For years now, certain Jewish intellectuals have looked forward to the coming “cultural war” in Israel, wistfully envisioning the day when withdrawal from the West Bank would release the country from the business of war with the Arabs and finally permit them the more genial pastime of having it out with the Orthodox over the character of the state. And indeed, with the signing of the Oslo agreements with the PLO in 1993, Israel was suddenly inundated by cultural artifacts intended to flaunt a new openness: joint Jordanian-Israeli rock concerts; theatrical performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Palestinian Arabs playing the Montagues and Israeli Jews the Capulets; a vast “peace” party on the beach in the old Roman city of Caesarea to which crowds of young Israelis came in togas—insipid but benign warning shots over the bow of the old “Jewish” and “Zionist” culture.
But in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a rightist fanatic from the religious community, all the fantasizing about a fraternal and entertaining cultural war has quickly dissolved. Israel and the entire Jewish people have suddenly found themselves staring into the immediate future, beyond the presumed end of the war with the Arabs, and directly into the face of yet another, very real war. The cultural war for which the intellectuals had yearned, having spat out three bullets, laid low a national leader, and sent the country into un-imagined convulsions of internecine recrimination and hatred, is suddenly no pastime. Suddenly, it is a war much like the wars with the Arabs—a war that can kill, a war worth avoiding. But too late. It is here.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, with threats and investigations being aimed almost at random, a handful of supporters of the Rabin government urged that the Jewish state pull itself back from the brink: that the tragedy be used as an occasion to bring the country together, rather than as an excuse for a fight to the finish against the political Right and the religious. But to no avail. With few exceptions, the Left intelligentsia, both in Israel and abroad, took the assassination as the ultimate proof of everything it had long believed on the subject of those tribalistic, law-breaking, anti-intellectual, violent theocrats—traditional Jews. It was obvious there would never be a better chance to say so, and the temptation to proceed with a savage attack proved irresistible.
What made the assassination so appealing as a vehicle was the ease with which Yigal Amir, the rightist-religious extremist who had been cooking his horrendous deed for over two years, could be dressed up as the “everyman” of the nationalist opposition, your typical religious Jew. Amir, it was said, was “a boy next door . . . from a stable, religious family”; “just your average religious right-wing hard-liner”; “the product of the best religious-Zionist schools in Israel.” He “came out of the mainstream religious Right,” and “carried the same banners, shouted the same slogans, believed the same doctrines” as most other Orthodox Jews in Israel. By dint of simple arithmetic, if a “boy next door” like Amir were capable of such craven, fratricidal bloodletting, then so was practically any traditionalist Jew.
The conclusions as to what measures must be taken were quick to follow. The prominent Israeli writer Amos Oz declared:
The dividing wall . . . passes between those [in Israel] who aspire to Iranian-style theocracy, and the state of Israel—between them, and all of us. I hope that from now on Israel will have a Left which is truly dovish, and an opposing Right which is truly hawkish. And wnat won’t there be? Filth. It will disappear. Not of its own accord—we must make sure to use the law to get rid of it.
The Israeli commentator Ze’ev Chafets:
To survive, democratic Israel must knock the fundamentalist rabbis off their pedestals and lock up their violent disciples. This means cutting off public funds to schools and youth organizations that indoctrinate children in anti-democratic ideals. . . .
Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress:
[T]he Orthodox community is the seedbed . . . of a political culture that is profoundly hostile to the traditional democratic and liberal values of American Jews and of the founders of the Jewish state.
The Israeli philosopher David Hartman:
Jewish texts . . . not mediated by people who have a profound respect for democratic values, will turn into a moral barbarism. . . . If that happens, Judaism will be a threat to the future or Israel.
Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic:
This is not a time for healing. This is a time for reckoning. . . . The ugly truth . . . is that there is a community of Jews, in Israel and America, who are beyond the reach of decency. I do not want to “come together” with this community. I want to curse it, to fight it.
