Israel at 50

Formally, the State of Israel was established in 1948. However, its process of creation began a few years earlier. In the distress and struggle that characterized the years that preceded Israel’s declaration of independence, the Yishuv(“settlement”) that emerged here was both the source of glory and the root of the problem. Not only a new settlement, but also a new kind of a Jew was created here, a new species that undoubtedly wanted to be – and in many ways, indeed was – very different from the Diaspora Jew. This new Jew clearly parted with the past, and created many new things. Many were extremely beautiful. They also contained quite a number of questionable elements, but at any rate, there was something new.

This “New Jew” no longer was the wretch who is beaten up and remains silent, humbly accepting his suffering: he learned to fight, to stand on his own, to strike back. He also ceased to be a creature of the air, nor the Lumpen-Proletarion of the entire world: rather, the New Jew became productive, began producing basic products, and made a tremendous effort to return to the soil, to strike roots, to grow it and grow from it. Indeed, one of the characteristics of Jews living in this land – which may seem immaterial, but in fact is deeply significant – is that they are Jews who plant trees. Diaspora Jews – even land owners – do not, ordinarily, plant trees, not even when then tend to the roses in their garden. This phenomenon reflects the inner feeling that life anywhere in the Diaspora is temporary. The soil is, at most, a place of wandering, and there is always the imminent possibility of having to move – either of one’s own will, or by force – to another land, to a different exile. Even when people do not think about it consciously, they feel it; they do not feel that they have a permanent soil under their feet. Here, in Israel, however, a soil emerged. Here people plant trees not only because they know that they will grow, but also because they feel that they belong to this place, and that their children and grandchildren will sit under the shade of these trees.

A new language, too, was created here. The revival of the Hebrew language is a unique phenomenon. In Eire (Ireland), for instance, the government is devoting its resources to reviving the Gaelic language – a language which, incidentally, is not extinct, but used by an ever decreasing number of people – with no apparent success. Yet Hebrew, which was an unspoken language for so many years, has reawakened. To be sure, this new Hebrew is not exactly Biblical, Mishnaic or Talmudic. It is a new type of Hebrew: slightly impudent and slangy, but also full of vitality. It turns out that – both consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally – what was severed for two thousand years is now being reconnected. Let me bring a small example: I was astounded to find certain, very prevalent Israeli Hebrew colloquialisms in Bar Kokhba’s letters. Bar Kokhba (Leader of the Great Revolt against the Romans, 132-135 CE) was not intentionally imitated, because people simply did not know about him. However, it seems that once we returned to this land, we also began, unknowingly, to imbibe from it.

Another significant change in Israeli existence, which has already been pointed to, is symbolized by the word bitakhon. (Traditionally, the word bitakhon meant “confidence,” “trust,” “certainty,” and “faith”; in modern Hebrew, it is mainly used for “defense” and “security.”) In the Diaspora, especially in Ashkenazic countries where Hebrew was pronounced with the stress on the penultimate syllable, this word was pronounced bitokhen; here, in Israel, the last syllable is stressed, and the word is pronounced bitakhon. This change of stress is also a shift of meaning, which is not entirely negative. The exilic bitokhen hinges on hope and faith, while the Israeli bitakhon has to do with power, might and strength.

Such changes were probably inevitable. My parents’ generation not only lived in this country: they also built it. They laid its foundations, fought for it, contracted malaria for its sake. And that generation accepted -sometimes with, sometimes without regret – the fact that the new generation now growing up will forget some, perhaps more than some, of its past. They assumed that, in the course of time, we would have to part with many things, some of them lofty and glorious. But they also hoped that whatever would be created here would make this loss worthwhile.

And indeed, along with the Tallit and Tefillin, a few other – no less significant elements – have been abandoned. Thus, for instance, Israelis clearly and consciously gave up on sophistication and refinement, and on profundity and intense spiritual activity, for the sake of directness and of being a Sabra. But this was not the only thing that was ceded. For many generations Jews said, in their festival prayers: “You have chosen us from among all the nations; You have loved us and found favor with us and … have given us … in joy and gladness, Your holy festivals.” In the course of time, the “You have given us” was discarded, and only “You have chosen us” was left. Here and there, the “You,” too, has disappeared, and like a broken record, all that is heard today is “chosen, chosen, chosen.”

(A similar thing has happened with the hymn of the Palmach, the main combat unit of the pre-IDF Haganah organization. The refrain of this hymn said, “We are always ready to [obey] commandment, we, we, the Palmach.” Although this hymn does not deal with holy matters, it is nevertheless an expression of the willingness to self-sacrifice and to obey orders. Yet here, too, what was left is only the “always we, always we,” and sometimes, only the “we, we, we.”)

