Jews and the Challenge of Sovereignty

By Michael B. Oren

Is "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?


Over the past few years, as the Israeli army has become the world’s foremost anti-terrorist fighting force, great numbers of American servicemen and servicewomen have come to Israel to learn from our experi­ence and to apply it in America’s own war on terror. It has been my privi­lege to host many of these officers at my home in Jerusalem—people from Oklahoma and Arkansas and other exotic places, individuals with no prior experience in the Middle East. It is always fascinating to hear their impres­sions of the area and their analyses of both the conflicts in the Middle East and the nature of Middle Eastern societies.
Invariably they home in on one characteristic—the refusal of many Arab leaders, whether they be Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, or Syrians, to take responsibility for their own failures and foibles. Whenever something goes wrong in Arab societies, these Americans observe, it is never these socie­ties’ fault, but instead the fault of the United States or the West or, most commonly, of Israel and the Jews. And this refusal to accept responsibility is the largest single obstacle to America’s efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East—so these officers tell me—because the essence of democracy, of sovereignty and freedom, is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions and decisions.
I listen to them, and I cannot help but agree, but I also cannot help wondering whether Israelis and Jews don’t face similar difficulties in shoul­dering the burdens of statehood. Inevitably, I find myself thinking back to the eve of Israel’s independence, to May 14, 1948, when one man had to grapple with the question of whether the Jews, after generations of power­lessness, could learn to act as sovereigns in their own state—whether they could live up to the challenges of independence.
That man was the leader of the Zionist movement, the soon-to-be prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. On that day, Ben-Gurion sat in his liv­ing room and watched while outside in the street, the Jews of Palestine were dancing. They were dancing because they were about to realize what was one of the most remarkable and inspiring achievements in human history: A people which had been exiled from its homeland two thousand years before, which had endured countless pogroms, expulsions, and persecutions, but which had refused to relinquish its identity—which had, on the contrary, substantially strengthened that identity; a people which only a few years before had been the victim of mankind’s largest single act of mass murder, killing a third of the world’s Jews, that people was returning home as sover­eign citizens in their own independent state.
And so they danced, filling the streets; but Ben-Gurion wasn’t dancing. Instead he sat alone and wrote in his diary about his fears, confiding doubts about the Jews’ ability to withstand the onslaught of the combined Arab armies, and about the world’s willingness to accept a permanent Jewish state. He wondered whether the Zionist vision of a normal state, a state like all others, could be reconciled with a Jewish state that aspired to be a light unto the nations. Most disconcertingly, he questioned whether a people so long accustomed to being the victims of sovereign power could suddenly turn around and judiciously wield it—whether they could, in fact, take responsibility for themselves.
Formerly David Green, Ben-Gurion, like many Zionist leaders of his generation—Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan—had Hebraized his name in order to establish a direct link between the dynamic Zionist present and Israel’s heroic past, skipping over the millennia of Jewish powerless­ness. Yet he knew that such leapfrogging was not really possible. The Jews, Ben-Gurion knew, had problems with power.