Yes, but who are these “fundamentalist rabbis” who are “beyond the reach of decency,” who are “profoundly hostile to democratic values,” who “aspire to Iranian-style theocracy,” and who are a “threat to the future of Israel”? Reading dozens of such articles from the Israeli and American press yields almost no references to the actual rabbis, institutions, books, or schools of thought that constitute the enemy against whom decent folk should go out and wage war. This is one discussion, it seems, that requires no research stage: you can get a lot farther in the culture war by overlooking who believes what and just lashing out directly at “them,” an elastic term which invites the reader to hate as many traditionalist Jews as he can label “fundamentalist”—maybe all of them.
In determining that “Rabin’s assassination . . . represents the next step in the debasement of Israeli political life by religious zealotry,” the American political philosopher Michael Walzer also declined to name names. But, sparing us the pretense of others, he at least described what it is he wants to see in the political life of the Jewish state—indeed, what a great many of Rabin’s self-appointed avengers seem to want:
Life in Israel today makes one long for a naked public square: politics without God, without myth and fantasy, without eternal enemies, without sacred causes or holy ground.
They want an Israeli politics without traditional Judaism.
Many of the intellectual and political figures who in the wake of the assassination have advocated “separating” traditional Judaism from the Jewish state depict themselves as taking up the cudgels of Theodor Herzl, the late-19th-century founding visionary of modern Jewish nationalism. Herzl and his closest followers in the Zionist Organization (ZO), they emphasize, were not themselves religious, and the ideas Herzl advocated were, to say the least, not particularly rooted in Jewish tradition. They also recall Herzl’s famous dictum against theocracy: just as soldiers belong in their barracks and not ruling the state, so, too, do rabbis belong in the synagogues and not in the government.
Yet Herzl was no preacher of secularism, and Jews could still benefit today from his ideas on the place of religion in the Jewish state. Herzl was what we would now call a political conservative, for whom the possibility of resurrecting an independent Jewish polity depended primarily on Jewish national power. But it was precisely his unique understanding of what constituted real national power that led him to regard the strengthening of Jewish tradition as a proper and essential interest of the state.
In his book Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), published 100 years ago in February 1896, Herzl laid out his theory that the true core of national strength is the idea of the nation in the minds of the people. Far from basing himself on today’s materialistic conception of “nation-building”—the security services, bureaucracies, technology transfers, and economic projects which supposedly indicate that a country is “developing”—Herzl believed that nations are built from the mental achievements of peoples.
He argued, for example, that the national power of the Jewish state abroad had to be based not primarily on military might, but on an aggressive diplomatic stance that would persuade foreign governments the Jewish state was important to their own interests. Similarly, national power on the home front was primarily a matter not of acquiring physical assets such as farms and factories—as his opponents, the forebears of Labor Zionism, maintained—but of acquiring assets of mind which would deepen the people’s “national consciousness”: their interest in the nation’s existence and their desire to take part in its upbuilding.
Herzl named three types of such assets of mind, without which he believed it would be impossible to win the Jews to the cause of the Jewish state on a permanent basis. The first were entrepreneurial; these would enable the Jews, for the first time in millennia, to apply their creative talents in freedom for their own personal betterment. The second were cultural, empowering Jews in the new state to partake of the “best” of mankind’s achievements.
Herzl’s third asset of the mind was the Jewish religion. This he considered to have been indispensable in nurturing the national idea in the past (“All through the night of their history,” he wrote, “the Jews have not ceased to dream this royal dream: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ ”), and he believed it would continue to be essential in the future (“[W]e recognize our historic identity only by the faith of our fathers”). For this reason, Herzl insisted that the national awakening of the Jews and their ingathering into the land of Israel should be led by rabbis, and that the synagogues in the newly built Jewish state should “be visible from afar, since the old faith is the only thing that has kept us together.”
But Herzl considered the most important expression of religion in the Jewish state to be the establishment of “centers of faith”—not synagogues, but national holy places which could capture the imagination of the people, focusing them on their Jewish past and their common destiny. Along with entrepreneurship and culture, these religious centers would comprise the essential national assets of mind needed to produce a magnetic Jewish nationalism, capable of attracting the Jews of the world to the Jewish state: “For all these . . . taken together constitute a long-sought entity, one for which our people has never ceased to yearn . . .—a free homeland.”
