INTERVIEWS BY: Diane M. Bolz, Suzanne Borden, Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, Noah Phillips, Eetta Prince-Gibson, Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz
On May 14, 1948,
David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel.
For some this new state was a haven after the horrors of the Shoah, for others it was the birth of a new, muscular Jew after centuries of stereotype, and for yet others it was reishit tzemihat geulateinu (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption). Of course, there was not much time to ponder Israel’s place in Jewish history—within hours of Ben-Gurion’s speech, five Arab nations invaded the new state. But Israel survived, and even its critics would have to say it has thrived in its 75 years of existence. Almost half of world Jewry currently lives there, and the nation typically ranks among the 30 countries with the highest GDP per capita. It is hard not to view it as a success.
But what do these past 75 years, a mere blink of the eye, mean in the context of three millennia of Jewish history? Has Israel’s presence signaled a rebirth or the start of a new covenant? Do we err in allowing it to overshadow the diaspora? Is it the most significant milestone in Jewish history or one of many? We asked a selection of historians, religious leaders and other insightful observers to weigh in. That Israel’s existence is miraculous is clear—as every respondent made sure to let us know—but the rest, like everything in Judaism, is up for debate.
The First Temple lasted about 400 years, the Second Temple held for 600 years, and the Third Temple—if modern Israel may assume that name—is dangerously close to kicking the bucket at 75. Only this time there is no Assyria to whisk ancient Israelites into oblivion, no Babylon to herd Judeans into exile, and no Rome to extinguish Jewish sovereignty for two millennia. Today the Jewish state is demolishing itself from within.
The buildup began, perhaps, when Menachem Begin won by a landslide in 1977 by riding the hostility of Mizrahi “Second Israel” against the largely Ashkenazi “First Israel.” During the four following decades, Israel’s fragile web of coexistences was politicized and crudely mishandled. Since the late 2000s, Likud’s public voice has been aggressively sectarian: anti-secular, anti-liberal and anti-Ashkenazi. The three millennia of Jewish history became chips in Israel’s political game, with nationalists claiming biblical borders miraculously emptied of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox leaders despising nonbelievers.
Secular and liberal Jews like myself entered the fray to claim our right as legitimate heirs to Jewish history and culture, with a modern and selective approach to such treasures as the Bible and the Talmud. I tend to believe that the Bible was wiser than we are when it commanded equal human rights for the strangers “living among you.” The conquest of the Palestinians—whether or not their leadership ever allowed a viable peace agreement—sent its rot down to the roots, both Jewish and democratic. It educated three generations of Israelis to believe that democracy is the tyranny of the majority and that the losers need not be heard. First, the Palestinians; then, the Israeli Arabs; soon, the left; possibly the seculars. Is the great Jewish tradition of intellectual democracy, of putting differences into words, dead and gone?
So much for prophecies of doom. Here is a cautious prophecy of redemption: At 75 years, Israel is not a new country. Its democracy dates back to 1897, when the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel. It was a democratic congress, even more so (and astoundingly early) in the following year when women entered as full delegates. But only in 2023 did Israeli civil society discover its dormant power. We are now more comprehensive than the so-called “First Israel” of the secular, liberal and sometimes well-to-do. There are many more of us than merely “the left,” and we are out to reclaim symbols all too easily hijacked by the nationalists, including Israel’s flag and national anthem, “Hatikva.” Above all, we have the leading light of the Declaration of Independence, a magnificent document of Jewish national pride, commitment to peace with the Arabs, and equal civil and human rights.
I am awed by the number of my countrywomen and countrymen who are out on the streets fighting this good fight. It is a very dangerous moment, civil society pitched against state, honest ideology straining against counter-ideology coupled with power-mongering and individual self-interest. I must conclude, fingers trembling on the keyboard, that 2023 may become a very significant year in Jewish history. May the Third Temple remain standing, but only as a democracy.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist and professor emerita of history at the University of Haifa.
Israel represents the reentry of the Jewish people into history. For most of the last 2,000 years, Jews had only an internal life, enough to keep us alive and unassimilated, but generally without the rights of citizenship or sovereignty that would allow us to decide our own fate. The realization of our national self-determination was one of the great turning points of Jewish history.
On another level, Israel represents a renewal of the original covenant between God and the Jewish people, the covenant of tikkun olam—the Jewish commitment to repair the whole world, with our own nation as a role model. I and others have argued that the destruction and mass murder of the Holocaust was such a contradiction of the whole idea of Jewish covenant—such an assault on the idea that the good guys will win and the whole world is headed for universal justice and peace—that the covenant had been broken. I have changed my position on that. I would say now that the covenant itself is going through stages.
In the initial biblical covenant, God saves us from oppression as long as we are faithful to God: When Israel is destroyed, it’s because the Jews didn’t live up to God and were punished for it. The Haredim still believe this about the Shoah. I would argue rather that by rabbinic times, though the covenant continued, it had changed: God had self-limited and would no longer save the Jews by visible miracles. The Talmud says the First Temple was destroyed by idolatry but the Second by baseless hatred. In other words, the Second Temple was destroyed because we sinned against one another, not against God—by engaging in a civil war and a reckless revolt against a power we couldn’t beat.
Israel represents the reentry of the Jewish people into history.
Now, after the Shoah, we are in the third stage of covenant: God is with us, but we take full responsibility for our survival. In the Shoah, as I see it, the world learned what happens when it doesn’t take up the responsibility for preventing catastrophe. The Shoah made people wake up and see that everyone is a potential victim and you can’t depend on other people to protect you. If you’re not strong enough to protect yourself, you’ll be in serious danger. The Jewish response was to create the State of Israel.
That’s what we’re living through right now—a renewal of the covenant under new rules. God is present as our partner and companion, but one who has called us to take responsibility. This is what the Haredim are wrong about—they say they can learn Torah and be exempt from the army because God will protect us. But in Europe, all the prayers and learning of Torah didn’t stop the Holocaust. The Jewish people overwhelmingly get that. And in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the founders, although called secularists, said openly that their top priority would be to work in the spirit of the prophets: bringing back scattered Jews from around the world and fulfilling the traditional promise of justice for everyone. There was a very conscious taking of responsibility for what Jewish tradition defined as the covenant with God.
