The radical otherness of the State of Israel and the elections

It was clear to everyone, though, that “Israel” did not fit into any specific definition or known scheme. It resisted all historical concepts and generalities.

A yellow flower in a field (illustrative) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A yellow flower in a field (illustrative)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Soon we will be asked to vote for a new government, and we need to ask some hard questions. Failing to do so means voting in vain.
The main problem that Israeli society needs to deal with is the question why we altogether live in Israel. Why did we return to this country after nearly 2,000 year of exile? Why did we succeed in outliving all our enemies for the thousands of years? Why are we sending our children to the army, thereby exposing them to an explosive war zone from which we know that not all of them will return alive?
Throughout the centuries, historians, philosophers and anthropologists have struggled with the notion called the notion of Israel. While attempting to place Israel within the confines of conventional history, they experienced constant academic and philosophical frustration. Any definitions they suggested eventually broke down due to serious inconsistencies. Was Israel a nation, a religion or 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 could not fit into either of these categories.
It was clear to everyone, though, that “Israel” did not fit into any specific definition or known scheme. It resisted all historical concepts and generalities.
Jews must ask themselves what this abnormality and non-classification really signifies. Is it due merely to lack of vision and insight?
We have only one way to comprehend the positive meaning of this otherwise negative phenomenon – the way of faith.
Reading Israel’s prophets, we see how they warned against such false notions as normalcy. 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 the reality of Israel – as long as it insists on its vocation of uniqueness and anomaly.
There is no future for Israel unless it is secure in its own destiny. It must assume the privilege of its own uniqueness, which is nothing other than to assume its role as God’s witness. And it must draw strength from this phenomenon, especially in times such as ours when Israel’s very security is again at stake.
Indeed, no other nation has overturned the destiny of all of humankind as much as the Jews have. It granted it the Bible and gave birth to the greatest prophets and men of spirit. Its spiritual ideas and moral laws still hold sway over all of mankind, influencing entire civilizations. It gave birth to the foundations on which moderate Christianity, Islam and much of secular moral teachings were built. It provided all of mankind with a messianic hope for the future and endowed the human individual with dignity and responsibility.
And all this as a nation that should never have been heard of, because of its lack of numbers, which are required to make any impression on our world. One is reminded of the famous observations by the American Jewish author Milton Himmelfarb: “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.”
As no other nation, the Jews gave the gentile world the Outside and the Inside, their outlook and inner life. As Thomas Cahill wrote “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.”
All of this proves the fact that Jews have a destiny and a mission radically different from any other nation. They are an eternal people with an eternal message, and their history is one of extreme “abnormality.”
It is for this reason that the attempt by secular Zionism to “normalize” the Jewish people has failed and always will fail. In fact, it is the very attempt at normalization that ultimately threatens the very existence of the state. The desire to escape Jewish destiny and replace it with a kind of Israel-ism has undermined the moral security of the people who dwell in Zion. Now that Zionism has spent its inherited resources, large segments of Israeli society are left with rootless secularism, without memories and therefore without expectations.
Wide sections of Israeli society have been alienated from the historic continuity of the Jewish people and have become unsure of the moral validity of our claim to the land of our forefathers. Indeed, there is no Israeli claim to the land; there can only be a Jewish claim. Where there is no continuity, there can be no return. We either turn to the holy land, or there is no land to return to.
It is therefore great joy to realize that we experience an “Israeli post-secularism” slowly taking over in the State of Israel. In a remarkable essay by Prof. Yehudah Mirsky of Brandeis University, he draws attention to a recently published Hebrew book, Yahadut Yisraelit (Israeli Judaism), which shows that some 70% of Jewish Israelis are committed to both national identity and some form of religious tradition. This does not mean that Israelis are en masse turning to Orthodoxy but their realization that without Judaism, there is not much point in having a Jewish people and a homeland.
What we now see in Israel is that there is clear “de-secularization” taking place among Israelis, since more and more Israelis realize that without Judaism, there is no future.
While this is great news, regretfully this seems to go hand in hand with a kind of extreme nationalism. When racism raises its head, it could ultimately lead many Israelis to identify Judaism with this kind of bigotry, which will turn them back to secularism.
No doubt, the future government of Israel must not bring havoc on its people by denying its population its Jewish roots. No greater mistake could be made than to deny Israel’s religious Jewish roots and create a serious rift between the administration and the growing “post-secular” community, which is longing for a Jewish religious connection. The new government will have to realize that all those who have a deep connection to the land because of Judaism are the ones who are able to restore the land. Only those who have a keen understanding of the Jewish religious destiny, even when they are not (fully) observant, will be able to keep Israel thriving. They are Israel’s lifeline.
Much work needs to be done by the next government and above all by the Education Ministry to make the awareness of the radical otherness of the Jewish people and its moral mission to the world the center of its concern. It will have to create pride in our Jewishness.
We are defending not just a country but also a prophetic mission, which is crucial not only to our own well-being but also to the entire world. Only when we rediscover the miracle of Israel’s existence can we claim that it is morally justified and a great privilege to send our children to the army.
Only with this realization are we able to vote. If not, the elections will be in vain.
The writer is the dean of Jerusalem’s David Cardozo Academy and is the author of many books, including the best-seller Jewish Law as Rebellion. An international lecturer, his views are discussed on many media outlets. Find his weekly thoughts at