By Yigal Sarna
"Bulls__ is the greatest danger to our existence here," Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum
says. While Israel is immersed in the mess in Sderot and the Iranian threat; while the authority of the ruling bodies becomes shakier all the time, Lorberbaum speaks to me from his quiet room in Jerusalem about the dangers of bulls__. This is the strength of a researcher and intellectual. He is able to turn away from the shrieking events of the day, from everything that glares from the front pages, and talk about the currents of the depths. This somewhat resembles the role of the prophet, a figure also discussed in "Authority," the first book in a series of four volumes – The Jewish Political Tradition
(available in English for several years, recently published in Hebrew
) – which deals with texts accumulated over generations.
Who would have believed in 1948, when this state was established, that in 60 years time, in spring 2008, during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s rule, the danger of bulls__ would loom? Not the Arabs, nor Russia. Not the devil either.
"What is bulls__? It is talk that is only noise. It pretends to be meaningful, but is actually completely irresponsible. We’re drowning in it," says the kippa-wearing Lorberbaum, in his office adjacent to the modern Beit Midrash of Shalom Hartman Institute. "Our legacy is rhetorical bombast. The Israeli political voice has always been simultaneously calamitous, absolute, supercilious, pompous and vacuous." He describes this voice as "light as a feather and heavy as a boot."
If his room had a television, that window to the pseudo-real world, we could have watched together the threats of a security agent; the warnings; the prophecies of doom; the shrill voices holding some discussion on some panel; the forceful and unreal speech of Defense Minister Ehud Barak on both our determination to attack and the need for peace; the babble of the political correspondent accompanying Olmert on his plane; the verbosity of the military commentator. Between all these, we could have watched the advertisements, the noise of models-broadcasters in the Caribbean (on the Israeli version of the TV series, "Survivor"), actor-comedian Zvika Hadar and his permanently plastered smile, or the latest news about pop singer Ninette’s hairstyle.
It takes some time to understand the danger because it is a way of life, a habit. It is a way of life lacking discourse, judgment and a wide perspective. An inane existence, bereft of real debate. This is the Western blight in which we are all drowning, but it is especially strong here. We have always been the craziest laboratory in the West for every human experiment or oddity.
The Shalom Hartman Institute, Menachem Lorberbaum’s abode and the place from which this series emanates, rests in Jerusalem opposite the Hansen Government Hospital for Lepers
, that same ancient building that once, 100 and even 30 years ago, housed patients of this terrible affliction, lion-faced people whose noses had fallen off, ostracized by society, hidden from the eye. Part of the house remains open today as a clinic for lepers, surrounded by a mysterious garden and abandoned buildings, as well as the grove where Yona Avrushmi once hid the fatal grenade that killed peace activist Emil Grunzweig
in 1983 . The Hartman Institute, opposite the lepers’ house and in complete contrast to it, is a prosperous, open and proud research institute housed in a small stone-covered building, modest in its low proportions. This is where I meet Lorberbaum.
It was at the Hartman Institute that a number of discussions and debates eventually producing some of the four volumes that comprise this immense anthology of texts in the Jewish political tradition. These are texts written by the finest over the thousands of years during which we were a Jewish dynasty, but mostly a wandering tribe, separate communities, ghettos, a Diaspora without territory and borders, under foreign rule without sovereignty. A long line of writers paid attention to political questions over the generations by referring to the authoritative texts and to the decisive events referred to the texts: the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land, the establishment of the kingdom, rebellion, wars and destruction. Everything that fashioned us as we are today as sovereign: suspicious survivors, waiting for the messiah, and in the meantime finding it difficult to bear the burden. The idea of the series is to uproot the monopoly of the religious on the Jewish sources – mainly regarding the debate on the crux of the words, on the politics – and to allow the Jewish texts accumulated over the years to talk, to guide and to offer some direction in such a confusing period.
Jerusalem to Princeton
The researchers Michael Walzer, who hails from Princeton, Noam Zohar
, Menachem Lorberbaum and his relative Yair Lorberbaum
, who collaborated on the first volume, met at a Hartman Institute conference 20 years ago. The decision to establish the series grew out of a need that existed already then, in the days of the first intifada – what Lorberbaum calls "the first civil war" – in this bi-national state that was created here without us noticing.