Remarkably, Herzl’s theory of national power was based almost entirely on the power of ideas, and on the creativity of the Jewish mind in diplomacy, business, culture, and religion. No amount of military power could secure the state without these; and if these were not secured, the Jewish state would end up being of only “temporary” interest to the Jews, and would not endure.
Herzl died in 1904, a mere eight years after the publication of Der Judenstaat, and the Zionist Organization he had founded to implement his idea rapidly lost touch with it. Increasingly dominated by Herzl’s opponents, the ZO became obsessed by the “practical” work of fundraising to subsidize farms and factories in Palestine, in effect substituting the materialistic aims of Russian socialism, and of the “Labor” Zionism which was its ideological stepchild, for the national goals Herzl had prescribed.
Labor Zionism, a peculiar synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism, originated in Russia at the time when Marxist dialectical materialism was at the peak of its influence, and it is from there that the movement inherited its own messianic materialism: the idea that it is physical things, such as the body, the land, and the means of production, which hold the keys to human redemption. In the words of David Ben-Gurion, its leading figure, Labor Zionism meant bringing “masses of feeble, unproductive, parasitic Jews to fruitful labor. . . . We intend to transform the entire nation, without exception, . . . into workers in Palestine. This is the essence of our movement. . . .” In line with this intention, Labor Zionism sought to create a “new Jew”—the coarse, powerful, anti-intellectual sabra of whom Yitzhak Rabin would become the epitome—and it was such Jews whom Labor Zionism held to have been redeemed.
This doctrine of materialist salvation was no more plausible in its Labor Zionist version than in its Russian one. Nevertheless, both “theologies,” the one in Palestine and the other in Soviet Russia, succeeded in plodding on for decades under the constant threat of imminent war and the constant promise of imminent triumph. When, finally, the tension eased somewhat, each independently proved incapable of transmission to the next generation—and collapsed. In Russia, it was only a matter of decades before the totalitarian Soviet state itself followed suit. In Israel, the consequences of the end of Labor Zionism are still unfolding, but the direction is the same.
It is of course no simple matter criticizing David Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists who had come to dominate life in Jewish Palestine by the 193O’s. There is no question that without their intransigent and heroic administration of the Jewish settlements—in the face of Arab pogroms, British repudiation of the idea of the Jewish state, and the spectacular rise of anti-Semitic regimes in Eastern Europe and Germany—Israel would likely never have been born. Yet it is also a fact, with which one must today come to terms, that one can read Ben-Gurion’s writings and speeches by the hundreds of pages without finding any indication that he recognized the long-term importance of building up the national idea among the Jews.
True, Ben-Gurion did frequently invoke expressions like “spirit,” “culture,” the “visions of the prophets.” But a glance at the context invariably reveals that, to him, such phrases were for the most part rhetorical levers for the accumulation of ever more physical power. For example, in a 50-page essay written when he was Prime Minister in 1951 and summarizing the aims of the fledgling state—principally, the building of new farming settlements, a greater armed force, and an effective bureaucracy—he offered the following in a minuscule section devoted to the importance of the Bible and Hebrew cultural revival:
[T]he final years of resurgence have braced and reinforced Jewish power and built up the vigor of Israel. Plows and tractors, mattocks and bulldozers, machines and forges, rifles and machine-guns, aircraft and ships, farms and factories, transport and laboratories, stables and granaries, installations and shelters, barbed wire and trenches, roads and plantations—for our survival, we must assure the proliferation and perfection of these without remission or surcease. Therefore must the spirit abide within us, in our heart and soul, wonderful, invisible.
In the cultural-historical debate within contemporary Israel, there are those who argue that the Jews of Palestine had no choice but to adopt the materialism of the Labor Zionists, given the circumstances of a land lacking in basic infrastructure and “absorptive capacity.” Others believe the opposite—that the ZO’s almost exclusive devotion to subsidizing Labor kibbutzim and socialized industry at the expense of all other sectors precluded the possibility of massive Jewish immigration, delaying the birth of the state by a decade and helping to doom the very European Jews whom settlement in Israel was supposed to save. But in either case, it is difficult to deny that the Jewish state which came into being in 1948 reflected Labore priorities and not Herzl’s—and to a large extent still does.