Eighty years ago, and for 2,000 years before that, if you were a Jew you were in more danger than other people. Jewish blood was cheap. Israel in 75 years has not only guaranteed a haven to every Jew in the world, it has made Jewish lives more likely to be saved, as you saw happen in Ukraine. If you were a Jew, there were people out there who made special efforts for you. That’s an amazing accomplishment—Israel and world Jewry have restored the value of Jewish life.
Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi and president of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life at Hadar. His many books include the forthcoming The Triumph of Life: A Narrative Theology of Jewry and Judaism.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI
Jewish history is a very strange mixture of success and failure. The Bible is the strangest ancient epic because its protagonists, the Jewish people, fail at their mission. Their mission is to maintain a level of collective holiness, to live in the intensity of a relationship with a revealed presence of God in the desert, in the mishkan (tabernacle) and later in the Temple, through prophecy. And we failed. We couldn’t hold that level of holiness, and we went into exile, supposedly to learn from our mistakes and to do some form of penance. That’s the story that Jews have told themselves for thousands of years, that the Torah tells. It’s a magnificent story of failure.
And now, we’re at a particular moment, coinciding with our 75th anniversary, when the ability of Israeli society to hold together is really hanging in the balance. The question we’re facing is: Is this the beginning of the unraveling and one more tragic example of Jewish self-destructiveness? Or is this the beginning of finally facing deeply distorting processes in Israeli society that we’ve allowed to go unchecked—whether it’s settler violence or the ultra-Orthodox state within a state?
If, almost at the last minute before these processes become impossible to stop, we face them, maybe this crisis will be a blessing, however traumatic. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear the worst is still to come, and that the decent, Zionist, Jewish, democratic Israel I fell in love with as a young American Jew, and that is embodied by the two flags on the bimah of American synagogues, is in danger.
Hope is being expressed every day in the streets of Israel. I never thought we would see a movement of this magnitude and intensity where every week, sometimes every day, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are turning out. We’re fighting for the right to continue loving Israel, to continue being proud of Israel. That fighting spirit has taken liberal Israelis by surprise. I come from the center, and we are militant centrists, which means we’re a little bit left-wing, a little bit right-wing. But now, we really have to fight for the center. If we fail to maintain a minimal sense of unity, of cohesiveness, then to my mind it’s the effective end of the Jewish story.
So long as there’s a Jewish state, the diaspora is not exile, because exile is the condition of coerced distance from the land of Israel. If, God forbid, there’s no Israel, the exile returns. There’s no diaspora anymore, there’s just exile again. And I don’t believe we will be able to sustain Jewish life with the failure of a Jewish state. That’s what we’re fighting for now. We’re fighting for the future of the Jewish people, not just for the state of Israel. This is showtime for Jewish history.
Yossi Klein Halevi is an American-born Israeli author and journalist.
I think there are four fundamental moments in Jewish history. One is the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The second is the expulsion of Jews from Iberia in 1492. The third is the Shoah. And the fourth is the creation of Israel. Those are the four great, overwhelming moments that have shaped Jewish life.
But the Israel that was created in 1948, the Israel of its Declaration of Independence, promising, according to its noble text, “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;” and “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;” a “guarantee of freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;” “safeguarding the Holy Places of all religions” and “faithfulness to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…” is the Israel whose existence is now imperiled by a radical alternative: a halachic-nationalist state in which other religions—Islam and Christianity—have no rights to full citizenship or possibilities of true allegiance. So this moment of existential crisis turns on the most fundamental issue of all: Is Israel to be a liberal democracy in which all who live there have equal rights, or is its destiny to be a Bible-authorized nationalist theocracy? Is it a state for Jews or a state for Judaism?
I saw, during the recent demonstrations, that there were two great hangings posted on the walls, I think outside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City—Turkish walls, of course. And one of them was the enormous Israeli flag that the protesters have adopted, rather brilliantly, making the point “We are patriots, too.” And the other was a huge flag with the text of the Declaration of Independence and that very important and dignified clause about the protection of minority rights.
It was moving to me because throughout our history—not, of course, just during the Shoah—Jews have suffered because our minority rights have not been protected. So it was critical to the founders in 1948 to say very unequivocally that minority rights would always be protected. And anybody who reads the crucial document about liberal constitutional democracy, which is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, will know that one of his bugbears, even though he’s a classic liberal, is what he calls majoritarianism or what we’ve called since, the tyranny of the majority. And the entire program of these proposed reforms in Israel is imposing, as hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and types understand, a majoritarian tyranny. And democracy cannot stand with a majoritarian tyranny.
English historian Simon Schama hosted the five-part BBC documentary series The Story of the Jews, based on his three-volume book of the same title. His new book, Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations, is due out in September.
There have been many dramatic moments in Jewish history, but certainly the establishment of the State of Israel and the incredible fact that Israel has survived for 75 years has to be a high point. It’s not just that there’s a country; the importance of Hebrew as a national language, an achievement that was unimaginable 150 years ago, can’t be underestimated. Nor can the fact that there is now a common second language among many diaspora Jews. It’s so rare for a language to be revived. It’s a tremendous achievement for Hebrew to be alive and to be so vibrant.
Of course, there were and are other Jewish languages. Yiddish is approximately 1,000 years old, and it was the common language of the Jews of Europe and Ashkenazi Jewry. Ladino, the mother tongue of Jews in the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, was the common language for many Sephardi Jews. So, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish world was split into Ladino speakers and Yiddish speakers. When Hebrew was revived, these two very different traditions folded together and started using Hebrew as their major language.
So to me, Hebrew is a bridge. It’s a bridge to tefilah (prayer) and to the Tanakh. It’s a bridge to contemporary Israel. It’s a bridge to the medieval Hebrew poets of Spain. It’s an incredible bridge between Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews and Mizrachi Jews. It’s a bridge to many different eras, and it’s up to you which lane of the bridge you want to walk down. But you can’t even cross the bridge if you don’t speak any Hebrew. You’re stuck on one side and the rest of Jewish history is on the other.
