Marc J. Rosenstein

Jewish power

Independence Day celebrates the Jewish emergence from powerlessness. After centuries of being the rootless victims of persecution and expulsion, finally the Jewish nation has returned to history as a full player, with the power to control its own fate and its own actions.

The narrative of the Yad Vashem main exhibition hall, echoing the Israel calendar (Yom Hashoah just a week before Yom Ha’atzma’ut) makes clear the message: “Never again!”  We were victims, losers, powerless – until we regained national sovereignty; now we are powerful, independent, proud, and free. An undeniable turning point in Jewish history, worthy of celebration, of even biblical proportions (in many synagogues, Hallel is recited – a liturgy normally reserved for biblical festivals and Chanukah).

Why does this year feel different?

Of course, this year we are in the midst of a brutal war whose duration, goals, and outcome are unclear. And the hostages’ plight haunts us. And thousands of us are in internal exile. And mass protests and government actions, around the world, question not only Israel’s actions, but even its very existence. Surely these factors put a damper on our national celebration.

But I think there is a deeper malaise. It seems to me that events since October 7 have exposed a troubling internal contradiction in our national identity, and we are struggling to make sense of it. This contradiction lies in our understanding of and relationship to power.

  1. Not by might and not by power…

From the tower of Babel in Genesis to Moses’ admonition in Deuteronomy 8:17 against saying “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me,” to the prophets who insisted again and again that Israel’s national fate was determined not by military power (or alliances) but by adherence to God’s commandments and reliance on divine power – the Bible makes clear that human, coercive power is either an idol or an illusion (or both).

When Israel lost a battle – even the ultimate battle of the Babylonian conquest – we were taught by prophets and later by sages that it was not due to a shortage of armaments, or poor intelligence, or a numerical imbalance, but rather to God’s decision to punish the nation for its people’s sins.  We were not victims, powerless; we just misunderstood what kind of power we had. We had full power of agency to build a good society, to root out injustice and corruption and cruelty, so that God would employ divine power to make us secure and free.  But we thought, erroneously it turned out, that the only power we needed was the physical, coercive, military kind.

So through centuries of terrible persecutions, we Jews did not see ourselves as victims, suffering because we were powerless; rather, we believed that we were responsible for our suffering, and that we were not pathetic victims, but moral heroes for continuing to try to live out God’s law to build an ideal community, which some day we would succeed in doing.

But over the past two centuries, as our surroundings turned to humanism and secularism, we – and the world – rejected this covenantal view and began so see our suffering as simply the result of our powerlessness, so that the solution was not repentance and faith and justice, but rather the acquisition of coercive power in the form of a sovereign state with an army. And indeed, if we had any doubts, 1948 and 1967 seemed to prove the validity of that new understanding. Power is what matters.

Perhaps what we learned on October 7 is that power is relative, not absolute: it only matters when you have more of it than your enemies – and also, it seems, the more one relies on coercive power, the more enemies one is likely to have. Suddenly our feelings of security and pride, based on our estimation of our own social and military and economic power, were punctured by our inability to defend ourselves from an ostensibly powerless enemy. After emerging from powerlessness, we seem to have descended back into it, unable by any means to rescue our hostages. Entebbe was then; Gaza is now.

Victims again. Could it be that the whole “emergence from powerlessness” concept was an illusion?

But wait; there’s more:

  1. She made me do it

Alongside our tradition of rejection of coercive power runs another tradition – the rejection of powerlessness; for there is another definition of power that animates our worldview: not coercive power, but power of agency: the freedom to act, to make moral choices. When God confronts Adam about eating the forbidden fruit, he responds: “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree…” (Gen. 3:12). That is: “What could I do? You are responsible, not me – You’re the one who created woman; I was powerless to avoid the sin!” And from then on, the problem of human powerlessness – i.e., the problem of human moral responsibility – has kept lawmakers, philosophers, and novelists fully occupied. The question arises again and again; for example, did Lot really have no choice but to offer up his daughters (Gen. 19); was Abraham really powerless to prevent Abimelech from taking Sarah? (Gen. 20); or consider the elaborate legal structures around responsibility in tort and criminal law: was the accused really powerless to prevent the injury/damage/death?

The claim of powerlessness is a constant temptation and danger. Arguing that an action was self-defense, or an act of God, or the outcome of an abused childhood – the claim that I am a victim of other powers or of others’ power and therefore not responsible – has always been with us on the individual and collective levels. To be a victim is to hold the high moral ground, to be blameless – we are forbidden to blame a victim, so victimhood can ironically be a coveted status.

Jewish victimhood identity was born in the Enlightenment, nurtured by the terrible persecutions of Tsarist Russia, and reached its apotheosis in the Holocaust.  And it seems that even the attainment of statehood, the building of a powerful army, has not taken the victimhood out of the Jew. Which is why today we have the bizarre spectacle of – at the very moment that Israel’s air force was carrying out massive bombing raids in Gaza – Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations coming to work wearing a yellow star.

October 7th leads us to ask, what are we – victims or perpetrators?  Eternally powerless Jews, or a nation that has achieved power, “returned to history?”

I suggest that the answer is: Yes. We have power, but no one can have absolute power. We are responsible for our actions – but sometimes things happen to us that we cannot control or escape. We live, as individuals and as a nation, in a constant tension between the aspiration to power and the desire to inhabit the moral “comfort zone” of victimhood. We want to be in control but we don’t want to be held responsible.

So maybe the lesson of our current predicament is that we need to go back to an identity based neither on iron walls, iron domes, iron swords, or total victory; nor on eternal victimhood; but rather on a positive vision that guides how we use the limited power we have to build a better society, a better state, and a more peaceful world.

About the Author
Marc Rosenstein grew up in Chicago, was ordained a Reform rabbi, and received his PhD in modern Jewish history from The Hebrew University. He made aliyah with his family in 1990, to Moshav Shorashim in the Galilee. He served for 20 years as executive director of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education, and for six as director of the Israel rabbinic program of HUC in Jerusalem. Most recent books: Turnng Points in Jewish History (JPS 2018); Contested Utopia: Jewish Dreams and Israeli Realities (JPS 2021).
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