Throughout the centuries, historians, philosophers and anthropologists have struggled with the concept called “Israel”. While attempting to place Israel within the confines of conventional history, they experienced constant academic and philosophical frustration. Any suggested definitions eventually broke down due to serious inconsistencies. Was Israel a nation, a religion, or perhaps a mysterious entity that would forever remain inexplicable? Some viewed it less as a nation and more as a religion; others believed the reverse to be true. And there were those who claimed that it fit neither of these categories.
In fact, it was clear to everyone that Israel did not conform to any specific framework. Israel resisted all historical concepts and generalities; its uniqueness thwarted people’s natural desire for a definition. Definition of an entity requires its classification and categorization – anything that flies in the face of categorization is alarming and terribly disturbing.
This became more pronounced after Bar Kokhba’s rebellion was crushed by Roman Emperor Hadrian and General Julius Severus forced the Jews out of their country. It was then that the Jew was hurled into the abyss of the nations of the world and confronted with a new condition – ongoing insecurity – which continues to this very day. While mankind has always faced moments of uncertainty, it is the Jews who have been denied even the smallest share of the security that others possess. Whether aware of it or not, Jews have always lived on ground that could, at any moment, give way beneath their feet.
In 1948, Israel once again became a country. However, many forgot that it was not only a country. All its other dimensions, such as nationhood, religion, mystery, insecurity, and lack of definition continued to exist. Jews, the People of Israel, do not find themselves exclusively in the State of Israel; today, instead of one Israel the world has two. Yet, the second, new Israel has been seen as responding to the demands of history, geography, politics. One knows where Israel is. At least, one thinks one knows where it is. But it becomes clearer and clearer that this new and definable Israel is now quite evidently on the way to becoming as much a puzzle and mysterious entity as the “old” Israel always was. In fact, this has already transpired.
Throughout its short history, the State of Israel has experienced the most puzzling events modern man has ever seen. After an exile of nearly two thousand years, during which the People of Israel, the “old” Israel, was able to survive against all historical odds, Jews returned to their homeland. There they found themselves surrounded by a massive Arab population that was, and is, incapable of making peace with the idea that this small, mysterious nation lives among them. After having survived a Holocaust, in which six million of its people perished, the Jewish nation was not permitted to live a life of tranquility on its tiny piece of land.
Once again, Jews were denied the right to feel at home in their own country. From the outset, Israel was forced to battle its enemies on all fronts. It was attacked and then condemned for defending its population and fighting for its very existence. Over the years, it has had to endure the international community’s double standards. Today, as in the past, when Israel calls for peace, it is condemned for provoking war. When it tries, as no other nation does, to avoid harming the citizens of the countries and organizations that declare war on it, Israel is accused of being more brutal than nations that committed and continue to commit atrocities against millions of people.
Simultaneously, and against all logic, this nation builds its country as no other has done, while fighting war after war. Accomplishments that took other nations hundreds of years, it managed in but a few. While bombs and terrorist attacks constantly undermine its tranquility, and calls for its total destruction sound in many parts of the world, Israel continues to experience population growth, generate unprecedented technology and create a stronger and more stable economy. However, the more it succeeds, the more its enemies become frustrated and annoyed, and the more dubious Israel’s security becomes. The more some nations aspire to destroy it, the more the world is forced to deal with this tiny state and its capacity for survival.
By now, Israeli politics and diplomacy occupy more space in major newspapers than any other political issue or general topic – as if Israel’s questionable security and irritating population are at the center of world events.
In these dark days, when Jews vehemently disagree with each other and the country experiences an unprecedented split among its population, Israeli Jews must ask themselves who they really are and what the earlier mentioned “non-classification” of our People truly signifies.
We have only one way to comprehend the positive meaning of this anomaly: the way of faith. Jews must realize that it is entirely impossible to see themselves as an ordinary nation. It is impossible to fit into the categories of standard history. We must understand that our inability to conform to any framework is our living avowal of Israel’s uniqueness. Israel’s very existence is the manifestation of divine intervention in history to which Israel must attest. In Israel, history and revelation are one; it is only here they coincide. While other nations exist as nations, the People of Israel exist as a reminder of God’s involvement in world history, even if this people must pay a heavy price.
Only through Israel is humanity touched by the divine.
It was the famous Russian Philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) who made this clear. “I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable (…) Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.”(1)
Indeed, no other nation has overturned the destiny of mankind as powerfully as this nation has. It endowed the world with the Bible and brought forth the greatest prophets and men of spirit. Its spiritual ideas and moral laws still hold sway among the world’s citizens, influencing entire civilizations. This nation gave birth to a man who is seen by millions as their Messiah, and this nation, too, laid the foundations on which moderate Christianity, Islam and much of secular moral teachings were built. The Nation of Israel has bestowed dignity and responsibility upon the human and has provided mankind with a messianic hope for the future. Unlike any other, the Jewish nation has granted the entire world its outlook and its inner life.
The American scholar Thomas Cahill (1940-2022) expressed this as follows. “We [gentiles] can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.” (2)
All of this proves that Jews have a destiny and a mission far different from any other nation. We are an eternal people with a timeless message, and our history is one of radical otherness.
The realization of this fact has become modern Israel’s great challenge. Israel’s repeated attempts to overcome its geographic and political insecurity by employing worldly politics. Driven by its desire to overcome its vulnerability, Israel wavers between geography and nationhood, appealing to its history and religious culture while unable to find a place that it can call its existential habitat.
Israel’s leaders must come to terms with the fact that any attempt to “normalize” the State of Israel threatens its very existence. We must realize that there is no Israeli claim to the land; there is solely a Jewish one. Only by the uninterrupted chain of generations can it be ascertained that this has always been the Jewish homeland – throughout our exile – and that this land has been taken from us by force. If we reject this fact, our claim to the land stands on quicksand. Either we return to the Holy Land, or there is no land to return to. Without continuity, there can be no return. No nation can live with a borrowed national identity.
Reading the Nevi’im (the books of our prophets), we see how the Hebrew prophets warned against such false notions of security. They predicted that Israel would perish if it insisted on existing only as a political structure. It can survive – and this is the paradox of Israel’s reality – only as long as it insists on its vocation of uniqueness. This matter is of crucial importance in our days.
The severe differences of opinion which have now overtaken our people can only be resolved when all parties realize that there is something much larger and loftier to Israel’s existence than political and judicial issues – however important these may be. It is the moral grandeur of our prophets that is able to surpass all our differences, and it is our task to listen to our prophets’ eternal message.
Israel is summoned to remind the world of God’s existence, not only concerning religion but also as a historical reality. There is no security for Israel unless it is secure in its own destiny. We must shoulder the burden of our own singularity, which means nothing less than fulfilling our role as God’s witness. And we must draw strength from this phenomenon, especially in times like these when Israel’s very existence is again at stake. Warnings that it may be at the verge of civil war and the ongoing threat from without, cannot be taken lightly.
Only when Israel recognizes its uniqueness, it will, paradoxically, enjoy security and undoubtedly be victorious.
(1) Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006), pp. 86-87.
(2) Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Talese/Anchor Books, 1998), p. 241.