It’s time to rethink the Zionist dream - opinion

There is a word for violent, unprovoked attacks against innocent Jews going about their ordinary lives: pogrom.

 MOURNERS EMBRACE at the funeral of Tomer Morad at the Kfar Saba cemetery on Sunday, after he was murdered in last week’s terrorist attack in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
MOURNERS EMBRACE at the funeral of Tomer Morad at the Kfar Saba cemetery on Sunday, after he was murdered in last week’s terrorist attack in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The recent murderous attacks in Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Bnei Brak were not acts of terrorism designed to achieve a specific political objective. These attacks had no other objective than to murder Jews.

The jubilant celebrations in the streets of Gaza made it clear that this objective had been achieved. There were no clear political demands that came with these attacks, no calls for negotiations or for a Palestinian state; only the general objective issued in countless public statements and enshrined in the Hamas charter: the eradication of the Jewish state and the elimination of Jews from every inch of Israel.

There is a word for violent, unprovoked attacks against innocent Jews going about their ordinary lives: pogrom. To be clear, the situation couldn’t be more different from late 19th-century Russia, when Jews relied on the czar’s good graces for protection. Today, we can defend ourselves, thank God.

Jews can no longer be murdered with impunity. Seeing Israeli police and soldiers move through the streets of Tel Aviv hunting down the perpetrator of the Dizengoff killings gives us strength and confidence, as it should. But it does not change the nature of these attacks. These terrorists are modern-day Cossacks, and they are perpetrating, not terrorist attacks with clear political objectives, but pogroms.

This is deeply disturbing. The establishment of a Jewish state was meant to end antisemitism. Theodor Herzl was driven to form the modern Zionist movement after realizing the intransigence of European antisemitism, which he witnessed so graphically at the Alfred Dreyfus trial. His diagnosis was that there was a rational explanation for antisemitism: Jews were the only nation in Europe without a country of their own. If they could only have their state, he believed, it would end the hatred.

 A statue of Theodore Herzl wears a face mask with the Israeli flag on the front (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) A statue of Theodore Herzl wears a face mask with the Israeli flag on the front (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

But it didn’t. Instead, the bitter irony is that the Jewish state has become the new focus of antisemitic hatred. The level of animosity toward Israel is incomprehensible. How is it possible that it has had to survive relentless wars and attacks just to survive? That this country on a sliver of land smaller than the state of New Jersey that no one should even have heard of has been the target of more United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions than the rest of the world combined? That it is the only country in the world with a global movement denying its right to exist? How can it be that within living memory of the Holocaust, there is a new credible threat to obliterate another six million Jews, only this time with a single detonation?

There is no rational explanation for any of this. It is a phenomenon defying any law of history or political theory. And yet it was predicted: “Vehi she’amda” – “In every generation they rise up to destroy us.’’ How do we understand this seemingly macabre prediction?

We need to place it in context of the miraculous origins of our people: born in slavery, freed by God. At the heart of our story lies a foundational truth that Jews for thousands of years understood with absolute clarity: Jewish destiny defies the laws of history because we are a miraculous nation with a Divine mission. We shouldn’t even be here in the first place. 

NO NATION in history has survived what we have: 2,000 years of violent exile, dispersion and oppression. And yet, despite impossible odds, we have survived and thrived beyond any rational expectation because of our God-given destiny. Jews had always understood that we are a nation unlike any other.

However, many of the founders of the state refused to believe this. Their dream was that somehow the modern State of Israel would evade Jewish destiny and become a country like all others; that it would normalize the Jewish people – and by doing so, end antisemitism. But now we are waking up from that dream to the cold reality. Their dream was an illusion. It was never going to be.

Really, we should have seen it from the beginning. The birth of the State of Israel was miraculous: a tiny nation, within three years of the Holocaust, fending off five invading armies at the first moment of its existence. Why should these nations even want to smother the nascent country before it was born? Why did they reject the United Nations partition plan to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel? The hatred, even then, defied rational explanation.

