The Jewish people are full of paradoxes, and this translates into the life and times of the State of Israel, where now the majority of the world’s Jews reside, as Yossi Klein Halevi, in his wonderful book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, has inspired me to write about. There is no one type of Jew, but countless types like a beautiful mosaic, and nowhere in the world is this incredible mosaic on display more than in the Holy Land of Israel.
- Jewish or Gentile
Already in our family tree and genetics, we are a paradox of faith and religions. From the beginning of Jewish history, our forefather Abraham had two sons, Isaac from where the Jews descended and Ishmael from where the Muslims came. Similarly, from Isaac’s son, Jacob came the twelve tribes of Israel, but from Isaac’s other son, Esau came the Romans and Christianity. Ultimately, all three monotheistic religions believe in the One G-d, but they differ in terms of their beliefs and practices such as the necessity to follow the commandments and whether the Messiah has already come. The reality is that Christians and Muslims are our ancient brothers, and eventually all of us will worship Hashem, in Jerusalem, at the site of our ancient temple, but in the meantime to this day there is religious conflict across the globe, some extremist and very violent, and other that is more subtle through missionizing and colonizing, and the desire to make you more like us!
- Judge/Prophet or King
When the Jews were redeemed from Egypt and settled the land of Israel, they experienced their first national identity crisis between being guided by leaders that were anchored in spirituality or that of material kingship. Initially, the Israelites were governed through the spiritual leadership of the Judges and prophets, but then they wanted to be “like all the other nations” and have a king to rule them and physically fight for them. In modern day Israel, this paradox is seen between the Haredi ultra-orthodox community that sees their religious/Rabbinical leadership as the ultimate guiding authorities in their lives and non-Haredi Israelis that looks to their political and military leadership for the direction of the country and the people. For example, many in the Haredi community are told by their religious leadership (“Judge and Prophet”) to spend their time in prayer, learning, and raising a religious family, while the government and IDF (“the king”) encourage people to work and serve in the military to advance the nation economically and from a security perspective.
- Religious or Secular
Over the course of the Jews early years in the land of Israel, they found themselves at times faithful to Hashem and at other times rebellious and faithless. The people alternated between following G-d’s Torah and commandments and straying to idolatry, resulting first in the exile of the Ten Tribes of Israel, and later in the destruction of both the first and second temples and the exile of the last two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. In modern day Israel, the conflict between religious and secular Jews is somewhat constant and pervasive. Some examples of this are whether public transportation should be available on the Shabbat and holidays, whether civil marriages should be permitted, whether non-kosher food is made be available in the Jewish state, and whether the “Women of the Wall” should be permitted to pray out loud, with Torahs, tallit, and tefillin at the holy Kotel.
- The Jewish Question or The Final Solution
After two millennia in exile, the Jews were a homeless and helpless people that were persecuted, tortured, forcibly converted, murdered, raped, and pillaged, and expelled from nation after nation. “The Jewish Question” at the end of the 19th century was whether and how the Jews would survive in a world of anti-Semitism. Would they actively seek and work to regain their freedom and sovereignty in the land of Israel or continue to wait passively for G-d to bring the redemption and their salvation. This conflict was brought to a head with “The Final Solution” in the Holocaust resulting in the genocide of six million Jews, “like sheep to the slaughter,” at the hands of Hitler and his evil henchmen. The remaining Jews who could possibly escape were left trying to flee Europe in search for a new home, but with the doors closed to them from almost all the nations of the world, most remained trapped and were ultimately murdered as well. This left the Jews in a paradox and torn between the hope and active Zionistic pursuit “to be a free people in our land” against questioning Jewish traditional blind faith and “exile mentality” of waiting passively for G-d to miraculously save us. However, in my view, G-d’s redemption of the Jewish people to Israel through Zionism was the miracle we were waiting for all along!
- Self-Reliance or Awaiting Mashiach
Once the State of Israel was founded in 1948, there continued to be a paradox for the Jewish people of whether to anchor ourselves in our newfound self-reliance and self-determination through the pioneers of the Kibbutz, the military and underground fighters, and the Jewish people’s ingenuity and hard work to make the “desert bloom” and build the Jewish country as a thriving “Start-Up Nation” or to have faith and await the coming of Mashiach who would bring redemption, and through G-d’s miraculous hands solve the all of the Jewish state’s problems and further usher in an era of peace, unity, and prosperity for all mankind. The principle in Judaism of not relying on miracles was tested here to the limits when the Jews in fulfilling their 2,000-year longing to return to the Promised Land came out fighting for their literal survival against five invading Arab countries in 1948. The question was whether the redemption of the Jewish people was a promise built on faith, prayer, and worship alone or did we actively need to work for it by draining the swamps, fighting our enemies round about. Miraculously, both the faith and the Zionist activism together made the dream a reality!
