Widely cited on matters pertaining to Israel, Dr. Daniel Gordis has been called “one of Israel’s most thoughtful observers.” It is a task he does not take lightly. Throughout his career, Dr. Gordis has tirelessly observed, written and lectured on Israeli society and the challenges the Jewish state faces. His writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, Moment, Tikkun, Azure, Commentary Magazine, Foreign Affairs and Conservative Judaism.
Today, Dr. Gordis is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. A prolific writer, The Promise of Israel is his ninth book. In 2009, his book Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End received the National Jewish Book Award. His biography on former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is scheduled for release in 2014. Gordis continues to be a much sought after speaker, traveling around the world to speak on the Jewish state and the challenges to Israeli society. In addition, he regularly blogs Dispatches from an Anxious State. He and his wife, Elisheva, make their home in Jerusalem. They are the parents of a married daughter and two grown sons now serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
The Promise of Israel turns the most compelling arguments against Israel on their heads, undoing liberals with a more liberal argument and the religious with a more devout one. The Promise of Israel puts forth an idea that is as convincing as it is shocking-that Iran’s clerics and the Taliban could achieve what they want for their people by being more like Israel.
ASLEEP UNDER FIRE
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer and the battle flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall,” 18371
What struck me most about California when I started to visit it was its newness. Nothing seemed old. The cars all appeared new; the people dressed young and acted younger. To a young East Coast kid just starting a career, California seemed all about the future, almost devoid of a past.
But all of us have pasts. All of us come from someplace, and even in the shiny new West, it often takes very little for people to start talking about their lives, their deepest regrets, and their senses of how they have, or have not, honored the legacies from which they were born. It’s amazing, actually, what people tell a clergyperson, no matter how young he or she may be. When I first headed out to Los Angeles after finishing rabbinical school, I had no real conception of what awaited me. Some of what I hazily imagined actually came to be. Much did not. But one of the things that I remember most clearly is the stories that people, especially elderly people, told me, even though they barely knew me.
There was one story that I heard several times, in one form or another, always from people around the age of my grandparents. These people told me how their siblings who had arrived in America before them would meet them at the New York harbor. The new arrivals came off the boat with almost nothing to their names, but they had, in addition to their meager belongings, Jewish objects like candlesticks for the Sabbath or tefillin that they had transported with great care. The sibling (usually a brother) who had arrived in the United States a few years earlier would take the bundle with these Jewish religious objects, nonchalantly drop it into the water lapping at the edge of the pier, and say, “You’re in America now. Those were for the old country.” The men and women who told me these stories were much, much older than I was, and the events they were describing had unfolded more than half a century earlier. When I was younger and first heard them, what horrified me was the mere notion of throwing those ritual objects into the ocean as if they were yesterday’s garbage. As I grew older, I was struck by the fact that these elderly people still remembered that moment and that it troubled them enough for them to recount the story to a young person like me, so many years later.
Later still, I began to understand the deep pain and mourning implicit in those stories. There was a sense of having betrayed the world from which they had come. There was a sense of the cruelty of their brothers’ cavalier discarding of the bundles; it might have been well intentioned, but it was callous and mean, and half a century later, it still evoked such pain that they sought to talk about it.
Before we judge these siblings at the pier, we should acknowledge that both sides were right. Both the elderly Jews who told me their stories and the brothers who had tossed their possessions into the oily, filthy water reflected a profound truth. The brothers were right that there is a price of entry to the United States and that it is a steep one. In large measure, many immigrants have done as well as they have in the United States precisely because they were willing to drop bundles of memory, ethnicity, and religious observance into the harbor. And the people who told me these stories were right that the pain and the anger that they felt about that price were real, abiding, and deeply scarring. They had given up something of themselves when they came to the United States, and the scars never fully healed. Being forced to pretend that they had paid no price at all only made matters worse.
Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hutu, Pashtun, or Christian—it makes no difference. All of us can imagine and even feel the visceral horror of being told to take our past and figuratively toss it into the harbor. Those immigrants were told that they were welcome, as long as they dispensed with the heritage with which they had come to their new “home.” But the story of demanding such sacrifice for acceptance is hardly over. It continues for some immigrants to the United States today, and it occurs in the international arena as well.