In time, this small, vulnerable population prospered, developing a strong army and flourishing economy, absorbing millions of Jews arriving from all corners of the globe – fulfilling the prophecies of the ingathering of the exiles – and achieving supernatural success as the world’s “Start-Up Nation,” while withstanding irrational, disproportionate animosity – from within the region and beyond. This is nothing short of miraculous. Both the adversity and the success of Israel defy the norm.

Some respond to this analysis with disbelief. It cannot be. And in an attempt to deny the obvious – that Israel, and the Jewish people are a state and nation unlike any other – we blame ourselves. If the world hates us they must have a good reason; somehow we deserve their hatred. If only there was a Palestinian state, there would be peace and everyone in the world would love us. If only we would leave Jerusalem, they would accept us.

If only we wouldn’t defend our lives so fiercely and just return to the 1948 borders, they would forgive us. Except that in 1948, five armies attacked. If we would just leave Gaza there would be peace. Except that after Israel left the coastal enclave, rockets came instead. And every attempt since to establish a Palestinian state has been rejected not by Israel but by the Palestinian leadership.

We have to blame ourselves because, if not, then why the hatred? A Jewish state was meant to end the hatred, not attract it. The only alternative to this narrative, is to accept that we have a Divine mission and destiny that we received at Sinai; to recognize that all the supernatural suffering and success our people have experienced for millennia was predicted in the Torah; to understand that the story of our people is taking place on another plane, living proof of the presence of God.

That is the message of vehi she’amda. For generations, every Jew understood this. We accepted it not with resentment but with a sense of privilege and of solemn responsibility to our Divine mission. And at our Seder tables, we sang the discomfiting words of vehi she’amda with joy and pride, glasses raised with defiance and clarity of purpose.

WE NEED the clarity of generations past. Now more than ever, we need to see Israel’s enemies for what they are. These aren’t terrorist attacks – they are pogroms. The international, anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is another kind of pogrom – marginally legal and more sophisticated, but no less lethal. Iran seeks another Holocaust – crazed and irrational but no less lethal in its intent. To deny these threats is more dangerous. To believe the accusations of the haters is to place ourselves in mortal danger.

And we need to know who we are – embrace, not resist – the uniqueness of the State of Israel and our Jewish identity. Now is the time to rethink the assumptions of the Zionist dreams of the founders. We need to realize that if we want to hold onto the Divine gift of the land and our modern state, we need to see it as part of our Divine mission.

If, in the name of making Israel a country like any other, all vestiges of Judaism are removed from the public domain, from the education system and from the accepted values of the society, then the next generation of Israelis will not understand why they need a Jewish state in the first place.

How will they accept that Israel is worth fighting for if it is just another Western democracy? They will see that there are much safer places for Jews. They will see that all the free democracies of the world protect the rights of all their citizens, including Jews, and will wonder why they should fight for survival in a hostile region.

They will also wonder why so many hate us. With no connection to a Jewish identity rooted in a Divine mission, they will blame themselves, losing confidence in the legitimacy and justice of the cause of the Jewish state, eventually losing the will to defend it.  

This Passover, as we sing the words of vehi she’amda, and reflect more deeply on the recent spate of attacks, we will recognize in the face of the Dizengoff gunman the same purposeless purpose – the same supernatural senselessness – of the Russian Cossacks who burnt us in our homes, and the Spanish inquisitors who tortured us under interrogation, and the Romans who massacred our people and ransacked our Temple, and the Egyptian taskmasters who worked us until our bodies broke.

We must sing those words on Seder night not with fear or sadness or bitterness. Instead, we should feel the pride of the generations of brave Jews who came before us – reminding ourselves of our miraculous past and the meaning of our future – and recommit ourselves to our Divine mission and destiny.

At the Seder we must also hand these truths to our children so they will know who they are; so that they will not make our mistakes; so they will know our enemies and not fear them; so they will believe in themselves and in the meaning and purpose of the Jewish future; and so that they will care about it and want to be part of it, enough to want to defend it and live it in their values – and hand it on to their children to do the same.

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.