Is Yom HaAtzmaut Reshit Tzmichat Geulateinu?
by Gidi Grinstein and Ari Afilalo
On every Shabbat, synagogue-goers read a prayer for the State of Israel, which begins with the inspiring words: “Heavenly Father, Israel’s Rock and Redeemer, bless the State of Israel, reshit tzmichat geulateinu…” Indeed, at its seventieth anniversary celebrated this week, it seems that the State of Israel is living up to the expectation, coined by Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog in 1948, to be “the first flowering of our redemption,” as it becomes an economic, diplomatic and military powerhouse.
However, the question for religious Jews remains: Is Israel indeed the first flowering? Chief Rabbi Kook responded with a resounding affirmative. Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik viewed the State of Israel as the knocking of Divine Providence (Kol Dodi Dofek). The Lubavitcher Rebbe, rejected this notion, calling out the State of Israel’s secular nature. And the Satmar Rebbe is vehemently opposed to Zionism in any form.
The religiously ‘messianic’ view of Zionism is echoed in the Jewish secular world. Many Zionists believe that Israel represents an irreversible revolution in Jewish history and hold repatriation to Zion to be the only path to a full Jewish life. To them, Diaspora Jewish life is temporary and ethically inferior, bound to end in either assimilation or persecutions. Return to Zion is a one-way ticket and Diaspora life is negated.
These approaches have fundamental implications. Zionism was created in the late 19th century as a response to the crisis of European Jewry to serve the continued and significant existence of the Jewish People. It was only in the 1970s, following the Six-Day War, that Zionism became the leading movement of the Jewish People, with the assertive claim that all Jews should come to Israel and the Diaspora be dismantled to termination. But the foundational debates about Zionism persisted nonetheless, namely: how should Israel serve the Jewish People and how should it view the Jewish Diaspora?
The starting point for this debate must be an exploration of the secret of Jewish resilience. Jewish communities have survived out of Zion for twenty-six centuries, since the First Temple exile, and most people believe that significant Jewish existence around the world will be sustained for centuries to come. Hence, although powerless in military terms, the Jewish People is clearly resilient.
Mobility has been the key. The center of gravity of the Jewish People is in permanent motion from places of rising intolerance, insecurity and poverty to places of acceptance, security and opportunity. Babylon, Spain, Poland, Germany, Russia, Morocco, Iraq and Iran were all important centers of Jewish life which later declined. Hence, the image of the wandering Jew, which is a symbol of Jewish weakness and powerlessness, is also a secret of Jewish resilience.
The architecture of a world-wide web of communities allows this permanent global motion of Jews, which unfolds in a natural and bottom-up manner, with every family taking its own decisions whether to move or to stay. It allows Judaism to transcend catastrophes that eliminate entire sections of its network. In fact, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out, all calamities in Jewish history were followed by a resurgence in political, economic and cultural power within a short time.
Clearly, the State of Israel represents a radical departure from these dynamics. In the early 1900s, the Zionist movement concluded that it must master the use of force and establish Jewish self-defense, and by the end of the 20th century, Israel became a military superpower. For many Zionists, Israel’s rising successes are the ultimate proof of the validity of their views regarding the declining Diaspora.
Yet, reality challenges the bold assertion of Zionism that the ingathering of Jews in a Jewish state would offer a comprehensive remedy to the plights of the Jewish People. First, Israel’s Prime Ministers have warned that Israel may be subject to existential threats by weapons of mass destruction. Second, World Jewry has proven to be much more resilient than Zionism anticipated, and is at a peak of its influence and affluence. Third, as many as one million Israelis chose to relocate back to the Diaspora. Fourth, anti-Semitism did not disappear but mutated to attack the state of the Jewish People through the delegitimization of Israel. Finally, as Judaism has transcended golden epochs of tolerance, acceptance, security and prosperity, assimilating in modern Western societies should not be viewed through a doomsday lens. In fact, the idea that the State of Israel or the USA represent the final destination of Jewish migration is ahistorical.
Dr. Micah Goodman writes in his book, Moses’ Final Speech: “Zionism is the second chance of the Tanach.” The first chance – Hebrew presence and sovereignty in the Land of Israel since Yehoshua and until … the Bar-Kochva Rebellion – ended in failure, destruction and exile. Zionism gave Judaism a second chance with sovereignty, which is the State of Israel. From this perspective we can appreciate the historical juncture for the Jewish People.
Indeed, the Jewish People currently has two models to secure its existence: The ‘Diaspora model’ where the collective security of Jews is based on a global network of communities and the ‘Israel model,’ whose national security is based on military force and technological edge. These models are and should remain complementary, calling upon world Jews to support Israel’s security, legitimacy and prosperity and mandating Israel to serve the security and needs of world Jewry. At the 70th anniversary of Israel, Zionism must come view the Jewish world beyond the dichotomies of Israel and Diaspora as an integrated societal whole understanding a vibrant Diaspora to be a Zionist imperative.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and Author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability. Ari Afilalo is a professor of Law at Rutgers University and President of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.