Sad to say, it is that same attitude that the United States (like much of the West) now exhibits toward Israel. You are welcome to join us, the West essentially says, as long as you drop your ethnic heritage in the ocean forever. We welcome you to the family of nations, but with a price: we want you to be precisely like us. Be different, and our patience will soon run out.
Later portions of this book will explain why preserving ethnic heritage is such an important human endeavor. For now, though, we ought to acknowledge how troubled we should be by saying to anyone—anywhere and at any time—that he or she must abandon a precious heritage and not transmit it. Those elderly immigrants who told me their stories had no choice when they arrived at the shores of New York. Often penniless and usually frightened, they had nowhere else to go. When their siblings took the parcels and dropped them in the water, there was little the new immigrants could do but stifle their cries and hold back their tears.
Israel, however, is not in that position. Israelis are independent, and the Jewish state rightly resists the demand that it become just like all those other states that are not based on a particular ethnic identity. Even though we rarely think of matters in these terms, the sad fact is that it is Israel’s very unwillingness to be a state like all other states in this regard, its resistance to erasing its uniqueness, that now has Israel locked in conflict with much of the West.
This book makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. This is what has the West so put out with Israel. Israel has lost its once-charmed status in the international arena, I argue, because of a conflict over this very idea. It is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; the issues of borders, refugees, and Palestinian statehood still await resolution. But those matters, as urgent as they are, are not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. (The dictionary defines nation-state as “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state . . . a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities,” so I use nation-state and ethnic nation-state inter- changeably in this book.) Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that it was time to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, whereas Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The now young countries that emerged from what was once the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia are mostly nation-states; their creation—and the demise of the larger conglomerates that once included them—attests to the widespread and deep-seated human desire to live in a manner that cultivates the cultures that we have inherited from our ancestors. But many of Europe’s intellectual elites prefer to pretend that we have no lessons to learn about human difference and cultural heterogeneity from the demise of the USSR and Yugoslavia.
Israel suggests that they are wrong. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
The purpose of this book is to explain the ancient origins of this conflict, how this tug-of-war about an idea has developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most important, how a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished world. Instead of being so commonly maligned, Israel ought to be seen as a beacon among nations, a remarkably successful nation that has persevered despite wars fought on its borders and that has brought prosperity to its people despite a shared history of misfortune. Israel has secured significant rights for all of its citizens, including even those who reject the very idea of Israel’s existence. All of this has been accomplished because of Israel’s commitment to the future success of the Jewish people, not in spite of it.
What is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not merely the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it. The idea that human freedom might be at risk in today’s battles over Israel might seem far-fetched or hyperbolic. This book will argue that it is not, and that human beings everywhere thus have a great stake in what the world ultimately does with the Jewish state.
Imagine a world in which instead of maligning Israel, the international community encouraged emerging ethnic nations to emulate Israel. Egyptians, for example, may have demonstrated for regime change and for democracy, but they did not gather to demonstrate against Islam or their Arab identity. They have no plans to become the “America” of Africa, secular and heterogeneous. They wish (or so the most Western of them claim) both to celebrate their Muslim heritage and thousands of years of Egyptian history and to join the family of modern democratic nations. As they do so, to whom can they look for a model of a stable, prosperous, and open state based on a shared religion and heritage? There is no denying that Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and many other Muslim countries would benefit from being more like Israel instead of hoping for its destruction.
Yet it is not only Middle Eastern and Muslim nations that should be looking harder at the Israeli experiment. The whole world would benefit from thinking in terms of the questions Israel raises. The United States, Sweden, Brazil—it makes no difference. All citizens of every nation would benefit from asking themselves, explicitly, what values they hope their nation will inculcate in its citizens, what culture they are committed to preserving and nourishing. Such conversations would change the way Israel is seen in the world, but they would also change how everyone else sees his or her own country—and how people come to think about the reasons that countries actually exist.
The idea of a state for a particular ethnicity strikes many people as problematic, immoral, and contrary to the progress that humanity has made in recent decades. The idea of a state meant to promote the flourishing of one particular people, with one particular religion at its core—a state created with the specific goal of Jewish revival and flourishing—strikes many people as worse than an antiquated idea. It sounds racist, bigoted, or oppressive of minorities.
