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Unsettled: Pondering the Myth-making Stories that Define Judaism

On 6-Day War Anniversary, I would trade the Zionism that comes with winning the war for the nostalgia of the older and better Jewish story
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

First published in Tablet

Midway through Salt Houses – the stunning debut novel by Hala Alyan about four generations of Palestinian women navigating the travails of dispersion and diaspora – I had a disquieting realization of familiarity. I felt like I knew this story – and not because I knew the particulars of the story. Nor am I particularly well-versed in the history of Palestinian dislocation except as the aftermath, as the tragic countertext, of what I know and celebrate of Zionism and Israeli history.

It was familiar, rather, because this was our story. It was the story of a people on the journey to become A People, caught in the no-man’s land of possessing a collective consciousness but lacking the instruments to translate it, effectively and recognizably, into processes of self-determination; it was a story of alienation from a beloved land which over time rendered the land itself more symbolic than real; it told of pining for return, in spite of – perhaps because of – political circumstances that make that Return, as a right or as a responsibility, completely implausible; it murmured with the sense of incompleteness in diaspora; it spoke of the ways in which The Land takes on both mystical-poetic qualities, as well as constituting a site for a totally de-terrestrialized political identity; and, of course, it embedded as one of its core concerns the anxiety of assimilation and fear of forgetting that can plague a people’s consciousness for centuries on end. All of these are Jewish. And not just Jewish; this restlessness is the psychological, spiritual epicenter of Jewishness as it has been enacted, transacted, and transmitted for centuries.

The book left me with the thought that as we converge on marking 50 years since the 1967 war reshaped the relationship between Israel and its neighbor states, and between Israel and the Palestinians, that its most paradoxical legacy was that the same war which granted a kind of earthly permanence and security for the State of Israel – an implausible transformation of the fate of the Jewish people just one generation removed from the nadir of its powerlessness – cost the Jews a piece of our core mythology, and offered it as a Pyrrhic concessionary gift to the Palestinians.

It is a gift, needless to say, that I’m sure the Palestinians would prefer came in the form of their land; taking on the identity of the being the world’s wanderers is more of a punishment than a badge of honor. But it is an identity nonetheless, and one that, fortified by pathos, seeks to animate a people. It is the majestic, tragic-mythic story that the Jewish people told itself about itself for a long time.

For the Jewish people, the Six Day War entailed a trade of mythology for security – well, that is a choice most Jews who live in and care about the State of Israel would happily make over and over again. This point is lost on many anti-occupation activists: The moral challenges brought about by the war and the resulting occupation, which can be summarized under the heading of bartering the morality of “power as means of survival” for “power as a moral crucible,” are very arguably worth their cost. Those who remember the physical insecurity of the pre-’67 borders largely accept the moral insecurity of the post-’67 realities as easier to tolerate. Most, too, will unblinkingly jettison the comical idealization of “homelessness” in exchange for the gifts of a little bit of breathing room.

Amos Oz – no great lover of the nation-state – writes in In the Land of Israel :

The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, “goyim naches” – a gentile’s delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flag, no emblem, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

But the Jewish people has already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for 2,000 years, the model of a civilization without the “tools of statehood.” For me, this drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler. And I am forced to take it upon myself to play the “game of nations,” with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel (as George Steiner put it) like an old man in a kindergarten.

In Oz, we find just about the most unsentimental possible embrace of the utility of nationalism and the costs of maintaining it in the form of a safe and sovereign state – a position he echoed decades later in an interview during the Gaza War about Israel’s fundamental right to defend itself in the wake of ongoing bombardment.

The fact that Oz is an outspoken opponent of occupation and the policies required to attend to it cements his bona fides in making this argument, which is the strongest I know against the moral perversity of the kinds of anti-Zionism that discredit the right of Jews to a nation-state and that subject Israel to disproportionate scrutiny of its security policies to the point of using its failings as means of contesting its legitimacy. Jews, as envisioned in such ideologies, are meant to play a poetic, pristine role in history – in order to serve the convenient theological and political narratives of how the West wants to understand Jews and Judaism. The rendering of the Jews from poetry to prose makes us, in the eyes of our detractors, defilers of the romantic image that both we and they have broadcast of ourselves for 2,000 years, but that only they remain attached to, perhaps because the suffering involved was ours.

Still, how did a people that envisions itself in prayer as a community of tents, itinerant in the wilderness, become so fixated on construction projects? What happens to Judaism as an organizing set of ideas when its core operating mythology – a story of journey and restlessness – is wrenched away in a blaze of military glory, and replaced with an older, loftier, yet dustier version of prophetic arrival, a story that has not been road-tested in thousands of years?

