Zionism is like democracy. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other kinds, and the same can be said, on its 63rd birthday, of the State of Israel. The Zionist project, in 2011, may be shot through with thorny problems, but it is still the best answer to the question it was designed to resolve, the so-called “Jewish Question.”
Given the persistence of anti-Semitism, how can the Jews function in the world? A hundred years ago, Jews differed vociferously on this question, much as they do today. Then as now, not all Jews agreed that political Zionism, the establishment of an independent Jewish state, was the best solution. The very Orthodox believed that only God, in keeping with Divine plan, could redeem our people, and all that Jews could do, as ever, was pray and observe God’s law. The Yiddish secularists known as Bundists believed that universal socialism would lift all boats, Jewish and gentile alike. And various Jews worried that a Jewish state in the Land of Israel would inevitably become too chauvinistic, militaristic, religiously fervid for its own good.
Some Jews argued that an autonomous entity was indeed necessary, but should be situated somewhere other than Palestine, in a land less holy and complicated. Israel Zangwill, the acerbic Anglo-Jewish author and Territorialist leader who had supported Theodor Herzl’s scheme for a Jewish homeland in Uganda, put the problem in a nutshell in 1919: “Zion is a bride who after her divorce from Israel has been twice married to Gentiles — once to a Christian and once to a Mohammedan —and when Israel takes her back he will find his household encumbered with the litter of the two intervening ménages.”
Revisiting this image in the turbulent Middle East spring of 2011, I am suddenly reminded of a classic nugget of Talmud (BT Ketubot 16b), wherein the schools of Hillel and Shammai differ on how best to greet a bride. Beit Shammai says: “It depends what the bride is like.” Beit Hillel says: “Beautiful and gracious bride.” Beit Shammai says to Beit Hillel: “If she were lame or blind, you would say a beautiful and graceful bride?” Beit Shammai argues for sad, unvarnished truth; Beit Hillel prefers attitude adjustment that greases the path to peace. Here’s a Jewish question: Which approach better serves the Zionist cause on Israel’s 63rd birthday?
Rewind to 1882, when Dr. Leon Pinsker of Odessa, my favorite Jewish diagnostician, asserted that “Judeophobia” was an incurable gentile disease with lethal consequences for Jews. In his tract “Auto-Emancipation,” he argued that the scattered Jews, in order to be normal people, and not unnervingly ghostlike or “uncanny,” needed a homeland of their own, a place where they could be the hosts. Someone who is everywhere a guest and nowhere a host, Pinsker said, has a hard time laying claim to other people’s hospitality.
Today, American Jews can say this diagnosis does not apply to them — they are not strangers or guests — but surely this was not always the case. Pinsker’s tract of 1882 appeared a year after the assassination of Czar Alexander II (by non-Jewish radicals), which triggered pogroms against Russian Jews. This, in turn, set off the great and historic migration of millions of East European Jews to the United States, nation of immigrants, and not to the dusty Ottoman province of Palestine. America welcomed the refugees for 40 years — but then, let us not forget, didn’t. After World War I, as racism and nativism swelled in a jittery world, Congress cut immigration to a trickle, slamming the Golden Door shut in 1924, barely a year after my father, a Russian Jew, was lucky enough to arrive as a child at Ellis Island.
But after 1948, everything changed. Dr. Pinsker’s prescription was correct: The creation of Israel as an independent state revised the image and raised the self-confidence of Jews everywhere. As a proud Israeli, I would argue that the simultaneous phenomena of Israel as a strong sovereign nation and the unprecedented success of the American Jewish community are anything but a coincidence. Simply put: Israel matters.
America matters, too. Its Jews have done well, and their achievements have been good for Israel. For centuries, Jews in the Diaspora, lacking physical power, majored in economics and gained their influence that way. How has that influence been perceived in America? Mark Twain, in an ostensibly sympathetic essay of 1899 called “Concerning the Jews,” noted that “ten or twelve years ago” he’d read in the “Cyclopaedia Britannica” that the Jewish population of the United States was 250,000. “I wrote the editor,” he wryly continued, “and explained to him that I was personally acquainted with more Jews than that in my country, and that his figures were without a doubt a misprint for 25,000,000.”
Behold the subtle nexus of anti-Semitism and its sneaky twin, Philo. I would hazard a guess that many Americans, in the 21st century, still do Twain’s inflated math. His pointed remark is a mixture of admiration and caution: Watch out for those clever Jews, they’re everywhere. Do I mean to suggest that America is an illusion, and Israel is the only solution? Hardly, but in the end, who knows? Listen now to an expert, Chaim Weizmann, the Russian-born chemist from Manchester University who became Israel’s first president. In 1946, he offered his scientific opinion to a panel of British and American officials that convened to evaluate the situation in Palestine:
“We are usually told, by way of compliment by well-meaning friends, that the Jews are an excellent leaven for a non-Jewish society. We are told sometimes, in a different form, that the Jews are the salt of the earth and contribute this salinity to the non-Jewish society . . . But my experience is that this is a sort of double-edged or left-handed compliment. One can stand a certain amount of salt but if the concentration of salt increases beyond the right proportion, then the soup or the dish, with the salt, goes down the sink. That has happened to the Jewish people very often. They have acted as salt and then were poured out, poured away.”
Most Jews who have come to Israel fall into this category. Unwanted and persecuted elsewhere, they have poured into Israel from the DP camps, from Arab lands, from the former Soviet Union. By contrast, American-born Jews — whose solid understanding of democratic values would greatly benefit Israeli society — have overwhelmingly failed to come here, if understandably so. One heroic exception was Judah Magnes, the first California-born rabbi. Ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he made aliyah in 1923 and became the first president of the Hebrew University. In September 1929, he wrote to Weizmann:
“A Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, is worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail. The question is, do we want to conquer Palestine now as Joshua did in his day — with fire and sword? Or do we want to take cognizance of Jewish religious development since Joshua — our Prophets, Psalmists and Rabbis, and repeat the words: ‘Not by might, and not by violence, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.’ ”
How timely and uplifting, and essential. On the other hand, how quaint can you get — with Iran shipping arms to Gaza and Lebanon and Lord knows where else? The way the Middle East roils in 2011, maybe the Territorialists had it right after all, and we’d be better off in our own quiet patch of the South Pacific. Forget it: The Jews have yearned only for Jerusalem, and Zionism has no traction, no meaning, without the Land of Israel, be it ever so encumbered. By the same token, for some Jews, Zionism has little meaning without the Temple Mount and Hebron. This is one reason, but not the only one, that the Zionist project is so precarious — or so exciting, take your pick — at this time in history. For some American Jews, however, it is neither. For some, it is a nuisance that has little to do with them. If you ask me, they are kidding themselves. But then again, I am biased: I am a Zionist.
Each autumn on Sukkot, according to tradition, we Jews are visited in the sukkah by the ushpizin, mystical guests, seven biblical figures from Abraham to King David, who come to confer their blessing as we sit in temporary lodgings and muse on the fragility of life. Every spring, as I celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, I feel the presence of modern-day ushpizin, our Zionist forefathers, serious thinkers from Pinsker to Herzl to Magnes. Their vision and wisdom gain special urgency this year, as our precious, sovereign Jewish home, established a mere 63 years ago, still struggles for its legitimate place among the nations.
Stuart Schoffman, a columnist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.