The scholars felt then the absence of an ordered anthology of Jewish-political texts. They noticed that the national religious public uses the texts as they please as if they were their own property. "The national religious public does not understand this state," says Lorberbaum. "It thinks that the state is a movement for achieving messianic goals. They don’t recognize that a state, including Israel, in not just a tool for promoting their own security and prosperity. Their stance is in my eyes idol worship. A state is an apparatus, like a refrigerator, that does not bring God’s presence into the world."
So they began to shuttle between Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Princeton, New Jersey, 90 minutes from New York City. The motion between Jerusalem and New York is natural, says Lorberbaum. Both Israeli and American Jewry represent two strong free communities that need each other for security, sanity and balance. The undermining of one hurts the other. America is not exile; it is an option just like Israel. In both, the Jew has civil liberties.
More than once they traveled for a weekend from Jerusalem to The Institute for Advanced Study
, the professional home of Michael Walzer
, their senior colleague in their textual journey since 1980. Together they gathered thousands of texts – from the Bible until the modern philosophers – and selected. This was their method for the last two decades, so overflowing with Israeli changes: the days of (former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir, the two intifadas, a failed war, frequent changes of power, the assassination of a prime minister, the disappearance of the other. The scholars would meet in Israel or with Walzer, considered one of the leading political thinkers at the Institute for Advanced Study, which already in the 1930s resembled a refugee camp for intellectual Jews fleeing Europe, including Albert Einstein.
There is something very naïve, I think to myself as someone who wanders through the battlefield, in the attempt of a couple of intellectuals to change the direction of things by gathering texts, by a non-hostile control over the sources, by making the materials relevant to all Israelis. As if in this way, the debate will once again become relevant, will be nourished by the wisdom of the past, will calm down and become more correct. This attempt recalls the boy who stuck his finger in the dam, or psychological analysis when you assess your past and the influence of your parents with the psychologist. Our parents the prophets, our parents, the kings of Yehuda, the best of the best – maybe they will help us find our way in the third millennium.
Maybe the spirit of the Institute for Advanced Study has come over them. Lorberbaum compares the place to a kibbutz. "Simple houses, grassy areas, a lake and a forest: a wonderful piece of earth. We hung out there and spoke. A green ivory tower. Walzer needs to walk a lot, so we walked and talked. We walked through the forests and spoke about the source of authority in Judaism. About the deep suspicion with which Judaism regarded authority, about the way in which the nation falls apart, then returns and again falls apart as it tries to construct a Godly dynasty only to betray it."
The failure of the constant attempt, as Martin Buber described it. They spoke about rabbis and fighters, prophets and foreign kings. When they were not together, Lorberbaum would write or find something, send it by email from Jerusalem to Walzer, who had just woken up – there is a seven-hour gap – and would find it on his screen.
A 40-year old exhaustion
I met Walzer as a young reporter for a local Jerusalem paper. He came to live in Israel for three months following the Lebanon war. A strident opponent of the Vietnam War, spoke sharply to me about the Ariel Sharon of that time, the Latin General, according to his definition, and about his failed game plan. He met fighters here, who felt very bitter about Lebanon and about the government, but were nonetheless committed to Israel and the army. "Critical from within" he describes himself even now at the age of 73. Walzer always differentiates between just and unjust wars.
"The Lebanon war was an unjust war," he told me then in 1983. "It was an unbelievable gamble….such a level of risk is immoral and absolutely forbidden for politicians. Those responsible for the lives of so many are forbidden to gamble. The adventurousness of this war testifies to its injustice."
Since then there have been two intifadas and the second Lebanon war, which can be spoken about in exactly the same terms. When I talk to him by telephone on the same day that I meet with Lorberbaum in Jerusalem, I hear that Walzer is now too filled with worry about the fate of Israel.
"We are enclosed within the walls we have built around ourselves. We are so worn out that we have stopped understanding what is happening to us immersed as we are in the distracting bull," he says.
But from the USA they worry about us from afar. Walzer, who comes to Israel every year, spoke to me about Israel as "a place worn out by the conflict." An exhausted place that still has the ability to change, to be pressured. Maybe.
"You suffer the exhaustion of 40 years of conquest. Much energy is wasted on the conflict, a constant and enormous stress on the community. I won’t say malignant, as I do not like medical terms. From the distance at which I sit, it appears to be fragility. The second Lebanon war, in which Israel did not succeed in halting the fire on the North and on Sderot, indicates a great weakness," he says.
Sarna: Do you also feel that the army – also in its weakness or maybe because of it – has too much power to decide, to drag an entire country, without any real leadership, into war?
