From dispersion to sovereignty

The creation of the State of Israel brought about a dramatic change in Jewish life and in the status of Jews as a people and as individuals.

A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I usually celebrate Israel Independence Day outdoors, much like every other Israeli, but like many other religious Israelis, I also celebrate it by attending a special synagogue service.
As a Masorti Jew, I recite the special Al Hanissim prayer that our movement created in which we praise God for bringing about “great salvation and liberation for Your people Israel on this day,” after which we “established this Day of Independence on which to rejoice and give thanks for Your miracles and Your wonders.”
It is my belief that every Jew everywhere should celebrate this day, no matter what his/her beliefs may be and regardless of his/her political views, Right or Left. My own views are very different from those of the current Israeli government on almost every issue. I think that its policies are going in the wrong direction, leading us away from liberal democracy and far from the ideals and aspirations found in the Declaration of Independence. However, that does not negate my rejoicing in the existence of the State of Israel that restored Jewish sovereignty and provided a Jewish home for any Jew desiring it for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
The creation of the State of Israel brought about a dramatic change in Jewish life and in the status of Jews as a people and as individuals. Nothing is the same as it was before the creation of the state. From a landless, powerless people, we have become a sovereign state with one of the world’s most powerful armies. From a wandering people, we have become a nation among the nations, in control of its own destiny, as much as any group can be in control. One has only to think of what a difference it would have made had Israel existed before World War II rather than only after it.
Israel did not, will not and should not bring an end to the existence of the Jewish Diaspora, as some Zionists thought (and still think), but there is a vast difference between a Diaspora that is voluntary and one that exists because Jews have no state of their own to which to go. Not that this solves all problems; on the contrary, it creates new ones. We must struggle with the problems that being a state brings – military and security issues, political intrigue, governmental corruption, individual liberties, international relations and so forth.
There have been various ideas as to the purpose of creating a Jewish state. For some it was seen as a place of refuge, a safe haven for Jews who were not welcome elsewhere. For others it was to be a place where Judaism – seen either as a religion or as a civilization – would be able to flourish in a way that was not possible under Diaspora conditions.
Both of these concepts have been shown to have validity. The case of Soviet Jewry demonstrated the importance of a place of refuge. The revival of Hebrew as a living language and a language in which prose and poetry could flourish, as well as a renaissance of Jewish studies, has exemplified the revival of Jewish culture. That does not mean that every dream and vision has been accomplished. If we ask, for example, how the creation and the existence of Israel has affected the Jewish religion, we may find that the results are less than satisfactory.
One thing is certain. The creation of the State of Israel provided world Jewry with the will to continue and to overcome the trauma of the Shoah. Haredi Judaism and even modern Orthodoxy faced a deep crisis at the time of Israel’s independence. The Shoah destroyed not only one third of the Jewish people, but also wiped away the very centers of traditional Jewish religious life in Poland and Eastern Europe. Nothing was left of the great yeshivot and communities that had flourished there. Even in America, where religious freedom existed, Orthodoxy seemed to be on the threshold of disappearing or becoming a very small part of the total Jewish community. The situation is very different today. Israel has provided both the physical needs for the growth of haredi Judaism and other Orthodoxy, as well as the psychological grounds for their resurgence.
The haredi community has grown rapidly mainly because of the large size of their families, which has been made possible by the generous support provided for families and for yeshiva budgets by the state. As positive as this may be for population growth, it is also problematic, because of budgetary considerations and the difficulties caused by their poor participation in the workforce and army service. The massive growth of a population that lacks the education and the skills to support itself in the modern world is a major problem.
Orthodoxy has benefited from the fact that as the officially recognized form of the Jewish religion, it is financially supported by the state, and the Orthodox rabbinate has many special powers. The existence of the Chief Rabbinate has served to strengthen Orthodoxy in other countries as well, providing Orthodoxy with a special aura of legitimacy. This puts difficulties in the way of the growth in Israel of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that lack both government support and the aura of legitimacy that Orthodoxy has. The fact that the Chief Rabbinate has become haredi for all intents and purposes has hampered the growth of a more liberal approach within Orthodoxy, although it has not totally prevented it, as shown by trends toward greater women’s participation in Jewish learning and leadership in certain Orthodox groups.
Orthodoxy in Israel (and to a lesser extent in the Diaspora) has become identified with right-wing politics, which was not the case in the early days of the state, when there was a strong alliance between the Orthodox political parties and the governing Labor Party. There has also been a major growth of kabbalistic groups led by charismatic mystic rabbis largely supported by certain groups within Sephardi Jewry. Just as Israeli politics have moved toward the Right, so religion in Israel has made a similar shift. It would be interesting to see what would happen if religion were to be privatized and the Chief Rabbinate abolished as a governmental agency.
Another problem that has never been properly faced is the fact that many aspects of Jewish law – Halacha – that were purely theoretical when developed have become problematic now that we have sovereignty and theoretically at least could put these into effect. For example, there are laws that are discriminatory against non-Jews and laws that are problematic about women and their role and rights. Although Jewish law is not the law of the land, these laws are nevertheless influential and have even been invoked by some official rabbinic authorities, causing major problems and influencing individual conduct. An extreme example would be the book Torat Hamelech and its recently published sequel dealing with the establishment of a kingship to rule over the land. How does one deal with Jewish law that contradicts the basic concepts upon which the state and its laws are grounded?
The relationship with Diaspora Jewry, especially that in the United States, has become increasingly complex. Whereas in the 20th century Israel was a uniting factor in American Jewish life, this has become less so in recent years. The discrimination against non-Orthodox streams by Israel is a major irritant, since those groups form the majority of American Jewry. In addition, the rightward trend of Israeli politics is the very opposite of the thinking of much of American Jewry. It is imperative that American Jews come to understand that they can disagree with many aspects of Israeli life and politics while still supporting the existence of a Jewish state and appreciating its importance to Jewish life.
Transforming from a dispersed people living at the sufferance of others into a sovereign nation has been a step of earthshaking importance in the history of the Jewish People, even if it is not without its problems and not as simple as it sounds. The consequences of this change are not always predictable and not always what one might have thought, but I for one would not want to exchange these problems for the previous ones and return to the pre-state situation.
Therefore I rejoice on Independence Day and give thanks to God for the creation of the State of Israel.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical assembly, is an author and lecturer who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973. Two of his books were awarded the National Jewish Book Prize as the best scholarly book of the year. His most recent book, Akiva: Life,Legend, Legacy (JPS), is soon to be published in Hebrew.