Hebrew also offers a sense of safety and community. Recently I learned that each city in Iran had its own Jewish language—for example, the Jews of Isfahan spoke Isfahani. Why weren’t the Jews of Isfahan speaking Farsi exclusively? Because they needed a language that their neighbors didn’t understand in times of danger. Now, we have that on a much larger scale—instead of a “city” language, or a regional language, we have a national language, a language of the entire Jewish people.
Today, there’s a growing division between Hasidic Jews or ultra-Orthodox Jews and other Jews—and Hebrew can help bridge that gap as well. You may not be fluent in Yiddish, but you may be able to speak enough Hebrew to get through that gap. That’s why a secular Israeli might more easily have a conversation with a Hasid at a bus stop compared to what you might see in the United States. Why? Because there’s a common language.
My personal view is that a major reason why there’s a growing gulf between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry is because American Jewry hasn’t emphasized Hebrew language study. If you speak with South American Jews, their Hebrew is often excellent. European Jews often have terrific Hebrew. It’s only in the United States that the Hebrew level is very low. That’s why American Jews are sort of on an island and the rest of Jewry is communicating through Hebrew. But American Jews who can acquire competence in Hebrew can participate in the world Jewish conversation.
As someone who teaches in college, I encounter a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings with views on Israel that are really divorced from what you might think if you read a newspaper in Hebrew. A lot of the students I encounter who have very strong opinions on Israel are unfortunately not able to read anything in Hebrew. So they’re always getting their information through a curtain.
They’re not able to listen to Israeli radio or watch Israeli television or speak to Israelis in Hebrew. They have strong feelings on Zionism, but often can’t read essential texts in the language they were written in. When you read a lot of prominent American commentators on Israel, the people they quote are almost invariably journalists or scholars who speak fluent English. That’s great, but that’s not everyone in Israel. I would say a lot of the voters for Netanyahu don’t speak a word of English. So if you’re only speaking to the reporters who maybe made aliyah, or are American in some way, you’re not really getting the full picture.
Do people see speaking Hebrew as a political statement? That is the big danger. I see more and more young people who are really drawn to Yiddish or Ladino. My personal theory is people want to connect to Jewish language but feel uncomfortable making any sort of statement in favor of Israel. Unfortunately, that means they feel pressured to avoid the Hebrew language. There have also unfortunately been writers and academics who have turned any connection with the Hebrew language of any era into a political and even a military statement. I have endured some really nasty statements. For example, when I was speaking recently at a panel on translation at a literary conference there was a woman in the audience who kept raising her hand over and over and saying, “Why don’t you translate from Arabic?” And so I said, “Because I’m not fluent in Arabic.” She just wouldn’t let go. She kept disrupting the talk and finally said, “Nobody should be translating Hebrew.” I responded, “Thank you for saying this out loud because this is the way, unfortunately, a lot of people in this space feel—that Hebrew as a language is somehow illegitimate.”
I believe every language is legitimate. I certainly don’t believe in banning languages or boycotting them. For the Jewish people, the revival of Hebrew is something to be deeply proud of. Modern Hebrew is a miracle—a language spoken by a people exiled and persecuted and expelled from every European country and many countries in the Middle East—who found the strength to rebuild. No matter how much flak you get in certain American intellectual spaces, Hebrew is the greatest gift that we have. It’s our connection to the past and it’s our bridge between the past and the present and the future. For Jews, Hebrew is our precious connection to each other, ancient and alive.
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God, an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and The Forward’s language columnist.
JAMES S. SNYDER
Up until the time I began my tenure at the Israel Museum in 1996, my academic and intellectual focus had been literature and the visual arts from the middle of the 19th century to the present. Then I arrived at a place where you could experience a million and a half years of material cultural history that informed that entire timeline from prehistory to the present, and, for me, everything changed.
Thinking about modern Israel, you can contextualize the creation of the modern state in relation to this incredibly long narrative. And there is an especially meaningful flow of history for us across these last 2,000 years, which includes the unfolding of Christianity and Islam after Judaism and galvanizes an understanding and appreciation for what the land of Israel is all about.
The birth of the State of Israel 75 years ago created a modern democratic state in the Middle East. And the ongoing beauty and complexity of this picture can be seen in relation to the unfolding of all the other cultures that are also there. The richly textured diversity of the place also demonstrates an innate duality, on the one hand promoting an incredibly meaningful narrative of cross-connection among cultures, while at the same time underscoring the complexity of these cultures as they move in different directions, even though they share a common heritage.
75 years is and isn’t a substantial chunk of time. one comparison might be the Hasmonean kingdom, which lasted 80 years.
During the Ottoman Empire, there were no countries in the Middle East. There was only the Ottoman Empire, and there were cities—Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman, Beirut—and before World War I you could easily travel by train between all of these cities. And, although they are not so far from Jerusalem, today they seem very distant. This is not about divisiveness, but rather about national borders that have risen up between countries that did not then exist.
In terms of Judaism in a Jewish state, remember too that one of its foundational tenets is that it’s not about nationhood, but rather about peoplehood—about people with a shared identity who live all over the world and share an underlying value and belief system that connects them. The potential, and also the challenge, for the State of Israel is how to balance all of this.
As an American who was not deeply connected with the Middle East before moving there in the mid-1990s, I did not yet fully appreciate the mix of Eastern and Western Jewish cultures and the distinct pathways to the history of Judaism in the East and the West. Now, of course, I know well the importance of the foundational history of the Jewish people in the region from the time before the First Temple, to the First Temple, and then to the First Temple diaspora to the east, followed by the history of the Second Temple, leading to the diaspora to the west. We were a peoplehood dispersed in two directions who became acculturated separately. Part of the potential and complexity of the founding of the State of Israel was the act of reuniting and unifying us, and all of this was surely part of the excitement, as well as the challenge, of the founding of the state 75 years ago. From a Western perspective, creating Israel as a modern democratic state in the Middle East was also hugely meaningful, and this remains an essential part of the picture today.
