Has Israel been fulfilling its historic mission? There is abundant evidence that it has. Since the founding of the state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Israel’s Jewish population has grown by more than 1000%. The prophetic vision of the Return to Zion has been realized, with the Jewish people’s historic homeland now home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The Hebrew language, once esoteric and strictly religious, has been miraculously resurrected into a living vernacular—a wild and creative language spoken by millions of children, many of whose parents would feel more at home in Russian, English, or Arabic.
The establishment of the State of Israel enabled the “People of the Book” to demonstrate that they have a unique ability to act in the world. Despite its small size, Israel has altered the face of modern agriculture, produced the world’s largest generic pharmaceutical company, built a world-class military, and turned itself into the widely-acclaimed “start-up nation.” The Israeli economy is stable and growing, despite the global crisis. Following the recent discovery of offshore natural gas fields, Israel is now even marching toward energy independence.
Despite Israel’s objectively impressive achievements, we must acknowledge that the Jewish state has not lived up to a crucial component of its historic mission.
For two millennia, until 1948, the Jews lived in exile, operating as individuals or within the family or community, but never functioning as a group with responsibility for the public domain. For centuries, important aspects of Jewish civilization were underdeveloped because Jews did not have sovereignty.
Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were always a minority, and never had to deal with the challenge of ruling over a national minority. Thus, one of the most important directives in Jewish tradition—the proper treatment of the “stranger,” the Biblical Other—was never tested in practice until the Jews had sovereignty. Jewish religious law did not develop a bill of rights or otherwise regulate relations between the government and its citizens. In addition, since Jews did not have an army or police force in exile, Jewish ethics did not have the opportunity in modern times to respond to debates about the use of force by the collective and other important questions.
Jewish tradition is built on a commitment to tikkun olam—repairing the world. Although Jews have devoted themselves to this mission as individuals and groups, it was only upon the establishment of their own nation-state that they could pursue Jewish options for such repair through a sovereign state. The State of Israel was expected to undertake this task, yet this expectation has yet to be fully realized. Both in Israel and abroad, some Jews (and non-Jews) are discontented with Israel because the state has yet to fulfill its historic role of developing a distinctly Jewish form of public thought and action that would enable the Zionist enterprise to take its place in the glorious tradition of those who take responsibility for universal world repair.
What explains this delay?
Ever since the 1967 Six Day War, for more than two-thirds of Israel’s history, the Israeli marketplace of ideas has been dominated by the controversy over the country’s borders. In addition, the world, including most Jews, looks at Israel almost exclusively through this prism. Naturally, there are good reasons for this; continued Israeli rule over another people—even for those who see it as a security necessity—impairs both the Jewish and the democratic character of the state. But because Israeli discourse has focused nearly exclusively on this one question, Israel has, in effect, slipped into an identity coma. An individual’s attitude towards “the conflict” has become the determining factor of one’s identity in our generation, a corrosive solvent that consumes everything else. As a result of the debate about Israel’s borders, the question of the nature of national life within those borders—wherever they may lie—has been neglected. How ironic!
The recent Israeli elections indicate a change in direction. Against the backdrop of a pervasive sense that the conflict is currently unresolvable—a tragedy in its own right—a new coalition has been formed whose members disagree on foreign policy and defense but come together around a common civic agenda that includes matters of identity. Unlike fundamentalist groups which would have Israel choose between its Jewish essence and democratic character, the new Knesset shows signs of favoring a complex integration of the universal-democratic aspects of Israel’s national identity with its particularistic-Jewish facets.
The State of Israel is a Sleeping Beauty. In 1967, when she was barely 19 years old, she was pricked by the spindle of the border debate and fell into a deep civic coma. Our wish for her 65th birthday is that the recent elections will be the kiss that awakens this princess, so that she can rise to meet the rest of the challenges of Jewish sovereignty.