Looking back, we can see that even before the founding of the state, there were two foci of resistance to Labor Zionist materialism. The first was the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which became a hothouse of humanist-universalist opposition to Ben-Gurion’s brand of Jewish nationalism; leading figures at the university wrote and taught that the state could not organize itself around this ideology without eventually tending toward messianism and fascism. The second was the Orthodox yeshiva world, within which a new tradition-based Jewish nationalism gradually began to take shape as an alternative Zionist ideology.
By the time Ben-Gurion was finally driven from power in 1963, after three decades of unbroken personal domination of the country, the substantially more developed political visions emanating from these two sources had already begun to displace the terminally immature idea of Labor nationalism as the conceptual framework on which to construct a rationale for life in Israel. In particular, Ben-Gurion’s last years in power were marked by increasingly acrimonious public broadsides from “the professors,” who considered his Labor Zionist ideas “dictatorial” and “totalitarian,” and whose attacks did much to discredit him and hasten his fall. And when, after retirement, he called for a new wave of pioneers to join him in settling the wastes of the Negev, he found that he had failed to raise up a next generation willing to make the sacrifice with him; the Negev remains mostly barren to this day.
The machinery of the Labor party, preoccupied as always with guns and factories, seemed hardly to notice the gaping cultural void created by Ben-Gurion’s departure. But among the professors and their disciples, the political demise of “the old man” was welcomed as the first opportunity to create a more “normal” Israel, one which would apply itself less to archaic and dangerously messianic missions, and more to obtaining peace abroad and enabling personal freedom and self-fulfillment at home—what we would today call a “post-Zionist” Israel.
Far from being a sign of advancing materialism, as is still often claimed by Zionist die-hards, the turn toward post-Zionist values in Israel after Ben-Gurion represented precisely the opposite: the search for something higher on the part of many intelligent Jews for whom life in Labor Israel’s rather mediocre physical reality meant suffocation. Their feeling of alienation from the society constructed by classical Labor Zionism was captured by the novelist Amos Oz, recounting the experience of life on a kibbutz:
They had contempt for everything I was. Contempt for emotions other than patriotism. Contempt for literature other than [the nationalist poet Natan] Alterman. Contempt for values other than courage and stoutheartedness. Contempt for law other than the law of “strength makes the man.”
Among today’s post-Zionists, there are competing conceptions as to what must be done to satisfy the longings of many Israelis for freedom, creativity, urbanity, internationalism, and a touch of universalism—all things that Labor Zionism, in its narrow-mindedness and provincialism, had never been able to provide. Some believe that the “New Israel” can be constructed through the elimination of both Judaism and Jewish nationalism as motive interests of the state, since these are said to lead to racism and the corruption of democracy. Others would keep Judaism, but strip it of anything national or particularistic, since such associations are said to corrupt its essential humanism. Still others argue that the era of the national state is in any case coming to an end, and that Israel will do untold economic or cultural or political harm to its citizens if it tries to resist the worldwide trend toward falling borders and the abandonment of old, battle-scarred identities.
But regardless of the approach, the bottom line is always the same: in the academic world and in the media, among writers and artists, and in the legal establishment—in short, in every corner where an “enlightened” Jew might seek to come to meaningful terms with his country and his world—the idea of the Jewish national state is understood to be destructive, undesirable, and certainly passé.
Among the concrete ramifications has been a wholesale assault on every aspect of government policy that might remind one that Israel was to have been the Jewish state. There is, for instance, the demand by the novelist A.B. Yehoshua and others that the Law of Return (which grants to Diaspora Jews the automatic right of Israeli citizenship) be revised so that citizenship will “no longer be granted automatically,” but rather “in a fashion similar to the way [it] is granted in other properly functioning countries.” There is the increasingly common suggestion, voiced, among others, by Amos Mar-Haim, Labor’s candidate-apparent for the mayoralty of Jerusalem, that Israel’s capital city be redivided, with large sections handed over to the PLO. And there is the vision of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in his book, The New Middle East, of a Jewish-Arab entity encompassing the entire region in which Jewish and Arab national identities will disappear and “our self-awareness and personal identity will be based on this new reality.”