At the moment, Israel is struggling with extreme differences in views about how to shape and interpret the state’s value system. At the same time, there is an amazing rising generation of young leaders of cultural and community-based nonprofit organizations who want to envision a vital future for the country and who are committed to looking past the political darkness of the moment and realizing the potential of what can be accomplished in the miracle that is the State of Israel at 75.
When I came to Israel and Jerusalem 30 years after the Six-Day War, I still felt the closeness of that history. Today is very different. Now Israel is a contemporary country, and Jerusalem is a contemporary city. From Jerusalem, on a clear day, you can still see the landscape cascading downward 6,000 feet to the Dead Sea, with the hills of Jordan beyond. You see the beauty of that juxtaposition, and you see the complexity. And you cannot forget the potential that can still be realized there.
James S. Snyder is the executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, Inc. He served as The Israel Museum’s Anne and Jerome Fisher Director from 1997 to 2016 and then as its international president through 2018.
That this Jewish commonwealth exists in the historical land of Israel and just goes about its business on a daily basis, when you step back and think about it, is nothing less than astonishing. It’s not at all to be taken for granted. Jews were powerless just the blink of an eye ago—and yet so many people have trouble even imagining it. For others, including some Israelis, Jewish powerlessness is still such an overwhelming presence in their minds that it gets in the way of coherently assessing how much power Jews in Israel actually have—or the limits to that power.
Seventy-five years is and isn’t a substantial chunk of time. One relevant point of comparison might be the Hasmonean kingdom, which lasted 80 years. Those 80 years were significant, with outsized historical consequences, but they were limited. The Hasmonean kingdom began in glory and ended in obloquy. There’s a reason why the story of the Maccabees was sorely diminished in rabbinic memory, and why it then became so important to the Zionist rebellion against that tradition. In any society, 80 years is also the span of three generations or so. We know that living memory lasts about three generations: If you want to keep a culture alive, you need a generation of grandparents who can talk to grandchildren.
The founders of Zionism and the revolution, even when rebelling against Jewish tradition, were in very deep dialogue with it. And increasingly the various inheritors of it don’t understand each other at all. It’s a measure of the success of Zionism that Israelis who leave the borders of the state sometimes have no idea what Judaism or Jewish identity is. Their sense of peoplehood becomes very attenuated—what do I possibly have in common with Jews outside Israel? That’s one reason the non-Orthodox denominations have failed in Israel. Partly it’s because of the official war against them, but it’s also partly because they’re not indigenous.
Has having sovereignty in Israel changed Jews? Of course; it’s utterly transformative—the empowering effect, the pride. You can’t be Jewish without dealing with it; even if you choose to ignore it, you’re choosing. It’s hard to think of people who are Jewishly identified for whom it doesn’t play some role.
A common denominator between the problems with the Palestinians and the problems of internal Israeli society is the need to look at and rediscover and rebuild political society and civil society. There were many reasons for the failure of the Oslo process, and one is that no attention was paid to building a viable Palestinian political culture. Israel played a role in that, by not caring about it. And in this most recent crisis we also see very fundamental questions as to what is and should be the political culture of Israel and its legal regimes, still to be determined.
Israel isn’t the only country in the world where liberal institutions are under siege, or where we see massive politics of resentment against global elites. And Israel is not the only place where we see a kind of hyper-capitalism ravaging social democracy, breeding social unrest and nationalism and so on. In Israel as elsewhere, you can’t underestimate the extent to which socioeconomic and class divisions really drive these things. Societies need solidarity, and class divisions make that difficult. We may think liberalism is the default setting for humanity, but it’s not. It’s a position and it needs to be defended.
Should these things have been more settled by now? Who knows? They’re big questions, and always in motion. But always there’s this mysterious, compelling Jewish will to survive. Divine? Human? Both? That’s an eternal argument too.
Yehudah Mirsky, a former U.S. State Department official, is a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and lives with his family in Jerusalem. He is the author, most recently, of Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865-1904.
When the State of Israel was created, one group was dominant—the Ashkenazim who made up the workers’ movements. They created the hegemony, the power structures, social inequality. We can be very critical of them today—and as a Jew from Morocco I am indeed critical—but it was this group that enabled us to build our state. Today, everything that was pushed aside or pushed away because of the need to create a state—all of this is surfacing now, and sometimes it seems that we will never be able to bridge the rifts between us.
We recognize the miracle that is the State of Israel at age 75—not so young, but certainly not so old—but we must also ask: Will we emerge from the current situation stronger or weaker? Will we progress to a better time—or will we regress to civil war? Can we recognize our differences, yet agree that we are part of a greater whole, the whole of the Jewish people? This is Israel’s question at the age of 75, but it is also the question for the entire Jewish people: Can we develop new forms of peoplehood and relationships and structures?
Here in the Middle East, we are Arabs and Jews—Jews from very different backgrounds and with very different ways of viewing the country. Players from outside of Israel—both conservatives and progressives—come to us and tell us how to handle the conflict with the Arabs and how to handle the conflict among ourselves. But these ideas are foreign to our own DNA, and they were created to solve problems for other people in other places, and that is why they are leading us either into violent, zealous racism or simplistic attempts to flatter the rest of the world at our own expense.
We must learn to provide our own Jewish answers to the problems we face. I am a religious man, and I am troubled because I see that in Israel, and for much of the Jewish people, Jewish thought has taken on a narrow, even closed-off and xenophobic character. This is not the living, universal Jewish Torah.
Can we recognize our differences, yet agree we are part of a greater whole—the Jewish people?
It is true, historically, that most of Jewish creativity occurred either in the desert, in Babylon or in the context of the broader world. Some might say we were never meant to be a state, that Jewish creativity can flourish only when we live among other peoples. There are also those who would say that throughout history, Jewish sovereignty never lasted very long. Yes, our state has already existed for 75 years, but this 75-year-old state has failed to provide a true, relevant response to the challenges of modern thinking. The lack of initiative and philosophical-political entrepreneurship is our failure; and instead, we fall into the traps of zealotry, or simplistic progressivism, or crude co-optation of Jewish thinking into Western thought.
