Renewing Our National Spirit, another by Ahad La’am
Exclusive to Sh’ma
Renewing Our National Spirit by Ahad La’am
A generation before the Holocaust, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 killed 44 Jews. That, and other pogroms, devastated the Jewish psyche. Instead of giving into despair, leaders of the early Zionist movement redoubled their efforts, intensified their debates, and lay the foundation for the Jewish state. The political imperative to create the state overtook the readiness of the collective Jewish soul; a necessary yet unfortunate historical development that we celebrated for a generation or two but are paying for today. In the years since 1948, the State of Israel and the Jewish people have accomplished miracles beyond the imagination of its founding dreamers. The defining characteristics of Israel, and its social and political culture, reflect not the highest aspirations and values of our people but the lowest common denominators reminiscent of any nation-state. While successfully holding back Arab armies and usually maintaining a purity of arms, we have failed to hold back both assimilationist and religious extremist forces that have decimated our will, polarized our people, and polluted our mission.
Diaspora Jewish communities, exhibiting an ideological inferiority complex, were sheepish in their attempts to prophetically transform spiritual Israel while generously building the physical state. This was a tragic abdication of the responsibility of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish soul has been assaulted by the unfortunate occupation of Arab peoples and, among Western Jews, the continued slavery to non-Jewish ideals in the midst of unprecedented freedom. While both factors have legitimate historical and sociological roots, it has taken a generation to realize that both the occupation and assimilation ultimately undermine the viability of Jewish mission. Jews have always been part of great historical drama. But many in the last two generations have slumbered as members of the audience, politely clapping at appropriate cues; then going home after great events — wars, Nobel peace prizes, airlifts — were completed. Because the terror in Israel is accompanied by renewed vigorous antisemitism in Europe and even the United States, this is the first time in several generations that comfortable Jews have become less comfortable. Moving to Israel, the insulting “insurance policy” rationalization for a Jewish state, becomes a less attractive option during these terrible times. The fact that wealthy secular Israelis are leaving Israel in the face of unprecedented terror is understandable given its ideological vacuum. So, it is in the interest of national security to strengthen the Jewish spirit. Rather than solely sending emergency money to Israel for social services and victims of terror, we should convene a vigorous international debate about the mission of the Jewish people. If Herzl’s vision was ultimately the most important — creating a secular, Europeanized society — then we can congratulate ourselves on our success and pack our bags as we head for safer, secular, enlightened countries. Maybe even to Diaspora communities where sparks of hope for Jewish culture are beginning to re-ignite. Indeed, the political calamity of each day’s headlines exposes the weakness not of the Jewish army, but of the Jewish spirit. While the Arab massacres of 1936 and 1939 were far more devastating in the tiny Yeshuv, our will to survive and dream was greater then. Our resolve was grounded in vibrant, often competing, visions of a Jewish society. Now we just fantasize about unsacred survival. The Herzilian dream must be recast as only the first, imperfect step in creating a national body to house the national spirit; this time we must not shy away from involving all Diaspora communities and great thinkers in the ideological transformation of our people. The good news is that it is far more difficult to physically create a state than to reinvigorate a nation. For the seeds of redemption are everywhere — in our past and present — and the ground for planting is fertile. We should declare the period from this Rosh Hashanah until the next — a 13-month year blessed with a second month of Adar — the Year of Visioning. Every synagogue, school, Jewish Community Center, publication, Internet site, political forum, book club, Heeb event, Sh’ma salon, and conference sponsored by the Jewish community should include focused conversations about the mission and purpose of the Jewish people. This will create the largest values clarification exercise in world history. This candid and meaningful conversation will not take place — indeed, it never has — at the irrelevant World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. In the year following the Year of Vision, two things must happen. We must create a Knesset Bet, an upper Jewish house of parliament, originally envisioned by Dr. Yosef Burg, where representatives of Jewish thought and communities, from Israel and the vast Diaspora, gather to study, debate policy, vote and take action. Concurrently, we must create a values-based curriculum for the Jewish world. Based on a seven-year cycle, it would address core Jewish values and culture that transcend denomination, geography, ideology, or historical circumstance. The implementation of the plan would give the next generation a common language and culture to impact a common destiny. By undertaking a Year of Vision, a Knesset Bet, and an international values curriculum, Jewish leaders will be fulfilling their roles not only as priests who cater to the needs of the people, but also as prophets who inspire visions of a better Jewish future. While political solutions to the current crisis may elude the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the spiritual solution is within our grasp. It is the responsibility of the entire Jewish people to seize it immediately. Ahad La’am is a thinker and writer involved in Jewish and Zionist affairs and writes from the Arava Desert. This first appeared in Sh’ma circa 2004.