A Jewish State Marked by Solidarity

The “Jewish and democratic” pairing in any case represents what chemists would call a compound, not a mixture. Neither of these components should be discussed separately; each of the two foundational values should strive where possible to display that aspect of it that best “speaks” to its counterpart.

In the preface to his memoir The World of Yesterday (1942]), Stefan Zweig describes the destruction of European culture and the loss of his homeland, Austria: “For truly I have been detached, as rarely anyone has in the past, from all roots and from the very earth which nurtures them […] My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, was burned to ashes in the same land where my books made friends of millions of readers. And so I belong nowhere, and everywhere am a stranger, a guest at best. Europe, the homeland of my heart’s choice, is lost to me, since it has torn itself apart suicidally a second time in a war of brother against brother.” This great Jewish writer, who committed suicide in 1942 the day after he sent the manuscript of the book to his publisher, is describing here a total breakdown of the individual and common human identities he had known.

Is it perhaps possible to try, as is sometimes done, to form a concept of any kind based on our knowledge of it at the time of its collapse? This method strikes me as our attempt to approach an elevated spiritual matter by negating its contradictions. That is, more than trying to say what the thing itself is, we try to say what it is not (as in the negative theology developed by Maimonides as a means of comprehending God). Zweig indeed felt as though he were floating in an incomprehensible and indistinct space. All of the elements by which he had defined himself had been destroyed, but nothing else, or nothing new, had arisen. If we continue for now with this line of thought, we can say that everything that Zweig was lacking would have to exist in a Jewish state. It is that state that is supposed to be, and should be, the tangible historical revelation of what he lost, and at this limited and initial stage – a substitute for what he lost. At the next crucial stage, it should also be a new structure, comprehensive and original, that obviates from the outset the sense of emptiness that gripped him. This structure includes a defined territory in the Jewish people’s historical homeland, feelings of commonality with the brothers and sisters who live with him in that same stretch of land, a decisive and clear political definition, a Hebrew creative language, an ancient and revitalized culture, an awareness and sense of being at home, the resurgence of national memories both in spiritual terms and in terms the state’s historical sites, an array of customs who enjoy wide support both in public life and in private life, a stable and solidarity-inspiring Jewish government, a state education system that reflects the major national values, and more. All of these things are supposed to draw their validity and their specific details from the Hebrew heritage, history, and language.

Our “answer” to Stefan Zweig could thus be to tell him, with reasonable self-confidence, that everything he and others lost in Europe between the two world wars, and that other Jews had lost under other circumstances and in other times, now finds full restoration, and even meaningful supplementation, in the Jewish homeland. And we might also tell him, in the course of our imaginary conversation, that these crucial identity components can be established and expressed only in a Jewish state that exists in Eretz Israel. The expectation that a Jew will sense the broad and valid existence of these things somewhere else in the world is a delusion at (relative) best, and a terrible mistake at worst.

My “literary” introduction here undoubtedly stems from the fact that literary works in general, and the works of Hebrew literature in particular, are central to my life. This approach is vital, but may also be dangerous, at least to those who presume that “Hebrew culture,” or even Hebrew literature, can exist and coalesce wherever Jews are in the world. My opinion is completely different. In addition to the great misconception I mentioned above regarding the possibility of Jewish rebirth abroad, there is also a more specific misconception that authentic Jewish creative endeavor can flourish without connection to place. Of course, there can be Jewish spiritual/intellectual giants anywhere in the world, but a total Jewish renaissance, even pertaining to Hebrew literature, can, in my view, happen only in a Jewish state located in Eretz Israel. Place, like the other elements mentioned with regard to the Jewish state, is a necessary condition for cultural and literary revival. The reverse, by the way, is also largely true: Rav Kook, at the end of his important work Orot HaTeshuva, talks about the need for literary awakening as part of the Jewish people’s national and spiritual rebirth. Thus, even if we focus exclusively on one side of the equation, that focus will itself be egregiously partial, even artificial. There is no Jewish political rebirth without the revival of Hebrew creative and literary expression, and there is no comprehensive Hebrew creative endeavor without a Jewish state.

