“Here the Divine Presence Will Reside”

The Declaration of Independence promises that Israel will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” To our great pride and satisfaction, the state is indeed guided by those precepts, or at least aspires to be, though it is still far from conducting itself as envisaged by the Prophets. The Declaration’s drafters themselves made selective use of the prophetic vision, to great rhetorical effect.


Full disclosure: I’m younger than the state by nine years, but old enough to be amazed at how far it’s come since I first became mindful of it. Twilight strolls near my workplace in south Jerusalem, in the city’s less-holy “basin,” fill me with redemptive joy even on weekdays. I’m unable to look with equanimity upon the high-rises that have sprung up in front of my very eyes, or at the Begin Expressway, or even the pedestrian bridge that extends over the Expressway from Teddy Stadium to Malha Mall. As a ten-year-old boy I had the opportunity to view the area from the once-intimate neighborhood of Bayit VeGan, when it was still nothing but rocks, brambles, and signs proclaiming “Stop! Border Ahead!” Divided Jerusalem ended with the Holyland Hotel (of blessed memory); now it sprawls out to Gush Etzion (long live the Gush). Little Israel once stretched only as high as the Shalom Tower, today we’re launching communication and spy satellites in space. In the meantime, only the moral aspirations once vested in the country have shrunk.

Very few veteran Israelis, those who still remember the British flag waving here, will tell you that the Israel of 5783 is the state they dreamed of in their youth. They’ll usually add an asterisk of disappointment to the customary words of wonderment. Israel’s military might, its credit rating, even its sensational technological capabilities – none of these things will get them to say that the dream has come true. For the most part they’ll remark, with a sigh, that they or their fathers hoped and believed that Israel would be a light unto the nations, but that things turned out otherwise and the longed-for Jewish state became, alas, a nation like all others.

Were we ever actually a light unto the nations? Were we ever a model state? Great abominations took place here even under the Davidic monarchy. Uri Zvi Greenberg, the state’s harshest critic of all time, denounced it in one of his early poems, though not without affirming that he still preferred statehood to exile: “Yes, so it was in the time of the Temple / Lies veiled by holy incense / And the stench of blood disguised by frankincense / […] But in Temple times there was nation and kingdom / A land of vine-growers and farmers and seers / Ships in the sea and army on land / High Priest in the Sanctuary and judge in the gate.”[1]

Thank God and Ben-Gurion, for 75 years now we have had almost all the above, except for the Temple: nation and sovereignty, vine-growers and farmers, ships and army, judges in Jerusalem; to an extent there have even been seers and kohanim (High Priests) – but also considerable self-criticism. This self-criticism testifies to a collective thirst for national substance, not just for the structure that contains it. Our continual self-accounting is a cornerstone of Israel’s Oral Constitution. The Jewish people ceaselessly ruminate on the character of their state, thereby giving a liberal interpretation to the term am segulah – “a chosen people.” As far as I know, the Italians don’t wonder every morning what an Italian state is, and the Mexicans are quite comfortable with their country’s Mexican character. Even the Chinese appear satisfied in their selfies. The identity crisis of countries dissatisfied with themselves has to do mainly with their ethnic composition, what in our day is commonly referred to as the “immigration issue.” Introspectively, these nations wonder how many more foreigners they can absorb without disrupting their original biological makeup – almost solely their biological makeup. In the United States, bitter discord also rages over issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and global warming, but these disputes don’t directly relate to how the Americans define their country. Each side of the argument wants its nation – the entire world, actually – to align with its value system. Neither side thinks it’s solely an internal American matter.

For us as well, biology plays a decisive role in the debate over our future. When the Zionist left preaches about a Jewish and democratic state, it’s really aiming for separation between Jews and Arabs – “Us here and them there.” The Zionist left’s Jewish state is above all a state of Jews. In my life I’ve spent countless hours debating with my leftist brothers about territories and peace, but not once have I heard anyone say we need to divide Eretz Israel in order to properly sustain our national spirit in the part of the land that will remain ours. It’s been explained to me hundreds of times that dividing the land is necessary in order to safeguard democratic values and ensure a Jewish majority. Everyone talked about peace, but no one talked about justice.

When Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to my little settlement, Ofra, in 2004 to explain the disengagement plan, he, too, clung tightly to the demographic argument. Olmert warned that if the Israeli government didn’t separate from the Palestinians as soon as possible, we’d be forced to give them full political rights in order to avoid apartheid scenarios, and then – in his words – “the state of the Jews would be finished.” According to a summary of the meeting stored in the State Archives, Olmert related that his parents “immigrated from China in 1933, as Zionists, to live as Jews in a Jewish state,” and declared that “the line is maximum Jews, minimum Arabs.” Yours truly ventured in response that Olmert’s parents, like my own grandparents who came here in the 1920s, were presumably prompted by other challenges when they embarked from Europe for Jaffa Port. They desired to live as Jews in a Jewish state, but they didn’t plan for that state to be without Arabs. Had they been that concerned about the demographic problem, they’d have stayed in the Diaspora, since the Jews of Eretz Israel were then a negligible minority between the Jordan and the sea. They had no chance of becoming the majority by natural means. Ideas of partitioning the land between the two peoples as a solution to the demographic problem were placed on the national agenda only in the late 1930s, and on the initiative of a third party – His Majesty’s Government. That government was not especially interested in the question of the composition of the tiny Jewish state that would emerge here after the partition, confined mainly to the coastal strip.

What, in fact, were my grandmother and grandfather thinking when they dreamed of a Jewish state? Did the suitcases of the senior Mr. and Mrs. Olmert contain detailed master plans alongside the vague yearnings expressed in the old Israel Dushman lyrics: “Here in the land our fathers loved, all our hopes will be fulfilled,” or “Here the Shekhina [Divine Presence] will reside, here the language of Torah will thrive”? Although Olmert senior eventually became a Knesset member (courtesy of the Herut movement), and my father became a school principal (courtesy of his pedagogic impulse), I suspect that neither of them had detailed plans. Mostly, they had a vision. They knew that a Jewish state was the sole geographic and spiritual solution to the existential crisis of the Jews in the modern age, and for this reason they went ahead and came here themselves. They and their wives had the great good fortune of seeing Israeli independence declared in the spring of 1948. Israel is not supposed to be purely a Jewish state, but rather the exclusive refuge for Jews from the disaster of assimilation, the indispensable alternative for Jewish life. Israel’s 75th Independence Day is a fitting opportunity, perhaps one of the last, to remind our brothers who still linger in the Diaspora that only here will the Shekhina reside, only here will the language of the Torah thrive. Not in Manhattan, not in Golders Green, and certainly not in Berlin, or even at a Chabad House in Thailand; only in the state of the Jews located in the land of the Jews.

The Declaration of Independence promises that Israel will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” To our great pride and satisfaction, the state is indeed guided by those precepts, or at least aspires to be, though it is still far from conducting itself as envisaged by the Prophets. The Declaration’s drafters themselves made selective use of the prophetic vision, to great rhetorical effect. They deflected the attention of the world, and perhaps even of the Declaration’s signatories, from the fact that the prophets of Israel were not concerned solely with freedom, justice, peace, or the rights of the stranger. Rather, the Prophets stood guard to ensure the loyalty of the nation and the kingdom to the precepts of the Torah given on Mount Sinai. The Israel of the coming generations will have to uphold those precepts as well, to the best of its ability – and it would be wise to begin with the commandment to observe the Sabbath. As we know: more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.

A Jewish state in the spirit of the prophets of Israel is a Shabbat-observant state, at least where the public realm is concerned; it is definitely not a state where public transit runs 24/7 and the malls are never closed. It is a land that the eyes of the Lord are always upon, from the beginning of the year to its end, and whose people therefore maintain their morality, their compassion for the orphan, the widow, and the poor. The heads of its education system wage relentless war on ignorance, including Jewish ignorance; on slander and derogatory speech; on disrespect for parents and teachers; on the yearning for authoritarianism of any kind; and they never tire of reminding pupils that Zionism is first and foremost loyalty to Zion: Jerusalem, Shiloh, Beit El, Hebron, Bethlehem of Judea and Bethlehem of Galilee, the “Eretz Israel of houses and courtyards,” in the words of Reb Nachman of Breslov. If only the Rebbe were here so we could tell him how hard it is to keep the land under our sovereignty – while also, perhaps, being privileged to hear his prayer of thanksgiving and a reminder that there is no despair in the world at all. At the end of the day – at the end of the Exile – the task of shaping the character of the Jewish state is a “rich man’s dilemma.” If we take care to remember where we came from, we will also know where we’re headed.

Hagai Segel is a journalist and publicist, and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Makor Rishon.

[1] Uri Zvi Greenberg. Collected Works, edited by Dan Miron (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1994), p. 73.