The conviction of Israel’s former President Moshe Katzav for rape provides an opportunity for us to consider what Zionism means in our day.
Most of the coverage of the case has been predictable. In the Diaspora, relatively little has been said about it; Diaspora Jews are not comfortable with such matters. In Israel, some stories have been apologetic (the system worked); others have been political (how Katzav got elected in the first place); and still others have been media-focused (why the press did not discover and report his sexual misbehavior).
Of special interest, however, is the argument that the case confirms Israel’s “normalcy.” In this view, the purpose of Zionism was to make Israel a normal people. Normal nations have the same problems as other peoples. Bialik famously said that the Jewish state would be a normal state when its populace included Jewish prostitutes. Jewish prostitutes we have, and now, we also have politicians who are guilty of terrible crimes. Fortunately, in the case of Katzav, the criminal was apprehended, tried, and convicted. Therefore, in the opinion of those who argue this point, while this is a sad case, beyond that it is no more than a sign of Israel’s “normal status.”
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that there is nothing “normal” about what Katzav did. Political leaders being involved in sexual scandal is not a new phenomenon; think of Clinton, Berlusconi, Mitterand, and Kennedy. Nonetheless, there are distinctions to be made. While the behavior of these men ranged from deeply problematic to contemptible, none was a serial rapist.
More important is the fact that those who make the “normalcy” argument are misreading Zionist history. The great Zionist thinkers wanted to create a Jewish state so that Jews could be “normal” in the political sense. They wanted Jews to exercise sovereignty in their own land so that they would be free of the disabilities of Galut existence. But none of Zionism’s founders suggested that the Jews would be ethically normal. True, Zionists were overwhelmingly secular; the great majority of the religious world – both Orthodox and Reform – was outside of the Zionist framework. Still, Zionists believed that Jews were ethically gifted and were blessed with an ethical mission, whether expressed through socialism, enlightened capitalism, or romantic nationalism.
This blending of secular nationalism and ethical teachings rooted in religious tradition was, and is, one of Zionism’s unique features and greatest contributions. The tragedy of the Katzav case is that the President is the individual in Israel’s political system meant to serve as moral exemplar and a reminder to Israel’s citizens of those values to which Jews have always been committed: love of family, education, social justice, and individual righteousness. In short, the President gives voice in the secular realm to Jewish ethical distinctiveness. Katzav’s crimes, therefore, were not the acts of an individual; they were a profound betrayal of the specifically ethical responsibilities that he assumed upon taking office.
Again, there is no way to see Katzav’s behavior as detestable but nonetheless reflective of a “normal” people. When it comes to ethics, we Jews are not “normal” and have no desire to be. And, I believe that the revulsion we are now hearing from Israel’s citizens means, whether they express it in these terms or not, that they understand this fundamental point: for Jews, “normalcy” in ethics is a violation of our most cherished Zionist principles.