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As Zionism is under siege and Israelis increasingly see their country as divinely ordained, it’s important to remember that the Jewish state is the result not of a miracle but of historical forces and hard work

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At the Western Wall. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
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Maybe American liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving

Before 1967 it was rarely the tendency of Zionists to cite God as their master. Even Zionists of a distinctly religious bent formulated an esoteric but highly effective theology according to which Zionists were—albeit unknowingly—serving God, not vice-versa.

It is now a cliché to note that the Six Day War and its aftermath triggered a perfect storm of messianic enthusiasm and, to a great extent, the messianization of Zionism. This should not be surprising. In the space of a scant three decades, the Jewish people underwent the Holocaust, the reconstitution of the Jewish state, the threat of a second Holocaust at the hands of Arab armies, and then an astonishingly swift victory, the reunification of Jerusalem, and the reacquisition of the ancient heartland of the Jewish state. I doubt if there is a people in the world who could experience such upheavals and not find itself in a somewhat otherworldly frame of mind.

That this state of mind was and is nonetheless otherworldly deserves emphasis. Especially as we find ourselves in a moment in which Zionism and the state it created are once again under ideological siege and the temptation to turn in anger or despair to the divine becomes ever more powerful. The upheavals of modernity and the distinctive madnesses known as anti-Semitism and totalitarianism gave birth to the Holocaust; Israel’s victorious wars were the product of a level of military investment, readiness, and courage that was demanding and difficult but by no means divine; and the rebirth and reconstitution of the Jewish state was—very far from a divine miracle—a direct result of the expenditure of many decades of very human blood, treasure, and sweat.

Even so, over the 40 years since the Six Day War, Zionism and the state of Israel have taken on ever greater messianic connotations in the minds of both Jews and non-Jews. Among some Jews, of course, the results are obvious: a reflexive faith in the power of the almighty to redeem his people, and a return to the belief that we need not ourselves undertake any difficulties or hardships in order to effect or influence our own redemption. Among the more aggressively messianic, it has meant undertaking difficulties and hardships, but only in continuing service of the divine plan as originally outlined by Rav Abraham Kook, according to which the land must be redeemed at any cost, because all costs—human or otherwise—will be compensated by the tikkun, or reparation, that must come at the end of days.

Among Israel’s more fervent gentile supporters, the plague is equally infectious. The Six Day War, we are told, was due to the uncompromising will, and, some argue, the direct intervention of the almighty. I remember seeing an evangelical documentary on the 1967 war that told how God had turned back the Egyptian tanks in the Sinai—tanks that had, in fact, been blown to pieces by the earthly weapons of the IDF. There is, it must be admitted, an endearing sincerity to these convictions, but the phenomenon is not, ultimately, about anti-Semitism or philo-Semitism: It is only another iteration of that 2,000-year-old Oedipal dance that Judaism and Christianity have engaged in on the theme of God and man.

Yet messianic disorders are hardly confined to the right, religious or otherwise. The left, secular and religious, is equally infected. Since the death of dialectical materialism the left of all stripes has, whether or not they wish to admit it, cast off the secular trappings of its ideology—which was once presented as nothing less than a branch of science—and embraced its own dangerous varieties of messianism. Israel is a demonic force to many on the left today—an embodiment of unearthly evil whose misdeeds have nothing in common with the crimes of other, less cosmic nations. But Israel’s supporters on the left are equally prey to seeing Israel as a vaguely cosmic nation—possessing redemptive powers unheard of in the prosaic domains of economics, war, and politics.

The Jewish—and, increasingly, non-Jewish—left has its own tikkun that is no less mystical and no less apocalyptic than its right-wing counterpart. An Israel that withdraws, that reconciles, that admits its sins, that redeems itself from itself and from its own sinful history, will effect a repair of the world that radiates far beyond the nation’s meager borders. Out of that redemption and repair will come the redemption and repair of the Middle East and, then, it is intimated, the entire world. Because the sins of Israel are divine in size, the redemption of these sins will be of equal and opposite dimensions. The repair of Israel will be the repair of the world. Hence their fervency, their desperation, and their inevitable adoption of the language of theology, of demons, of sinners, or holy innocents, holy war, and holy death, of martyrdom and the final reward, that has made the left into a church and its admonitions into a Quran.

To be named an apikoros is, of course, no great honor for a Jew, and its equivalents are no great honors for gentiles. But even in its earliest forms, in its most protean moment, even among the religious, even in the hands of Judah Halevi, that messianist of messianists, Zionism was utterly of this world. It was a defiance, a rebellion, a turning away from the devil’s bargain, perhaps unavoidable, that the Jewish people had made with fate. Crushed by the exigencies of this world, the Jews retreated into the world of words and symbols and existed in a perpetual deferral of existence itself.

