David Stromberg

A Claim to the Nation

מאוסף יהודית גרעין-כל, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

For millennia, Jews have existed as minority communities in countries ruled by people of other religions, cultures, and ethnicities. So a core part of the Jewish experience is being among others who are not only different but, quite often, hostile toward your kind. This aspect of Jewish life extends to today’s civil crisis in Israel where, for the first time in modern history, Jewish citizens in the world’s only Jewish state are finding their way of life threatened by other Jews who believe they hold a greater claim to our nation and its identity.

For me, this became clear during the riots of May 12, 2021. On that day, when Jews and Arabs in so-called mixed cities began an armed conflict, I saw a Jewish young man being interviewed live on the scene of an Arab man’s beating. “We’ll kill them!” he said. “Murder them! Slaughter them!” His words literally made me sick. The hatred in his eyes—for people he did not know—was terrifying. It was only a matter of time, I knew, before his hate turned to anyone who believed in coexistence and an open society. I knew that hate recognizes no religious, cultural, or ethnic boundaries. It targets others as easily as it targets one’s own. Hate, I knew, is colorblind.

That fateful day in May led to two main events. First came the creation of the so-called Change Government, representing as wide a cross-section of Israel’s demographic as possible and revealing that consensus could be reached. But for the politicians who lost power, this achievement was an existential threat. A country built on cooperation would force them to compromise. Whereas the method they had preferred for getting anything done was extortion. This method bore fruit with the fall of the Change Government, leading to the second event that occurred after that day in May: the creation of the most extreme, reactionary, racist coalition in the country’s history. Though it, too, is made up of groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye, the main glue keeping this coalition together is fear of the other—which manifests itself as hate. It is a coalition of the hating that seeks power over everything else. It has no humanistic values, only an unrelenting pursuit of power and control. It is led by ideology, dogma, and vengeance—all of the forces that destroy rather than build societies.

There have always been splits among Jews. From the great sages Hillel and Shamai, who represented differing schools of Talmudic thought, to Ashkenazim and Sephardim, two distinct Diasporic traditions, to Hasidim and Mitnagdim, the followers and opposers of the Hasidic way of life in Eastern Europe. But the divide in Israel today is different. It splits us into nationalists who believe in Israel as the prophetic arrival of a messianic era, and democratists who recognize the contradictions of Jewish life in the Holy Land and the difficulties involved in maintaining it without respecting our non-Jewish neighbors. It is between those who believe in power as the solution to any conflict, and those who believe that power should be used a means to an end that is pursued with as much openness, respect, and tolerance as possible.

These two views are diametrically opposed. And while in Eastern Europe the Hasids and Mitnagdim could exist in parallel communities that were able to ignore each other to some degree, in today’s Israel there’s no such option. One group will always have more political power over the other. And this power will set the policy for how we treat ourselves, our minorities, and our neighbors.

The nationalist group who believes in force as the solution to every problem has gained its greatest influence. And it appears likely to keep it for the foreseeable future. There is a civil war taking place. It has erupted between those who believe in freedom and those who believe in control. There are people supporting the government’s power-grab because they believe that greater societal control will afford them more security—a view that many freedom-seekers see as both naive and dangerous. In the end, the freedom-seekers contend, we’ll have neither one nor the other: we’ll turn into a society that is forcibly oppressed and constantly under threat.

Perhaps there’s no choice in any nation’s life but to embody a struggle between two conflicting visions for its future. The United States fought a gruesome Civil War, and though the battles ended over 150 years ago, the nation continues to fight this war on a social level every day. The European Union, as a conglomerate of nation-states, is caught in a battle between continental cohesion, managed by a monstrous bureaucracy, and separatist agendas, whose efforts are limited by geographic and political borders. In Israel, too, a deep rift has been exposed between those who believe that force should be used to resolve ever conflict, and those who, while acknowledging that force can’t always be avoided, nevertheless believe that a peaceful alternative should always be pursued.

We, who believe in freedom and peace, tell the others that the judicial coup represents a national turn toward power and control that we will always oppose. Might does not make right. It may keep us alive against attacks on our existential rights. But it is not what animates us. We live here as a people with a spiritual connection to the land—not a supremacist group whose goal is to oppress those who are different. As a nation among nations, we believe in our right to self-determination, and in the right of others to follow that same pursuit.

Those who would use force to solve every problem are now using their political power to usurp the freedom-seekers from their claim to the nation. What they do not understand is that we are Jews no less than they are—and that no one, not even other Jews, will ever break our bond to our people. Our claim on the nation is no less powerful than theirs. Our choice of using non-violent methods of dissent represents neither weakness nor lack of resolve. On the contrary, these methods represent our strengths, because we believe that spiritual, moral, and social values will always overcome societal controls and oppression—no matter how long it takes.

About the Author
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, Speculative Nonfiction, Public Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of "Old Truths and New Clichés" (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a new translation of Singer's canonical story, "Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition" (Restless Books). His recent work includes "A Short Inquiry into the End of the World" (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew” (The Hedgehog Review). The third essay, "To Kill an Intellectual" (The Fortnightly Review), is now being published in installments.
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