At age 75, Israel must develop its own thinking—we must come back to the humanities, which will lead us to broad, compassionate interpretations of the Torah today. And we must pay attention to the Sephardi dimensions of thought. The Sephardic world was always open to philosophy, science, language. Sephardi history and the lessons it could teach us have been completely neglected. In the Sephardic world, there never was a violent rupture between the secular and the sacred—there was never a secular revolt against the church, and the distinction between secular and sacred is not important. But we continue to replay, over and over, the Western response to the challenges of modernity and to make that distinction, which creates entire worlds of meaning and significance that have led to some of the difficulties Israel and the Jewish people face today. In the Sephardi world, concepts of unity and togetherness are paramount—not in the fascist sense, but in the sense of making space for the other, for all.
Meir Buzaglo is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Hebrew University and is the founder and leader of the Tikun Movement dedicated to the renewal of society and culture in Israel.
The first 1,000 years of Jewish history were during the times of the two Temples, and so much in the Jewish canon is related to this period when Jewish independent life was practiced as a sovereign entity. Then, during the following 2,000 years of exile, there were prayers, poems, songs and writings (both rabbinical and secular) about the longings for the land and the wish to come back to it. The establishment of the State of Israel at the end of these 2,000 years of exile was like taking all those prayers and poems and wishes and habits, with the Bible in the center of it all, and giving it meaning. It was the wishes realized.
Today’s State of Israel was not “born out of the ashes of the Holocaust”—a phrase that should be retired from use. Rather, Israel was created by Zionism—building and settling, developing agriculture and industry and culture, accepting newcomers and so on—starting in 1860. Imagine if there had been no Zionism and the country had been empty of Jews when World War II ended: Where exactly would the destitute, sick survivors have gone? Instead, there were already close to half a million Jews here and a vibrant volunteering entity that accepted them.
After the vote in the United Nations in November 1947 that called for two countries, an Arab one and a Jewish one, there was dancing in the streets, and people were thrilled and crying for a Jewish state. But the vote was not the result of the Holocaust or of the world’s conscience suddenly waking up. Where was their conscience a few months before when Jews were killed by the millions? It wasn’t because of the Holocaust. It was because of political interests—the Soviet Union pressured nations in Latin America and the Far East to vote yes on partition because it wanted to build its influence in the region.
With all that said, the Holocaust, though not the primary cause of its birth, had an enormous impact on the young state, and for decades after. The impact is still here. If you take the number of those who came after World War II and subtract the 70,000 who could not manage here and went back, we had 370,000 survivors. This includes survivors who came right after the war in the late 1940s, those who came in the 1950s from Poland and Hungary, and then, in the 1970s, immigrants from the Soviet Union who also were survivors. They participated in large numbers in the War of Independence in 1948. Don’t listen to post-Zionists who say that they were forced to participate—they wanted to participate. According to surveys, at the end of 1951, one out of four Israelis was a survivor, which means a quarter of the population. They rebuilt themselves, and then were able to contribute. They grew older, and many started writing their memoirs. They were very active and present in the building of museums, in Holocaust memorial days, in creating laws and regulations related to the Shoah.
But the terrible loss, the tortures, the humiliations, the whole history of the Holocaust left behind an imminent fear that you cannot ignore. It’s very easy to speak about the new Israeli who is brave, who goes to the army, but—as the great poet Dahlia Ravikovitch said—the Holocaust was like a hand grenade that exploded, and each person living in Israel had a little splinter of it that he carries with him. There isn’t one day in Israel when the Holocaust is not mentioned in some way. It is still with us, part of living life, even though life here is vibrant.
Dina Porat is professor emeritus of modern Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and chief historian of Yad Vashem.
Even if you throw in the several hundred years of independent Jewish kingdoms in antiquity, we’ve spent most of our time in the diaspora. We’ve been shaped by the diaspora, we’ve adapted to living in diaspora, we’re a diaspora people. However, we could survive in the diaspora only because of the spiritual and intellectual bond that connects us with the land of Israel. Without that, we would have disappeared like the other peoples we know only from the long lists in, for example, the writings of Julius Caesar. So what Israel’s 75th anniversary means for me in the diaspora is another reconnection with the source. Our diaspora life and identity assumes a new meaning, informed and transformed by what Israel does, thinks, prays and hopes.
Of course, the existence of modern Israel changed life in the diaspora. My first encounter with antisemitism was in 1967, when the “wrong” side won the Six-Day War and the Polish state was unhappy about it. Most people in Poland today react to me as a Jew, whether positively or negatively, because of Israel. So many more people know the name of Benjamin Netanyahu than they know those of Abraham Joshua Heschel or Martin Buber or, frankly, Isaiah. I am seen by others through an Israel prism. As for me, I see Israel through a diaspora prism: I find it very easy to understand what an Israeli Arab citizen feels, being part of a country whose anthem and symbolism and religion are not mine—because that was the Polish Jewish experience.
Yet I feel the most connection with Israel when Israel does something I’m not happy with, like the judiciary overhaul now, or, going back further, the Lebanon War—because I have to accept that this is done in my name. Israel is acting in the name of its own citizens, but it has a claim to speak in the name of world Jewry, and therefore its actions are also in my name. I’m immensely happy and appreciative of Israel’s successes, but it’s appreciation, not pride. I didn’t contribute to it; I didn’t help build the country. But when Israel goes off the rails, I feel unhappy and co-responsible. It doesn’t make sense logically, but emotionally it’s very clear.
In terms of individual events, no single event, apart from the Shoah, was as important in the sweep of Jewish history as Israel’s independence in 1948. In terms of processes, yes, some long-term diaspora processes have been just as important as Israel’s 75 years. The development of the community and its institutions in isolation in the ghetto, the emancipation, Hasidism, Jewish socialism were to my mind as important to Jewish development as Israel’s 75 years. But in terms of discrete events, only the Shoah’s as important Jewishly as the rebirth of Israel.