Perhaps they had no choice. Certainly, they felt that they had no choice. But that is no excuse for, and no endorsement of, going back. To raise Israel into heaven is to reduce and demolish the Israel of the earth. This little country, crowded and contradictory, made up of millions of tiny victories and as many tiny defeats, can never compete with the divine perfection conjured by its partisans. But nonetheless this country exists. It is real. And in that alone, it is superior to any of its nonexistent divine counterparts.

It is time to acknowledge, without shame and without undue pride, that Israel is not a miracle nor the result of divine fiat, not a mere shadow of some perfection in the mind of an unknowable deity but the result of the sacrifices, the contributions, and, above all, the unglamorous, quotidian labor of many individual human beings, all of whom, to one degree or another, rebelled against the same pleasing but empty messianic illusions so many of their progeny have now embraced. Israel is not here to feed our wishful hopes or our quiet faith in redemption. It is here to remind us that it is, and always will be, in the power of the Jewish people to grasp its fate, to remake if not the world at least its own place in it, and to step out of the fears and shadows of the past, into the light of a world that, while imperfect and unredeemable, does hold the promise of replacing all those terrible and unanswerable questions—what am I? What is wanted of me? What is my place in the unknowable plan?—with a far simpler and more honorable query: What do I do now?

Benjamin Kerstein is a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor.

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this is what israel stands for left -wing and right -wing:

add somalia to the list (with more than 1,000,000 $ aid from israel just from this week)

James philadelphia says:

Do I notice a slight dislike for religious influence? May I remind you that Herzl, out of urgency, wanted anyplace to create a Jewish State. But the Russian Polish Jews prevailed to have do it in Israel. We are and will be the people from and of the Torah. Like it or not. Secular religious atheist you name it. It has nothing to do and everything to do with religion. I am a new born Jew. Israel is my motto and daily breathing. We are here all together. Secular Religious Atheists you name it. We are all Jews. All are welcome. All are brothers. Hey how about Abel and Cain, Jacob and Issauh, and Jacob’s children.

When the Jews of Arab lands were expelled and came to Israel, they were put in squalid refugee camps by the Mapai socialist anti religious bunch. The Jews from Arab lands were very religious. Of course they were not technologically savvy. With the years these Sephardic Jews have represented the lower stratum of Israelis, poverty, prostitution, illegal drugs. The Israelis treated their Sephardic brethren with scorn contempt discrimination. Finally Ehud Barack apologized Mapai was now labor party. But halas Shimon Peres who was a young star in the Mapai refused to apologize.
Back and forward. The elite that controls Israel has mostly Ashkenazim in charge. The time is overdue. By the it was Menachem Begin and his Likude teachings party that took the Sephardic people in their midst. Still Sephardic leaders even in the Likud are missing in action. Well we have the Shas party and Rabbi Ovadia to reckon with.

I don’t agree !!!

While there can be no doubt that the early Zionists worked hard, it is a documented fact that they failed.

It was only with the help of the entire Jewish people that the nation of Israel was born.

There is not a single agricultural settlement in Israel that bought its land solely with the funds of the founding members.

In the Torah its speaks of the troubles that God brought upon the first arrivals to prevent them from thinking they settled and developed “The Promised Land” by themselves. Also, in the story of Gideon, it tells how the quantity of soldiers were reduced to a ridiculously small number, to prevent them from thinking they won the victory thru their own efforts.

Again, the first Zionists worked hard, but to attribute the success of the State of Israel “only” to their efforts is not only arrogant, its historically wrong.

Did God play a role? I can’t prove it either way, nevertheless, logic suggests, if Mr. Kerstein is wrong about his over emphasis on the efforts of the Zionists, then there is a good chance he is probably wrong about the efforts of God as well….

Beth says:

This is one of the most reasonable things I’ve read on the subject of Israel. I especially like your description of the Jewish left. Please tell me there are more like you in Israel.

Great to see Benjamin Kerstein writing in Tablet. This piece echoes in an uncanny way an essay by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny? If I remember correctly, he examines the two competing strains in early American thought that ascribe the country’s success variously to an attempt to recreate something of the spirit of Republican Rome, while averting its seemingly inevitable demise through good government, and the operation of divine agency, willing a kind of earthly paradise into existence.

Rudy says:

Well constructed piece. Lacks evidence. Its clear the writer has little knowledge of or perhaps a biased perspective on what divine intervention looks like to a person that believes in G-d’s presence in the world.

