David J. Fine
David J. Fine

Israel and Europeanism

Each year at around the start of May, the Jewish people celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.

I danced and sang for Israel’s 69th birthday this past week as I might have at the wedding of a dear friend. Our relationship with Israel is personal. We dance at Israel’s birthday because we are grateful for its vitality, which we do not take for granted. But what are our hopes for Israel, in a world of increasing polarization? Is Israel our nationalist bastion against a sea of attackers and haters? Do we see Israel solely as a fortress, a Masada or Beitar? Or is Israel still an open port to the world around it, a new springtime upon old wintered land? A Tel Aviv?

The Brexit decision in the U.K. and the rise of populist movements throughout the European Union and elsewhere raise the question of the E.U.’s ability to continue to foster the ideal of globalization, where countries put their political and national aspirations aside in order to build a supranational union, based on a shared economic, social, and broad cultural program of bringing peoples together. Globalization is an idea that surpasses its foundation in trade and commerce. Globalization preaches a vision of a new type of community of nations.

But what is the vision that Israel proclaims? Zionism, the foundational ideology of the state, offers a tension of multiple answers, as is, I suppose, the Jewish way. On the one hand, Zionism is our nationalism. As the other nations celebrate their uniqueness, so do we ours. As the other nations seek to secure their existence through defensible borders and domestic prosperity, so do we ours. If Israel is a fortress, it is because we need a fortress. The continued and growing hatred and prejudice against Israel throughout the world only serves to support the argument that the only way to secure the existence of the Jewish people is for us to take care of ourselves, without any dependence on the outside world.

But on the other hand, the vision of Zionism was of an open society, not a closed one. While Theodor Herzl envisioned the independent Jewish state, his dream was of a state that was integrated in the orbit of European culture and community. He envisioned a German-speaking country (he imagined neither the extraordinary renaissance of the Hebrew language nor the ruptures that were yet to be between Judaism and Germandom), a small state that would be accepted in the cultural and economic orbit of the European powers. Ironically, Herzl’s Zionism argued that it was the means of independence that would create an end where the Jew finally would realize acceptance and respect within Europe. In order to achieve true integration and defeat anti-Semitism, the Jew needed the support of a state behind his or her identity. Only then could the Jew find secure footing in Europe. Only then could the Jew be accepted as an equal and with dignity.

This represents the tension within Herzl’s Zionism — the Jew must be a separate people in order to be accepted among Europeans.

I long have imagined the day, longed for the day, when Israel might achieve its destiny by being accepted as a member state within the European Union. It is not enough to hope and pray for peace with Israel’s neighbors. Peaceful borders and security from the threat of terrorism are not aspirations, they are basic human rights. As with our own loved ones, yes, of course, we pray for health. But beyond that, we also envision prosperity. What might the true success of Israel look like, beyond mere peace?

Integration into the broader European community should not be seen as a concession of national identity. The way the European Union is supposed to work is that each member state retains its individual culture and language and traditions, even as it works within the Union toward economic cooperation and security. To be accepted within that circle would seem to me to be exactly what Herzl dreamed of.

To a certain extent, Israel already is a part of the European community. The EU is Israel’s number one trading partner. In 2000, Israel was granted membership in the U.N.”s “Western European and Others Group,” acknowledging both its historical exclusion from the caucus of its Arab neighbors and also its affinity with Europe. Israel’s integration into Europe is marked not only by participation in venues such as the Eurovision song contest but also by Israel being the only non-European country to hold membership in CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

But of course there also is the growing disparity between Israel and the E.U. on the peace process and relations with the Palestinians. My prayer is that Israel find a way to establish a peaceful settlement so that it can establish more integrated relations with Europe. That relationship in turn would guarantee the security that Israel requires to continue to exist in a hostile neighborhood. Indeed, certain European voices from Italy, Spain, and Bulgaria already have called for Israeli membership in the E.U. The acceptance of Israel as an equal among Europeans will mark the fruition of the Zionist dream. Moving beyond Herzl, Tel Aviv will become a Hebrew-speaking European metropolis.

The European Union needs to resist the backward-looking reactionism of Brexit and other populist movements. Our vision of the future must be about coming together, not moving apart. Globalization is not a threat to national cultures. A thriving Israeli economy and identity would enrich the European community, just as the Jewish people always have provided the engine behind European ideas and progress. An integrated world, or at least one large segment of it, is a dream worth preserving. And if we will it, it is no mere dream.

About the Author
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2010, and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999.
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