Why was Israel Created?
We can't discuss if it's a success, if we don't even know why it's here
Now that we’ve celebrated Israel’s 74th anniversary, we’re officially into the 75th year of Israel’s life. Is that young? Old? Truth is, it’s somewhere in the middle. When Israel was admitted to the UN in 1949, it was the 59th state to join. Now that there are 193 countries in the UN, it’s clear that Israel is older than two-third of the world’s countries.
The facts that Israel is no longer so relatively young and that we are into the 75th year of Israel’s life afford us an opportunity to assess how Israel is doing. Is Israel a success? A failure? A bit of both? And most importantly, how do we measure?
We’ll be addressing that issue periodically through this 75th year of Israel’s life, and to launch that conversation, we’re sharing through the link above a brief talk that I gave to some leaders of a North American Jewish community when I met with them recently in Tel Aviv. I argued that before we can ask whether Israel was a success, we have to first ask “why was it created?” Only if we know what it was meant to accomplish can we discuss whether it has succeeded.
The talk, just over half an hour long, can be heard through the link above. Since some people prefer transcripts to audios, we’re also providing a machine-produced, lightly edited and far from perfect text below.
We just celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, number 74, which means we're a year away from 75. That's obviously an enormously important milestone in the lifetime of a relatively young country. Now, by the way, young is a relative term. We always think of Israel as a young country. Israel was the 59th country to enter the UN. Today there are 193 countries in the UN, which means that two thirds of the world's countries are actually younger than Israel. Israel is in the oldest third of the countries in the world.
But I just want to point out, that there's a way in which Israel is still a very young country and there's a way in which it really isn't such a young country anymore. It's an unusual country in that among those countries that were founded in the falling apart of the major empires after the end of the Second World War and including the countries that fell apart with the end of the Soviet Empire, Israel is one of the few countries that has been consistently democratic throughout without a single interruption. One can say all kinds of things about the nature of the democratic system, but that it chugs along quite admirably, that no election has ever been contested, that the loser has always said, “Okay, here's the keys to the house.”
So it's a relatively young country in a lot of ways, and it's older than most countries in other ways. But I think that being a year away from 75 years of independence is an apt opportunity for us to begin to think about what actually this place is. Obviously, it's the Jewish state. Obviously, it's the national homeland of the Jewish people. Obviously, it's a place that is very much in the minds and hearts of Jews all over the world, some of them being avid supporters, some of them being rabid opponents, some being what I would call the conflicted committed people that definitely have their hearts in it, but they're troubled by all sorts of things quite legitimately.
I think this is an opportunity to think about what is this place? What was it meant to be? What was it meant to accomplish? Because as we get to 75 years, we're going to want to do some assessment, and we can't assess how well it's done if we can't say to ourselves what was it supposed to accomplish in the first place.
You want to assess a school? Well, how many people did it graduate and how well have they done? You want to assess a business, how much money did we think it was going to make or hope it was going to make, and how much money did it make? You want to assess a nonprofit, what did we hope to accomplish? What realities on the ground would it change? What realities on the ground hasn't changed? In other words, in order to assess whether a country is a success or not, one must ask whether or not the country has reached the goals that it set out for itself, which means you have to ask what those goals were. Now, I'll also point out that Israel is unusual in that regard. Most countries don't have purposes. They don't.
What's the purpose of Belgium? What's the purpose of Italy? What's the purpose of Switzerland? Most countries weren't created with a purpose in mind, they were created out of the people who lived in those places and as Europe divided itself into nation states, people who for a long time had been living in the place we now call Italy, who had been speaking what we now call Italian, they had a certain culture and that culture, and those peoples gradually became the nation state called Italy.
In certain cases, obviously, like in Czechoslovakia and in other places, nation states were crammed together, and at the end, it didn't work and they fell apart. Belgium is an example of a country that struggles very hard to keep two different groups. Switzerland to a certain extent also tries to keep groups together through a governmental apparatus that more or less works.
The only other country really that explicitly stated its purpose was the United States. The United States basically said “this is an experiment in government,” a new kind of government which, as Thomas Jefferson said explicitly, “we hope will actually become the system of government of people all over the world.” And there was a time, not all that long ago when Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History in which he said that the whole world was becoming liberal democracies. Now, fortunately for Francis Fukuyama, he's still alive. Unfortunately for Francis Fukuyama, he's still alive, which means that he cannot be too happy to read what he wrote in The End of History, given where the world is going. But the United States was an attempt to say, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. In theory, we don't care what color you are, what gender you are, what religion you are, or where you're from if you want to be part of this experiment, which is an entirely universal experiment. “When in the Course of human e vents” begins the Declaration of Independence, not Christian events, not white events, not male events, but when in the course of human events.