It is clear to me that the path by which I hope to resolve this issue is not the high road. At least not at first glance. But in my humble opinion, “literary sensibilities” have quite often in human history been the sphere that most strongly typified, and was most indicative of, national moods. Even feelings of national frustration can sometimes be better detected through important literary works than through articles in the press. (Egyptian cultural figures, for instance, maintained after the Yom Kippur War that we had failed to understand the literary mood of their country as manifested prior to their offensive against Israel.)

There is of course a certain risk implicit in my discussion thus far, a kind of landmine slyly awaiting a false step of ours: As we enumerate different components of the Jewish state, we may assume that not all partners in the state accept the full set of those components. And not only that, but it is highly likely that many of us would wish to rate the components’ importance according to criteria of their own – i.e., what is truly crucial, what is only desirable, and what is all but worth forgetting. And some would think so highly of one or two of the components we’ve mentioned, or even of others that we may not have mentioned, that they would go so far as to “erase” the rest of the list. At the next dangerous stage, which is unfortunately unfolding before our very eyes, different factions of the Israeli populace could embrace one component of the definition of the Jewish state as the sole criterion they accept. From that point on, the other components are regarded by them as unnecessary appendages for which noncommittal mumblings suffice. For instance, people who say that for them a Jewish state cannot – from a moral perspective – control a foreign civilian population without giving that population full civil rights, and so long as that is the situation, there is no practical importance to other components of the state’s Jewish identity. I am not referring here to Israel’s democratic dimension, which is crucial in itself, but rather to the idea that there is a “Jewish” problem with the current situation in which we rule over Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. From another direction entirely, some other population group could argue that a basic obligation of a Jewish state is to fully exempt Torah scholars from military service as opposed to any other civic duty, and without a clear exemption of this kind the state does not merit consideration as a Jewish state at all, as Torah study is its necessary and foundational attribute.

Given these tangible dangers, we must exercise great caution when enumerating the components of a Jewish state. While taking care to include the basic and vital requirements mentioned above, we must strive to the best of our ability not to add inessential requirements – assuming, of course, that those specific components would have to be considered basic and foundational. Moreover, regarding those components on which an overwhelming majority of the public agrees, it would be better if we did not rush to establish a hierarchy of importance for them.

The above notwithstanding, I would like to suggest another basic component of the definition of the Jewish state. This would be the solidarity that is necessary between the state’s citizens, and the promotion of such solidarity in the state education system and in the political party platforms (which by now barely exist…). We must not ignore the distress of different subgroups and individuals in our society, regardless of their lifestyle and political views. Responsibility for the welfare of all the state’s citizens should take clear precedence over any contrary, and certainly any divisive, stance. Some will maintain that the element of solidarity is not a natural hallmark of a Jewish state. Yet it seems to me that over the generations, solidarity has in fact become a salient feature of our people, one that in any event any Jewish political framework is obligated to. We must not disregard the foundational sentiments of the groups that make up Israel’s population. Clearly it is impossible to ensure equal expression in public life of the ideals of all the major sectors of the populace. For this we have a democratic framework in the form of elections and the work of the Knesset, the government, and the judiciary. At the same time, however, we must strive to restore identification and empathy toward the basic views of different segments of the public.

Good examples of this crucial concept are easy to find. For instance, at the time of the kibbutz movement’s grave social and economic crisis there was a sense that a large segment of the population was not trying to understand the depth of the problem and its consequences for the kibbutz members. Even the kibbutz movement’s major contribution to the state’s defense, to the settlement of various parts of the country, and to the flourishing of Israeli agriculture received insufficient attention. Another example, pertaining to a completely different population group, has to do with those evacuated from Gush Katif as part of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Although the evacuees’ own ideological views were not at issue, there was a painful sense of their plight not being regarded in a humane and accepting way. In my view, the government, the Knesset, and the legal system all displayed insufficient sensitivity to the evacuees’ ideological, human, and economic crisis. A Jewish state has to express deep and encompassing solidarity with its component population groups in times of distress and help them willingly even in the face of serious ideological and political discord. This indicator reflects the transition from life in widely-dispersed exilic communities to a common life of solidarity in a state that embodies a single vision.

