Zionism's New Challenge

By Assaf Inbari

Why we need a Jewish melting pot.

Israel is home to three Jewish nations:1 The secular, the Haredi, and the national religious, all of whom are called “Israelis.” Zionism has failed to mold them into one people. The fashionable response to this failure is to dismiss the melting pot idea in favor of “multi-culturalism.” This is the liberal model, the “live and let live” approach. In theory, it is wonderfully enlightened. In reality, it is lethal to Zionism.
There is a name written on the post-Zionist punching bag: David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s first prime minister is the villain of the post-Zionist narrative: It was he, after all, who tried to force the melting pot on the young state’s immigrant ethnic groups. Fortunately, declare the post-Zionists, his scheme of ethnic oppression never stood a chance. They consider cultural assimilation of any kind “oppressive,” because the very idea of nationalism is utterly foreign to them.
“Identity,” to their way of thinking, is citizenship. The “state” is a civil, and not a national, entity. Hence, they are not Zionists: They recognize the cultures of communities, not nations, and are allergic to the term Am Yisrael (“Nation of Israel”). They see anyone who speaks of Am Yisrael as “right-wing,” “nationalist,” even “fascist.” Enlightened Israelis such as themselves would never say Am Yisrael. Rather, they say “Israelis.” “I am an Israeli.”
A Jewish Israeli? An Arab Israeli? Secular, Haredi, or national religious? “What difference does it make?” reply the multi-culturalists. “Your nationality, your religion, your denomination-they define only your community affiliation. As the citizen of a state, your citizenship is your identity. A Can-adian is Canadian, and you are an Israeli.”
Thus do the multi-culturalists rejoice at the breakdown of society into discrete cultural enclaves. They like to break down, to deconstruct. Ben-Gurion liked to build up, to construct. But building, apparently, is “oppressive.” They forget, it would seem, that “a society in danger of actual collapse cannot afford the luxury of cultivating its diversity, especially not at a time when the little its various groups have in common is heading towards extinction,” as Israeli author and social commentator Gadi Taub once observed.2
To be sure, Ben-Gurion did fail to build a nation. But he failed not because he tried to build a nation. He failed, rather, because he tried to build an artificial nation. Because there is no “Israeli” nation. There is only a Jewish nation. And it was this nation that required a melting pot. But Ben-Gurion, who did not understand this, focused his efforts on creating an empty alternative.
Because of his intense hatred of diaspora Judaism, Ben-Gurion failed to grasp the difference between a melting pot that negates the exile, and a melting pot that negates Judaism. This was his great mistake. He should have recognized that the purpose of Zionism-beyond its basic Herzlian goals-was the creation, in Israel, of a Jewish identity untainted by exile. He should have understood that Israel is the state of the Jews, and not of the “Hebrews.”
The term “Hebrewness” had three very distinct meanings in the pre-state era. Ben-Gurion sought to erase Jewish identity in order to revive a biblical “Hebrewness.”3 The poet Yonatan Ratosh, on the other hand, sought to erase Jewish identity in order to revive a Canaanite “Hebrewness.”4 And Haim Nahman Bialik advocated a “Hebrew culture” that would include the entire Hebrew-Jewish continuum, from the Bible, Midrash, Mishna, and Talmud to the Hebrew poetry of Spain’s golden age, through Rabbi Moses Haim Luzzatto’s dramatic verse and up to the literature of the Haskala and the modern Hebrew revival. To Bialik, Hebrew culture should not be based on the denial of two thousand years of Jewish life. Rather, it should grant Judaism the fullness that it had lacked during two thousand years of exile. “Our brothers in the diaspora want to see here, among us, what life in exile denies them-culturally, spiritually, and morally,” he observed in 1926.5 Bialik saw the return of the Jewish people from its dispersion, its reconnection to its homeland, and the revival of its language as the redemption of Judaism, not some pre-Jewish, “Hebrew” identity. He hoped that Judaism, at long last, would cease to be a fossilized religion and instead become a living culture.6
