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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

Benjamin Kerstein
July 29, 2011
At the Western Wall.(David Silverman/Getty Images)
At the Western Wall.(David Silverman/Getty Images)

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.

Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer and editor. He lives in Tel Aviv.