Post-Zionist initiatives already wending their way through the legislative process include the decision by Amnon Rubenstein, currently the Minister of Education, to revamp the directives governing Israel’s school system, removing the “archaic” interest in “Jewish values and culture,” “love of homeland,” and “loyalty to the Jewish people” and replacing it with a pluralistic concern for “the language, culture, and unique heritage of the various population groups in the country.” Other initiatives have already become enshrined in policy, like the Defense Ministry’s new code of ethics for the army, The Spirit of the IDF (“the moral and normative identity card of the Israel Defense Forces”), which does not refer even once to the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition, or the land of Israel.
Precisely as Herzl had feared, the absence among many Jews of a compelling national idea has rendered “temporary” their interest in the Jewish national state. Indeed, many in Israel have simply tired of it, and have gone on to pursue other dreams.
The trouble is—many others have not. Four years after Ben-Gurion’s fall from power, the Six-Day War brought the Jewish state back to most of the places to which the biblical prophets had foretold the Jews would one day return. Herzl’s understanding of the role of religious centers in building the loyalty of a nation could have received no greater vindication than in the consequent upsurge of the national idea among religiously observant Jews, a revival driven by the theories emanating from the Mercaz Harav Kook yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Founded in 1924 by Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, “Mercaz” had offered a vision of the return to the land of Israel as the beginning of divine redemption, including religious sanction for the toil of Labor’s nonreligious farmers, whose physical exertions were seen as instrumental in helping to bring about an ultimate spiritual restoration in Zion. But throughout the ensuing decades, so long as Israel remained, in the eyes of the pious, merely another Levantine republic, such “Kooknik” notions remained subdued. Only in 1967, with the return to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, did the yeshiva world begin to feel that Israel could become something much more significant than the disappointing reality it had been. And then a new generation of Jewish nationalism was abruptly born.
The change was most rapid and most dramatic in the old “religious-Zionist” community, which until 1967 had been little more than an ideological appendage of Labor Zionism. Politically, the religious Zionists, organized in the National Religious party, had supported the leadership of Labor on virtually all issues of foreign and economic policy, reserving their power for securing minimum government conformity to Jewish ritual and for procuring state funds for their institutions—an ultra-petty agenda seemingly designed to earn the contempt of all but their most immediate constituency.
The evaporation of Labor Zionism, however, led to a dramatic turning of the tables. Within a handful of years, it became evident that the only Zionist idea with any kick left in it was the yeshiva nationalism of Mercaz, and the religious-nationalist leadership, suffused with a new sense of responsibility, ran forward to pick up where Ben-Gurion had left off. Thus it came about that the two-and-a-half decades between 1967 and 1992—the same years which the new post-Zionist intellectual elite hoped would produce the “normalization” of the country—turned instead into a protracted struggle over the reemergence of a new national idea.
From the point of view of the post-Zionists, Mercaz’s new nationalism was eerily reminiscent of Ben-Gurionism, although the worse for its religious coloration: those archaic and dangerous Zionist missions, so recently suppressed, had been given a whole new lease on life. And the post-Zionists were right. For despite an ambitious world view rooted in a substantial canon of new and important Zionist philosophical teachings, the practical imperatives championed by Mercaz did turn out to be almost absurdly similar to those of the original Labor Zionism. The “worker” was replaced by the observant Jew in the van of the struggle for redemption, but the materialist concerns of Labor—Jewish settlement of the land, Jewish immigration, military service, and even farming—remained the essential aims being broadcast by the new religious nationalism through a burgeoning network of institutions.
