In my last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.
But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.
So I decided that I needed to include a chapter towards the end of The Promise of Israel to address this. I needed to remind them that Israel isn’t just a homeland far away, but it’s actually the generator that provides an enormous portion of the energy for the American Jewish community. Sans Israel, I decided to argue, American Jews would find themselves without perhaps the one issue that truly motivates and energizes their community. Without Israel, after all, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long-since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel shame, or anger, or exhilaration? What else in Jewish life evokes the same intensity of emotion? It’s actually hard to think of examples.
When JCC’s discuss whether or not they should be open on Shabbat, do people get exercised? Not really. When a Jewish home for the aging decides to cease offering kosher food, does the issue bring out the masses? In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco that both saw Jews at the forefront and had clear anti-Semitic overtones; but did it provoke a stir anywhere near as powerful as what happened after an Israeli naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before? Not at all!
When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why, though? Sometimes, it seems that American Jews get much more worked up about what Israeli rabbis who are not of their denomination say than they do when their own local rabbis speak!
We should not ignore this peculiar phenomenon, because it speaks to something very deep inside us. When we think about it, we understand that on some level, we intuit that a People without a state is missing something critical. We can’t articulate precisely why, but we know it’s true. American Jews, secure and confident though they are, need Israel because whether we want to admit it or not, even in the Diaspora, Israel is key to making the Jewish experience whole.
That is why issues in issue electrify American Jews in ways that many “domestic” Jewish issues don’t. This, too, is a conversation that I hope that The Promise of Israel will help to foster.
In my previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that The Promise of Israel might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.
In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere twenty-seven years later. John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, and fifty-two years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.
Ideas do matter. They shape history. It is ideas, even more than territory or money, over which people go to war. Witness the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world today. That conflict, one of the gravest dangers facing our world, is really about ideas. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists do not seek the West’s wealth. What they are doing is attacking the West’s culture and ideas.
Israel, I wanted my book to argue, can be our way of fighting back. For Israel is not just about borders or an army, great universities and world class medical care. It’s a story, and even more than that, Israel is the platform from which the Jewish People says something to the world about the ideas that we have been cultivating for millennia.
Jews have never bought into post-ethnic, post-identity ethos so in vogue in today’s discourse. We’ve always believed it was good that people were different, that we could learn from each other precisely because we were not the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile, more than a century before Theodor Herzl began his campaign for a Jewish State, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” Well, now we have that state. Our responsibility, I think, is to make sure that we’re speaking not only about borders and security, but about the very ideas that lie at the core of Israel, and that hopefully, the world will come to understand that it needs to hear.
People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.
The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
So I decided that what we really need to being speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.
The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.