There are few democracies in this world as vibrant, and as combative, as Israel. If you read Hebrew and glance even once in a while at the Israeli press, you will find comments and criticism, complaints and corrections galore. Today especially, when the expected elections were delayed after a midnight meeting, these comments generally focus on how Israel is imperfect, how it should improve, and how the government must do better.
But in the English press, especially in its opinion pages, rarely will one find a healthy debate on anything but Israel’s security situation. As events of the past few weeks have shown, articles such as my previous column tend to elicit anti-intellectual jabs labeling English-language calls to action whines, complaints, or, worse, anti-Israel fare. “Love it or leave it” is the basic argument of these self-styled defenders of the State.
Zionism, however, has an altogether different take on imperfection. The Zionist thinkers who built the intellectual, moral and physical underpinnings of the State through articles and essays, speeches and books, were motivated by a holistic critique of the Jewish reality, a grand complaint. For example, Ahad Ha’am believed Jewish civilization was threatened by the lack of a suitable collective vehicle for the Jewish People in the 19th and then 20th century; A.D. Gordon called for the rebuilding of Jewish society through an inversion of the pyramid of production that would make Jews more “normal;” and Leon Pinsker called for the auto-emancipation of the Jew from the Diaspora, believing that the Jewish people were but a “ghost among the nations,” a spirit with no shell, so long as they did not have a state of their own.
The Right critiqued Jewish existence, and later the Jewish State, no less. Zeev Jabontinsky, the Revisionist ideologue, believed that the purpose of a Jewish state was to contribute to the world through a perfection of public institutions:
The world is prone to learn even new ideas from tangible examples only. England has, for instance, given to the world an important social idea self government of a free citizenry. How then did the English nation teach other peoples to understand and regulate such a parliamentary system? Certainly not by being scattered among the nations…. It is not true that the Zionists have ignored the idea of mission, the mission of the Jewish nation in the world; rather we believe that the world will yet learn from us many truths, truths still unknown to it. However, the single way leading to this is the creation of the Jewish state.
Although the Jewish State was declared independent only 64 years ago, a short time in historical terms, it is still in its formative stage. Its foundations were built by the sweat of the brow of Zionist pioneers, aided to no end by the donors and investors of the Jewish Diaspora. In my mind, the State of Israel is the single greatest achievement of the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years. Greater than the codification of our traditions in the Mishna and then the Talmud, greater than the unification of halakha in the Shulhan Arukh. Its very existence changes the Jewish reality, and the assumptions under which we labored for thousands of years. The State gathered the exiles, and showed that the Jewish people were their own messiah, that the Jewish people had not forgotten Zion, and that Jerusalem would not remain forlorn.
And yet, to all that see and hear, it is clear that the work is not done. Setting the regional and international aspects of Israel aside, the State of Israel, domestically, is in turmoil. Last year, over 400,000 citizens of the State took to the streets in the greatest protest of Israel’s history, calling for a change in the socio-economic regime that makes it hard for an educated, dual-income family to pay its bills at the end of the month.
Abroad, in book after book, article after article, the Jews of the Diaspora are rebelling against the idea of the Jewish State as it is now constituted, threatening to tear the Jewish people apart. Not a day goes by in Israel or the Diaspora without another call for protests, another grassroots movement calling for action. In Israel, new political circles are being formed and disbanded daily. In the Diaspora, new efforts to focus Jewish identity away from Israel grow more strident.
Some issues straddle both sides of the Israel/Diaspora divide: Ultra-Orthodox attacks on women in Israel brought the relationship between Judaism and the Jewish State into the forefront for a brief moment; but still it is illegal, to use a personal example, for my daughter and the daughters of Jews around the world who are many generations Conservative or Reform to be married to a Jew in the State of Israel — for fear that one of their grandmothers may have undergone a Conservative conversion in the Diaspora.
Unfortunately, those Jews of the Diaspora who do care about a continued relationship between the Jewish people and the Jewish State have for the most part stayed silent during this crucial stage of the Jewish people’s building of the State. Some, expressing their pro-Israel sentiments, have decided to focus on marketing Israel’s economic progress (cell phones! microchips! flash drives!) but remain unwilling to address the deep structural challenges the State is facing in maintaining its economic position: a lagging education system; a stretched-thin network of hospitals; a transportation system with less trains than in the time of the British Mandate.
We need more innovation in the social space, as Jen Maidenberg points out; not better advertising. Marketing, or hasbara, is critical to Israel’s well-being. But the character of the State is no less important. To paraphrase David Ben-Gurion, we must fight the defamation as if there were no problems in Israel; and we must fight to fix the Jewish State and its relationship with the Jewish people as if there was no defamation.
A pro-Israel activist that does not call the Jews of the world to action to help fix the State ends up, intentionally or not, weakening Zionism. Those who truly care about Israel should practice the core requirement of democracy, and the age-old competency of the Jews: active, vigorous debate, followed up by putting one’s money and time where one’s mouth is.
If Jews around the world would like to see a Jewish State they can identify with in 20 years, they need to invest their time and money in strengthening its institutions, and support candidates in their electoral campaigns to ensure that the right public officials are in office. Just like Jews across the US got involved through the Great Schlep in Florida politics, Jews around the world need to renew their commitment to the Zionist vision and aid in the great project of building the Jewish State. The more vibrant our conversation, and the more engaged we are in the issues, the stronger Israel will be in our time and in the time to come.