In the end, Ratosh’s call for a Semitic, land-based identity entranced a mere handful of young radicals. Bialik’s “Hebrew culture,” on the other hand, found a great many supporters. But it was Ben-Gurion’s biblical “Hebrewness” that eventually became the state’s official cultural ethos. No doubt, this ideal was perfect for a certain type of Israeli, “salt of the earth” sabras like Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, and Yitzhak Rabin. As the basis for a national identity, however, it was absurd. The majority of Israelis were not raised on farms. They did not ride horses or drive jeeps. Most came from traditional Jewish communities, and defined themselves as Jewish traditionalists. In fact, they still do: In 1993, Israel’s Guttman Center of Applied Social Research conducted a survey on faith and observance among Israeli Jews. Results showed that a full 55 percent of respondents believe that the Tora was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, with only 14 percent professing not to believe it at all. Furthermore, 71 percent said they “always” fast on Yom Kippur.7
It is hardly surprising, then, that Ben-Gurion’s “Hebrew” melting pot was, in truth, no melting pot at all. He made no attempt to bridge the differences between the secular and religious by proposing a shared national identity. Rather, he proposed an estranged co-existence. He attempted to preserve the status quo, one that served as a refuge from a Zionist challenge that intimidated everyone, secular and religious alike. The secular feared Judaism, and the religious feared modernity. But above all, they feared each other. They were afraid to meet, to talk, to enrich each other and become enriched, and to create, in time, a truly multi-dimensional culture.
Multi-dimensional, not multi-cultural. Ben-Gurion’s “Hebrewness” was one-dimensional. Secular and Ashkenazi, it was an “Israeli” identity that excluded the majority of Israelis. Precisely because of this, it gave birth to multi-culturalism. It encouraged every sub-group to curl up inside itself. Now, had it been multi-dimensional-had it been Jewish-it would not have been simply the status quo masquerading as a melting pot. I am Haredi, you are secular, and she is a religious Zionist from Beit-El. This is what Ben-Gurion’s “Hebrewness” gave us. We do not learn in the same schools, eat in the same places, or walk the same streets. We do not live with each other, but alongside each another. Sheltered by the status quo, we successfully avoid one another, and speak of each other with ignorance and disdain. “The status quo,” writes professor of Jewish thought Aviezer Ravitzky, “is predicated on the false assumption on both sides of the divide that the other camp will eventually dwindle, be quashed, or perhaps even disappear altogether.”8
We were always too busy, we secular and religious Jews, with things we judged far more urgent than meeting each other. There was national security, in spades; there was the absorption of waves of new immigrants; there was the need to build the infrastructure to support and sustain the state; there were borders to argue over; there were budgets to dispute. All these were, and continue to be, of extreme importance. Yet lost in the shuffle was perhaps the most important issue of all: The question of national identity.
In 1940, the Zionist leader Berl Katznelson lamented that, “For many, many of those coming to us-or being brought to our shores from afar and even from nearby (and, I fear, for a not insignificant number of their children, raised or even born here)-this place has still not become a home. Our educational responsibility is to make this land, and the world of the spirit from which it sprang, into a home that the soul embraces.”9 But how could these shores become a Jewish home without Judaism? Note that Katznelson feared not only for those “brought to our shores from afar,” but also for their children, “raised or even born here”-that is, for the sun-baked sabras: Ben-Gurion’s ideal of “Hebrewness.” A home needs a foundation. A Jewish home needs a Jewish foundation. It is not enough merely to love one’s homeland. “The world of the spirit from which it sprang”-that is, Judaism-is also necessary.
Katznelson, like Bialik, addressed a secular public estranged from Judaism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, addressed a religious public that had rejected the Zionist enterprise. “The expectation of salvation is the force that preserved exilic Judaism,” he wrote in 1920, “the Judaism of the land of Israel is salvation itself.”10 In other words: Come out from exile, and take the exile out of your hearts. “The real life of sanctity in Judaism,” he continued, “cannot be revealed other than by the people’s return to its land, which is the way paved for its renaissance.”11 That is, the return to Zion is not in and of itself the desired renewal, but merely a means to achieve it. The true renewal, Rabbi Kook believed, was the revival of Judaism: “All the sublimity in its soul and heart’s vision will rise to life in proportion to the place occupied by the practical foundation to revive the fainting vision [of diaspora Judaism].”12 To Rabbi Kook, the “practical foundation” was the revitalization of halacha. The ghettoized, community-based halacha of Israel’s immigrants from the diaspora was rendered obsolete by the Jewish nation’s return to its homeland. Rabbi Kook sought a Zionist halacha.

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