By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Opinions  | 

Holier Than Thou: How the Mystification of the State of Israel Alienates Its Free-Thinkers

I write to you during a bittersweet season of the Jewish calendar. Jews have traditionally regarded (some of) these 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot as days of mourning and introspection. We commemorate the 24,000 students of R’ Akiva killed by plague/war and the countless Jews who were pillaged and murdered by the Crusaders, en-route to pillage and murder many more in Jerusalem. These days were not held in high esteem by the rabbinical consensus, and, owing to their lugubrious and painful nature, Jews worldwide have adopted traditions of mourning and commemoration in memory of the destruction. However, many of us do not approach Lag Ba’omer, the traditional day marking the cessation of mourning, fully-bearded and downtrodden. Little did the ancient rabbis know that these days of mourning would get a makeover. From sadness to glee, from despondency to pride, we experienced the transition from the exile to the beginnings of our redemption davka in these dreadful months (through Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim).

We stand at the crossroads of history: The painful exile that we must remember, and the sprouting of the redemption, over which we should rejoice. This contradiction takes form not only in the superficial layout of the calendar; the coincidence just highlights the sociological, philosophical, and theological tension we all sense regarding the nature of our redemption. I will attempt to analyze the phenomenon in a holistic manner, with a focus on the divine.

Pre-yishuv (sometime in the early 20th century), when Israel was in Edom’s land, the Jewish soul had not begun to wrench itself from its gentile home and strive homewards. Jewry, populous and (fairly) secure, found itself quite comfortable in its newfound patria. We established prosperous communities in the West, devout kehilot in the East, and we had the entirety of the Americas to explore. On the eve of WWII, a small minority of Jews had taken up residence in British Palestine, hampered by the majority’s unwillingness to uproot themselves and the anti-Semitic policies directed against us by those reigning British officials (à la “White Paper”). The Holocaust, a great equalizing force, destroyed our complacency, and instigated monumental reform. The Jew, along with his identity, suffered a fearsome blow, one from which we still have not fully recovered.

The factor that allowed the Holocaust’s universal destruction to come to fruition, ironically, traces back to simpler times. Before the Modern era, Judaism and Jewry meant the same thing. One who did not practice became as non-Jewish as halakhically possible, while the non-Jewish convert became integrated quickly into the Jewish community. When Modernity struck, things began to get messy. Many individuals started to search for themselves outside the fold of the orthodox communities, but failed to find themselves welcomed by their gentile compatriots. Owing to natural xenophobia, or simply to enduring cultural differences, Jews found themselves time and again rejected by the ‘enlightened’ races of Europe. As a result, and in an attempt to extract itself from the confines of a separate identity, Jewry began to redefine itself in broader terms. Universalism supplanted particularism in our attitudes, and we began to adopt more-liberal social practices. Inspired intellectualism replaced the rigid scholasticism of the dogmatic Middle-Ages, Chassidut found a great following promulgating universal, subjective truths, and some communities even heralded the opening of general society (in the West) to their liberal-minded, Enlightened offspring. What remained, however, played into the hands of our enemies.

We could not, however much we tried, sever our ties to our brethren, and we could not completely eliminate our longing for autonomy, religious or political. This pre-modern holdover, the identification of Jew with Judaism, imprinted upon all of European Jewry the mark of Jacob, and collectivized our political condition. The Holocaust, so aggressively barbaric in its nature, regressed to the pre-enlightenment definition of Judaism, one which equated belief and community, man and his people.

When, in the wake of destruction, an autonomous Jewish state was finally established, it not only marked a departure from both the futile attempts at the dissolution of a common, national identity (the world would not have it), it also reignited the flame of nationalism. The shared trauma of the Holocaust and the ingathering of a bruised Jewish identity clashed head-on with the intent of the founders of Israel to construct a secular Israeli identity, devoid of the Judaism of the exile. As one might have expected, this tension between old and new, ancient and modern, did not resolve itself naturally. We continue to feel confused and torn between two aspects of ourselves. Am I Israeli or Jewish, or, as it might seem fitting, American?

This tension takes its form in the two identities that civilized Man assumes: Adam I, the majestic, powerful, proud, and independent creature of nature, and Adam II, the introspective, lonely, and thus communally-inclined servant of God. Additionally, Adam the private, conflicted, subdued, and limited, and Adam the collective, selfless, and idealistic. The contradiction between one’s secular, materialistic needs, and the soul’s quest for self-fulfillment poses the ultimate question for all who roam the earth, however, the Jew sees it in more detail. Shall I see myself as a divine creation, subject to the will of God and part of a glorious nation, or rather a mere individual in a vast sea of humanity, a private, exiled citizen? Shall I strive to beautify God’s world and work to fix it, or should I maintain my own security and my own interests as a responsible adult?