When the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in 1947, the fires of the Second World War had barely been extinguished. Dispossessed Jews were still wandering across Europe by the thousands. The enormity of the genocidal horror that the world had allowed the Nazis to perpetrate was still sinking in. One of the many effects of that horrific period of history was that despite opposition from many quarters, creating a state for the Jews seemed like the right and expedient thing to do.
But times have changed. Memories of the Shoah are fading.* Jews are no longer dispossessed refugees; in most of the world, they are settled and prospering, and today it is the Palestinians who are stateless. Postwar Europe has decided that it was unfettered nationalism that led to the horrors of the two world wars; therefore, much of Europe’s intellectual elite now believes that the nation-state is a nineteenth- century paradigm that should be relegated to the dust heap of history,*Holocaust means “burnt offering” or “sacrifice to God.” I thus avoid it when discussing the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Europe’s Jews were not sacrificed; they were tortured, murdered, and annihilated. There is a profound difference. This book uses the word Shoah, which means “utter destruction” (see Zephaniah 1:15 and Proverbs 3:25), to honor that distinction just like those bundles that were dropped into the harbor to sink out of sight.
In several important respects, Jews drew the opposite conclusion from the horrific century they had just endured and barely survived. Battered by Europe and by history, the Jews emerged from the Shoah with a sense that more than anything, they needed a state of their own. Just as some of the world thought that it might move beyond nations, the Jews (who had dreamed of a restored Zion for two millennia) now intuited that nothing could be more urgent than finally re-creating their state. Zionism and postwar Europe were thus destined for conflict.
Zionism was not a matter of mere refuge; it was a matter of breathing new life into the Jewish people (the subject of my book Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End), of reimagining Judaism for a world after destruction, and, ironically, of insisting on the importance of the very difference that the Nazis had focused on as they perpetrated the horrors of the Shoah. What was at stake was much more than differing views about the nation- state; it was a battle over fundamental worldviews. For it was not only the nation-state on which Europe and postwar Jews differed. At issue was also the whole question of human differentness. To much of the world, the racially motivated genocide of twentieth-century Europe suggested that human difference ought to be transcended.
At our core, it therefore became popular to assert, human beings are largely the same. Our faces may have different shapes and our skin colors may differ, but those are simply superficial variations. We may speak different languages, but our aspirations are very similar. We may cherish different memories, but the future we create can be a shared one. Because human beings are essentially similar, this argument goes, the countries that separate peoples and cast a spotlight on their differences should now be dissolved, too. John Lennon put this idea to music in his song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.”
We might well have expected the Jews to embrace this vision. After all, since it was their difference that had condemned them to the horrific fate of the Shoah, we might have thought that the Jews would enthusiastically join the quest for a world without difference. In a world without difference, the Jews might finally be safe. But here too the Jews disagreed.
The Jews disagreed because whether or not they could articulate it, they intuited that they and their tradition have been focused on differentness from the very outset. The image of Abraham as the world’s first monotheist says it all: Jews have long been countercultural. And they have celebrated difference in many ways. The Talmud itself notes that it is differentness that is the very essence of humanity: “If a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble each other,” it asserts. “But the Supreme King of Kings . . . created every man in the stamp of the first, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.”
Difference matters, Judaism has long said, not just for individuals, but for peoples, too. Later in this book, we will see how this commitment to differentness became so central to Jewish life and thought. But this commitment to difference, to celebrating the uniqueness of the Jewish people, was never meant to foster rejection of those who are not Jewish. Indeed, at its best, Jewish celebration of difference is also about the celebration of the other. The horrific excesses of human his- tory have certainly led many to see in difference a frightening and terrible idea; too often the distinction between “us and them” was drawn to make it seem okay for “us” to kill “them” and for “them” to kill “us.” Israel, however, with all of its imperfections, has for decades been drawing lines and then reaching across them. Israelis do not pretend that being a global citizen is either sufficient or terribly meaningful, yet they willingly send medical teams to Japan or Haiti in a crisis. The Jewish state is a country that could very soon be annihilated without a moment’s notice by Islamic extremists in Iran and that has been at war with Arab countries since even before its independence, but its national government has more democratically elected Muslim officials than all the other non-Muslim states combined—more, even, than the United States.