That was the experiment, whether it's working or not working, is an entirely other conversation. Israel's Declaration of Independence begins, “the Jewish people was born in the land of Israel.” That's a very different first sentence from “When in the Course of human events.” The only other major document that you can really look at before the Declaration of Independence, which was read not that far from here on May 14, 1948, would be to go back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which said, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
A national home for the Jewish people is not the same thing as “When in the Course of human events” , a national home for the Jewish people is not the same thing as saying “we're going to create a kind of a government here that we think could be copied and pasted all across the world, in Europe, in Africa and in Asia, because we think this is the ideal form of democracy.” If the United States meant to create a kind of a country which would be a model democracy, that people could replicate all over the world, presumably with differences based on culture, this place was never meant to be that and that's critically important to understand. This was never meant to be a small, Hebrew speaking, falafel eating version of the United States or Canada. It is an entirely different experiment.
And that's why when we judge what's happening here according to the standards that we would hold Canada accountable or the United States accountable or England or Germany or France, we're missing the point because, again, in order to ask what the point is, we have to ask ourselves first, what are we here to do? I will lay out what I think the major agendas of the founding fathers and mothers of this country were. Most of them were men, but there were definitely women involved as well. What were they trying to do in the late 1800s, when Zionist writings first began to sweep across Europe? Herzl's book, The Jewish State comes out in 1896.The First Zionist Congress was in 1897, and a mere 20 years later, the British Empire, which is the most powerful Empire in the world, adopts the Balfour Declaration. And only 30 years after that, in 1947, the UN votes on November 29, 1947, and declares the Jewish state. It happens so unbelievably quickly. They're not very popular these days but think about the Chechens or the Basques, or the Kurds. All these groups and others across the world have been battling and fighting for and begging for their own nation state for a very, very, very long time.
In 50 years Zionism went from 1897, the First Zionist Congress, 200 Jews get together in a big hall in Basel, Switzerland, and 50 years later, the UN votes for statehood.
We forget, by the way, that in a way it was also too quick. We weren't 100% ready, but we had no choice. Ben-Gurion understood this. Most people argue that there was a central group of about ten people who voted several days before whether or not to declare independence. And the vote was six to four, which obviously could not have been closer.
One person changed their vote. There was no majority because they understood that there was going to be a war. They understood that they weren't really prepared for the war. It was three years after Auschwitz. It's crazy, but nonetheless they understood that this was possibly a once in a millennium opportunity and therefore they grabbed it. What did they grab it for? What were they trying to do?
By the way, if you want to ask from the point of view of Polish Jewry, did Hitler win or lose the war? Hitler completely won the war. His goal was to destroy Polish Jewry, which was the crown rule of European Jewry, and he completely succeeded.
We can't imagine any more in our minds the glory that was Polish Jewry, religious and secular and intellectual and all different sorts of things for a thousand years. Polish Jewry was huge and he wanted to wipe it out and he wiped it out quite successfully.
But Zionism starts before that. Jews were living in Eastern Europe for a very long time and life had its ups and downs. What happens all of a sudden? Jews began to understand that life in Europe was going to become untenable. They had a sixth sense. However, not all the Jews in Germany in 1939 had this sixth sense. Many of them stayed. But many of the Jews in Eastern Europe had a sense that Europe is going to end badly for them. They have no idea how badly, they could never have in their wildest imagination imagined how horribly it would end. But they have a sense that it's going to end badly, and they decide it's time to get out. Not everybody agreed with that. Some people wanted to create autonomous Jewish places inside Europe. Some people felt that if you assimilated enough, the Europeans would finally accept you. There were huge debates about what to do about what was called the Jewish problem, the yuda shfraga, the Jewish question. But nonetheless, there were a few who said, “we've got to get out and we got to build our own country.” There were those, like Ahad Ha’am, who said, “we’ve got to get out, but not build our own country.” They wanted to go back to Palestine, but they didn't want to get into the business of state making because it's an ugly business. So, they said, “we'll go and we'll try to get enough Jews there so there can be a significant minority of people who can build schools and who can rebuild Jewish culture. But we don't need a Knesset.”