Many have discussed these questions at length, and for that reason I must confine my argument to its specific application as regards the nascent State of Israel. Israel similarly is cleaved in two separate directions. She safeguards our material welfare, providing defense, sustenance, culture, and society, but she also serves a higher purpose: She is the rallying cry of Jews and others world-wide, serving as the center of our religious experience.

In desire of synthesis, we have attempted to subsume the dual functions of the Jewish nation under one formal entity, the State of Israel. The tension present in our individual psyches as a result of our conflicting identities comes to the fore in our relationship vis-à-vis the Jewish State. What can we expect from her? What if she fails to realize our religious or material desires? Should that impact her standing? How much should we criticize or defend her policies? Whom do we hold accountable for her failings? The Nation? God? Ourselves?

Meanwhile, the spiritual component of Ahavat Ha’aretz and respect for the new State of Israel gets much attention in our communities. We have come to cherish the Karlebach-infused euphoric Hallel ceremony as much as we might appreciate potato latkes. We bless the State, love her, and many are even willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her well-being. On Yom Hazikaron, I wandered through the maze of graves at Har Herzl, a monument to the great mesiras nefesh of those brave fighters. We declare their memories a tribute to their great selflessness that maintained our dream of Israel. All Israelis recite the ‘El Male Rachamim’ prayer, inserting addenda denoting the divine purpose of the fallen lives. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, much of the country presides over the ceremonious unification of the Twelve Tribes, where dignitaries light the torches of Jewish brotherhood. ‘Hatikvah’ is sung patriotically.

The great zionist rabbis of the past generation and their talmidim make it quite clear that we must thank the Lord for His beneficence. They invoke passages from the Prophets, emphasizing the redemptive nature of today’s reality and, in so doing, aim to increase our awareness of God’s greatness. Hodu laHashem ki tov! We dance and sing in the mountains of Judea as we rejoice in our fate of not having been born ‘exiled Jews.’ Society at-large also endorses the redemptive narrative, among other fundamentalist beliefs.

I, too, feel satisfaction that I was not born back then. The State of Israel and penicillin have done wonders for the modern Jew, but I still don’t share my friends’ all-too-rosy view of reality. The dogmatic adoration for Israel, as espoused by our leaders (religious and secular alike) strikes me as self-serving. Of course, Mssr. Netanyahu will give you a positive report. Per Bibi, the economy surges ahead, we are strong and secure! But, did you honestly expect him to get up and describe our real problems?! Why would he do that? Instead, as a result of pure manipulation, and on account of our leaders’ inability to conceive of a more just, humane society, we are left with a speculative, unfinished, unpolished, and unholy ideal form of redemption.

In essence, the blind belief in Israel’s redemptive qualifications reveals our inability to think freely about our future. Instead of trying to determine how a future redemptive state should look or what we should do in order to attain the full redemption, we sit back, bless the State, and fail to take responsibility for our future. We relegate the shortcomings of society/the State to a list of chores, and we procrastinate interminably. Logically, the State can’t be both redemptive and exilic. We may call it a step forward, but should we go all-out and party like it’s 1967 every year? From my observations, we tend to emphasize the positive, while ignoring the negative aspects. This is a dangerous course of action, as we too easily fall into a state of complacency or paralysis.

When we overemphasize the ‘divine’ nature of today’s State of Israel, we transform the material status-quo into a spiritual devotion. The current state of affairs gets mystified and turned upside down. Instead of judging Israel by critical philosophical and religious ideals, we turn the broken, bureaucratic reality into an ideal itself! We force Providence into a well-defined box, one that serves our lower instincts of greed and immorality. The result of this corrupt application of political theology forces us into accepting reality for the divine, and indeed pushes us in the general direction of paganism. If reality is god, we must then begin to believe in the supernatural gifts and authority bestowed upon either the established mechanisms of power (state, corporations, military, courts, etc.), or semi-divine, godlike individuals. One should always maintain caution with such relationships, but we pay no heed.

Which leaves me and others like me in a bind. I do not wish to separate myself from society, but society does not offer me many satisfactory options. I critique society, call it out for its iniquities, but, owing to the mystification that we have attributed to our current state, I find myself critiquing not only society, but its gods themselves. My political argument has transformed into a theological struggle. Any view critical of the State becomes a religious jihad for both sides, and thus we cannot even come to the table. Society as we know it dissolves into tribalist attitudes of ‘my god’s holier than your god,’ eliminating the chance for progress.

Instead, we should refocus on the importance of both basic and complex social interaction, and thereby identify the aspects of our social realities that need fixing. Though we may not agree on matters of theology, we may yet come to a common ground as it concerns ourselves, our feelings, and our wishes. Leave God out of it for a while. Upon having addressed the mundane, we may once again seek out the true divinity.

L’shanah haba’ah b’erushalayim habenuyah!