For much of the 1970’s, when the Mercaz-inspired settlement movement was at its high point of activism on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, in Gaza and East Jerusalem, the ideological initiative in Israeli society did indeed seem to have gone over to the new nationalism. The old image of the coarse, powerful, anti-intellectual kibbutznik was replaced at the cutting edge of Israeli society by that of the coarse, powerful, anti-intellectual yeshiva student. The IDF’s elite units, once the exclusive preserve of the children of the collective farms, began finding themselves inundated by religious cadets whose motivation and willingness to sacrifice were the highest in the country—at a time when falling motivation had been widely feared as the gravest threat to the future of the Israeli military. Religious Zionism began to be understood not only as the last Zionism, but as the last ideological force capable of motivating young Jews to sweat and die to build a nation which, in spite of everything, was still in need of such sacrifice.
The renewed commitment to the Jewish state in religious circles had what was perhaps its greatest impact on the mainstream political Right. The Likud party, the political heir to the nonsocialist Zionist movements of the Center and Right, had never really been a player in the high-stakes game to establish a political vision of the Jewish state. Having failed to found a college, a major newspaper, or any other serious organ for the development of political ideas, the “secular” Right became culturally inert in the years after the founding of the state.
When Menachem Begin finally came to power in 1977, it was principally through an alliance with the Mercaz-inspired settlement movement that Likud leaders were able to catch some of the adrenaline of the Ben-Gurionist revival taking place in the religious community, and feel they stood at the helm of something grand. Some prominent figures in Likud even fell into the habit of speaking of the “national camp” (Likud plus its religious allies) as “the new Mapai”—using the old Hebrew name for David Ben-Gurion’s politically and ideologically dominant Labor party.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, we now know that this triumphalism was, if not entirely misplaced, then at least hopelessly premature. The fact is that in the struggle for the heart of the Jewish nation, Mercaz and its allies lost—and badly. The cultural wasteland surrounding Likud remained pristine during its fifteen years in power. And the settlers, despite winning widespread respect and admiration for their idealism, managed to leave the overwhelming majority of Israelis untouched by the spirit of the revival they represented. Even as Mercaz and the settlers sought to rally the country back to its Jewish mission by reminding it of what Labor Zionism had stood for, the majority was being drawn farther away from Labor Zionist values with each passing year.
The rejection of Mercaz and its Ben-Gurionist appeal by a generation well along in its post-Zionism can be found, for example, in the assessment of the settlers offered by the well-known Israeli media commentator, Amnon Dankner:
They hoped that if they were to strike the pose of the mythological sabra, with his shirt hanging out of his pants, with a shock of unruly hair and a firearm, they would become accepted and loved. But their hopes have been frustrated, for they command no real presence in the cultural mainstream and in the cultural elite. What we see today in their doings is kitsch. . . .
The composer Arik Shapira, winner of the Israel Prize, the state’s most prestigious award, demonstrated a similar contempt for the efforts to revitalize Jewish nationalism in his notorious work, “On Your Ruins, Ofra.” Explicating the meaning of this musical composition, he said it looked forward to “the destruction of the [West Bank] settlement of Ofra, with the transfer of all the settlers.” These settlers, added Shapira, “took Zionist values, whose historical role had come to an end, and they decided to resuscitate a corpse. . . . This is a sector [of Israeli society] which I hold in contempt. . . . I abhor them.”
But the clearest repudiation of Mercaz’s message was the 1993 Oslo agreements with Yasir Arafat, which granted control over the geographic core of ancient Israel to the PLO—and thus explicitly abjured the return to these areas promised by the biblical prophets. And yet by the time this deal was cut, nearly two-thirds of the Israeli public was willing (at least immediately after the signing) to accept it.
Still, it would be a serious misreading of events to blame the defeat of Mercaz on the overt popularity of post-Zionism with the average Israeli. Outside of intellectual circles, the great majority are even today quite willing to consider themselves Jews and Zionists; they see themselves as “traditional,” and wish their children knew more about Judaism. There is therefore no question that during the heyday of the Likud-Mercaz alliance, the opportunity existed to construct a hefty consensus around a renewed and attractive Jewish nationalism.
