At my son’s bar mitzvah, which took place a few years ago at a Conservative synagogue outside New York City, the rabbi delivered a sermon on the Six Day War, declaring it “Israel’s finest hour.” As he spoke, my brother, an Israeli businessman in his fifties, stood up and yelled, “Rabbi, I object to these statements.”
As the rabbi tried to talk him down, my wife—a gracious, well-mannered American—turned to my brother and said, “If you don’t stop this I’m going to kill you!”
Without missing a beat, he responded, “Some causes are worth dying for.”
This exchange over the interpretation of the 1967 war was what was at stake in Israel’s recent elections. The real question being answered at the ballot box was what kind of Zionism the Jewish state would choose to pursue: the accommodating, largely secular brand, happy to survive on a sliver of the Jews’ ancient homeland, or the ideological, religiously informed wing, seeking to extend the Zionist vision to Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank.
Many democracies struggle with a similar right-left political divide, but in most countries the debate is over what kind of a state you get to live in; in Israel, the question is whether you get to live at all. Furthermore, in the case of Israel, the divide is literally thousands of years old. In attempting to create a New Jew in Palestine, the early Zionists rejected the psychology of the Diaspora. But unwittingly—or perhaps unconsciously—they gave birth to an old baby, a nation weighed down by centuries of collective Jewish memory. And among the collective narratives they carried with them into the future was a fateful, ancient dispute over how to exercise power. As a consequence of last month’s elections, this dispute is certain to continue into the foreseeable future.
In ancient times, the conflict was between those who favored accommodating their neighbors and those who advocated full independence. After the destruction of the Temple, the division focused on whether to respond to the humiliation of the Diaspora with passive accommodation or militant action. And in the more recent past it manifested itself in political strife over such matters as resistance to the British Mandate in Palestine and whether to accept financial restitution for the Holocaust from Germany. Throughout history, disaster followed when either side of the divide was able to take its agenda to its logical conclusion.
The creation of the Jewish state in Palestine was a miraculous marriage of ideology and pragmatism. Though always muscular in their approach to settling the land, the early Zionists exercised restraint. Little Israel sought accommodation with the Arab states, and knowing its limits it relied on and respected world powers. But since the 1967 war and the liberation—or, depending on your point of view, conquest—of East Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem, the ideological wing of Zionism has gradually gained the upper hand. Now it finally finds itself in the position to consolidate its gains, perhaps even render them irreversible.
The national-religious government likely to be formed will expose Israel to more unwinnable wars, international isolation, and the erosion of Jewish majority in the land. It is also not out of the question that resistance to its agenda from the opposition will intensify the political strife and perhaps even lead to civil war. It may well be the case, then, that after catapulting it to the status of a regional power, Israel’s “finest hour” has also reawakened within the Jewish state the demons of self-destruction. Indeed, it now appears that if the Palestinians could simply heed Tolstoy’s advice in War and Peace and let time and patience be their sole soldiers, the Jewish state would follow the same ancient path that led to the loss of Jewish sovereignty twice before.
So is all hope lost for Israel? Not if Israelis rediscover within themselves another ancient strand running in their old baby’s DNA: a healthier cousin of the self-destructive motif—self-sacrifice—has been a key element in the survival of the Jews and in the revival of their nation. The ideological leaders of the West Bank settlers should follow the example of the legendary Israeli army officers who, during trench combat, would cry out “after me!” and charge ahead of their platoons to meet near-certain death. The difference is that in this case they should not charge forward but rather lead their followers back to the little Israel that did quite well before the “finest hour.” This will allow the government to negotiate peace, borders, and the demilitarization of Palestine on the basis of security needs rather than ideology.
Alon Gratch is an Israeli-American clinical psychologist, organizational consultant, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Israeli Mind, which will be released in September 2015.