Those problems are already discernible in the Bible—with the serious reservations regarding kingship raised by the Prophets, and with the unstable and often violent relationships between monarchs and priests dur­ing the period of the Temples. The problems multiplied a thousand fold, however, with the destruction of the Second Temple and the annihilation of the Jewish commonwealth in biblical Israel.
Shorn of sovereignty, the Jews developed a cult of powerlessness, which many deemed a form of divine punishment for their sins and which devel­oped, in time, into an actual repugnance toward power. If the Bible was clear about whom it considered the hero—Joshua conquering Canaanite cities, Gideon smiting Midianites, Samson wielding a jawbone like an axe—the Talmud, written mostly by Jews lacking sovereign political power, was far less categorical. “Who is the hero?” asks the Mishna. Not King David dancing as he escorts the ark to liberated Jerusalem, not Judah Maccabee and the Has­moneans defeating the Greeks and rededicating the Temple; no, the hero is “the man who conquers his own passions.” Losing sovereignty, the Jews fled in ward from the fields of politics and battle—into their communities, into their synagogues, and into themselves.
To be sure, this retreat had its ameliorative rewards, enabling Jews to attain a heightened sense of spirituality and morality. But doing so came at the price of increasing alienation from temporal matters—from responsibil­ity for themselves not only as individuals but also as a nation. True, Jews might provide shelter to banished co-religionists, or pay their ransoms— “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh—all Jews are responsible for one another,” the famous rabbinic teaching has it—but how often did those Jews build a city and elect officials to govern it? How often could they, or would they, make the most basic sovereign decision to defend themselves? In much of rabbinic thinking, political power is profane, mundane, and dangerous. May God bless and keep the czar far away from us, Tevye prays.
In its most extreme form, the Jewish revulsion towards power becomes a total prohibition of power, and any attempted exercise of sovereignty becomes in effect a challenge to God’s omnipotence—in other words, blas­phemy. Blasphemy, desecration, hilul, are precisely the words applied by parts of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi world to Zionism, which in its view is an abominable attempt to arrogate God’s exclusive purview—to end Jewish exile and reinvest the Jewish people with power. Even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the most influential figure in religious Zionism, questioned whether Jews could or should act as wolves, for states, Kook said, were by nature wolf-like.

In modernity, however, the ever-inventive Jewish people came up with an­other answer to the problem of power: Not turning inward, but—as soon as the Emancipation and the fall of the ghetto walls allowed it—by bursting out through assimilation. Thus, beginning in the nineteenth century, Jews could become powerful—they could become a Benjamin Disraeli or a Fer­dinand Lasalle—but as Englishmen and Germans, not as Jews; in spite of their Jewishness, and usually at its expense.
It has often been remarked that perhaps the one thing ultra-Orthodox and assimilated Jews agreed upon early in the last century was a staunch opposition to Zionism: The Orthodox because it claimed that Zionism as­pired to play God and redeem the Jewish nation; the highly assimilated Jews because they denied that the Jews were a nation at all. Ultra-Orthodox and assimilated Jews would reunite tragically on the train to Auschwitz, the final destination on the 2,000-year-long path of Jewish powerlessness. The Nazis sent them there claiming, paradoxically, that Jews wielded too much power.
Though American Jewry would later explain the Holocaust as the prod­uct of an absence of toleration and universal values, the Zionist interpreta­tion of the Holocaust has always been that six million Jews died because they lacked an army, a state—power.
But for the 600,000 Jews in Israel in 1948, facing six Arab armies pre­paring to invade the nascent state, the question of whether Jewish power was necessary was moot. Without power, the citizens of the new state would die—not only spiritually, but physically.
Yet, as Ben-Gurion realized, knowing this and acting on it were not synonymous. He understood that the transformation from a people recoiling from power to a people capable of embracing it would be the single great­est challenge facing Israel. “We must adopt a new approach, new habits of mind,” he told listeners shortly before the state’s founding. “We must learn to think like a state.”
He even coined a Hebrew word for that challenge, mamlachtiyut,a ne­ologism which eludes English equivalents but which roughly translates as “acting in a sovereign-like manner.” By mamlachtiyut, Ben-Gurion meant the Jews’ ability to handle power—military power as well as democratic and po­litical power—effectively, justly, responsibly. The Jews of Israel, Ben-Gurion knew, might succeed in repelling Arab armies, in absorbing many times their number of new immigrants, and in creating world-class governmental and cultural institutions, but without mamlachtiyut, without the ability to deal with power and take responsibility for its ramifications, they could not ultimately survive.
The newborn state did in fact repel the invaders and establish its inde­pendence. Yet not all of the threats to Israel’s existence emanated from the Arabs. In the summer of 1948, at the height of the fighting, Ben-Gurion faced a challenge from the Revisionist Zionists, led by Menachem Begin, who balked at following orders from the provisional authorities. Ben-Gurion told Begin that a sovereign state has one government and one army, and when Begin tried to bring a ship, the Altalena, into Israel bearing arms for his own militia, Ben-Gurion ordered the vessel sunk. Later, Ben-Gurion would also meet a challenge to his democratically endowed authority from the Left, from the kibbutz-based military force known as the Palmah, which he ordered disbanded.

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