Last summer, on my family’s trip to the US, I read Daniel Gordis’s latest book entitled Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. At the time, I couldn’t resist collaring the Cap’n every few pages to read him a passage that seemed to me to nail the problems, challenges, and feelings Israelis face on a daily basis—things that the rest of the world increasingly appears not to understand.
Earlier this year, I reviewed an earlier book of Gordis’s, Does the World Need the Jews? In that book, Gordis seeks to answer the question that seemingly faces many young Jews in the United States, i.e. “Why be Jewish?” In this more recent book, Gordis sets out to answer a similar question, this one directed at both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, namely, “Why be Israeli?”
In his introductory chapter, Gordis acknowledges the plethora of books written which speculate about whether, given its manifold challenges from within and without, Israel can survive, but sets out in this book to answer a different question. “Of much greater importance than asking whether Israel can continue to exist is examining the question of why Israel’s survival might matter in the first place. What has Israel done for the Jewish people? How has Israel changed Jewish life not only inside the Jewish state, but around the world? Do the Jews really need a state? And if they do, what must they do to save it?” (author’s italics).
Gordis is a true intellectual, and while a fervent Zionist, also has the ability to scrutinize Israel’s many problems including poverty, corruption, and an educational system that does a poor job of preparing young Israelis to pick up the mantle of Jewishness and Zionism and continue the work of forging and defining the Jewish state. He spares no effort to take a balanced look at Israel’s many challenges, including the inequalities that exist for Israel’s Arab citizens, and the security threat posed by them; the divide between what the Palestinian Arab rank and file deserve from their governments, even as they themselves elected sworn terrorists to represent them; and the world of identity, intellectual, and cultural possibility opened up to world Jewry by Israel, even as 50% of Jewish Americans aged 35 and younger responded in a study that the destruction (“not its gradual disappearance, or the slow withering away of the state”) would not be a personal tragedy for them.
I relished Gordis’s discussion of the many benefits to Jews everywhere of having a Jewish state, including the restoration of hope of Jewish survival after the Shoah, the opportunity to fashion a state based on our own Jewish values, to solve problems with the unique tools of Jewish wisdom, and to fulfill the Biblical prophecy to gather in the exiles of the world. His chapter, “The First War, All Over Again,” charts the emotional roller-coaster that Israelis have been on since embarking on a series of attempts to make a lasting peace with the Arabs, all of which seem to end in betrayal and disappointment, recreating for them the feeling that they’re fighting the War of Independence over and over again. He addresses the combined threats of terrorism, Iran, the United Nations, Israeli Arabs, but concludes that while these threats are real, they are not the greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish state. The need for Israelis to be able to stay engaged in the work of defining their own identity as a Jewish and—at least in some measure—democratic state is crucial. Israel cannot be a Hebrew-speaking America without forsaking its goal as a refuge and homeland for Jews. He distinguishes the two thus: “While democracy may well be part of the purpose of American national life, the Jewish state was not created in order to be a democracy. It was founded in order to change the condition of the Jews” (author’s italics). As such, Gordis is prepared to admit (as was Rav Meir Kahane before him) that, in the words of Professor Ruth Gavison, “‘Non-Jews may not enjoy a feeling of full membership in the majority culture; this, however, is not a right but an interest—again, it is something which national or ethnic minorities almost by definition do not enjoy—and its absence does not undermine the legitimacy of Israeli democracy.’”
In order for Israel to function as the Jewish state, Gordis determines that there are several things Jews must address. One is the concept of the New Jew, created in the early days of Zionism and the State, which dispensed with what was seen by some influential intellectuals as the superstitious trappings of religious ritual. Prayer, study, and even belief in the God of Israel were dismissed as impediments to forging a new, non-European, non-victimized Jew. This has resulted in young Israelis today who don’t know the basic prayers (including the Shema) and rituals (including havdalah), who find religion in their trips to the Far East after army service, and who are beginning to feel that their cultural ties to the Jewish state are unraveling. Another thing Jews must address is the image popular among Jews for generations (and most popular now among Diaspora Jews) that Jews are pacifists, and that Jews as soldiers and fighters (even in self defense, even for survival) is somehow un-Jewish. Drawing on history, the Bible, and current events, Gordis shows how peace is the Jewish ideal, but that war is sometimes necessary, and failure or refusal to prosecute it to its end can carry with it lasting and devastating consequences. A third issue to be confronted is the increasing irrelevance of the Jewish rabbinical establishment in Israel (namely, the chief rabbinate) in the lives of ordinary Israelis. While it has the power to obstruct Israelis who wish to have non-Orthodox weddings and conversions, it has nothing to say to them about the morals and ethics of living as Jews in a beleaguered country, riddled with challenges and problems, in the 21st century.
Years ago, my mother said she read an article which suggested that the Jews in Israel should pick up and leave the country. This would, of course, allow it to be overrun by Arabs who, through their incompetence, corruption, and apathy, would oversee its returning to its fallow, Ottoman-era state. Then, the article supposedly stated (somewhat fantastically), the world would beg the Israelis to return and rebuild what would then, once and for all, be recognized as their land alone. I was shocked by this notion, not only in light of the certain destruction of every last trace of Jewish presence here (modern and archeological) but the certainty that Jews would never be able to come back. Two of Gordis’s final paragraphs echo this bleak prognosis:
Were Israel just a state, the high cost it exacts might not be justified. But as we have seen throughout the book, Israel is not just a state. It breathed life into the Jewish people at precisely the moment when the Jews might have given up. It gives possibility and meaning to a Jewish future. It enables the Jews to reenter the stage of history.
That is why the calls for Israel’s demise must be resisted. For what is at stake is not just the Jewish state but the Jewish people as well. Statehood has revitalized the Jewish people, but the Jews are very unlikely to get another state should this one fail. Whether the calls are for the outright destruction of Israel, or for the gradual erosion of Jewish sovereignty through ideas like a shared binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the result would be the same. Jewish life as we know it would be lost. The regained optimism, vitality, and confidence of the Jewish world would disappear, probably within a generation.
Israel’s enemies understand that. It is time that the Jews did, too.
I’ve been a fan of Gordis’s for years. Like me, he once believed wholeheartedly in the possibility of leading a thriving Jewish existence in the Diaspora. And then, like me, he and his family heard the irresistible siren song of aliyah and came here to live. Gordis has spent his life since aliyah working tirelessly to increase the Diaspora world’s understanding of the daily challenges Israelis face in our shared homeland through his essays, and in his capacity as a vice president at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, in creating a learning institution to help prepare the next generation of Israel’s leaders, who he hopes will be prepared to address the many quandaries and problems described in this book. I admire him for his Jewish learning, for his accessible writing, for his relentless pursuit of truth (even if it’s uncomfortable), and for his willingness to apply himself to the task of solving what he sees are some of the very serious problems that face Israel and Israelis. While it is possible he will not see the full benefit of the fruits of his labors, he has internalized the admonishment of Rabbi Tarfon not to refrain from trying.