The Jewish tradition is replete with references to the differences between the Jews and other nations. From the very outset, Jews saw part of their purpose as being different, as having something to say that the rest of the world ought to hear. In a world without difference, the very point of Jewishness would be lost. Whether or not they could articulate it, Jews understood that being just like everyone else, even if that might somehow make them physically safer, was not at all what thousands of years of Jewish tradition and survival had been about.
Even after the horrors of what they had just experienced because of their difference, most Jews emerged from the Shoah determined to preserve their collective inheritance. Some enthusiastically embraced international movements like socialism or communism. But many more sought to celebrate their difference, to breathe new life into the unique way of living that had been theirs for thousands of years, to gather up the fragments of their texts from a century in which both their books and their bodies had been burned indiscriminately, and to fashion anew their libraries, memories, holidays, and long-dormant language. To do that, they realized, they would need a state. They had prayed for one for two thousand years, but now, after the Shoah, that age-old prayer took on newfound urgency.
Increasingly, however, the rest of the world has decided that it does not agree. The United Nations and much of the international com- munity are notoriously complicit in the push to rob Israel of its status as standard-bearer for the nation-state idea. As long as a country that is openly rooted in a religious or cultural tradition prospers, as long as its democracy serves its citizens well, as long as it defies the predictions of secular scholars and pundits who believe that religion and ethnicity are the handmaidens of imperialism and fascism, it must be reviled.
Otherwise, it could prove the intellectual elites of western Europe and North America, who believe that an experiment like Israel can- not work, wrong. What was once a well-meaning, liberal academic orientation to religion, ethnicity, and statehood has morphed into an international diplomatic witch hunt that smacks once again of intolerance for the Jew and the Jewish state, that is filled with the sense that in any conflict in which Israel finds itself, the Jewish state must be wrong. Sides are being chosen daily, and Israel’s fate is being decided, often by people who do not realize what is really being disputed. My simplest goal in writing this book, beyond advocating one side or the other, is just to make clear to people what the two sides are and what is really at stake in this battle of ideas.
Israel’s real problem, this book demonstrates, is that the state of Israel was founded to move the Jews to precisely the condition that the rest of the Western world was trying to avoid. For that reason, too, the Jewish state was almost bound to be in conflict with the West. That is why many in the ostensibly forward-thinking international community have now decided, consciously or not, that it is time to bring the Jewish state to an end. They propose to do so without armies and without violence. They will bring Israel to its knees with words, with philosophical and principled arguments, and with appeals to the loftiest moral standards. After all, they note, both apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union were felled in large measure by a widely shared international view that they were illegitimate, founded on ideas that were simply indefensible.
Given this new tactic, those who believe in the ongoing importance of a Jewish state need to ask themselves the right questions and provide principled answers. Can an argument really be made for a state that seems so out of sync with the direction of modern progress? In the twenty-first century, is there really a place for a country that defines itself as Jewish (or committed to any other ethnicity, for that matter); that does not see all its citizens as equally central to its mission; and that unabashedly declares that one religion, one people, one ethnicity, and one heritage will be more essential to its national life than any others? How could Israel’s supporters possibly defend such a country?
Such a state seems anathema to everything that many of us have been taught to believe.
Many of Israel’s supporters have no idea what to say in response to such attacks on Zionism and its legitimacy, and Israel has paid a terrible price for the silence of today’s Zionists on these issues. Its international status has plummeted with scarcely a countervailing word being said about why the Jewish state matters. The campaign to defend Israel has been sporadic, reactive, defensive, almost entirely devoid of theoretical argument, and focused almost exclusively on the conflict with the Palestinians. Zionists’ failure to make a case for their particular sort of state creates the impression that they know they cannot really justify Israel’s existence; it feeds a suspicion that they have decided that it would be best to stay under the radar, because when push comes to shove, what Israel is cannot be thoughtfully defended.
But in today’s world, Zionists can no longer afford the luxury of staying below the radar. The questions are too powerful, the focus on Israel too intense. No longer can the case for Israel be made simply by hoping that no one raises the question of whether the idea of a Jewish state is defensible. Those who believe in the importance and the legitimacy of the state of Israel need to be able to explain why a country founded for a particular people, ethnicity, tradition, and religion has a place—indeed, a noble one—in the twenty-first century.
