Keep the Faith
The battered Israeli left can advance its agenda only if it learns to stop fearing religion and embrace the notion of the Chosen People
But there are other approaches to chosenness, which see it not as a prize but as unique burden—a challenge to prove worthy of our historical designation. It is this approach, I believe, that uniquely obligates the Jewish people to protect the meek, feed the hungry, and defend the innocent. Rather than give this interpretation of chosenness serious consideration, however, the Israeli left dismisses it as irrelevant. That dismissal is a particular tragedy for left-wing Zionists, since the question of chosenness is the central issue of Zionism.
While the overwhelming majority of Israelis identify themselves as Zionists, most lack a nuanced understanding of the movement’s history and nature. Had Zionism been just another 19th-century nationalist movement, it would have been relegated to the museums and the archives once it had achieved its goal of establishing the Jewish state. After all, a century and a half after Italy’s unification, no Italian would think of defining herself as a Garibaldist. That Israelis still fly Zionism’s flag suggests that the movement is not simply nationalistic.
Having survived for millennia as other nations crumbled, assimilated, or were vanquished, the Jewish people owe much of their resilience to the belief in the idea of chosenness and its earthly manifestation, the return to the promised land. But modernity posed a challenge greater than any before. The Emancipation offered Jews a devastating release from the weight of history: Trade in eternity for today, it cooed. Give up your dreams of redemption for citizenship and the right to vote. It was a deal many Jews were only too glad to take. And yet even as they assimilated, the Jewish faith—and the Jewish people’s yearning for the land of Israel—persisted. And so when Zionism came along, it was the perfect vessel for these unshakable sentiments.
To its adherents and opponents alike, Zionism insisted it was strictly a political movement charged with founding a Jewish homeland and freeing the Jewish people from generations of subservience and persecution. The truth was that a different spirit animated it from the start. In a candid conversation with an early biographer, Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s father, confessed a dream he’d had as 12-year-old boy—a dream, Herzl said, that had sparked his interest in what would become his life’s work. “The Messiah took me in his arms and carried me off on wings of heaven. On one of the iridescent clouds we met Moses. … The Messiah called out to Moses, ‘For this child I have prayed!’ To me he said, ‘Go and announce to the Jews that I shall soon come and perform great and wondrous deeds for my people and all mankind.’ ” The dream terrified Herzl, and he never spoke of it until shortly before his death.
But the truth was that the feeling behind Herzl’s religious-tinged dream was one many of Zionism’s early luminaries shared. The state’s first president, secular scientist Chaim Weizmann, for example, recalled in his memoirs that the Balfour Declaration sounded to him like “the steps of the Messiah.” Such religious fervor, whether conscious or not, united radical Marxists and stern Halachists in common cause. Zionism’s core thrust was a return to Zion—but that notion is impossible to understand outside of its biblical context. Whatever its political interests and accomplishments, Zionism was never satisfied with mere earthly affairs. It still isn’t.
In denying Zionism its religious essence, the Israeli left is proving to be inept not only at understanding the past but also at planning for the future. Increasingly, it is governed by a humanist ethos that sees the occupation and the horrific acts committed to preserve it as an affront to universalist values. But there is a very strong argument to be made that the occupation is also an absolute violation of Judaism’s core tenets, and it’s an argument that those 70 percent of Israelis who believe in chosenness should hear. The problem is that there’s no one to make it; for the Israeli left, religion is anathema.
It’s a shame. When the U.S. civil rights movement fought against seemingly insurmountable odds, it was wise enough to allow universalists like Bayard Rustin and Christians like Ralph Abernathy to coexist and saw no contradiction between speaking the language of reason and the language of faith. If the Israeli left is ever again to become a significant shaper of Israel’s course, it should be thrilled with the recent survey. Seventy percent of Israelis already believe that they were chosen by God. All they need now is someone to tell them what it is that they might have been chosen for.
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