Walzer: "It is enough for me to look at Israel after two lengthy strikes of teachers and lecturers. I think that the Jewish state has to present excellent intellect and has to have the best educational institutions in the world. But you have created a generation of politicians who do not understand this. This entails giving up easily on the long Jewish tradition of excellence. When schools and universities are collapsing and faltering and the money flows to the army and to privatization, something is very wrong. All the processes of bull__ are destructive to the tradition of Jewish excellence. You have to be excellent even to be the best militarily. You do not have a choice."
Sarna: What is the change you see in the essence of Israeli identity through the years that you have been back and forth here?
Walzer: "I have been here dozens of times for shorter or longer periods. Israel was a very secular state and that has changed. Tel Aviv has remained secular, but the general political culture has become more and more religious. Religious extremists have influenced it. Frightened it. Changed it. This is one of the reasons for our project. We want the political tradition not to be a tradition of fanatics, but to be accessible to non-religious readers too. This is our response to what this country has gone through since 1967: the entire messianic destructive process. It created an impossible obstacle to a solution and makes it difficult to reach any compromise. This is in addition to an external enemy that is not committed to any compromise.
"I recently came to research and compare three liberation movements that operated at similar times in Algiers, India and Israel. All three were secular and all three succeeded in creating a secular state in their image. In every one of these states though, after 30 or 40 years, they faced the enormous challenge of a large religious movement threatening it. Israel is not alone in this. Secularity did not succeed in creating a culture to replace religion. Religion was fading, but came back and burst out in all three of the countries. This is a real threat."
Even in 1983 Walzer discussed the likeness between the radical religion in Israel and Khomeinism in Iran.
Religion without God
Like Walzer the secularist, Menachem Lorberbaum, who wears a kippa, speaks about the religious threat, not only the Muslim threat, but also the internal, the Jewish. He describes the new book as a weapon against "politics that has been so thoroughly cheapened here. Though there is no longer anything good to say about it, we can’t live without it. It runs the state." This need for politics over and above economics is often forgotten. The country is outlined not only by the army, and by the oligarchs of privatization, but also by the fanatics, by a messianic vision that takes over all order.
"This is a time of desecrating the holy," says Lorberbaum with quiet determination. "The appearance of the holy in the world has stopped being delicate and has become a tool by which the spilling of blood is justified. The political period that I felt was the most godless, the most lacking a conscious, was actually during Bibi, Shas and the Mafdal’s rule. Wholesale religion and a sale of the state."
Sarna: What has happened to us? What went wrong?
Lorberbaum: "The Six Day War was a victory in the battlefield, but the worst political failure that we have had. As time goes by the battlefield victory shrinks in the light of the political failure and the inability to create a new foreign policy. In contrast to the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, which began as a military failure became a great military victory that enabled the most dramatic change since the establishment of the state: peace with Egypt.
"Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon asked the big question in his day: Are we still Jews? It is not clear what the answer today is. We are a society that invests billions of shekels in the military and not in the universities. Seemingly there is no choice. If, though, there is no choice, then there is no sovereignty. The sovereign state is built on the premise that there is choice. The greatest paradox is that the security establishment, one of the central tools of sovereignty, sends out the strongest signal of this "no choice" message, which is completely opposed the notion of sovereignty and responsibility. We came out of exile in order to have choice, so I ask myself: Have we passed the decisive moment in our ability to exist as a Jewish state and to split into two states, Israel and Palestine? In practice we have already been living in the bi-national state for 40 years, in which the Jewish majority subjugates the Arab minority. This is strongest in Jerusalem. When I ask Israeli Arab friends why they don’t move from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, they answer that Tel Aviv is a Jewish city, whereas Jerusalem is a city with Arabs."
Sarna: Does the possibility still exist for a Jewish state?
Lorberbaum: "I see the enormous effort in the building of the (security) wall as a futile attempt to establish a border. But we’re on both sides of it, so what kind of border is that? If this border dissolves and the cantonization of Palestine as well as Israeli building continues, no independent state can be established there. In fact 60 years after the establishment of the state, we are living in a bi-national state. And, if Israeli is bi-national, then we need to change the way we are thinking. I don’t know what that means and I am still not ready for that. I have dedicated all my thinking to the Jewish state. Bi-national states have not been able to sustain themselves in the 20th century. They have fought and fallen apart. And if we recognize that we are bi-national, then actually the two initifadas were two internal civil wars, as in Lebanon and Yugoslavia, rather than a battle between two states."