- Jewish Statehood or Democracy
Israel is paradoxically the Jewish State and a democracy. As the Jewish state, Jews from anywhere in the world can claim their citizenship, and Jews have sought refuge from more than seventy countries. In the Jewish state of Israel, the culture and values are Jewish, the Jewish language (Hebrew) is spoken, and the Jewish calendar and holidays are observed. Nevertheless, there are many Jews still not yet fortunate enough to be living in Israel and this too is a paradox given the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and ingathering of the exiles over the last 73 years! At the same time as Israel is a Jewish state, it is paradoxically a thriving Democracy, and the only one in the Middle East, that has free and fair elections, with 20% of the population that is Arab, and where the rights of all races, religions, nationalities, disabilities, and sexual orientations are protected and respected. Everyone has equal opportunity to become anything from a member of the Knesset to an Air Force pilot. In Israel, there is truly a “melting pot” of people from Jews to gentiles, Druze to Bedouins, Ashkenazim to Mizrahim, religious to secular, and from countries around the globe. Additionally, while many early settlers of Israel were socialistic and founders and supporters of the Kibbutz lifestyle, the country quickly shifted to a more nuanced balance between paradoxically capitalism and a strong socialistic-style safety net for benefit of all of its citizens.
- Ashkenazi or Mizrahi
Israel is geographically situated where East meets West. While many of the initial settlers of the Yishuv (pre-1948 Israel) were Ashkenazim from Europe, later nearly a million Mizrachi Jews from Asia and North Africa came and settled in Israel, and in the later 20th century another million Jews came from behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Thus, Israel is split between a paradoxical Western orientation and those of Islamic and Oriental influences. In the early years, this led to accusations (of subpar treatment for Mizrahim and even the stealing of their babies) but in 1984, the formation of the Shas political party to represent and give power to the interests of Mizrahim helped to balance the Agudat Israel party that traditionally represents the Ashkenazi world view. The broadening of the gamut of political parties in Israel has helped in protecting the diverse interests of these different people’s backgrounds and in guiding the country forward.
- Peace or Security
Israeli Jews are a true paradox as they are both the majority and the minority. In Israel, they are a majority as well as being the most powerful country in the Middle East. However, in the region, Israelis are a minority, surrounded by the 22 nations of the Arab League composed of hundreds of millions of Muslims, who don’t accept Israel’s right to exist and are a constant existential threat collectively or from a coalition of aggressors, thereof. It is this duality of majority and minority, and of being powerful and historically powerless, that drives Israelis between a morally driven ambition to achieve peace and co-existence with their Arab neighbors, while also having a deep-seated anxiety about their security, both from the trauma of the Holocaust as well as from their Arab neighbors ongoing denial of Israel’s right to exist, legitimacy, as well as threats to throw every last Jew into the Sea! This paradox has left Israel in a bind with its neighbors in that Israel cannot trade their legitimate right to sovereignty and security for their neighbors right to self-determination. In this paradox then, as much as Israel’s left-wing Labor Party wants to make real peace with the Palestinians, Israel’s center-right Likud party cannot yet deliver on it until Israel’s security is also assured.
- Modernity or Antiquity
The final paradox here is that the Jews are both an ancient people, over 4,000-years old, but also a people who have existed from the time of Abraham to the present day. Perhaps, Mark Twain said it best in September 1897:
The Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race…[yet] his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him…The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all…All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.
From the earliest of times, the Jews ushered in monotheism, and with the Torah, a code of living and morality for the world. The Jews are a paradox as an ancient “people of the book” but also recognized for their vibrancy throughout the ages in advancing civilization and the good of the people of the world. From the more than 200 Jewish Noble Prize winners (22% worldwide) to the recent two gold and two bronze medals that Israel won in the Tokyo Olympics. The Jewish people are “chosen” not for privilege, but for responsibility to try to be a good example or as the prophet Isaiah said, “a light unto nations”. Needless to say, we don’t always succeed —and sometimes we fail miserably—but this doesn’t prevent us from time and again “going back to the drawing board” to try and get it right!
While Israel and the Jews are filled with paradoxes from our forefather Abraham to the modern State of Israel, we are a people who try to wear these paradoxes well. We relish our commonalties even as we are proud of our differences and uniqueness. We argue and fight with each to try to get to “the truth of the matter,” and we negotiate, compromise, threaten and cajole to that sometimes elusive end. Paradox is just another word for our survival against all odds and our determination to overcome the blind hate, anti-Semitism, and scapegoating of Jews throughout history. We Jews are individually broken, but together, we are a beautiful, paradoxical mosaic—a little meshuggah (crazy) and with an unfortunate dose of PTSD, but fundamentally good in intent and deed—working to fulfill our optimism, hope, and mission to usher in the universality of G-d in the world and of betterment for humankind.