Israel’s Identity Crisis

Ernest Goldberger

The theme of identity is a fateful and powerful motive force pervading the history of Zionism and of the State of Israel. Its stamp can be felt in the pictures we view viewed today of mass demonstrations, of streets slicked with oil and strewn with nails, of dummy bombs placed by “religious” soldiers in the Jerusalem bus station, or of the ceremony of “pulsa denura” (Aramaic for “whips of flame”) whereby 20 rabbis cursed Sharon and called to their God to send him the Angel of Death. One of these State-supported religious leaders then boasted on TV how, ten years ago, when such a ritual had lead to the murder of Rabin, he had danced for joy. Today we can see the increasing violence of settlers and their young children against Israeli soldiers and policemen, who since years are risking their lives to protect them.

                                     Theodore Herzl’s Motivation

Theodore Herzl, accounted the founder of modern political Zionism, was already steeped in the question of identity. He belonged to that class of cultivated Western European intellectuals of the second half of the nineteenth century, who had lost their roots in traditional Judaism, and who, in the face of anti-Semitically-motivated opposition from their non-Jewish surroundings, would accept no further blows. As he was refused, as a Jew, unrestricted entry into the world of German culture he so much admired, he resolved to be the leader of his people, to lead them out of their affliction, to renew them spiritually, and so to triumph over anti-Semitism.

His near-obsessive dedication to the idea of a Jewish State had to be understood as a desperate search for this new identity. To this goal, he sacrificed his family, his fortune and his health, dying in 1904, at the age of only 44. His vehement disputes with Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), the spiritual leader of so-called cultural Zionism, who died in 1927, centered, ultimately, on the character of the Jewish homeland then in the making. As against Herzl’s views on the achievements of the Enlightenment and of modern civilization, Ahad Ha’am posited the necessity of a “Jewish identity”, which, however, he understood more spiritually than religiously. This clash of beliefs continues today in Israel, with increasing ferocity, and in the most manifold ways. It is fragmenting a society in which mutually-hostile groups incapable of dialog, are not bound together by common values, not even recognizing national laws, as witness the open legal defiance by the nationalistic and religious opponents of the Gaza withdrawal. from Gaza and West Bank settlements.

Herein is reflected a history profoundly tragic, of irreconcilable life-approaches and societal standards which fail to converge on such higher-level humanistic values as social benevolence, justice and peace. The inability to frame a constitution, incomprehensible for a self-styled democratic nation, is only one example of how Israeli society is breaking apart on the identity question.

A socialist and an atheist, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was not less eagerly anxious to lend a special identity in the form a “Jewish Character” to the State he had proclaimed. This task he assigned to the exponents of religious orthodoxy without accounting for the content of this slogan, and without any sense that such a task was non-delegable. Thus he took care that a numerically tiny minority would be mantled with a plenitude of concessions and privileges. Moreover, State functions calling for a religion-neutral approach, such as matters having to do with civil status and funerals, were vested exclusively in the orthodox rabbinate.

                                    Jewish Universalism Betrayed

To maintain and expand this preferential status, the orthodox aggressively defend their monopolistic claim upon “Jewish Identity.” To this end, they are ever-anxious to force their own doctrines and way of life upon inhabitants of a secular orientation. Such developments come at the expense of truly religious and humanistic values, as is illustrated by the orthodox groups, and many of their rabbis, in their militant opposition to withdrawal from the occupied territories in the interests of peace and coexistence with the Palestinians. They support themselves by citation to scripture, according to which God is supposed to have personally given to the Jews the land comprised in the present-day West Bank.

The militant settler groups in the occupied territories also invoke these archaic texts, becoming radicalized through a surfeit of identification. They see themselves as the descendents of the ancient, warlike Hebrew flock, carrying out the sacred mission of their warlike God, to liberate the Promised Land from the eternal enemies of the Jewish people, whom the Palestinians recall, and thus to usher in the messianic age. Their fundamentalism has assumed such threatening forms that, to cite one instance, the former chairman of the ideologically-aligned National Religious Party, former Minister Effi Eitam, in an interview in the daily Ha’aretz, could actually refer to Muslim control over the Temple Mount as unacceptable, and suggest that this problem will be solved, repeating the cry “the Temple Mount is in our hands.”

