Ysoscher Katz

Time For a New Chalutzim (Pioneer) Brigade

About eight years ago, a group of Jewish historians, spearheaded by Professor Hasia Diner, released a social get, a document that declared their severance from the State of Israel (see here). That drastic move was prompted by what, in their eyes, were inexcusable ethical shortcomings of the State. 

Eight years hence, we are seeing a similar phenomenon, but on a larger and more ferocious scale. Many in our community are vociferously critiquing Israel’s policies, and quite a few among them are completely dissociating from the State. 

In their eyes, many of the issues that prompted Diner and her co-signers to give the State a writ of divorce are still true today, and have only been exacerbated by the problematic aspects of the war in Gaza. The troubling aspects of the Gaza war is taking a huge emotional and ethical toll on them, to the point where their ability to identify with Israel and support it has become untenable. In fact, for some, the situation has become so unbearable that a get would not be sufficient. They believe that the State needs to be condemned to the trash heap of history. That it no longer deserves to exist. 

While I understand where the critics are coming from, I do not share their urge to flee or worse. Au contraire, these challenging times inspire me to get closer and more involved–because I believe that the harsh response is unjustified. Their condemnation lacks perspective. 

Relatively speaking, the young State is doing as is to be expected. Her mistakes, foibles, and shortcomings are the natural growing pains of a country that is still in its youth. Seventy-six years in the life of a new country is a very short time. It is therefore too soon to give up on the experiment, to flee and abandon her. 

That, in fact, would be too easy. The more admirable reaction is to stick around and work hard to fix what is broken. 

Hardship is baked into the Jewish sovereignty project. It was never going to be easy. 

A Jewish democratic State in the Middle East was always going to be an incredible challenge. And, as the country matures, the challenges inevitably increase. Turning that far-fetched dream into a healthy and worthy reality therefore requires a revival of the chalutzi (pioneering) spirit that was integral to the founding of the State–finding the courage that is required at this pivotal moment. Those of us who are bothered by the State’s ethical blindspots therefore need to embrace the chalutzi mantle, not to walk away from a young State that is still finding its way. 

The first wave of chalutzim fought for the brick-and-mortar foundation of a State. That phase was extremely successful. The State they built works well–materially. Now we are in the thicket of the second wave, fighting to build a State whose conscience and soul are as sturdy as its bricks and mortar. And that is the task in front of those of us who chose not to flee but to instead be the new chalutzim. 

Will it be easy? Of course not!

The government’s ethical failures and moral blindspots, which have been exacerbated during the current war, are undoubtedly troubling. 

Granted, the war is unquestionably just and unfortunately necessary. It is a war of defense, not offense. Fighting a just war, however, does not obviate the possibility of mistakes, some of them tragic and monumental, making it obvious that when the war is over, Israel will have to do some accounting and introspection. For now, though, while Israel is facing an existential threat and fighting for its security, our role is to be tolerant and supportive, since we know that, as unlikely as it may sound, things will improve over time. Because as second-wave chalutzim, we will fight hard to ensure that. 

Not now though. 

When a family member is in an ICU, battling a severe illness that was avoidable, or while they’re still under the knife of a surgeon, we don’t admonish them for poor dietary or lifestyle choices. While they are struggling for survival, we shower them with all the love they need so that they can heal and recuperate. Only once they are completely healed do we make them take stock of where they came up short and prod them to confront their own culpability in having fallen ill. 

Temporarily ignoring the misdeeds is, of course, not easy, and it makes tremendous demands on one’s conscience. But that is the chalutzi spirit: suppressing one’s own needs, hopes, and desires, and sometimes even temporarily putting aside one’s own values for the sake of the greater good. But then, when the appropriate time arrives, the chalutz is willing to fight the political and religious establishment to ensure that the State lives up to its ideals.

They fight hard. 

Many get bruised, all get scarred, and some even succumb to their wounds. The one thing they have in common is that none of them would ever think of jumping ship. They do not quit when the going gets tough. The stakes are  high, the obstacles enormous. 

For too long now, Israel’s two major institutions of governance, the Knesset and the Rabbanut, have been operating in topsy-turvy mode. The Knesset is paralyzed and the Rabbanut emboldened, when in reality, it should be the other way around. For Israel to fulfill its promise, it needs a government that has the courage to move boldly, make tough decisions, and take account of the way it wages war, being much better at preemptively avoiding moral pitfalls, and a rabbinate that is humble and self-aware. For the moment, that is not the case. Israel and Jews across the globe are consequently suffering. 

Healing this aching country is a huge task. Only a dedicated army of valiant and relentless fighters can undo these self-inflicted wounds, get the government to do its job, and make the Rabbanut recognize its limited role in a democratic State. 

Conscription into this phase of the chalutzi battle is mandatory for anybody who cares about the State. All Israeli and diasporic Jews have a role to play. 

Sadly, for some, the fight for the necessary changes has become too hard, causing them to drop out. Those of us they have left behind, although feeling deserted and deeply hurt, will nevertheless continue to fight for the country, knowing that the long-term prospects of this enterprise are extremely promising. 

Since its inception, Israel has been staving off theological opponents, people who–alongside its political adversaries–have attacked the State’s legitimacy. They have misconstrued philosophical complexity with theological illegitimacy. A Jewish State is by definition a complex philosophical organism. It is an idea whose essence hovers dangerously close to racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. Only a dedicated warrior corps can ensure that the boundary that separates legitimate self-definition from discriminatory essentialism stays intact. The dedicated brigade of warriors will valiantly fight in the years to come to help make this State the Promised Land it is destined to be. 

To be sure, it will be a difficult, painful, and draining process. But those with the strength to persevere will prevail, their dedication rewarded in spades. They will pass on to the next generation a State that is moral, open, inviting, and inclusive and, most importantly, a place we are proud to call home. 

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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