Does the author believe in the Twelfth Article of Faith ?

david friedlander says:

zionism is only under siege in the shtetl paranoia minded mentality of ashkenazi jews (that I belong to as well).
We have the ability, the brains, a wonderful culture and country.

The question is – do we have the spine?

In answer to your question, Mr. Neira, he does not.

JoyAnn says:

Have you forgotten that “God helps those who help themselves”? It is no small wonder that ‘the people of Israel still live’. Miracles are done by God, not by humans. Humans are merely an instrument. There isn’t a righteous man in the Tenach that wasn’t faulted.

These ideas – God and nationalism – don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For many, “God” has become another way of remarking on what is incredible, awesome, magnificent.

“It is time to acknowledge, without shame and without undue pride, that Israel is not a miracle nor the result of divine fiat, not a mere shadow of some perfection in the mind of an unknowable deity but the result of the sacrifices, the contributions, and, above all, the unglamorous, quotidian labor of many individual human beings, all of whom, to one degree or another, rebelled against the same pleasing but empty messianic illusions so many of their progeny have now embraced.”

You strikes me as bored, complacent, and unimpressed. Daily life is a miracle in itself. Have you forgotten, or did someone fail to teach you?

jacob arnon says:

Beth says:

“This is one of the most reasonable things I’ve read on the subject of Israel. I especially like your description of the Jewish left. Please tell me there are more like you in Israel.”

The answer is of course, but why don’t you find it out for yourself.

Short reading list: start with “The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State” by Shlomo Avineri

“Spinoza and Other Heretics” by Yirmiyahu Yovel

Then there are the novelists and the poets like Yehuda Amichai and Lea Goldberg among dozens of others.

Israel has one of the most dynamic secular intellectual cultures in the world today.

Too bad that most people are too lazy to do their own research.

Barry Meislin says:

An excellent article, a sober assessment, a necessary corrective.

But one thing is glaringly missing:

Reb David Ben Gurion’s dictum that:
“In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”

(Believe in them, yes; but, as the Talmud states, not rely on them….which I think corrects what’s missing in Mr. Kerstein’s excellent—and timely—warning. For Heaven forfend if Israelis begin to rely on miracles….)

By the way, THIRTEEN articles of faith (twelve tribes, eleven starts, ten commandment, nine months of labor, eight….but not in San Francisco…etc.)

Barry Meislin says:

Should be, “…eleven stars…”

I am not bored JoyAnn, possibly complacent, but I doubt it, as complacent people generally do not write. It is true that I am not impressed by exhortations to see daily life as a miracle, when it is in fact the inevitable outcome of our species’s need to survive and reproduce itself. I am impressed, deeply impressed, more impressed than you, I imagine, by the courage and labor of the many human beings who made this country possible and continue to make it possible. They are why the Jewish people still live, because the Jewish people have made the conscious choice, in spite of a great deal of opposition, to continue to live.

Yes, I’m quite familiar with the work of Shlomo Avineri, Lea Goldberg, Yehuda Amichai and “dozens of others”.

What I’m hoping is that there are thoughtful Israelis in all walks of life who feel the same way without being overt participants in the “intellectual culture”.

As one who is sometimes accused of being an intellectual herself, I know how little power intellectuals really have.

To those of you who do not think that God, has his hand on the Jewish people, including you Jews who seem to think that he has not. I urge you to read your Torah, read the Bible, they are not just words written they are a written biogophy, of those people who walked, talked, with God and Jesus. The people that witnessed, the miricles, the same people god made his covenet with that still stands today with Gods chosen people. It is arrogant to say God did not help the Jewish people and create the Jewish nation, HE did and he is watching over Isreal.

jacob arnon says:

“What I’m hoping is that there are thoughtful Israelis in all walks of life who feel the same way without being overt participants in the “intellectual culture”.”

The only way to find out, Beth, is to live in Israel for a few months, or even few weeks.

I know Israelis of all walks of life and most of them are secular and do not believe that Israel was created by some miracle which would imply that it came into existence on its own without any effort on the part of real Jews.

The miracle that is Israel was made possible by hard, back breaking work going back to the first aliyah. It was also made possible by Jews engaging other other in the political arena and by taking a stand when they were attacked by the Arab armies in 47 and in 67 and 73 and beyond.

“As one who is sometimes accused of being an intellectual herself, I know how little power intellectuals really have.”

I am not a champion of “intellectual power.” Wherever intellectuals come to power ordinary people suffer.

However, thinkers like Shlomo Avinery and others have their greatest influence indirectly, through their writings.

In this sense Benjamin Kerstein is not unique. Most of the Hebrew press in Israel is full of Kersteins writing for ordinary people and engaging in debate with them and with other thinkers.