There was also another sense that because Jews lived on such thin ice in Europe, they were always looking over their shoulder. They were always asking themselves, “how do we need to live here in order to best to avoid that? How do we need to live here in order to best avoid there being another pogrom? What do we need to do here to make sure the government doesn't change the laws and do something else to us? What do we need to do to make sure we don't enrage the local population with whom we share the shtetl or with whom we share Vienna or even France, think about Dreyfus, and so on and so forth?”
And certain Zionist thinkers said normal people don't live that way. A normal people does not live by shaping its life around not annoying anybody else. That's not normal. That's actually really sick. And I mean it in the most profound sense of illness. And there were people, some of the critical Zionist thinkers from earlier, Pinsker being one of the classic ones and many others who said, the Jewish people is sick. It's always looking over the shoulder and trying not to annoy anybody. It doesn't even speak its own language anymore.
It talks all day long about being in this place. In the blessing after meals, bone b’rachama b’Yerushalyim, build and rebuild Jerusalem. At Shabbat morning services, matei timloch b’Zion? When will you dwell in Zion? You pray, you face east. If you're in Europe, you end the Seder and you say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” We're talking about it all the time and we don't do anything about it.
And Zionism basically says it's time to stop pretending. Nationalism is sweeping across Europe. It's the era of the nation state. And Zionism decides it’s our time now too. Zionism is first of all a revolutionary movement and it's critically important to understand that because revolutionary movements are always very much in your face. In other words, very few revolutions happen by people being incredibly nice and polite. The American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, Mao's Revolution, and the Zionist revolution were violent. What separates some of them, like the American and the Israeli, from the Russian and the French, is that in the American and Israeli cases, once the revolution was successful, there was no bloodbath. There was a country. In other words, the Americans did not go ahead and slaughter all the loyalists. They just made a country with them. I'm not saying it was all perfect, but they didn't slaughter the loyalists any more than here. It didn't end up in a bloodbath internally, obviously, either. But Zionism is a revolution and if we don't understand that Zionism is revolutionary in its very essence, we really can't understand the sort of in your face-ness of what this whole project is about. They couldn't have cared less about how the rest of the world saw them because that's not how the revolution was won. They didn't care what the British thought. They didn't care what the State Department thought when the State Department said that Israel shouldn’t declare independence. They did not care what the State Department said after the vote on November 29, when they said, “actually, I think we goofed, let's bring it back to the UN for a revote.” They didn't care. They had a goal, and they still have a goal.
So, it's a revolution against a very bad future in Europe. It's a revolution against nervousness and the pressure to assimilate and the fear of antisemitism. It's also, ironically, a revolution against Judaism. Judaism always said that God will decide when the Jews will return to the land. The Talmud is very explicit. “When God wants to bring you back, God will bring you back and until then, you have to wait.” And back then that's where the ultra-Orthodox objection to Zionism comes from. It had nothing to do with women being in the government or people dressed scantily on the beach. It had everything to do with the fact that it is a violation of a theological premise. And the Zionists said, “We’re not waiting.” And if they wanted to be really obnoxious about it, they would have said, “Actually, no, the God that you're waiting for is letting us get slaughtered and part of that Talmudic passage that says you have to wait for God to bring you back also says, but in return, God will make sure that the other nations of the world are not too harsh with you.” So, they would have said that God has not lived up to God's version of the deal, and so the deal's off. So, this is a revolution against Judaism.
And here's the great irony of the internal inconsistencies of Zionism. If you're going to have a revolution against Judaism, why come here? There are lots of easier places to live and all sorts of places were offered like the Northern Coast of Australia and Lake Michigan, believe it or not. There are all kinds of crazy places that were offered. They would never have worked, by the way, because the buzz that you feel when your plane lands, you would not have felt landing in Australia, because part of the buzz that you feel is “my ancestors were here 3,000 years ago." That's what makes this unbelievable. Not that we've been here for 75 years, but that I've actually come home. I've come home to a modern state, and I've come home to an ancient homeland. I fly in and out of Israel all the time, and it's rare that the plane will land, and I don't get some sort of feeling that this is just unbelievable. You look at Tel Aviv, which 110 years ago was literally all sand and it's just unbelievable. So, why did we come here? Because it's a very, very Jewish revolution against Judaism. So, David Ben Gurion says, how do I know that this land belongs to us? He holds up a Bible. There are internal contradictions in Zionism that don't fit any kind of theological chart or flow chart or anything, but that's just the nature of revolution. The passion was to come home to redeem ourselves, to make ourselves a new people, to give due birth to the Hebrew language, and so on and so forth.
