The existential threat facing Israel must be met by a new spiritual narrative
It is hard to imagine a more poetic beginning to the Hebrew month of Tammuz than the march of flags. For thousands of years we Jews have remembered the destruction of our Temple, a catastrophe etched into our daily lives defining our identity ever since. For thousands of years we have remembered this month, the month when the walls of Jerusalem were first breached by the Romans, as the beginning of the end of our last period of sovereignty. For thousands of years we recited, seated on the floor, that we lost our sovereignty due to our own actions, and one would think that those who keep our traditions most dear to their heart would remember that best. And there we were again this week, showing how little we have learned from our history as those who marched could not separate their celebration of sovereignty from their hatred of their fellow citizens; those who marched who ostensibly pray weekly for our Father in Heaven’s blessing of our government loudly called for its downfall.
So that there is no mistake, the march should have been permitted. The right to demonstrate and express one’s opinion is holy in a democracy. But as much as allowing the march was a reflection of our democratic maturity, the roots of this march is a reflection of the failure of the State of Israel to address an extremist school of Judaism that is now on full display both in the Knesset and on the streets: Jewish supremacism.
Observers of this school of Jewish supremacism will recognize its echoes elsewhere, since the urge to supremacism is felt by all cultures, and the story they tell themselves generally goes like this: we were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We were unseated from the throne of glory due to our laxness in following the true path. The righteous among us fought and won for us a hard-earned return. But the return to the golden age is not complete because of the enemy near and the enemy abroad. To fully return to the glory of yesteryear we need to perfect the righteousness of our people and cast out any threats to our absolute return.
It is this same narrative that guides the supremacist Islam of Hamas, and the supremacist White Christianity of the Proud Boys. The common thread connecting these groups is that they are youth-led movements, driven to ‘right the wrongs’ made by their elders, to ‘fulfill the destiny’ they were promised. Their enemies are as often the moderate generation who did not fulfill their expectations as the Other standing in the way of their superiority, and they are often incited by individuals from the previous generation who take ever more extreme positions in order to harness the power of the youth in the hope of riding out the revolt.
In our special case, the explosion of supremacist rhetoric and violence has its roots in the past two decades of Oslo rejectionism and promises by the leaders of the Right that there was an alternative to the Two State Solution that was just over the horizon, with God’s help. Encouraging this messianism worked for the previous Prime Minister as it got out the vote; dealing with this messianism will be the greatest challenge of the current government, and I am afraid the challenge to our unity as a People will not recover for decades.
The responsibility, however, is no less heavy on the shoulders of the moderate, non-supremacist citizens of Israel and members of the Jewish People. Because we have tried to address the rise of this Jewish supremacism with facts and logic when the only way to address spiritual matters is through story and narrative.
Much of this is rooted in the negligence of our founding mothers and fathers concerning the religious school systems. Out of a well-meaning concession for cultural preservation, the State of Israel enabled a fracturing of the educational system. This led to the flourishing of institutions which perpetuate the narrative of victimhood and fear felt by generations of Jews living under anti-Semitic regimes across the Diaspora. That negligence is now inspiring millions of Israelis to live with the mindset that they are still pursued, despite the fact that Israel is a superpower in the region not going anywhere (a nuclear bomb from Iran is another matter). A worldview easily preyed upon and perpetuated by the former prime minister and his allies.
And so while the Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid is correct in reflecting that “It is incomprehensible that people can hold the Israeli flag in one hand and shout ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time,” the burden is now on him, on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and all of us who care about the unity of the People of Israel, to recognize that it is our sacred duty to tell a new old story of the renewed Jewish People in recognition of our maturity as an empowered polity in our land.
As the early Zionist thinkers understood, the only way to overcome nearly two thousand years of Diasporic Jewish fear is through reaching even farther back to our deeper empowered traditions. A Judaism that reflects that our forefathers and mothers were wandering Arameans, became residents in this land, lived in dignity amongst its inhabitants, only to leave to become strangers in a strange land – surmounting near impossible odds to return to sovereignty. Not once but twice. A people who recognized the corruption of power and were thereby commanded to thereby treat the stranger as we would be treated ourselves. A people with prophets who inspired billions worldwide to build societies based on a higher moral calling, on a social responsibility that supersedes power.
While the former Israeli government focused on building new international relationships by calling upon the shared memory of Abraham, this current government should call upon the story of Abraham to plant the seeds which may, over time, heal our domestic relations.
Bringing Abraham inside will require a reframing of our spiritual journey to a time before the codification of the Halakha, to a time where we lived in the land as a power amongst other tribes. Bringing Abraham inside will refresh our spiritual memory as to how we should live amongst others, opening a wide tent to welcome others, providing a counter example to the isolationist tendency of later Rabbinic interpretations rooted in their reaction to anti-Semitism and assimilation. Bringing Abraham inside gives us the spiritual motivation to engage all of Israel’s citizens of Abrahamic traditions as heirs to a great legacy that calls upon us to become a blessing to the nations by championing justice and walking in the moral ways of the Eternal. Bringing Abraham inside has practical implications too in, say, the current questions of land and housing: Abraham negotiated with Ephron and the Hittites to model for us how even the Eternal’s chosen – to whom a promise was directly made – respects the homes and livelihoods of members of different tribes.
Bringing Abraham inside gives us new language to include our Abrahamic cousins in the State of Israel. They are we: culturally, socially, historically, non-Jewish Israelis are more similar to other Israelis than they are to any other people in the region. They too are the heirs of Abraham.
Although the broad nature of the current government may have been born due to political expediency, I hope the experience of working side by side will inspire the leaders of Israel to bring the spirit of Abraham back into the core story of Israel. Yet it is not only up to them, it is up to us: the effort to bring Abraham inside should engage all of us who care about the future of the State of Israel. It requires new stories, new art, new films, new music, new symbols, and new experiences. It will need us to engage across the ideological spectrum in a new project, one that could only be born in the land of Israel, from a sovereign people who have emerged as a digital superpower and who are now surrounded by states who have declared peace.