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Jewish Journal

A Birthday Rich With Questions

Israel: The Nation


by David Hartman

January 4, 1998 | 7:00 pm

The mirror of 50 years of statehood reflects ourwarts as well as our beauty marks. We can no longer sustain the mythof pure innocence nor can we suppress the worry we feel about ourfuture when reviewing our past.

The history of Zionism is not a simple,one-dimensional story of good versus evil. The Palestinians are notthe Amalekites, the demonic arch-enemies of the biblical people ofIsrael, and we Jews are not always the children of the prophets, thechildren of light fighting the children of darkness.

The histories of nation-building are never simple.The place of the Indians within the American experience reveals themoral ambiguity of that nation's struggle for sovereignty. Facing thereality of the past often means facing the reality of moralcompromise.

When and how did we justify the use of force inour otherwise morally justified struggle for sovereignty? In what waydid our sense of communal solidarity, which was driven by the moralimperative to create a safe home for Jews, dictate a pragmaticapproach to the Arab-Israel conflict?

Did we integrate so many people from diversebackgrounds into one society by trying to forge a single, homogeneousnational culture? And did we thus fall into the trap ofsocio-cultural paternalism?

It is against this background of criticalself-reflection in the light of the past that new questions are beingraised about such fundamental issues as the meaning of Jewishstatehood in relation to the values of liberal democracy. None of uscan avoid these dilemmas, for they involve not only what we choosebut also what we risk by not choosing. Can we have a Jewish state andallow for the full participation and self-expression of a sizableArab minority? Can we have a Jewish state and ignore the nationalaspirations of Palestinians?

What norms and ideals of Judaism must bereinterpreted lest we destroy the basis of a liberal, pluralisticsociety? What norms and ideals are necessary to preserve thehistorical meaning of "Jewish" identity? Can one advocate totalindifference to the spiritual legacy of the past -- a "normalization"where Jews become like all the nations by abandoning the heritage,foundational texts and self-understanding of the past -- whileclaiming continuity with Jewish history?

Can we infuse our society with Judaic contentwithout coercive legislation? Should the state be responsible formediating Jewish life and values or should it guarantee religious andcultural pluralism without becoming involved in questions oflegitimacy and authority?

These are some of the burning questions thatinform Jewish consciousness on the eve of Israel's 50th anniversary.This period has the quality of a Yom Kippur --a Day of Atonement,marked by cheshbon hanefesh --introspection and critical assessment of the pasttogether with hopeful anticipation and resolve for the future.

For those seeking the inspiration ofself-congratulatory praise, the mood in Israel today will provedisappointing. The strength of this country at 50 is that of matureself-criticism that can liberate Jews from the need for grandiosemyths of moral superiority and greatness. The rhetoric of moralsuperiority and uniqueness of the Jewish people creates only adelusion of strength. It is the reality of our daily lives, in allits complexity and ambiguity, that must define the future of Jewishhistory. Who the Jew is and who the Jewish people are depend on whatwe as Jews do -- the lives we live, the public institutions we build,the spirit and norms that infuse our political discourse and behaviorand the way we treat minorities.

The concern with daily life reflects the profoundspirit of the traditional emphasis upon halacha . The Bible and therabbis always sought to provide a detailed structure for building alife which seeks to implement the divine imperative to build a justand holy society. This is the healthy realism that infused the Judaictradition.

Those who wish to share in the lived reality ofJewish history and not to live off inflated memories of the past,should rejoice as we celebrate this 50th year in the spirit of YomKippur -- the spirit of a day of reckoning and self-criticism, ofregret and of shame, of joy and of anticipation of a new future.


David Hartman, a philosopher and educator, isdirector of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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