There is a conflict, to be sure. And some of the Jews thought there would be a conflict. Some of them thought there would not be. Herzl was sure there would not be a conflict. If you look at his 1902 novel, Altneuland, he describes the future Jewish state, and there is a third Temple rebuilt, but there's no army. He was wrong on both counts. But other people like Jabotinsky said, “Of course there's going to be a conflict because what do you think? That we love our land more than they love their land? What kind of a paternalistic, almost racist attitude is that? That we, the enlightened Europeans, love land and they can just be bought off?” That's what some of the Zionists thought. They thought we're going to buy the land and everyone else would just hike off into Syria and Jordan because we bought the land. Jabotinsky said, that's naive and it's actually racist. He said, “If you want to be here, you must be willing to fight.”
The next goal is, of course, to rebel against not being a real people. Real Peoples have countries and borders. Real people have languages. Real Peoples have school systems. Real Peoples have a whole array of things that make themselves real. That's what we're going to build now, and by the way, that's exactly what we built.
If you stop there, this place is an unmitigated success. Nobody walks around this country worried about antisemitism. Nobody's afraid of us not being in control of our destiny. People go into Israeli bookstores, and they see a lot of books. I go into an Israeli bookstore, and I see a miracle It’s really unbelievable. We built this language. It wasn’t dormant. It had always been used for religious purposes, but nobody spoke it. There was no way to tell a plane which runway to land on. And there was no way for a doctor to say to another person at the operating table, “Give me that. And suction that.” And there was no way to say, “Would you like to be my boyfriend?” And there was no way to say, “let's go to the movies.” And there was no word for tomato. There was nothing. And the fact that you walk around outside and hear these little five-year-old kids and people 90 years old chitchatting here, that’s just a miracle.
Of course, everybody in their life has worries, people are worried about their health, they're worried about their marriages, they're worried about their kids. But fundamentally, they're being Jewish is a source of comfort and not worry. That's an unbelievable change.
But what I think is critically important to try to convey to people is that to allow our conversation about Israel to be about the conflict or about any of the other ills that Israeli society has, like the United States, like Canada, like England, like France, etc., like every other modern country in the world, is to lose the battle before we even start moving pieces on the chessboard. The rules are how does this look, according to the one slice of the pie that everybody else out there wants to look at without asking, “why did my people get into the business of creating this country?” Has it been successful? It's been ridiculously successful. That doesn't mean that, by the way, we've got it all figured out.
That's an expression here of something that doesn't really exist in most other places. On Shavuot there will be maybe hundreds or thousands of people outside somewhere in Tel Aviv studying together all night. Secular people. There are places you can go in Tel Aviv, the “city of sin” in Israel, and there's hundreds of people outside, secular people bringing in Shabbat together. Not for the same theological reasons that people are sitting in a synagogue in Jerusalem. But that's the beauty of it. That what binds them together. There is no Hebrew word for ‘Saturday’. The only word you can use, even if you eat pork on Yom Kippur, is ‘Shabbat’. That's the only word you can use. So, when somebody says what they’re going to be doing on Saturday night, they’d say motzei Shabbat. That's how you say Saturday night. Motzei Shabbat is when Shabbat goes out.
There are people that wouldn't go to one shul in Jerusalem, but who do go to the other shul in Jerusalem. And there are hundreds of people on the beach. It means that if you're Haredi, then you are allowed to live as you want. And that's going to create all kinds of financial pressures and social pressures that we have yet to figure out. It's not about the army, by the way, at all. Military stuff is becoming less and less human driven and more and more machine driven. We do not need them in the army. We need them in the workforce for a lot of reasons and we also need them to get secular educations, because you can't really live these days if you can't read English.
So, we have the ability to live as a Jew any way that we want and this comes with its own complexities, and we're still trying to figure out how it is that all these different kinds of Jews are going to live together and what we're going to build here.
We have inordinate issues here, but the problem of the discourse about Israel outside of Israel is that it focuses on significant parts of the pie, which do need to be addressed because there are security issues and moral issues and other kinds of issues. But they leave completely aside the question of what are we doing here? What are we trying to build? This is the place where the Jewish people not only came home, this is the place where the Jewish people came home to reimagine itself. It is the most prolific, dynamic, multicultural, multicolored, vibrant reimagination that one could possibly imagine. Does one have any idea what it's going to look like 50 years from now? No idea whatsoever. But it is the place where in literature and culture and television and music and politics and even the military and in a whole array of ways, we're busy trying to figure out what should it look like to be a Jew when the only person who decides what it is to be a Jew is you. That's the question at the core of this country, and that's what I think we're doing here.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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