Therefore, Israel’s response to these challenges has to be equally thoughtful and no less compelling. Israel’s defense must also be based on moral claims. In a nutshell, what needs to be said is this: What is at issue between Israel and the international community is whether ethnic and national diversity ought to be encouraged and promoted. Israel has something to say about the importance of human difference that is at odds with the prevailing attitudes in the world today. It is a country that insists that people thrive and flourish most when they live in societies in which their language, their culture, their history, and their sense of purpose are situated at the very center of public life.
Let’s address one common objection right at the outset. Contrary to what many naysayers will claim, a country does not have to be entirely homogeneous to accomplish this. As even PBS (which is often very critical of Israel) once noted, “As a Jewish state, [Israel] is both homogenous and multiethnic.”3 As strange as it may sound, countries can have a predominant ethnic character and be deeply tolerant of minorities at the same time. Every nation-state has minorities, and part of the challenge to the majority is not only to accommodate the minority but also, even more, to help those citizens flourish.
Indeed, flourishing is the key issue. Israel is a country based on a belief that human beings live richer and more meaningful lives when those lives are deeply rooted in a culture that they have inherited and that they can bequeath. Human life flourishes most when a society’s public square is committed to conversations rooted in that people’s literature, language, history, narrative, and even religion. There is the possibility of a more fully integrated life in the nation-state in which all these spheres of human life overlap to much greater extents than other countries make possible. Ultimately, human diversity will be protected most by an amalgam of countries, each of which exists for the flourishing of a particular people, culture, way of life, and history and, at the same time, engages in an open and ongoing dialogue with other cultures and civilizations.
The world celebrated the Arab Spring in 2011, but that story is not yet fully written. Will it bring democracy? Rights for women? Tolerance for gays and lesbians? It would be foolish and naive to expect that we’ll see any such progress soon. Still, there’s no reason that Egypt couldn’t develop an engagement with modernity while staying committed to the dignity of its past. There’s no reason that Libya, finally freed of Muammar Gaddafi, couldn’t in theory develop both intellectual openness and a freedom of the press, since both could actually strengthen the nation’s understanding of Islam. Syrians too could someday live richer and more meaningful lives if those lives were deeply rooted in a unique Syrian culture coupled with freedom of choice at the voting booth. Even Iran could discover that Iranians flourish most when the public square is committed to open conversations rooted in Persian literature, language, history, and narratives, in constant and vigorous dialogue with the West and other civilizations that have very different takes on core human values.
But does the West really want to see those countries develop in that way? If Egypt remained deeply and profoundly Egyptian, and Iranian culture and history defined the Iranian public square, would the West approve, or would the West say that as long as those countries insist on maintaining those ancient attachments, they are not fully liberated? Would the West not still tell them they are doing it wrong? Perhaps. But the West would be wrong; difference and uniqueness do not mire people in the past but rather give them guidance and meaning as they build a better future.
This is now the challenge for Zionists. Precisely because Israel stands for a conviction not held by most of the enlightened world today, the time has come to defend Israel by boldly addressing the conversation that is at the heart of this book. It is time for Zionists not only to discuss borders, settlements, security, and Palestinian state- hood but also to proclaim that what is at stake is not just the Jewish state, not just the future of the Jews, but a profound vision for how humanity can most compellingly chart its future. No other country in the developed world calls into question today’s assumption that eradicating differentness is the best path toward human flourishing. That is precisely what makes Israel so countercultural, so divisive, and often so maligned. And that is what makes Israel so vitally important.
Today’s infatuation with the notion that human difference ought to be papered over is not the first time that the world has embraced a dangerous and dead-end philosophical fad. In the past century alone, humanity has lived through infatuations with unfettered social- ism, then with communism, and even with the belief in the nobility of imperialism. But Israel is a reminder to the world that there are moments when someone—be it a prophet in biblical times or a nation-state in today’s international community—has to speak truth to power and insist on what is right and true, regardless of how unpopular the idea is. Israel represents the argument that the nation- state is not a fad, but rather an ancient and still compelling vision for humanity.
Like the ancient Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, who were highly unpopular in their own time but whose visions for humanity are still cited thousands of years later, the state of Israel is meant to be a clarion call to all of humanity. If Israel can survive (and that is by no means certain), history may one day come to thank the Jewish state for its role in reminding humanity what it stood to lose when it began to pretend that our differences were unimportant.