The fact that a society that is threatened with extinction by its enemies can allow such debates is the true miracle.

jacob arnon says:

Nina what makes you think that Jews who do not believe that “God has his hand on the Jewish people” had not read the Bible?

I have read the Tanach a book that I love. But I have also read history and if God has “his hand on the Jewish people” as you put it He is responsible for the all the atrocities committed against them including the Shoah.

The standard Orthodox answer to this dilemma is that God punished the Jews for their “transgression.” Is this what you believe, Nina? If so explain to me what kind of God would have allowed a million children to be murdered in the Holocaust?

I suggest you think about what you are saying.

I do believe the land of Israel as well as the story and survival of the Jews until this very moment is a miracle. I also think it is reasonable that God chose the Jews for an example. An example of the horrors one human can inflict on another. Or,patience, my God, how patient can a people be to wait, hope, cajole,or fight for a simple peace.
One thing I know,Jews are fighters, hopefully,because of the many blessings we have been graced with, there should be no sitting on ones tuchas getting complacent,waiting for God to work miracles. We must do what needs to be done.I think God works through people, He is not a magician,His miracles are IN the Jewish people. After all, He picked us,we did not chose Him. We are His chosen.We will and must endure. And I think should this world be void one day of people, one lonely Jew will still be ..makes sense to me….!

Jacob, Just as there is good, there is evil. Couldnt your theory of the holocaust also be put this way: Hitler was evil incarnate.If ever there were evil, it was the Nazi party yes. But they are not the only ones,as we can go back millenia looking for those who hated and massacared jews.
No transgressions were made by Jews that were not made by others. And so I dont believe we were punished by God. I honestly believe this was the work of the devil. How else would it be possible for one human to nail another to a cross and leave them to die, or tie one to a rack to pull his body in two. How is it possible to put your entire strength into a thick leather strap, studded with nails,and rail on a mans flesh. How was it possible for Mengele to take a set of twins, one hunchback, the other not, experiment on them like rats, and then sew them together back to back That is not God’s work, it is the disgusting stink of hell.
So ,maybe you shouldnt be blaming God for everything that happens in the world. If there is good, there is evil, and if there is a God, and I believe with all my heart in our God, then there is a devil. Remember the story of Job. It wasnt God throwing all that crap against the poor man, it was the devil. Think about it. You sound very angry and bitter with God. He may not even be to blame.

vacuous says:

“That this state of mind was and is nonetheless otherworldly deserves emphasis.”

The otherworldly syntax that was employed deserves emphasis.

Bucky says:

Oh joy, another oh so confident “intellectual” professing his atheism and denial of G0d’s existence and influence. Methinks thou doth protest too much. Are you that arrogant and all knowing that you can unequivocally deny the existence of divine providence in the formation and existance of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. True, even in the midst of the Sinai, after the revellation and all the miracles of Egypt, there were still the Eirav Rav that denied the existence of Hashem. Do you really want to put yourself in their camp? Look, I know you are an “intellectual,” but you know what, being smart does not have to translate into being an Am Haaretz…don’t mean to be too patronzing here, but look into the sources directly, start learning the Oral Tradition, not just the Chumash, and then get back to us. I am not impressed. And, even in the Chumash, you never saw the reliance on an outright miracle during warfare, but only the faith that we have “G0d on our side.” As the very stale punchline goes…And G0d said to him, “So nu, buy a lottery ticket already!”

I wish more people would write sites like this that are actually fun to read. With all the crap floating around on the net, it is a great change of pace to read a site like yours instead.

Robbie Sassover says:

Rav Yehuda Alkalai, a Serbian rabbi who certainly believed in God and in the coming of the Messiah, predated Herzl, Leo Mitzkin, Moses Hess and all the early Russian Zionists in his advocacy of practical, human
action in support of the creation of a Jewish state. The author substitutes his own biased perception for reality when it comes to Rav Kook-style Zionism, whose ideological descendents serve in the IDF because they believe that Jews can’t rely on miracles but must assist God in protecting Israel. This is not the Zionism of fundamentalist Christians who sit in Dallas, nodding knowingly when triumphs and tragedies alike “confirm” their notion of the end of days.

The author is a fundamentalist himself, refusing to acknowledge any possibility that there is something transcendent about Jewish survival and history. Ironically, perhaps the most mystifying element in the story of the Jews is not that our people are still here, or that Israel won the Six-Day War. It is anti-Semitism itself, the history of which often strikes my agnostic self as evidence of the truth of the story of Amalek


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As Zionism is under siege and Israelis increasingly see their country as divinely ordained, it’s important to remember that the Jewish state is the result not of a miracle but of historical forces and hard work

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