Konstanty Gebert is a journalist in Warsaw, Poland. His books include a forthcoming history of Israel’s 75 years, A Room with a View of the War.
It’s so hard to disentangle the establishment of the State of Israel from the destruction of European Jewry. Even 75 years on, Jews never got a chance to fully process what happened during the war; they just got on with life and, for so many, turned their focus to supporting the new State of Israel. At the same time, baked into the ideology of the new state, especially that of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was the belief in a “historical leap,” effectively excising the whole of the post-Second Temple Diaspora experience from Jewish history. To me, that presents a tremendous paradox within modern Jewish existence. Jews have gone through previous catastrophes, but it seems like people had decades and centuries to process those events in various ways, and in a sense, it feels like in the 20th century, we didn’t. The catastrophe was so quickly followed by the birth of the new state, and a continued negation of the diaspora, that somehow, the mourning was always kind of incomplete.
There have always been Jews both in the land of Israel and in galut (exile/diaspora), so there’s always been a complex dynamic between the two groups. But not like today. There have never been this many Jews in Israel—half of world Jewry now lives there—and this has heightened our sense of our connection to the land. But then there’s also the spiritual state of exile. We’re all still within the state of spiritual exile, whether we live in the State of Israel or the state of New York. Personally, I think this is fertile ground for connection between Israeli Jews and American Jews.
There’s still a very highly romanticized and idealized idea of the State of Israel that people cling to and that was essential to building global consensus about it. It can create real problems because Americans don’t understand the way people live in the state, how they perceive the state or what really goes on there. The majority of American Jews vote Democratic and those are their values, in a very broad sense. If you’ve traveled to Israel in the last six or seven years, you’ve seen how popular Trump is there, and the disjunction in political values can be pretty shocking. What does that mean? It could be that it shows that American Jews—who are largely center-liberal-leaning—don’t fully understand the realities of the State of Israel as a modern political entity.
Our state has failed to provide a true, relevant response to the challenges of modern thinking.
Israelis live in a Jewish state where the language is Hebrew and the rabbinate has significant power over their lives. They are Jewish citizens in a way that we aren’t in the United States. The majority of American Jews are not religious and are not shulgoers. A very large part of Israeli society are secular Jews, but that secular identity exists in a very different place and is expressed in very different ways. It is true what people always say, that Israelis exist in a much richer and thicker Jewish context, just by dint of where they are. American Jewish secular identity, if you want to call it that, is much more American than it is Jewish, in that the values are in large part American. American Jews are not really aware of that because they’re so deeply enmeshed within American values. Monolingualism is a very American value, for example, and one that is at odds with the length of Jewish history. Polling data shows us that, when asked what is essential to their Jewish identity, American Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is at the top, along with being a good person and supporting Israel. All the way at the bottom is being part of a Jewish community or observing Jewish law. American Jews are very, very American, and our values are very American. Even our Jewish values are very American. But that doesn’t make them less important.
It’s impossible for anyone who cares about democracy to celebrate 75 years of the state of Israel at this time.
Both of our countries, the State of Israel and the United States, seem to be at these moments of being extremely tested. This also gives us opportunities to renew and rethink our relationships to each other. There’s a lot for American Jews to engage with and not just say, “Oh, we’re the diaspora,” and accept that we play a supporting or a lesser role. It’s just not true. Israelis need us in many ways, and Israelis need the culture of the diaspora. Israelis need Yiddish, they need Ladino, they need all the things that were left by the wayside in the development of a unified Israeli culture at the beginning. It’s a good time for us to rethink the dynamic and roles that we play with each other and for each other.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a journalist and playwright in New York City and the winner of the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish Award in 2022.
In a certain sense, I am not sorry that Israel’s about to celebrate its anniversary under the most right-wing government in its history. That has pulled away a veil a great many people have lived with for some time. The last government was considered moderate and was formed just to keep Benjamin Netanyahu from power, but more Palestinians were killed in the year of that government than in the year before. We’ve been seeing a continual weakening or entire devaluation of the values on which the State of Israel was built.
I think it’s impossible for anyone who cares about democratic values to celebrate 75 years of the State of Israel at this point in time. Even aside from the increasingly violent occupation of close to half the people who live under Israeli sovereignty, in the past 20 years Israel has allied with the worst, most nationalist, most antidemocratic governments in the world, greatly distressing those of us who thought Israel would be a light unto the nations. Turn on the TV and in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s wife is wearing an Israel t-shirt as she goes to vote. (Fortunately, he lost.) The government of Israel loved Trump and was incredibly happy with his administration—not with the Obama administration, although it gave more aid to Israel than any previous one. And it enrages me that Israel has refused to give the Iron Dome technology—defensive weaponry—to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for fear of offending Russia. What we’re seeing is an intensification of all the tendencies we’ve seen in the 20 years since the second intifada.
It’s not as well known as it should be that there are two tendencies in Jewish tradition, both rooted in the Book of Exodus—and both in the Haggadah, actually. One is universalist: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” A great scholar, Shalom Spiegel, once told me that that phrase in the Haggadah is in Aramaic, the language of the region, so “all” really means all. We were strangers, so we have an obligation. Then later, when we’ve drunk the wine and eaten the meal, we’re supposed to talk about Amalek, invoking a nationalist tradition about how Jews will always be attacked and victimized. I asked my rabbi if he could sort out the contradiction, and he said no, it’s the civil war that has run through the history of the Jewish people. The favorite Jews everyone loves to cite—Einstein, Freud, etc.—are all universalists. But what’s dominant today, particularly in Israel, is the nationalist tradition. Nationalism is rising all over the world and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be happening in Israel, but I’m a Jewish universalist. I grew up in Georgia in the middle of the civil rights movement, and the message I got from my mother was that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and that’s why we stand with those who were slaves in the land of Georgia. It was also taught by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of the temple that was bombed for its association with Martin Luther King Jr. And that’s where I get my sense of Jewish universalism.
