Samuel Heilman
Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Worry about the Future of the Jewish State

One of the best-known reasons given by the sages of the Talmud and by spiritual leaders over the generations for the destruction of the Holy Temple and the tragedy that is known simply as churban, commemorated each year on the 9th of Av and the three weeks leading up to it, is sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Historians point to the civil war that preceded the Roman attack in which the poorer and more zealously religious Jews of Jerusalem’s lower city fought the elites in the upper city, whom they saw as traitors and hopeless religious compromisers.

The elites, who no doubt had made compromises and were assimilating Roman customs and ways argued that any revolt against Rome such as the zealots demanded would be suicidal (indeed it was as it destroyed the stores of food, strength and unity of the people that paved the way for the losses that would come).  The period leading up to the Roman attack were times of deep and destructive divisions among the Jews.

Others have often generalized this division by offering parables and stories about unkindnesses and intolerance shown by Jews towards one another.  That was the thrust of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s conclusion and the saying for which he became famous that while “baseless hatred destroyed the temple, only boundless love ahavat chinam would lead to its rebuilding.  The first we know led to death and destruction and the last he believed would lead to resurrection and redemption.

Alas, if Kook was correct in so many things about the promise of Zion, this prediction is yet to be demonstrated, though some would say that in the days preceding the 1967 war and perhaps also on 29 November 1947, as well as the 5th of Iyar, the first Independence Day, this sort of love may have been there briefly.  (A more skeptical view would probably contest that too.)

Many have noted that the current divisions in the Jewish state – not only between Jewish nationalists and Palestinians – but even more so between Jews of opposing political attitudes, ideas, and ways of expressing religiosity suggest a situation ripe for a similar downfall.  What happened last night at the Western Wall, however, certainly echoes with a baseless hatred that resonates painfully with the days preceding the very destruction that was to be memorialized at that remnant of the Temple by Jews worldwide on the same night.  With thousands as usual sitting at the Wall and reciting Lamentations, right-wing, so-called Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers and thugs, barged into the area reserved for egalitarian services at the Western Wall disrupting the annual Tisha B’Av reading held by the Conservative movement at the Jewish holy site, drowning out a female chanting from the Book of Lamentations and brutally taking over the site.  I have heard no condemnation from their moral leaders, their political leaders, or the government authorities who are supposed to protect religious and national sites, which are supposed to belong to all people and not just some.  Yizhar Hess, deputy chair of the World Zionist Organization and the former director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said that the rabbis behind this takeover “are instigating unnecessary wars among the Jews, and on no other day than Tisha B’Av.”

This was no surprise.  The deal that Netanyahu and his coalition partners approved in January 2016 and then walked away from that would have provided a protected space at this all-important site to non-Orthodox set the stage for this. Flyers were everywhere fomenting hate and calling upon those who revile those who do not share their extremist views “to come and strengthen our hold on the Kotel!” But where was the new Bennet government that was clearly “abdicating its responsibility to administer this site, and all the others that share its status as an ‘atar leumi kadosh,’ a national holy site,” as my colleague Shulamit Magnes asked in a Facebook post?

In the long arc of Jewish history, full sovereignty has actually existed for a tiny fraction of time.  We could not even maintain it in the desert, as the Korach rebellion demonstrates.  Generally, its loss came about because one part of the people became divided from another.  Whether this was division of the northern Israelite and southern kingdom of Judah, the controversies as to which major power to ally with and offer tribute to on the days preceding the Babylonian exile of Judeans, and of course the aforementioned civil war on the eve of the Roman attacks.  Now again, after barely more than 70 years of sovereignty the Jews of Israel are once again riven by hatreds and division.  If even such an event as the peaceful remembrance of the city’s destruction at our national shrine in Jerusalem, the so-called ‘unified’ capital, can elicit such expressions of baseless hatred and intolerance, then we must surely fear for the future.  It was not in vain that the Psalmist wrote: “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.”

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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