But on the side of the nationalists, no “idea work” was done to match what was taking place on the post-Zionist side. For all the effort that had been poured by the yeshivas into constructing a new Zionist philosophy, almost none turned out to be meaningful to a society seeking a vision of modern Israel. Instead of offering sorely needed direction—what to do with the state’s regimented economy, the chaos of its political constitution, its ongoing diplomatic weakness, or even its increasingly malignant cultural institutions—the Zionists concentrated on settlements, land, armies. Not surprisingly, this message once again failed to inspire broad and profound belief in Jewish national life, just as it had failed to do when Ben-Gurion was selling it the first time around.
Mercaz not only failed in too faithfully adopting the content of Ben-Gurion’s materialist message; it clung too closely to his political method as well. Like the Labor Zionists, the settlers relied almost exclusively on an incremental politics whose standard of achievement was an additional house built, an additional Jew moved out to the settlements. Their political tools were consequently the most primitive conceivable: pulling strings with the government for budgets to build homes in the territories, speechmaking in synagogues.
The sectors of the population reached by these methods were always those least capable of influencing the broader life of the nation. The core of Mercaz’s support, even after decades of strenuous outreach, included few academics, journalists, authors, artists, jurists, economists, political thinkers—that is, shapers of the public mind. For every “fact on the ground” that the religious nationalists were able to generate, their opponents amassed another novel, another history text, another television production: cultural assets whose political influence was exponential, and which eventually outstripped the influence of the settlers by orders of magnitude.
Only now, after Oslo; after calls by members of the government to delete the Jewish references in the national anthem, Hatikvah, so as not to offend Arab sensibilities; after the establishment of an active PLO security apparatus functioning openly in the streets of Jerusalem; after Shimon Peres’s calls for Israel to join the Arab League—only now have some in the “national camp” begun to recognize that for a new Jewish nationalism to take root, they would have to compete in all the realms of the mind in which Labor Zionism failed—and in which the post-Zionists have invested everything.
For most Jews in Israel, the idea that their country is powerful is axiomatic, unchallengeable. American Jews, too, despite their greater sensitivity to Israel’s vulnerability, are often willing to submit to the materialist illusion that factories and fighter planes are enough to make a nation strong. Leon Wieseltier voices the wishful thinking of many when he writes:
The creation of Israel, the security of Israel, the peace of Israel: who any longer thinks that these are experiments and dreams, efforts that may or may not fail, ideas and institutions still struggling to be born. . . ? This is a country . . . [that] is fundamentally indestructible.
But Israel is not fundamentally indestructible. No nation is. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia—these, too, looked fundamentally indestructible at one time, if one were to judge by the material and military assets accumulated in their names. What rendered their survival a question was not the want of factories and fighter planes, but the lack of a strong national idea among the people. Nor do dictatorships exhaust the category of the destructible; consider the all too possible dissolution of even so strong a bastion of democracy as Canada.
When one ponders what Herzl believed it would take to establish a national idea among the Jews, it becomes apparent that, beyond its material assets, Israel is not powerful at all. In diplomacy, its momentarily high approval rating notwithstanding, Israel’s chronic “lousy PR” has been one of the great constants of its history, having again and again failed to blunt the international revulsion that has attended its most basic efforts to live in safety. As an entrepreneurial center, the Jewish state continues to be paralyzed by a cliquish and monopolistic economy, all but impenetrable by Western Jews who might wish to immigrate; it rates lower than Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh in international studies of economic freedom, and its level of economic competitiveness scores lower even than Chile, Ireland, and Malaysia. As a cultural center, too, Israel’s achievements have, with few exceptions, been marginal.
And the absence of the magnetic power with which Herzl hoped to attract world Jewry is palpable. Those whose personal goals are primarily entrepreneurial or cultural do not, to this day, make their way to the Jewish state to make it their homeland. On the contrary, such Jews leave Israel for Los Angeles or New York or London—as they are urged to do by a popular song played frequently on government radio: “In London there are more movies/In London there’s good music/In London there’s excellent television/In London people are more polite. . . . /If you have to die like a dog/At least the television should be television.”