Even in Ben Gurion’s lifetime, and despite his fervent speeches, we stopped trying, or even wanting, to be “a light unto the nations.” Yet who could imagine that we would turn into a little USA so fast? Once the Bible – even when it was completely secularized and became a sort of national certificate of land-ownership or, perhaps, a socialist manifesto  was the book that everybody knew and cited. Today, it is still studied in all of the Israeli educational institutions – as an extended piece of boredom that no one knows how to get rid of. Once, not such a long time ago, we were a socialist state – or, rather, a state that stood on the borderline between the political East and West, a state that wavered, and was even sometimes divided, between British orientation and Russian dreams, a state that was proud of its Kibbutzim and considered them the ideal. But soon enough we embraced – wholeheartedly and with open arms – American capitalism, in some of its less attractive forms. The Kibbutzim are progressively becoming their own specters. Nowadays, the existing gap between the top and lowest ten-percentiles of Israeli society is the widest in the entire Western world, and is surely greater than in the US. In the first years of the Israeli State, we were universally known as a place where it was forbidden to offer workers tips or try to bribe them. Today, tips and bribes exist here just as they do in much older and wealthier states that can afford them.

I do not intend now to bewail the loss of socialism or equality; perhaps only to speak a little about fraternity. I wonder, how fast all of these changes have has happened, without the interim stages of change. Money is surely an important thing, being an exchange value for so many things. It has already been noted that money is like a ladder, because like a ladder, it can be both ascended and descended. (The numerical value of the Hebrew word mammon – money – is equal to that of the Hebrew word sulam – ladder; see Ba’al ha-Turim’s exegesis on the Torah, Genesis 28:2.) However, when I was a boy, “money” used to be written in lower case; now it is being written with a very, very capital M.

Beyond that, it can also be said that in all facets of our existence here, there is an ever increasing blurring of our selfhood, for the sake of imitations. Culturally speaking, we are not even a small USA: we are just a very provincial province of a great state. We imitate its movies, its way of speech, its slang, its sins – without, however, acquiring its virtues along with it. What is being created here is reminiscent of the description in the Book of Nehemiah (13:24): a people that, both linguistically and culturally, speaks pidgin English, pidgin Hebrew.

Interestingly, we imitate the USA in almost everything – except one thing. Here, in Israel, we must “Hush, for we may not make mention of the Name of the Lord” (Amos 6:10). Thus, it is strictly forbidden to say “God willing” in military documents. And while the holy U.S. Dollar says, “In God we trust,” it will be a while before something like this is printed on the Israeli Shekel. And this is just one facet of the terrible, irrational dread that exists here of returning to our roots. I do not know the origins of this horrible fear; for if the Teshuvah movement is a marginal phenomenon, it will die out; and if it is not – as can be seen in quite a number of places, both in the East and in the West – then all the attempts to stop it will be of no avail. However, this fear creates something, that is, perhaps, best described through a paraphrase of a verse in the Book of Esther (8:17): “And many of the peoples of the land (‘Amei ha-Aretz’ – which in Hebrew also means “ignoramuses”) become goyish, for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.” (The original verse reads, “And many of the people of the land became Jews, for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”) For fear lest, God forbid, someone will become religiously observant, our ignoramus Jews are becoming more and more like the gentiles.

This horror, which seems to be haunting an entire state, would be funny, except for its many sorry consequences. One of these consequences is that in our wonderland – against all the laws of entropy – whenever a small, temporary partition is erected, it grows into a wall. We keep sowing such garden beds of small, transient partitions – for all sorts of temporary reasons, political or otherwise, or just out of silliness -from which mighty, almost insurmountable walls spring up.

I am not preaching here for religious observance, for such preaching is either unnecessary or ineffective. But all these processes of escape and assimilation have created a factual distancing from Jewishness. Beyond the relationships among the various sectors of society, abysses of ignorance have been created which are very difficult to bridge. It is relatively easy to become “born again”: yesterday, a person was a wicked sinner, and today he is holy. However, no one can be a total ignoramus one day and profoundly learned the next. This kind of obstacle is very difficult to surpass.

We thought that the nation created here would be different, that it would not have to be ashamed of the flaws of its exilic heritage. It turned out, however, that there is a great deal of atavism. One of Shalom Aleichem’s books is a series of letters from Menachem Mendel to his wife, Sheina Sheindl, in which he describes his dealings in the stock market of the big city (with the imaginary name of Yehupitz): how stocks gain, lose and change value, and how he, who does not really understand what is going on, is buying and selling, making a fortune on one day and losing it all on the next; one day he is a millionaire, on paper, on the following day he is a pauper. I remember that when I read this book as a child, I thought: it is very funny and amusing, but one thing is clear: it will never happen here. I was wrong. Menachem Mendel is still alive. Today his name may be Mor or Mohar or Tom or Ben, and his wife is no longer Sheina Sheindl but rather Yafit or Grace or Gal; but he is still playing – with or without understanding – in that same stock market, just like his great-grandfather.

We have not changed that much, then, after all; we have not really become a different people. All those ancient problems that we had, and that we thought we got rid of – albeit for a heavy price -have remained: the greed is still here, there still is a great measure of selfishness. The desire to be conspicuous and boast exists as always, yet now it is augmented by a great deal of macho show-off. And on the other hand, a lot of the kindness has vanished, a lot of the enthusiasm has been quenched.

It is both sad and difficult to say this; but now, fifty years after its establishment, it sometimes seems that the State of Israel has rocketed from childhood straight into old age, without going through the interim stage of maturity. We grew old before having grown up. The young Israeli State is suffering from so many geriatric ailments. (There is, indeed, such a disease, known as Progeria, in which little children – seven, eight, twelve year olds – suddenly become old, and die of old age while still children.)

