Monday, July 22, 2002

Perspectives on Zionism

The current war being fought in Israel is causing deep soul-searching in every corner of the political spectrum. The fact that 54 years after the establishment of their state, the Jews are still fighting tooth and nail for their national survival is bringing many to ask if Zionism can really be considered a success.

By every physical standard, Zionism is an unparalleled success. Over the last hundred years the land of Israel has increased its capacity to support a population from a few hundred thousand to 5.3 million Jews and almost as many Arabs. Israeli universities churn out scientific achievements at a rate far greater than most other western nations. The Israeli military is a modern and fearsome fighting machine with the demonstrated ability to repeatedly vanquish a vastly numerically superior enemy. So why is there an increasing sense of despair on the streets of Tel Aviv these days?

Despite their differences, the one thing that the early Zionists had in common with each other was that they were secular. This lack of belief in a higher power convinced them that it was up to them to solve the problems facing the Jewish world by their own power. The secular Zionists interpreted the anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust as proof that life in the Diaspora is untenable. Therefore, the clearest solution to the anti-Semitism and torture that the Jews of Europe were facing was to set up a state of their own. They could then stand tall and face their European neighbors as equals. The state would have a strong military to prevent raging Cossacks and boot-clicking Nazis from wiping them out. After becoming free of the chains of Europe, the Jews would be able to speak their own language, Hebrew, and pursue their own national destiny as a people.

If judged by these goals, secular Zionism is an abject failure. Israel’s right to exist is routinely denied by the Arabs, and even the Europeans frequently question it. Israelis are being booted out of European universities, Israeli sports teams are no longer welcome in Europe, and European nations frequently tax or boycott Israeli products. Israel is the Jew of the nations. For all of its tanks and planes and hydrogen bombs, Israel is still unable (or unwilling) to use its military to defend its citizens. Today’s descendants of the Nazis and Cossacks are funding terrorist attacks by siphoning European Union funds to the Palestinian Authority. “Israeli Culture” today seems to be more American culture translated into Hebrew. The cultural characteristics of America from Coca Cola to Viagra to road rage are popping up all over the Israel. The Israeli state, which was supposed to be a refuge, is probably the least secure place for a Jew to live in the world.

But by religious standards, Israel is an unparalleled success. Traditionally religious Judaism (orthodoxy) views history as moving in a specific direction. The end goal of history is to reach a state of world peace with all of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel and living their lives by the Torah. The State of Israel is viewed by most as an important step on that path. The traditional Jew does not see the end of anti-Semitism as a realistic goal. G-d uses anti-Semitism to correct the course of the Jewish people when they go too far astray. Because the world has not arrived at the final messianic age, then obviously the Jewish people do not yet merit it, and therefore Anti-Semitism must be expected. Since Orthodox Jews believe that G-d created the Universe and everything in it, then no amount of military might or financial prowess is going to make these troubles go away. Only more careful religious observance and strengthening of the bonds between Jewish brethren can mitigate anti-Semitism.

When the Secular Jew looks at America, the ultimate golden Diaspora, he sees all of the physical and financial security Jews enjoy here. He finds a tolerant atmosphere and Jews reaching unparalleled prosperity and levels of acceptance. The original goals of secular Zionism; security, equality, and cultural freedom, can be more easily attained here in America.
But to the Orthodox Jew, life in America, however sweet, is transitory. The fact that Jews have become Federal Reserve Chairmen and movie producers and Vice Presidential candidates does not change the fact that history has a goal for us, and it is not going to be fulfilled here. The accomplishments of Diaspora Jewry are impermanent, and some day we will be called upon to fold our tents, pack our bags, and catch the next flight to Jerusalem. The only indelible edifice that there will be to our ever having existed will be the effect we have on the souls of the people who live around us. This explains the planeloads of secular Israelis who are leaving Israel for America, and the planeloads of American Orthodox Jews who pass them in the air on their way to Israel.