Of all the national powers that Herzl believed the Jewish state must cultivate, the only one that ever became the subject of systematic emphasis was the idea of Israel as a homeland of motivating religious sites. But these religious centers are now being transferred out of Israel’s control, and no one knows when, if ever, they will be recovered. Thus the last asset of mind required by Herzl to root his Jewish national idea among the people—and hence to give the Jewish state the power necessary for its flourishing and long-term survival—appears ready to go the way of the others.
As a compelling idea in the minds of its people, then, the Jewish state is emaciated and growing fainter with each passing year. Among Jews in Israel and abroad, there have been many for whom this weakness has signaled the end of the Zionist enterprise, and no small number have simply wandered away, resenting and even hating Jewish nationalism in their disillusionment. Many others have watched the process of dissolution in helpless anguish, not knowing what they, or anyone, can do. There have also been a few, like Yigal Amir, who have responded with rage, not caring whether the road they have chosen leads to national health or to national destruction, so long as it leads somewhere.
And finally, there have been those who have fixed upon the religious and their allies as the source of Israel’s cultural disintegration; who accuse them of having created the atmosphere that has led to acts like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin; who insist that (to borrow from David Hartman) Judaism has become “a threat to Israel”; and who conclude that the proper course is an all-fronts cultural vendetta to finish off the religious influence in Israeli public life.
Are the religious guilty? And if so, of what? To begin with, their guilt as a movement certainly does not lie, as has been charged, in having incited the murderer to murder. Moral and social outsiders, whose hatred of “the system” is expressed through affiliation with fanatical splinter groups like those Yigal Amir called home, have no jrespect for the opinions of established leadership, and need no encouragement from it to lay their plans.
Nor does the guilt of the religious nationalists lie in having encouraged desperate feelings among so many Jews. That a Jew feels pain upon recognizing Israel’s weakness and decay is a sign of a still-living national consciousness, the essential achievement of Zionism. And if this consciousness exists more strongly among the religious, the shame rests with other movements or streams in whom Herzl and Ben-Gurion, for all their efforts, failed to inspire an enduring commitment to the rebuilding of the Jewish nation in the homeland of its fathers.
No, the true guilt of the religious lies elsewhere, in the decades squandered on petty politics while the idea of the Jewish nation was left to stagnate and grow faint. “No man is strong or wealthy enough to move a nation,” Herzl wrote. “Only an idea can do that.” What, today, is that motivating idea? Of what value is the Jewish nation? What is its mission? What should be the nature of its institutions? What has it to contribute to mankind? What is to be gained by joining in its struggle? Why should one sacrifice on its behalf? Why should the Jewish state exist at all? Among today’s nationalists, one searches in vain for an idea with which to respond to the challenges facing the Jewish state.
And herein lies the true guilt of the religious. If they and their cultural allies had had a substantial arsenal of ideas and a genuine alternative for which (and with which) to fight, the desiccated theology of Labor Zionism might long ago have given way to a more profound Jewish national understanding; post-Zionism might have remained the preserve of an irrelevant clique of academics; and the assassin might have lived out his life in some corner without our ever having been cursed to know his name. Most important, the Jewish state might today have been as Herzl envisioned it: a magnet and a lantern for Jews, and for Gentiles as well.
All that having been said, it also remains the case that with the bulwark of Labor Zionism gone, religious Jews today possess the sole remaining form of Jewish nationalism with any of the basic building blocks of a living idea: a coherent ideological position, a functioning educational system, a demonstrated ability to inspire and motivate the young, a discernible political plan of action. If there is ever to be a broader-based revival of the Jewish national idea in the hearts and minds of the Jewish public in general, it will only be accomplished with the assistance of the cultural capital which has been accumulated by the religious over long decades.
As one religious-nationalist leader confessed recently, “We have settled in the heart of the land, but we have not even tried to settle in the hearts of the people.” That is precisely the point—the same point that Herzl tried to teach in the brief period he led the Zionist movement. Whether the Jewish national camp is yet capable of grasping it, and of acting on it, remains to be seen.