an untainted icon.”17 No, Ben-Gurion’s melting pot was not “oppressive.” It was not evil in intent. But it was misguided.
And yet, even a misguided enterprise can have some redeeming value. After all, the sabra embodied many impressive qualities: Friendship, loyalty, simplicity, resourcefulness, courage, self-sacrifice, patriotism. The new Jew was created, to use Amos Oz’s popular expression, “under this blazing light,” and indeed, this light, the azure skies of the Promised Land, was the right backdrop for such a creation after so many generations of timid life in the eastern European darkness. But the sabra image was sectarian, and proved to be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it was essential to the establishment of the state. On the other, it ensured that the state would not be a Jewish one.
As the years went by, still more symbols and icons were added to the pile. The elite Unit 101’s daring Meir Har-Tzion. The songwriter Naomi Shemer. Ammunition Hill. Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin marching through the newly liberated Old City. The spy Eli Cohen in Damascus. The smiling Yossi Ben-Hanan, holding his rifle aloft in the Suez Canal. Paratroopers at the Western Wall. Ariel Sharon’s blood-stained bandage. The Yom Kippur War’s “Tzvika Brigade.” The Munich massacre. Yoni Netanyahu at Entebbe. Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Surely, the Maccabi phenomenon deserves an article in itself. For only Israelis could delude themselves into believing that Maccabi-a basketball team comprised mainly of foreign players-is in fact “the nation’s team.” Indeed, the obsession with Maccabi epitomizes the synthetic aspect of Israeli identity, which offers no end of compelling symbols around which to rally-all of them empty substitutes for Judaism.

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