Recently Natalie Portman announced her decision not to collect the Genesis Prize, with the $2 million that comes with it as an act of protest against Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Her statement explaining her decision contained the following sentence;
Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust.
Former Member of Knesset Einat Wilf picked up on it;
As #NataliePortman asked to be judged by her own words, it is worth repeating a thousand time:, Israel was NOT created “as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust”. Israel was created so that Jews, as people and nation, could enjoy the universal EQUAL right to self-determination.
— Einat Wilf (@EWilf) April 21, 2018
So who is right, Wilf or Portman?
Well, actually, they’re both arguing two sides of the same coin.
Would Herzl ever have written The Jewish State if it hadn’t been for the persecution of the Jew Dreyfus or if the crowd hadn’t shouted Death to the Jews outside the court martial?
Would the idea ever have found such popularity if it hadn’t been for the persecution of the Jews of Eastern Europe particularly at the hands of the Russian Empire?
Indeed the entire introduction of Herzl’s The Jewish State is that the need for the state exists precisely because of the suffering of the Jews. So why should it be controversial to say that Israel exists because of the greatest act of suffering Jews have endured?
But between the intellectual idea of Zionism arising and the start of Hitler’s reign in 1933, while the idea of auto-emancipation took root intellectually among the Jews there were few willing to actually go and live in Palestine to physically build the state. After the rise of Hitler in 1933 the biggest problem was figuring out how to get the Jews who desired to move to Palestine into the country.
To argue that it was the ideology that captured the Jewish imagination rather than the reality of persecution is to deny history.
By the time we get to 1945 the ideas of rival ideologies such as the Jewish socialism of the Bund who called for Jews to work together with their fellow citizens had been exterminated. Overwhelmingly the survivors wanted their own country.
The late historian Sir Martin Gilbert wrote of the attitude prevalent in 1946 that;
So desperate were the Jews of Palestine for some form of sovereign entity, in which they could be their own rulers, and into which survivors could come without any numerical restrictions, that both Weitzman and Ben-Gurion were prepared to accept – as the Jewish Agency had been ten years earlier – some form of partition.
Here we have the necessity for a haven for the survivors going hand in hand with the need for Jewish self determination. Because that was the whole point of Israel from the beginning, that was the reason why Jews needed self determination. To live away from persecution in a state where they enjoyed the same rights as anyone else living in their state.
If Portman is wrong she is only wrong in that she limits what Israel is to a place where survivors of the Holocaust needed to go.
What of the Jews fleeing Arab countries in the 1950s? What of the Jews of Africa? What of the Jews who fled the Soviet Union? What of the Jews now leaving France and the Jews who aren’t able to leave Venezuela but wish they could? And the Jews in the UK eyeing the populist politics of Jeremy Corbyn and wondering what’s on their horizon?
And in the meantime the Jewish state faces its own issues, military, moral, economic but has succeeded in the ambition of its founders in becoming a place where Jews can walk the streets with their heads held high and without fear that they will suffer persecution for their religion from a hostile government and populace.