Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Israel at 61: Successful, Natural, Though Not Inevitable

In examining Israel’s history, the emphasis is usually put on wars, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and diplomatic negotiations. These things are important but such a focus is completely misleading. It is true that Israel has fought to survive and has sought to make peace. But that is only a matter of the framework, what is the content?

The most important theme of Israel’s history is its success in both nation-building and society-building at a time when so many others have either markedly failed, gone out of existence altogether, or would have done so except for the fact that the international order—though this would not have applied in Israel’s case—props up existing states no matter what their sins or weaknesses.

And the same applies to its success in scientific, medical, and technological development, to taking a land that was poor in size and resources (without the benefit of oil), and, yes, making wastelands bloom.

The central theme to make about Israel on its sixty-first anniversary is as an example of successful political, social, and economic development, not only maintaining democracy but also at a remarkably high internal stability given its circumstances. The fact that the country has such a good record is all the more remarkable given its frequent demonization by others, not to mention the tremendous threats and military pressures it has faced.

Ponder the 100 or so countries created since 1945 and ask yourself how many are stable and democratic, how many have achieved high living standards for the great majority of their citizens, and how many--an even smaller number--that have contributed to the world at the highest levels of scholarship, technology, medicine, and science.

In addition, Israel has built a fully realized—though this does not mean perfect or completed—coherent society and culture. While this is the further evolution of one of the world’s oldest societies and cultures that has not necessarily made the task easier. On the contrary, religion and secularism, multiple languages, different levels of development, vastly different historical experience—not to mention a 2000-year-long interruption of sovereignty, and other factors had made it far harder than faced by more fortunate nation-states.

Oh, yes, one of the features of that society--and reasons for its success--has been relentless self-criticism. So one could add here: despite its problems and limitations and failings. But that's the point, too. In societies where nobody wants to say things like that or fears saying things like that, that country is in trouble.
The second important point is that one might in a sense say this is the three-thousand-six-hundred-and-sixty-first birthday of Israel. That specific number, of course, is not precise but merely gives an idea of what I’m trying to say here.

The idea that Jews were “only” a religious group was a mid-nineteenth century concept which was never accepted by most Jews, even non-Zionist ones. In Biblical times and up to the destruction of their country by the Romans in the first century, Jews always functioned as a nation and people, arguably the first such in history. Words like “Hebrews” and “Israelites”—used for Jews well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries—reflect that national identity and peoplehood beyond religion alone.

Religion was only one marker of this identity, even though many today think it was the only one. It should be noted, however, that having different religions was a hallmark of nation-states in the ancient world, not just of the Israelite one. What marked the Jews off especially even in this respect was the rejection—in principle if not always in practice—to accepting the gods and religious customs of others.

This barrier to assimilative borrowing was not mere stubbornness but an expression of the intertwining of religion with national identity. Indeed, this “red line” was what led to the Jewish revolts against the Greeks (successful) and Romans (unsuccessful), which in the end led to the destruction of the Jewish state and the exile of the Jewish people.

After the exile, however, Jews continued to function as closely as possible to a nation. They had local government, a unique calendar, language, worldview, particular foods, customs, clothing, and even occupations. They lived together and had international connections second to none, save possibly the Catholic Church, throughout the long medieval period and into modern times. To provide a personal example, my grandparents lived in a community where Jews functioned as a national people up to their departure from it in 1910, and their siblings continued to do so until the Nazis destroyed their town—two-thirds’ Jewish in population—in 1942.

The common perception that Jews were “outsiders” only kept involuntarily from full integration into the larger nations among whom they lived was the creation of the second half of the nineteenth century and was only fulfilled in many places in living memory. Of course, for the Jews of Europe in the face of the Holocaust or for the Jews of Muslim-majority countries, who never integrated and ultimately fled or were expelled in recent times, there was never such an option offered or taken up.

This pre-history of the modern state of Israel is necessary to establish the fact that it is not an arbitrary or accidental creation but the fulfillment of a long historical process. That does not mean the creation of that state was inevitable—far from it—but that it was just as logical historically as that of the establishment of any other modern state, and more so than for many of them.

Many Jews do not want to accept this definition of peoplehood—often they have not been taught very much or very accurately about Jewish history or religion. They prefer to see Jewishness as solely Judaism, as narrowly religious.

Or they prefer to assimilate into places that offer tremendous benefits to them ranging from familiarity to material benefits. And they are free to argue those are superior, though it should be remembered that the prototype for that world view was Germany.

Or they prefer to believe—though after all that’s happened in the last century it is rather ridiculous to think so—that they are going to be the vanguard for a utopian revolution which is post-national, post-religious and post-capitalist, though it should be remembered that the prototype for that world view was the USSR.

But they have no right to deny that traditional definition, that continuity, that fulfillment as a people to those Jews who wish to achieve it.

Israel, then, is the manifestation of the oldest existing national group in the world. Although it appears to be arbitrary and “constructed” to some does not reflect the reality of that continuity.

Today, the hatred and miscomprehension of Israel springs from many things, ranging from conflicting ambitions, to antisemitism, to economic profit, to a desire to disavow one’s own Jewishness.

Yet the causes specific to this time in the West have much to do with an opposition to the nation-state, to the community of peoplehood, to democracy, to freedom, to sincere personalistic (not world-conquering) religious belief, to a truly liberal society, to the mix of capitalism and social democracy that made the West so successful.

Indeed, the Israelites, hated in the previous era as an alleged threat to Western civilization, have now become hated as the embodiment of enlightened Western civilization.

And that hatred is the greatest compliment to Israel’s success.

PS: If you love Israel and this applies to you, spend the next day or two thinking about why you're not here. If it doesn't apply to you, please ignore.


  1. Aside from all the other, obvious explanations, it always seemed to me that another reason the far left -- both during the Cold War and since -- has almost never been able to abide Israel is the very fact that it IS successful as a liberal democratic nation-state aligned with the West, in contrast to so many other Third World states which failed miserably. From that point of view, Israel both CANNOT be allowed to succeed, and to the extent is does succeed, it CANNOT be allowed to be regarded as a positive example by anyone else.

  2. I've thought about making aliyah. A lot justifications are offered fore staying in host societies. But Jews weren't persuaded in medieval times and still settled in the Land Of Israel. I think the main arguments for Jews living in Israel is that living a Jewish life there is not dependent upon the sufferance of others. That's particularly true for the dwindling number of Jews who remain in Yemen. Their plight is why Israel exists.


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