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    Israel: a Jewish State or a State for Jews?

    map_israelIt is humbug on a global scale to deny that Israel is a (why not use the definite article and make it the?) Jewish State.

    Amongst ourselves, however, we should be debating a different dimension of the problem: the question of how Jewish Israel is – qualitatively a Jewish State, or merely quantitatively a State where, demographically speaking, most people are Jews?

    If I ask my own family, the question will probably be met with a shrug of the shoulders and a bemused, “What are you talking about? Why did we make Aliyah after all, if not because of Israel’s Jewish quality?”

    Who are my family in the context of this discussion? Three of my four children, with their spouses and children, plus my wife and myself. We all made Aliyah because Israel is, as Edmond Fleg said, the land in which God dwells; because, as the rabbinic sages said, Avira d’ar’a mach’kim – “the air of the Land makes you wise”, and there is an inherent Jewish quality that you breathe in Israel, even in the apparently least promising corners of the country. All the hostile humbug that denies a historic Jewish quality about Israel cannot take away this basic fact.

    Once upon a time it could have been argued that the majority of Israelis had a less romantic view and were proponents of a Jewish form of secularism. Now there is a different reality. Only last week the media reported that growing numbers of Israelis call themselves religious or traditional, whatever the definition of those terms. I used to aver, perhaps out of religious naivete, that at least in Jerusalem even the atheists believed in God; now I am discovering that I was not so wrong, and not just in regard to Jerusalem.

    So now it seems as though Israel has turned out to have a spiritual heart after all. You would naturally expect a rabbi to make such statements. But rabbis cannot be discounted when it comes to having views about Judaism. And even those who normally have little patience with rabbis are unlikely to disagree when rabbis say that religion is historically the most distinctive quality of Jewish identity.

    Even those who normally boast about how little religion there is in their own Jewish make-up use religious criteria to define their position: “I never go to a synagogue… I don’t light Shabbat candles… I don’t keep kosher”. In other words, they cannot define themselves as Jews without using Judaism as their yardstick; and even then they may surprise themselves at the amount of Jewish tradition that they actually observe despite their protestations to the contrary.

    Jewish behaviourism is far from dead on Israeli soil, though many of us would like to see much more of it – and we would, if more Israelis were more tolerant of the strictly orthodox, and if the latter had a warmer, more welcoming attitude.

    But behaviourism in the narrow sense is not the only criterion of Jewish quality. What about Jewish learning? More Jews are learning more Torah on Israeli soil than ever before in Jewish history, and we even hear of secularists who are setting up their own yeshivot to delve into the traditional texts.

    There used to be a notice in the central bus station in Jerusalem, “If you’ve been to Jerusalem and not been to a yeshivah, you haven’t been to Jerusalem”. There are so many types of yeshivot in Israel that it is the rabbinic saying about the Torah having seventy faces come true, though some of the faces are still lacking in the state education system.

    There is Jewish menschlichkeit. Every day I find it alive and well on the Israeli scene. Even the buses remind me, Mip’nei sevah takum – “Rise before the hoary head”. When any Israeli family is suffering, whether the cause be terrorism or any other tragedy, every other Israeli is their relative.

    Is this not what Judaism means when it says, Immo anochi b’tzarah – “I am with them in distress” – a verse in which God speaks in words that call for Imitatio Dei? Isn’t Divine-human chessed the mark of the Israeli ethos, whether we claim the religious label or not?

    Isn’t Israel or lagoyyim – “a light unto the nations”? Indirectly, through the historic heritage of Biblical and even rabbinic ethics that is part of Western culture… even when supposedly intelligent Western academics and others turn on us (more humbug) and forget that without the Jewish element their culture would be threadbare. In a more direct sense, the market-place of ideas benefits, when it has ears to listen, from Israeli thinking and envisioning, and our practical chessed is always proffered when nations need a supportive hand (though some are still more interested in cutting off their nose to spite their face rather than be seen talking to an Israeli).

    Internally we are not always a nation of which Haim Weizmann would be too proud, bearing in mind his vision of Israel as “a high civilisation based on the austere standards of Jewish ethics”. We lack men and women of high principle in the top echelons of national leadership.

    There is far too much self-seeking and corruption and, as we used to call it in Australia, “rorting the system”. But it is a good sign that am’cha, the people, are increasingly aware of their leaders’ feet of clay, increasingly critical of the faults and failings they see, and determined that we can do better.

    Jewish nationhood was an inspiring ideal for Rav Kook and so many other gedolim. They dreamt of a Jewish polity that would have a messianic quality. They had their problems with political nationalism and feared that it would sully the dream. They would be the first to recognise how much further we have to go. But they would also be the first to see that world Jewry – and world Judaism – owes more to the imperfect reality of Israel than the Jewish people are always prepared to admit.

    Israel is demographically a State of and for Jews. As a Jewish State it has its debits, but its credits are far from unimpressive. The unterste shurah – the bottom line? If Israel is not yet a fully Jewish State, it is a Jewish State in the making, well on the way to becoming worthy of the dream. My family and I have no regrets about our Aliyah.

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