A Jewish state must make a deep and sincere effort to give expression to Jewish heritage and its values. The country’s healthcare and social service systems, for example, should speak in a much more “Jewish” language about responsibility for citizens’ wellbeing and health. Important joint projects between religious and secular Israelis in this sphere, especially pertaining to the younger generation, should reflect such a commonality of values. A Jewish state should also restore to their rightful and central place the humanities in general, and Jewish studies in particular. Ignorance in these fields is a human and Jewish failure; knowledge of Jewish heritage is a basic right no less important than other civil rights. The ability to express oneself well orally and in writing, and the skills necessary to exchange views in a dignified and substantive manner, are natural outgrowths of our sacred sources, and a Jewish state must promote those abilities as such. The sharp decline in written and oral expression skills necessarily manifests in poor thinking. Jewish studies should bear most of the burden of restoring the humanities to a place of honor. Other disciplines (such as foreign languages, history, and general philosophy) should of course not be devalued, but it would not be acceptable for those fields, however important, to supplant Jewish studies within the humanities in terms of status. Scientists, legal scholars, physicians, and engineers produce more outstanding work when their education is strengthened by Jewish studies. A revalorization of Jewish heritage would reflect the consolidation of a shared spiritual/intellectual foundation and sense of solidarity for all sectors.

A crucial feature of the identity of a Jewish state relates to the character of the political and governmental system. This is not the place to propose changes to the system, but I believe that certain basic rules must be observed for a state to be considered Jewish in the deepest sense. For example, a spirit of humility and caution must guide the state’s leaders. It is not enough to be a member of a Zionist, or a religious, or a Haredi political party to be a real partner in the mission. People who are dishonest in word and deed should not be considered appropriate candidates for Knesset seats or ministerial posts in a Jewish state. People who are self-involved or arrogant should not be leaders of a Jewish state. Term limits for those holding office are necessary to prevent moral and ethical degeneration. Public and political transparency are not merely civic and democratic needs, but also expressions of a crucial Jewish value. Self-restraint on the part of judges and ministers in their statements and decisions is a necessary factor in the shaping of the state’s identity. Jewish heritage is a platform that demands such cautiousness. A Jewish state cannot be just a slogan or a dream, nor should it be a platform for aggressive caprice. The state’s Jewish nature should dictate explicit and solemn duties borne by the state’s elected officials, judges, and functionaries. Tell us how humble and cautious the president, the prime minister, the judges, the ministers, the Knesset members, the position-holders and the advisers are, and we’ll tell you the degree to which we truly inhabit a Jewish state. Solidarity between the citizens of the Jewish state entails the existence of a clear hierarchy of values that applies as equally as possible to those in positions of power and to the rest of the citizenry.

A Jewish state requires all of the above and more, by way of genuine and ongoing dialogue with the state’s democratic component. The “Jewish and democratic” pairing in any case represents what chemists would call a compound, not a mixture. Neither of these components should be discussed separately; each of the two foundational values should strive where possible to display that aspect of it that best “speaks” to its counterpart. The combination is obviously complex and difficult, but there is almost nothing, or nothing at all, of value in human life that is not difficult, sometimes very difficult. It is not for nothing that the world of creative and literary endeavor has been emphasized in this essay. A Jewish state is not merely our affirmation about ourselves; we must also bring the full range of Jewish spiritual and creative endeavor to bear on the state’s intellectual and practical activity. And here I will take the liberty of concluding with a poem written not long ago that touches slightly on these topics.

Definitive Homeland

Things are further than

I thought, my old calculations have stumbled

against values that destroyed themselves forgetting to consider the end.

Things are much closer than

once possible, faster and reaching all time sitting it down like a child on their laps.

The essentials are hidden. Their shadow is lost

and the light alone cannot be found,

its weight has been set aside, not to burden our weaknesses.

Yet the sea is more involved than usual,

even the rivers of the land are mainly

coastal streams spilling from it.

A definitive Jewish homeland rushes along the deep sands

while its pursuers hasten along the path of their imagination.

Things happen more than we thought

just so we have something to remember,

distance and time uncouple in a blast of broken sounds

And we cannot know which of them covers our deeds.


Work cited

Zweig, Stefan (1942]). The World of Yesterday (Viking Press, trans, 1943).


Professor Miron C. Izakson is a poet and novelist. He is a professor of Hebrew literature at Bar-Ilan University.