Are we becoming a Jewish, more successful version of Liberia? That state – which was established some 100 years before the State of Israel – was also created to bring exiles back to their original homeland and give them an independent, English speaking state with an American constitution. Is this all that the great dream – my parents’ dream, the dream of generations – amounts to? Does this justify having lost all that we have lost on the way? What has happened to this dream? “What is come upon us?” (Lamentations 5:1).

Why all this has occurred is a question for historians. Yet, another question is relevant to all of us: is there a way to change the existing situation, really to fulfill the ancient-new dream?

To answer this question, let’s now examine the other side of things. We have had an independent state for fifty years; but what is independence? The Hebrew word for independence, “atzmaut,” comes from the same root as “etzem,” or self. Being independent is being more of myself. Just as the external, political manifestation of independence is not being subdued by others, so, too, the inner meaning of the term is – not imitating others. Only that is independence; there is no other. Waving a flag and declaring a government is the easy part; being myself is surely a more difficult, more complicated path.

What is selfhood? How do we become ourselves? In this sphere, various attempts have been made – mostly in the so-called religious sector – to return to the past. However, returning to the past is just a dream. It is possible to turn back the hands of the clock, but no one can turn back time. Returning to the past is impossible; it is only possible to be reactionary, which is not quite the same thing. In every way, sociologically and otherwise, being reactionary is a modern phenomenon. It neither stems from the past nor is it connected with it; rather, it is based on, and operating upon, the very present present. The attempts to return to the Shtetl – regardless of the question of whether this is good or bad – do not re-create the Shtetl; they create a plastic Shtetl that never existed and which does not, and cannot, exist. There is no way to deny a period of time that was or erase it. On the other hand, however, it is possible to build a future; and it is also possible to create a different future, one that will not be a mere continuation and intensification of the present.

Seemingly, the best and easiest thing would be to say, let us all do Teshuvah, let us all be good Jews, just as our forefathers were. However, what we really need is to be good Jews in the best way that we can be. A person can be atzaddik – a righteous one – or a ba’al teshuvah – a penitent. A ba’al teshuvah can reach a level that is higher than that of the tzaddik, and can be stronger, firmer, more genuine. Yet he is different. I cannot be the way my father, grandfather, or great-grandfather was. Our forefathers were supremely righteous, and they now dwell on high; I have different problems. My problem is not how to be like Rabbi so-and-so: my problem is how, and where, to be my own kind oftzaddik, a tzaddik in a way that pertains to my own self.

For this, we must draw “out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3), penetrate our own depths, figure out what are shells of imitation, or the desire to get by in this or that society, and to seek out what is real. This is digging for our own soul, finding out where it is. And wherever our soul is, it can still hear the echoes of the giving of the Torah, and it still saysShema Yisrael, even when it is no longer familiar with the verse.

Thirty years ago, I taught a class on the issue of who is a Jew. We said then that a real Jew is one who would choose to sanctify God’s Name, even die for the choice, rather than worship idols. Jewish history is replete with thousands of examples – not only of righteous people, but also of simple Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s Name. In a sense, the Jewish people is just as proud of its thieves and prostitutes who died on the sanctification of God’s Name as it is of its rabbis and righteous ones. It is the thieves and prostitutes who attest most to the existence of that inner core – independent of tradition or erudition – which is the very essence of being a Jew. One of the people in the class then asked me: This was surely true in the past, but do you think it is still valid? At that point, I did not know what to reply, and the question was left hanging.

The next day, I flew to a kibbutz near Eilat and spoke there. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that I managed to make my listeners furious. At some point one man, who could no longer contain himself, got up and screamed: “I am a secular Jew, and so were my father and grandfather; but I am telling you: if someone would force me to worship idols, I would die rather than do it.” This was almost like a voice from Heaven: I received the answer some 24 hours after having been asked the question, and not from someone who heard it, but rather from someone who innocently, at a moment of rage, answered exactly the question that I had asked.

So the essential core does exist in the wellspring, but we have to get to it and dig it out. I need to draw from there – not in order to add more Yiddishkeit, not in order to give the Almighty more gains. Had God wanted Torah study alone, He would have created some more billions of angels that would study Torah for Him; had He wanted more prayers, he could have easily made some more thousands of legions of praying angels. But for some peculiar reason, He wants us – with our problems and complications, with our crooked, stubborn, tortuous souls. And He has given us the possibility to attain independence – namely, to re-connect with ourselves, for the sake of our Jewish independence, so that our existence will be based not on “safe borders” or a “safe peace,” but on a genuine foundation.

This is what I would really like to wish the State of Israel in its fiftieth year: that it will attain independence. Thus far, we have only had an imitation of external forms: a flag, an army, ambassadors, prime ministers of one kind or another. We have lost some of our selfhood on the way, without obtaining other possessions in its stead. Perhaps today, in the fiftieth year, we should re-declare the establishment of a Jewish State: not necessarily with different borders and a different population, but with real independence.