Despite his sobriety, Lorberbaum prefers to believe that we can change this reality at any time. The belief in setting things right is almost religious. There is much still to do. And we have not yet become something that we greatly feared and which none other than those advocates of greater Israel and of God have brought upon us.
A crisis of legitimacy
"I was at Tel Hai," Walzer tells me on the clear phone line from his office in Princeton, "next to the monument of the roaring lion, next to the graves of the guards. This is meant to be an alternative secular Israeli myth, and no one was there. Empty. The Zionist pioneering spirit to which we dedicate the book was heroic. Such an enormous historical effort cannot be forgotten. But it does not sustain itself. Religion returned and with it American commercialism. I don’t think that the idea of the Jewish state is lost. An appropriate political leader is needed, though."
He does not despair. Or maybe he does and is just not telling me. But his words convey a feeling of despair. He calls it exhaustion from a prolonged struggle. In 1983 Walzer discerned the strong connection the soldiers felt toward the state. "Even those embittered by the war were not alienated," he said then. "Now the feelings of estrangement are very strong."
What has happened to Israeli authority, I ask Lorberbaum. Almost every prime minister is expelled from his chair. Olmert too is shaky, but there is no visible alternative.
"This is a deep crisis of legitimacy, which worsened in the ’90s," Lorberbaum says. "Rabin’s murder was just its extreme expression. The national religious public disputed the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Israel at the times of the peace agreements, not recognizing the state’s authority to decide on matters of war and peace. They also disputed the high court. Latent theological problems burst forth to the surface, culminating in Rabin’s assassination. These are deep problems in Israeli politics. The intifada somewhat silenced this wave, but the problems remain.
"What is surfacing now is a crisis of faith in the state itself. We are after a series of unnecessary wars – the Yom Kippur War and the first and second Lebabon wars. These were wars of choice that resulted about from decisions of prime ministers. The Israeli citizen looks at what has happened over these 30 years, including the summer of the second Lebanon war, and asks himself: Can I entrust my children’s lives over to these political and military leaders. Are they responsible enough?"
Saarna: When you look at the essence of Israeli identity, what do you see?
Lorberbaum: "A simultaneously neurotic and amazing project. For example, while Palestine was in the throes of suicide in the days of fire, Israel was building its new fleet of trains, changing the relationship between the periphery and the center. How is it possible to understand this complex mix of achievement and madness? This is the positive side of our neurosis; our drive is enormous. The difficult situation is particularly pronounced in Israel, because of the quality of the people, from soldiers to academics. There is an abysmal gap between the quality of the individuals and the severe disease found in the institutions of state. Such great people deserve far better."
In his words, Lorberbaum moves from excitement to rage, from admiration to harsh criticism, from the fear that all is lost to the great hope in the possibility of repair. As a religious person he is angry at the national religious public and at its dangerous vision that threw us into bi-nationalism and brought disaster on the city in which he lives, Jerusalem.
"Look how this city is crumbling under the weight of the concrete," he says. "They took a faded, poor and embattled municipality and conferred on it the burden of being the capital of the state. There is nothing more absurd and sad than that. All this concrete strangled the city. The Mt. Scopus campus with its horrible planning, the Knesset, the office towers. The old and low key Jerusalem knew how to incubate the madness of its enormous hold energy inside itself. The new symbols of state sovereignty, which draw from the heart of the holy for the sake of political madness, is a disaster."
Sarna: What is your solution for the core of this conflict that causes such an upheaval in the order of things?
Lorberbaum: "The old city that has clear borders should undergo internationalization. Then we need rid the city of the parasites of the nation states of Israel and Palestine. This kind of process will transform Jerusalem into an amazing city. What happened to Jerusalem reminds me of what they did to Rachel’s tomb. They took a beautiful and humble religious symbol, and made it into a medieval concrete fortress – the tomb disappeared."
From his window I see the inner yard of the campus. A few youngsters sit learning. A new library. When I leave the campus, entering the narrow street, I go through the open gate and into the leper’s yard, where a gardener is putting up a wooden fence. I look in the direction of Talbieh and the theater and then again at the pine grove and everything that can bloom or be destroyed by the decisions of those in charge. Suddenly everything looks so fragile, exhausted, just as Walzer described.
Adapted from the original version of this article, which appeared in Yediot Ahronot, Israel‘s largest newspaper. Translation copyright 2008 by Shalom Hartman Institute.