Between Myth and Detention Center

From a birds-eye view, the modern project of reestablishing Jewish sovereignty is one of the most stirring political stories of the new age. It is not surprising that some of the modern era’s greatest intellectuals were taken with the vision of a renewed Jewish state and of the Jews’ return to their ancient land. Despite being secular, I find great value in this romantic vision.


I’m walking along Ha’Aliyah Street, near HaMoshavot Square, and in front of me there’s a group of teenage boys. They’re talking among themselves, in Hebrew. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me; I’m in Tel Aviv, after all – in the State of Israel. And yet it fills me with astonishment, as all these children are Black or Asian. In Toronto or Paris, I wouldn’t turn my head at the sight of a Black child speaking English or French. But Hebrew – that’s something else. In a more or less conscious manner I’m in awe of the faith these children have put in this language, even if they were born into it and belong to no other country.

But at the same time my heart aches. Because even if these young people are living in Hebrew, the Hebrew-speaking community hasn’t accepted them, nor does it appear likely ever to accept them. It’s doubtful whether they will ever be granted Israeli citizenship. These children, a few of whom have Hebrew names, are living here on borrowed time, in a country that is making every effort to spit them out. Even if they memorize the Song of the Sea, Leah Goldberg and Omer Adam, they will remain on the outside – socially and perhaps also geographically. There is no realistic procedure that would enable them to become citizens. Many of them cannot leave Israel; if they do, they won’t be able to return. And one day, presumably, the immigration police will come with handcuffs and shackles to deport them, deaf to their Hebrew entreaties.

There aren’t many regimes more exclusive than that of the Jewish state. That’s the explanation I gave my German friend Johannes, when he told me he wanted to come and live in Israel. He too speaks Hebrew, knows poems of Meir Ariel, and is well-versed in kabbalah and the writings of Gershom Scholem. Somehow, he thinks that if he expresses great enough interest in Israeli culture, Israel will assimilate him sooner or later. But despite Johannes’s love for Israel, Israel doesn’t love him – at least not enough to let him to live here for an extended period. The Jewish state takes itself very seriously. It has no sense of humor.


I met Johannes in the theology department of a German university. He was studying Biblical Hebrew there. At this point in time, Hebrew is Israel’s official language. That is how it is known to most of those who come into contact with it. Yet Hebrew is a few other things as well. Protestant theology students study it in order to read the Book of Psalms and the Prophets in the original. In fact, there is an old German tradition of studying Hebrew. Some of the major figures of German culture studied Hebrew – not just Martin Luther, but also Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder, a philosopher and theologian, wrote a book that is entirely devoted to the Hebrew language and to the ancient Hebrew state – The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782). He characterized Hebrew as an Oriental tongue and as a natural language in which everything is “alive and astir.” The Hebrew nation, in his eyes, a model of benign fusion of culture, nationality and religion. For him, the land of the Hebrews perfectly embodied the exalted essence of the Orient – mankind’s “lands of the morning.”

Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective in order to understand yourself. This happened to me with the idea of the state of the Hebrews; I needed the German Herder in order to be captivated by its magic. As a Pre-Romantic thinker, Herder delighted in the poetic character of ancient Hebrew culture. He charmingly described the gathering of the people for the three pilgrimage festivals, orchestrated by poet-leaders such as Moses, Deborah, and David. “Let us imagine songs of a friendship-covenant, songs of the people, sung when the avenues of a free nation converge,” he wrote in his book. The Hebrew state is depicted by Herder as a federation of free tribes; paradoxically, its theocratic regime endows it with freedom. This portrayal seems also to have enchanted the literary pioneers of the Hebrew Revival, including Naphtali Hirz Wessely and Yaakov Cohen.

From a birds-eye view, the modern project of reestablishing Jewish sovereignty is one of the most stirring political stories of the new age. It is not surprising that some of the modern era’s greatest intellectuals were taken with the vision of a renewed Jewish state and of the Jews’ return to their ancient land. Despite being secular, I find great value in this romantic vision. I don’t want to disparage it. The Hebrew renaissance is an operatic production that I wouldn’t want to miss.

