Monday, September 25, 2006

Israel: Chosen for What?

Israel: Chosen for What?

How can we best act to defend the Jewish state? In the midst of the carnage and tragedy of recent months, the current government of Israel adopted a policy of relying on military force alone—let the diplomatic and humanitarian chips fall where they may. We assert, correctly, that the actions that Israel is taking are no different from those that other states would take in the same situation; that Iraq, Syria, and other Arab states have engaged in more brutal operations, even against their own people. We resent, understandably, the perennial habit of the international community to hold Israel to a different standard.

Yet our tradition, our history, our religious heritage, our Torah, are all premised on the idea that Israel is unique, and that we are indeed held to a different standard—not by the nations, but by God.

Missing from the current controversy, in my opinion, has been much serious discussion of God’s purposes regarding a Jewish state (beyond what one might call the “Theme from Exodus argument”: “This land is mine, God gave this land to me”). Perhaps it is time to examine the Jewish state from a standpoint of Jewishness rather than simply “reasons of state.”

What is Jewish about the state of Israel beyond the fact that the people who live in it are Jews?

It is a fact, a somewhat uncomfortable one for some, that our claim to the land of Israel rests fundamentally on a Biblical basis of a relationship between the Jews and God. This was the case even for the secular Zionists, who showed little interest in alternative pieces of real estate, whether in East Africa, Upper New York State, or elsewhere. It is the subtext of the Balfour Declaration and the 1947 UN resolution recognizing a Jewish state. No matter how much we protest the unfairness of holding Israel to a different standard from other nations, we clearly regard it as so ourselves: Israel is different. Why? If the answer involves more than mere ethnic chauvinism (given its history and ours, a bad model for Jews to follow, in my opinion), one is inescapably drawn to explore the terms of our relationship with God and the land.

As I read it, one of the persistent themes of Scripture as a whole seems to be the Jewish people having to learn, again and again, that the land is not a given, that our tenure there is not an absolute. Just about every possible change is rung on that theme, and the message that comes across is pretty consistent. So, even though we are a long way from Passover, allow me to pose my own four questions:

Why were we originally given the land?

Why did we lose the land?

Why did we get the land back?

On what terms do we hold it?

Now, it is in theory perfectly reasonable to say that we hold the land in precisely the same terms as any other country—in theory reasonable, but in practice, utterly crazy. The sheer multiplication of improbable happenstances—even secular Jews rarely blink at calling them miracles—that marked the war of Israel’s founding in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 boggles the imagination.

Still more miraculous is the transformation of what Mark Twain called “a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land,” a land that for two thousand years eloquently confirmed the curses of Deuteronomy 28-29, into an agricultural and industrial powerhouse that equally eloquently embodies the promises of Deuteronomy 30.

What do I take from these Biblical and historical referents? Chiefly, that God employs the Jews to make a basic point: that God exists. If that point can best be made by restoring the precious remnant of the Jews to their homeland after the defeat of the Assyrians, or the Nazis, well and good. If it can be made as eloquently by our exile, so be it.

The return of the Jewish people to Israel and the restoration of a Jewish state after so many centuries of exile must be counted as one of the greatest miracles of history.

Many years ago I complained to Rabbi Morris Goldfarb of Cornell Hillel that the problem with Israelis is that they take miracles for granted. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You can’t always rely on miracles.” He smiled wryly and added: “Sometimes you have to try prayer.”

To that I would say “Amen,” but would add the other two pillars, in addition to prayer, on which the Pirke Avot tells us the world depends: Torah, and acts of lovingkindness. For a crash refresher course in Torah, it’s hard to beat Rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.”

Do these principles mean that we cannot use force to defend ourselves? Of course not. Self-defense, the preservation of life, is a primary Jewish obligation. They do, however, bar needless humiliation. The law may inflict forty lashes on a wicked man, but not more; “lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should be dishonoured before thine eyes” (Deut. 25:3). In case, God forbid, one should be tempted to construe the word “brother” as meaning that upright behavior is required only to other Jews, Moses leaves no room for misinterpretation: “Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger” (Deut. 27:19).

To return to my first question: why were we given the land? Our entire tradition tells us that we are part of a cosmic drama whose fundamental purpose is to reveal to the nations the power of God. Need another crash refresher course? Read the Aleinu prayer that ends every service: “Our job is to praise the Master of all things….And on that day the Lord shall be One and His Name shall be One.”

As our elders used to say, “Es ist shver zu zayn a yid”—it’s hard to be a Jew. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. If we want a Jewish state, we—and by “we” I chiefly mean us here in America, who are perhaps just as crucial in this matter as our Israeli brethren—are going to have to act Jewishly. If we give up on the things that make us Jews, no number of tanks or helicopter gunships is going to save us. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, during the last episode of nation-rebuilding after an exile: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

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