I actually made aliyah after the Oslo accords, with three children, for a number of reasons. It was argued that American Jews who wanted to actually contribute to peace and justice in Israel should make aliyah—that 1,000 left-wing American Jews would be a useful addition to the country’s politics. I thought it would be a great place to be an engaged intellectual. It was an interesting five years. I didn’t leave for political reasons, but part of it was realizing that my heart was really universalist rather than tribalist. I am, in fact, a rootless cosmopolitan Jewish intellectual.
I think universalism is compatible with cultural nationalism—in principle. There’s a parable told by Isaac Deutscher that compares the foundation of the State of Israel to someone who tries to escape a burning building by jumping and falls on a passerby and breaks all that person’s bones. It’s understandable—if the jumper then does everything they can to make up for the broken bones. But that hasn’t happened. At this point I can only be in favor of some kind of binational state or confederation. I don’t see anything else as an option, now that the settlers and the government have destroyed the two-state solution as a possibility.
My one distant hope for the 75th anniversary—I don’t really see it happening, but friends were writing to me exuberantly about the recent protests, so who knows—is that this is a case of having to hit bottom before you can rise. If in this moment Israel has reached the nadir of anti-democratic racist violence and begins to realize there is another way to go, a universalist way that would be as Jewish as Jewish nationalism, that would be a fitting celebration of this anniversary.
Susan Neiman is a professor of philosophy and chair of the Einstein Forum in Berlin. Her most recent book is Left Is Not Woke.
Seventy-five years ago I was a schoolboy living in Bnei Brak when independence was declared. “Be careful,” my mother told me the next day. “Do not play too far from home because there are things in the air which are uncertain.” I remember huddling with my friends in a staircase when Egyptian warplanes attacked our town. One of the neighbors said, “Kids, it’s going to get much worse, but we will prevail.” Warplanes bombarded us, shrapnel flew all around and the house was vibrating and shaking. Things did get much worse. And we prevailed.
It’s a miracle that Israel has lasted for 75 years. Every historian will tell you that we never had this luck before. We have to preserve it, realizing that it’s given to us as a gift, perhaps even as a trial.
Getting sovereignty is really returning to ourselves because we are a special kind of tribe. Unlike other ancient civilizations, we were always a collective that was bound by common memories and by land. There is no individual redemption, there is no afterlife. Listen carefully to what God tells Abraham, the first Jew: “Follow Me to the land where I’m going to show you how I’m going to make you into a great nation.”
I think that Jews everywhere appreciated this return to ourselves and the transformation from being a scattered tribe without identity into something that is very important and not usually mentioned—normalcy. What is a normal form of identity? Sovereignty. The striving for sovereignty is a yearning for normalcy, proof that we carry with us seeds of resilience and rebirth that other tribes do not. That was the idea of Zionism and the idea of establishing a State of Israel.
Before the Holocaust, in the 1930s, Israel already had a healthcare system, education, transportation, electrical supplies. Everything was built by people who were not exactly experts in those fields, but for all intents and purposes it was a state, there to receive the survivors. It’s a mistake to present ourselves as victims of a tragedy rather than a tribe capable of rebirth and hope and resilience. It’s a miracle that the State of Israel has enabled a scattered tribe of middlemen and peddlers to become a world center of art, entrepreneurship and science. It’s how we express ourselves that combines our roots in history and our legends with modernity. This is the key element to every aspect of Israeli lives—the combination of our past with the future.
Judea Pearl is professor emeritus of computer science and statistics and director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA.
The return of the people of Israel to its land; its social, economic, technological and security achievements; the blossoming of the Hebrew language; settlements springing up where, until a few decades ago, there was barren land; the ability to conduct debate over the future of the people of Israel without depending on dictators and oppressors—all of these things and more constitute the great miracle of the State of Israel’s existence. The realization of the prophets’ vision is happening despite all expectations and despite all odds. However, the miracle is still far from complete. And now, at age 75, Israel is at the phase of clarification. Where to turn?
Zionism was so easy when it was all longing for Zion. In every part of the diaspora, in Poland, in Russia, in Yemen and Morocco, the metaphorical compass needle pointed the way. But the moment that we came here and built an exemplary state, the needle began behaving erratically. And now the third generation asks: Where should the needle be pointing? What is the destiny of the Jewish people in our land?
Israel’s Declaration of Independence states: “By virtue of our natural and historical right and based on the resolution of the League of Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in the Land of Israel, namely, the State of Israel. We call on the Jewish People in the entire diaspora to unite around settlement, immigration and building and to stand to our right in the great struggle to realize the aspiration of generations for the redemption of Israel.”
The word “democracy,” by the way, does not appear even once. Democracy is necessary as a form of government, but is not the main value of the State of Israel. The purpose of the State of Israel is to be the nation-state of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
In the postmodern world every person has the right to define his own truth according to whatever suits him. Judaism, in contrast, believes that the source of truth is the Creator, especially in the revelation of His will in the Torah of Moses. Postmodern man views the question of his existence as “What are my rights in the world?” The Jew asks, “What is my duty in the world?”
We have to preserve the state, realizing that it’s given to us as a gift, perhaps even as a trial.
Currently there is a struggle between the Jewish concept and the postmodern concept in Israel. Twenty-five years ago—with the emergence of the third generation—a revolution of the Israeli cultural elite began declaring openly that they were adopting the postmodern value system. This meant a transition from belief in a Jewish nation state to a state of all its citizens. This was all led by Aharon Barak and the Israeli Supreme Court, which turned Israel from a democracy of government by the people to a dictatorship of postmodern values. Despite all of this, the majority of the people remained conservative. But the “enlightened” minority controls the conservative majority with the court.
Yet, anyone who believes in democracy must respect the will of the majority of the Jewish people, who clearly voted for a right-wing government. The recent elections have shown clearly that an overwhelming majority of the people of Israel have chosen the destiny of a Jewish, nationalist, Zionist, sovereign state. This did not please the minority that now has embarked on a rebellion. Implementing judicial reform will bring back democracy and will finally enable a right-wing government to actually govern.