Underlying the obsessive idea of erecting a Third Temple in the place of the Muslim holy sites, which haunts an increasing number of fanatics, is the heathenish principle of the site-specificity of the divine encounter. This stands in contradistinction to the universal Jewish – and also the Hassidic – conception of the “Shechina,” the divine presence that manifests itself in all times and in all places.

Secular politicians, also, and many of their supporters cling, in the quest for identity, to the concept of a State with a “Jewish character,” though they understand this more in a demographic sense. The difficulty that follows from this is the exclusion of the Palestinians living within Israel, as a threat to this State character. Thus long-time residents, a group amounting to 20% of the population, would be rendered vulnerable to discrimination. “Jewish character,” understood demographically, is inconsistent with principles of equal justice and democracy, leads to permanent social tensions, impairs relations with Arab and other States, and provides arguments to anti-Semites throughout the world. The price for a demographically realized “Jewish character” is naturally to be paid by the non-Jewish population. One finds this chauvinistic spirit today among extreme right-wing groups, immigrants from the former-Soviet Union, and members of the ruling Likud party, who see themselves as the descendents of the Revisionist Zionism that emerged in the twenties of the last century.

This spirit, however, justifies not at all the characterization of Zionism as an efflux of European nationalism. The pioneers of Zionism acted on the assumptions of Jewish homelessness and of unalterable anti-Semitism as fixed realities. They were steeped in the idea of establishing a just society in the homeland they were creating. Intellectuals with the visionary instinct for the dynamic of the historical process such as Martin Buber, and above all, Judah Magnes, a co-founder and leader of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, saw in Arab-Jewish cooperation the right Zionist strategy, the sole possibility of a balance between the inarguable human rights of the Palestinians and the historical claims of the Jews.

Such cooperation between former victims of imperialism and a people with no colonial past would have been wiser, in the long run, than always seeking to rely on the great powers. Thus the nationalistic currents could have been comprehended in the newly proclaimed State of Israel, which, however, provided the setting for the grim threats of annihilation from the neighboring Arab states, and the 1939 British White Paper, which restricted immigration into Palestine by the existentially-menaced and uprooted Jews, notwithstanding their existing plight. Thus arose the problematic situation of a nation-state in the midst of a region of vital interest to the world economy, supporting itself with its own, and with America’s military might.

But Zionism also engendered creative identifications. They sprang, in part, from the search for a new self, often in reaction against the trauma of the misery of existence in the eastern European ghettos and shtetls. They arose, in the time before and after the founding of the State, so meaningfully in the collective agricultural settlements, the Kibbutzim, out of the endeavor for a new identity, for self-realization in the spirit of the best traditions of Judaism: justice, selflessness and equality. Out of it grew an alternate society and form of property, the “only realized Utopia” (Martin Buber), sustained by a new model of humanity represented by selfless pioneers, bound to the soil. The kibbutzniks were not defined by the currents of nationalism, stood for an understanding with the Arabs, and directed their energies toward personal and social self-actualization. Nothing reveals more clearly the change of direction of Israeli society than the decline of the Kibbutz movement.

                                               Against Fictions

The missing clarification of the Zionist identity thematic may be seen in the 1948 Declaration of Statehood, whose grounding concept was insufficiently thought through and insufficiently defined. Certain statements of intent in the Declaration, such as the promise of a constitution, and of equal treatment for Arab fellow-citizens, remain so vague that politicians to this day cannot come up with the institutions for their fulfillment. For a deeper inner conflict will have been pre-programmed: a conflict between humanistic values, such as the Jewish people had developed over millennia, projected and also handed on, and the new impulses in the wake of the founding of the State.

And so it is that in the six decades after the founding of the State of Israel, the founding goals of political Zionism, namely: the creation of a secure homeland for the Jews, with firmly recognized borders, and with a just society, are nowhere near fulfillment. Thus, the nearly ten years since the murder of the peace-seeking Prime Minister Rabin must be counted as lost. As the Palestinians’ partner-in-conflict is incomparably stronger, with a far greater room for maneuvering, it might be expected that Israel, in its own self interest, would call a halt to this senseless circle of blame, and clear the ground for constructive dialog. This, however, can only come to pass when the themes of identity and of the character of the State are no longer held in thrall by emotionally super-charged and irrational fictions.

Ernest Goldberger grew up in Switzerland and lived for 13 years in Israel. His book, The Soul of Israel, was published in 2004 by NZZ-Verlag. This article originally appeared in the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and was translated from the German by Jeff Miller.