How to help Israel

Yakov Rabkin
September 2009

Written for the Canadian Jewish News, September 2009.

How to help Israel

by Yakov M Rabkin*

Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year, is all about moral reckoning and self-improvement. The Jewish tradition views the Jews’ eventual return to the Land of Israel as a spiritual concept, dependent on the behaviour of the Jews and, above all, on divine grace. The exile is seen as divine punishment for abandoning Torah commandments. The tradition does not view the Jews as hapless victims but, rather, as makers of their own fate. In this framework, the exile is not seen as a military defeat whose effect can be effaced by a military victory. Rather, it is a moral failure that can only be corrected by means of self-improvement.


When in the late 19-th century Theodor Herzl proposed to gather Jews in Palestine as a solution to “the Jewish Question”, most rabbinical authorities reacted to the emergence of Zionism with undisguised hostility. They objected to Zionist political appropriation of spiritual concepts such as “Jerusalem”, “Zion” or “Land of Israel”. Prominent leaders of European Orthodoxy were adamant in their opposition. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote in 1918: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish nation. …Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”. In spite of their otherwise profound differences, different trends in Judaism found Zionism a threat to what it always mean to be a Jew.

Indeed, the most important point of confrontation was the definition of the Jewish nation. The Zionists view the Jews as a nation in the modern sense of the word. Conversely, the Jewish tradition defines them as a nation only in the sense – and to the extent – that the Jews remain loyal to the Torah. According to it, there is little meaning to a Jewish nation without Judaism. Just as the Muslim concept of umma is based on the loyalty to the Koran and transcends boundaries of nation-states, the Jewish concepts of Am Yisrael or Kelal Yisrael refer to communities that have the Torah as their common denominator; they are not confined to any particular territory, let alone to a nation-state.

The transformation of this moral and spiritual notion into the modern concept of nation was a major departure from the Jewish tradition. It is little wonder that prominent European rabbis declared as early as 1905 that “Zionism is a purely nationalist-racist movement without the least commonality with religion”. Opposition to Zionism has not disappeared since the times when Zionism was a minority movement shunned by most Jews. Detractors of Zionism warned, and continue to warn, that to defy the nations of the region and establish a state for the Jews constitutes a major transgression and can only end in tragedy.

From this perspective, one should not be surprised that, in spite of the might of Israel’s armed forces, Israel remains the only country to experience regular anti-Jewish violence since 1948. Today the life of a Jew is in greater danger in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than in Paris or Berlin or even in Damascus or Tehran. This is not an irony or a paradox: this danger had been understood by important Jewish thinkers well before the establishment of the state.

The primacy of the State is a dangerous belief to hold. A few decades after the Shoa, Jews remember what happens when the raison d’état becomes a transcendental principle that supersedes individual morality. It may be illusory and even dangerous to confuse the profane centrality of Israel with the sacred centrality of the land: in order to affirm the first aspect one has to reject or distort the second one, and vice versa.

Preparing for Rosh Hashana we must first of all examine our own thoughts, words and deeds. Besides matters of individual conscience, Jews who take their collective morality to heart face very difficult questions. Was the Zionist idea a moral and a viable one? Is it not the very nature of the State of Israel as a state for the Jews that fuels and perpetuates the conflict? How can millions of Jews who live in Israel be saved from expulsion or even destruction? How can Jews living elsewhere be shielded from the fallout of the incessant conflict in the Middle East?

There are no simple answers to these questions. What may help, though, is the realization of a simple truth: blaming others for our misfortunes is not a Jewish way to improve the situation. Righteousness and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Examining our own moral record may yield surprising insights as to what could and should be done to help Israel.

* Yakov M Rabkin is a Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his most recent book. A Threat from within: A Century of Jewish Opposiiton to Zionism, has appeared in nine lnguages.

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How to help Israel