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. It resisted all historical concepts and generalities. Its uniqueness thwarted people’s natural desire for a definition, since that generally implies arrangement in categories. Anything that flies in the face of categorization is alarming and terribly disturbing. This became more pronounced after Bar Kochba’s rebellion was crushed by Roman Emperor Hadrian and General Julius Severus, who forced the Jews out of their country. It was then that the Jew was hurled into the abyss of the world’s nations 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 dubious 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. But 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 today do not find themselves exclusively in the State of Israel, and instead of one Israel the world now has two. But the second, new Israel has until now been seen as responding to the demands of history, geography, politics and journalism. One knows where it is. At least one thinks one knows where it is. But it becomes clearer and clearer that this new and definable Israel is now seriously on the way to becoming as much a puzzle and mysterious entity as the old Israel always was. In fact, it already has.
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 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 members 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 policy of double standards. Today, as in the past, when it calls for peace it is condemned for provoking war. When it tries, as no other nation does, to avoid hurting the citizens of the countries that declare war on it, it is accused of being more brutal than nations that committed and still 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 only a few. While bombs and katyushas attack its cities, and calls for its total destruction are heard in many parts of the world, Israel continues to increase its population, generate unprecedented technology and create a stronger and more stable economy. But 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 survival capacity.
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.
Jews must ask themselves what this non-classification really signifies. Is it due merely to lack of vision and insight on the part of the nations? Is it that Jews could really fit into a system but the nations have not yet allowed them entry? Is it a temporary phenomenon, one that will rectify itself in the future?
We have only one way to comprehend the positive meaning of this otherwise apparently negative anomaly: the way of faith. From any other viewpoint, the failure of Jews to fit into a category would be intolerable and a meaningless absurdity. 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 it must attest. In Israel, history and revelation are one. Only there do 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 it pays a heavy price. Only through Israel is humanity touched by the divine.
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 (my emphasis). (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 who laid the foundations on which moderate Christianity, Islam and much of secular moral teachings were built. It has bestowed dignity and responsibility upon the human individual and has provided mankind with a messianic hope for the future. Unlike any other, the Jewish nation has granted the gentile world “the Outside and the Inside”, its outlook and its inner life.
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. Its repeated attempts to overcome its geographic and political insecurity by employing world politics will not work. 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.
Its leaders must come to terms with the fact that any attempt to “normalize” the State of Israel will threaten 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 – all through 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. We either 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 they warned against such false notions of security. They predicted that Israel would perish if it insisted on existing only as a political structure. Yet, it can survive – and this is the paradox of Israel’s reality – as long as it insists on its vocation of uniqueness.
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. Once 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.