There is no end to the Jewish people’s challenges and the State of Israel’s challenges. Challenges will be with us even in the State of Israel’s 150th year, but we will deal with these challenges as a great and strong people, the great majority and perhaps all of whom live in the Land of Israel. I am part of a sovereignty movement that works to promote Israeli sovereignty over all parts of the Land of Israel starting with the Jordan Valley. The more our hold on the entire Land of Israel increases, the more we will be sovereign and free in our Land, the more the message of the People of Israel will increase in light and in power. As a sovereign people in its Land we will be able to focus on the People’s spiritual and practical goal: spreading goodness to the entire world as a light unto the nations.
Nadia Matar is the co-chair, with Yehudit Katzover, of the Sovereignty Movement, formerly Women in Green, which seeks Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and all the land considered to be part of the traditional land of Israel.
TAYA MÂ SHERE
Seventy-five years is but a drop in the sea when we tap into ancient remembering and legacies that span thousands of years. Yet, the enormity of this anniversary cannot be underestimated, given the devastation of Palestinian lives, land, homes, culture and dreams that continues even now in the alleged name of safety of the Jewish people—as if Jewish safety weren’t linked to the safety of all peoples, and particularly inextricably linked with the safety of our Palestinian and Muslim kin.
This in no way denies a deep spiritual connection between Jews and the biblical lands now known as Israel-Palestine. I’ve had the blessing of supporting thousands of people in their yearning to connect with Jewish traditions and stories by excavating, reclaiming, renewing and innovating embodied and earth-honoring Jewish practices from our ancient ancestors. These paths often bring folks into sacred encounters with biblical lands, but that needn’t require a literal return to place: around the world we find and are creating joyous and generative expressions of a Judaism that is earth-centered, embodied and liberatory. A Judaism that re-imagines rituals for the times we are living in, that engages at intersections of faith and culture.
For thousands of years Jewish teachings have held that when we are away from “the holy land,” the Shekhinah—the indwelling presence of God often understood as an expression of the sacred feminine—remains in exile. Yet the true exile of Shekhinah, of God/dess within, is not when we are far from “the holy land”—it is when we are far from ourselves, far from each other and far from our core values and embodied knowings. When we embrace embodied prayer and counter-oppressive devotion, when we connect with and honor the earth where we are, and when we cultivate capacity to show up fully in times of ecological, social and spiritual crisis, this is when we return from exile.
This 75th anniversary marks our not being nearer to God but farther away.
So this 75th anniversary marks not our being nearer to God but farther away.We are not closer to God when democracy is threatened, when olive trees are bulldozed in the name of faith, when our peoples’ traditional languages and practices are discouraged amidst pressures of assimilation. We are not closer to God if Jewish safety comes at the detriment of the well-being of our kin.
My prayer at this 75th anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel and of the Nakba is that oppressive structures be transformed toward a shared weaving that honors the sovereignty and interdependence of Palestinians, as well as Jews. May we release the grip of patriarchy, militarism and harmful expressions of theology that devalue body and earth and disconnect us from sacred cycles. May we shift out of the hypervigilance of survival mode and stop the perpetration of violence in the alleged name of Jewish tradition and safety. May we attune to the sacred and embrace what is generative and liberatory toward the thriving of all.
Taya Mâ Shere is the cofounder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. She teaches Jewish ancestral healing and is on the faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland, California.
Sovereignty as the main framework for Jewish life or the renewal of Jewish life—not just to live in the Jewish community or in the synagogue but to live Jewishly in public spaces with the spirit of Judaism and Jewish values—is a revolution in terms of Jewish history.
German-born Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem said that Zionism is a movement that expresses the dialectical tension between continuity and rebellion. It expresses continuity of the historical territory of the Jewish people, of the Hebrew language, of many issues connected with Jewish texts and traditions—and to the promise of God to Abraham in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, it is a moment of rebellion. Why? Because the state was not achieved just by praying and waiting for God’s intervention. It was activated by human agency, a political movement, and the idea that we would take care of our destiny rather than waiting passively for the Messiah. Zionism expressed traditional and modern motives at the same time. And with the creation of the state came a flourishing of Hebrew language, Hebrew culture, Hebrew music. It was a new kind of Judaism beyond the traditional religious Judaism.
The more our hold on the entire land of Israel increases, the more we will be sovereign and free in our land.
Israel also is a story of success as a functional state that provides a good life to its citizens. In spite of the many challenges that affected its history, Israel is in 22nd place on the Index of Human Development compiled by the United Nations, just after the United States and ahead of countries like France and Italy.
I recently finished a large study of Jews in Latin America that found Israel to be one of the key elements of Jewish identity—even stronger than in the United States—even if people said it was a negative element. In Latin America there is a strong connection to Israel in terms of family living there, and some view it as a kind of “insurance policy” because of the political instability in their home countries. Many Jews in Latin America have created new Jewish practices based on the existence of Israel. Besides following traditional practices and Jewish holidays, there are many Jews in Latin America who follow daily news from Israel, are active in Zionist organizations or travel periodically to Israel as a kind of secular-religious peregrination.
Of course, Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict have strong implications for Jews in the region. In Argentina in the early 1990s, for example, there were two separate Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires). Jewish destiny today, as in the past, is a transnational matter.
I once heard a story about Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor, who was in Israel for a visit after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He saw the Star of David on the side of a tank and remarked that he preferred it there rather than on his own clothes. Some people speak about the “Jewish emergence from powerlessness” after the Shoah, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at the problems of Israeli society vis-à-vis the Palestinians, its own Arab citizens, or the social gaps in Israeli society. We are realizing the cost of sovereignty, the cost of having to deal with the issues of the state, which means authority, power, dealing with minorities, among others. I think the current government is a worrisome development in the history of Israel and perhaps the history of the Jewish people. I hope that reason and political democratic resilience and the best of the Jewish values will prevail.
Daniel Fainstein is dean of Jewish Studies at the Hebraic University of Mexico in Mexico City.
Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.