Oz refers to George Steiner in quoting his depiction of the Jewish people’s playing the game of nationalism as “an old man in a kindergarten.” Steiner’s ideology is best expressed in his classic essay, “Our Homeland, The Text,” in which he comes as close as anyone to turning the image of the restless Jew into a normative paradigm to be emulated and reclaimed. Steiner laments that the “appalling road of Jewish life” finds at its end a “petty,” “shrill,” and “parochial” nation-state in the Middle East. I personally find Steiner politically unpalatable. He trivializes the terrible human cost of Jewish homelessness; when he refers to the Jewish people as “a handful of wanderers, nomads of the word,” his eloquence belies an implicit toleration for the conditions that make the Jewish people nomadic, and only a handful. But he’s not a bad reader of the tradition.

The truth is, much like The Odyssey, the Bible is a majestic story of a journey that lives uncomfortably at odds with the failures inevitable upon arrival. Home is never quite as good as is hoped for, and the longer the miracle of the State of Israel goes on, the more we are inclined to hold it up against the previous two failed experiments in Jewish sovereignty to ask whether our worst fears are to be realized again. A good reader of Jewish history should be nervous.

Zionism – and here I mean especially the muscular Zionism of the Six Day War, the Zionism of power and permanence, with its hints of completing the narrative of Jewish unsettledness – asks so much of us. This Zionism asks of us that the Judaism of wandering which is such a central part of our traditions and our history come to an end. Zionism leverages the bravery of the Hasmoneans, but tries to get us to forget the corruption and decline of their ruling class once empowered; it hearkens to the messianic sovereignty of the Davidic kings, but asks us to stop the clock of our mythic re-rendering in the brief idyllic years of Solomon, rather than in the (inevitable) divisive, conflict-ridden shitshow that immediately follows.

Religious Zionism, the brand of Zionism that benefited the most from the triumph in the 1967 war, is the strangest hybrid of all. An ideology that seeks to bridge traditional, lived Judaism and the political revolution of modern Zionism is predicated on the decidedly untraditional idea that Judaism as we know it can be corrected: This has always seemed to me the biggest conceptual question facing Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s famous lecture/essay ” Kol Dodi Dofek,” a profound theological and political meditation that serves as foundational for so much of American pragmatic religious Zionism. The title of Soloveitchik’s essay is drawn from the fifth chapter of the Song of Songs, describing the moment when the two star-crossed protagonists – the lover and the beloved – find themselves separated just by a door, and a fateful knock. In the book, the beloved fails to answer the door in time; in Soloveitchik’s memorable formulation, it is incumbent on contemporary Jews to answer the door this time when God is so clearly “knocking.” Will we, Soloveitchik asks, fail to consummate our opportunity to reconnect with God? The unconsummated Eros imagined between the lover and the beloved in the Song of Songs – and in so many traditional readings, between God and the Jewish people – is understood in this paradigm as a problem to be solved, rather than as an enduring condition.

As a Zionist, I am enchanted by second-chance history, by the possibility of the fulfillment of a story that the Jewish people never got right the first time around. But as a Jew, I find the idea that our canonical stories are there to be fixed rather than to challenge us with their intactness to be alienating and strange.

There are a lot of vigorously debated hypotheses about why American Jews appear to be distancing themselves from Israel. Is it the policies of the government and the cover given to them by the Jewish “establishment?” Is it the naive embrace by American Jews of the feel-good liberalism of tikkun olam that makes them oblivious, even antipathetic, to the realpolitik challenges faced by a nation-state? Is it Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison, intermarriage, or just the problem with “kids these days”? I think it is simpler than all that. We told stories about ourselves for so long that they are credibly and legitimately the authentic, endemic characteristics of what we call “Judaism.” These are stories of wandering and dislocation, praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers. In other words, even when we teach our children Judaism, it does not and will not breed Zionism. And even if the failing of a Jew to embrace Zionism and to feel a sense of loyalty to this strange beast called Jewish peoplehood may reflect a failure of adaptation, imagination, and responsibility, it does not necessarily constitute a failure to understand what it has meant for us for a long to be Jewish.

And even though I wouldn’t trade the Zionism that comes with winning the war for the nostalgia of the older and better Jewish story, I worry that this new story which has replaced the old mythology of journey is deeply lacking. Rabbinic tradition dictates that the Temple Mount should constitute the center of one’s religious consciousness and thus become a literal and metaphorical compass: We pray in its direction from wherever far off places we are, in the belief that this orientation centers us. We prayed toward there throughout a long history in which we couldn’t be there. We imagined that one day we would close the gap between our dreams and our realities, and in turn, we sustained our religious consciousness with that act of implausible imagination. And then, in recent times, the geography of the Jewish people’s consciousness transformed itself when the army radio crackled, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”

In our hands! The end of our brokenness, the end of our history is in our hands! And now, once in our hands, how sometimes very small it actually seems.

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