And more than that: It’s surprising to find how many people around the world are galvanized by the vision of the Jewish state. Sometimes this sentiment is mixed with admiration for the Jewish people as the chosen people charged with a crucial role in humanity’s development. It is true that secular Zionist thinkers from Brenner on have wanted the Jewish situation to normalize and wished to consign the “chosen people” idea to the dustbin of history. But even if we try to be “normal,” others seem to insist on endowing our existence with particular meaning – for good or ill. Experience shows that the Jewish situation cannot be normalized. Ironically, it sometimes appears that only a small group of secular Jews persist in denying the weight borne by the concepts “Eretz Israel” and the “People of Israel,” and in clinging to the idea of an abstract secular sphere. Even if it were possible to normalize Jewish existence, I see no reason to wish it. What would be the point of renouncing so exciting a historical asset – the drama of Jewish destiny with all its ups and downs? This narrative will pursue us even if we try to escape it.

As the years pass, I become more skeptical about the ability of Enlightenment values and liberal precepts to provide a sufficient basis for political existence. Political entities are not merely instrumental frameworks; they need a mythic foundation. Precisely in order to make territorial concessions, we need to strengthen the romantic element, the sense of the Jewish state’s uniqueness. As with Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem’s incisive criticism of the “science of Judaism” (1944), I’m not enthusiastic about the idea of “removing the irrational sting from Jewish history and banishing its demonic fervor.” One of the Israeli secular public’s weaknesses may be the lack of a romantic-mythic spark, and its marginalization in favor of a bourgeois existence driven by real estate and finance.

The problem is that the Jewish romantic myth becomes much, much less magical once it is embodied in a state that has an army, security services, and immigration police. Poetry and song become discriminatory laws, detention facilities and handcuffs. That was the fate of many romantic visions of the modern age, born of the quill pens of poets, but implemented by generals and their brutish troops.


This being the case, how may we square the circle? How may we preserve and enhance the metaphysical idea of the chosen people and the Promised Land without crushing the lives of actual people, the “unchosen” – to borrow the title of Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s book about asylum-seekers in Israel?

One starting point for a solution is to remember that Israel’s non-Jewish neighbors also see themselves in certain instances as “chosen.” Liberals may feel that the claim has an odd ring to it. As proponents of universal values, we are used to seeing refugees, labor migrants, Palestinians, and other groups as victims of circumstances not under their control, defined by their social marginality and their lack of political rights. But we must remember that even refugees and displaced people are political and religious subjects. They have worldviews that give meaning to their existence in this place.

In a study of African labor migrants in Israel in the 2000s, Galia Tzabar found that Africans who belong to Christian churches attach meaning to their presence in the Holy Land, and that this is the basis for their demand for justice. In interviews conducted by Tzabar, these migrants indicated frequent disappointment in the way things are handled in Israel: “What goes on here isn’t the Holy Land.” They don’t view Israel as a land like all others (Tzabar, 2004). The discourse of the Filipino community in Israel also frequently refers to the holy work that Filipino caregivers perform here. Ofelia Gadon, a columnist for the magazine Manila Tel Aviv, wrote a few years ago that caregiving for elderly Israelis, for “grandfather and grandmother,” is not mere labor, but a calling. The Filipina caring for an Israeli senior in his or her home is actually serving Jesus and playing a role in the divine plan of redemption. The caregiver community is given a role in the drama of chosenness.

Such an outlook may serve to justify subordinate relations, ostensibly based in theology. But if we move past ethnic and genetic categories, the mythic element of chosenness may constitute the basis for a creative politics. The Jewish people and the Jewish state are, first and foremost, a story. The idea of chosenness can open the borders to all participants in the project of the “Chosen Land.” It could potentially encompass non-Jewish immigrants as well as Palestinians. Islam, too, is not unconnected to the Biblical system of images pertaining to the “Chosen People,” and has a complex relationship with that system.

Herder envisioned the Hebrew state as a kind of sublime operatic dream; a national festival in which the tribes and households and leaders unite. Herder himself abhorred Prussian militarism and legalism and envisaged a culture-defined nation united by its language. In the 19th century, romantic visions of this kind evolved into Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork,” in which the aspiration to aesthetic catharsis merges with the idea of chauvinistic ultranationalist awakening. In German history, as we know, these ideas are linked to the most horrific political atrocities. Yet Wagner’s operas are still being produced, with the participation of Jewish and Black performers. Likewise, the opera of the Hebrew state could be mounted anew today in a more inclusive version, adapted for the 21st century, with no need to completely replace the libretto. That is our present political-cultural task.


Work cited

Tzabar, Galia (2004). “’I’m a Black and Christian Foreign Worker in Jewish Israel’: African Christianity in Tel Aviv.” In: Aviad Kleinberg (ed.). Hard to Believe: A Different Perspective on Religiosity and Secularism (pp. 30-74). Keter.

Dr. Ofri Ilany is a historian, editor, journalist, and literary critic.