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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775

Reflections at 60 II

Galilee Diary #393, June 8, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


Palestineis a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.
-Israel Zangwill, 1901

The celebration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state invites, like any birthday, not only jubilation, but also reflection about the past and the future. Such milestones are, of course, rather arbitrary – what's so special, for example about 60 as opposed to 59 or 61 – or 59.75? But since we can't celebrate continuously and we can't reflect continuously, special birthdays help us keep everything in proportion.

In any case, a topic that has attracted my interest in this birthday year is the as yet unanswered question (even after 60 years) of just what is our vision of the Jewish state. We all (or most of us) agree that there should be one, but we disagree, sometimes violently, over what it should look like. An interesting focus in this debate is the relationship between the new Jewish state and one that existed in the past. Zionism has from its inception seen its goal as restoration – the return of the Jewish people to its homeland, the rebuilding of Jewish pride, sovereignty, and power, the reintegration of the Jewish nation into the history of nations, the revitalization of the tradition. We had something once, we lost it, and now we are going to get it back. The concept of return, of course, strengthens our political-moral claim: we are not conquering or colonizing a land, we are simply returning to the land whose deed we have been carrying around (in the Bible) for centuries. The prophets repeatedly promised that the exile would be finite, and that there would come a time when we would come back, rebuild, and our sovereignty would be re-established. It was always only a question of time. Zionism, by transposing the action of restoration from God's responsibility to ours, makes the prophecy of restoration into a real possibility in real time.

So, what exactly was it like in the good old days to which we seek to return? Did they really exist? Were they really so good? Do we want to go back, or forward?

One characteristic that seems to be implied in our goal of restoration is homogeneity of the population of the land. We want to go back to the days when it was "just us" here. Remember the biblical promise, and instructions, regarding ridding the land of its pagan inhabitants whose immorality had canceled whatever claim they had. The biblical image seems to suggest a land populated entirely by the Children of Israel. Such a possibility certainly beckons – wouldn't it make life easier if we didn't have to deal with a national minority, with "strangers?"

Alas, no such luck. Even the Torah (Leviticus 25:47) imagines a situation in which a Jew in Israel might become indentured to his non-Jewish neighbor. And in Joshua chapter 9, after conquering just two cities, Joshua makes his first deal, confirming coexistence with the Gibeonites. Later, in Judges 1 we find a catalog of tribes we didn't conquer or drive out – and in Judges 2 we learn that God lost His temper and decided to stop any further removals. And so it turns out that there never was a time when we had the land all to ourselves, when we didn't have to worry about sharing power, about cultural influences, about mixed marriage – even in the land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty. Through centuries of suffering at the hands of gentiles, we longed to live in a land without any, and created for ourselves a myth of a bygone time that would return, a time when we had a land, our land, all to ourselves. Living in the shadow of that myth makes it hard for us to deal with Christmas decorations in Tel Aviv and Arabs in the Knesset. But it seems that even when the messiah comes and brings us forward to our great past, there will still be Christmas decorations in Tel Aviv, and Arabs in the Knesset – so we'll have to make a place for both in our vision of Zion restored.

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