Losing the Jewish Soul

06/09/2010 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

God's Torah is perfect,
Renewing life.
The decrees of the Lord are enduring,
Making the simple wise.

Psalms 19:8

A mere 48 hours before the now-infamous Israeli commando raid on the Gaza flotilla which has led to the deaths of nine individuals, religious Jews were sitting in their synagogues listening to the Haftara, the Prophetic portion read each Sabbath in addition to the weekly Biblical lection, which ended this particular week with an admonition from the Prophet Zechariah:

"This is the word of Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts." (4:6)

As events unfolded two days after the reading the pacifist words of God to Zerubbabel, I thought the Israelis were oblivious to that message and were more likely awaiting the Biblical portion of Balak where the Gentile Balaam states the following of Israel:

"Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone,
And shall not be reckoned among the nations." (Numbers 23:9)

These two texts -- a vision of alienated Israel and the peaceful entente of God's plan for the world -- seem to be in conflict in the minds of present-day Jews. On hearing of the commando raid and the deaths of the pro-Palestinian activists, many Jews reverted to a knee-jerk defense of anything and everything Israel does and defied the world's negative judgment of the raid. It is Balaam's words that have come to dominate what it means to be Jewish today.

The usual rhetoric in defense of Israel has been deployed in this light: The whole world hates us; we are alone; the freedom of Jews is despised by the Gentiles; the people of the world are hypocrites who measure Jews by a standard that no other nation is judged by. We have heard this rhetoric endlessly repeated.

While listening to this standard-issue Israeli Hasbarah, the particularly Jewish form of propaganda that has been deployed at the service of the Jewish state, I recalled the teachings of Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900), perhaps the last truly visionary Sephardic Sage, regarding Jewish parochialism and universalism. In his unfinished magnum opus Israel and Humanity, posthumously published in 1914, he presents the reader with a comparison of Mosaic Law in the context of the Noachide covenant:

"... if Mosaism is the priestly law of Israel as Noachism is the law of mankind, it is evident that plurality must be encountered in this second aspect of the Divine Law. The priesthood is the bond which unites the finite to the infinite, earth to heaven, mankind to the totality of the vast universe; and its special code, which is an expression of this transcendent rapport, is different from all others, and represents by itself one dimension of the Law. By contrast, the various other forms of religion, corresponding to differences of race and nationality, all participate in the Noachide Law, of which they form the specific varieties."

Benamozegh understands Jewish particularity through the priestly caste of its ritual law. Within that parochial law is a universal core that Jews are required to articulate to the world, though not in the form of proselytizing. The Noachide covenant is a basic legal code that encompasses the truths of the great Monotheistic faiths. Jews in this context are required to engage with other nations and to treat all human beings as the creatures of God.

In his new book Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (Schocken Books), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this same point in the following manner:

"Societies need hope. Covenantal societies need high moral aspiration. Israel faces a long and difficult struggle to find peace. There is a real and present danger of national despair. Peace is not something one side can achieve alone: it is always a duet, never a solo. There is nothing Israel can do to guarantee peace, but there is something it can do to recapture the moral energy that went into the building of the land. It can create a new civic Judaism, one that embraces religious and secular, Jew and Palestinian, alike. Zionism Phase 1 gave back to Jewry what it lacked in the dispersion: sovereignty and a state. Zionism Phase 2 must reappropriate what it had even when it lacked a state, namely a profound sense of responsibility to the weak, the poor, the socially marginalized, the neglected and unheard. That is the challenge for a new religious Zionism: to build a society worthy of being a home for the divine presence by honoring the divine image in all its citizens."

As Rabbi Sacks has previously explained in the book, in its earliest days the state of Israel became fixated on the process of statecraft at the expense of civics:

"The history of Zionism, by contrast, was dominated from the outset by the idea of state rather than society. This was understandable, given its historical origins... So it was not accidental that the most powerful effort to create a national culture, that of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, was called mamlachtiyut, 'statism,' placing the state at the heart of identity... Mamlachtiyut rode roughshod over the traditions, mainly religious, of Jews from Arab lands, who were forcibly socialized and secularized in immigration camps and the state school system. Ben-Gurion said about these oriental, Sephardic Jews that they were 'from a Jewish point of view, dust of man, without language, without tradition, without roots, without an orientation to the life of statehood, without the customs of an independent society.'"

Ben-Gurion's statement speaks to the massive upheaval created by the Israeli Zionist vision. The disdain for the native Sephardim speaks to a larger process of what the Palestinian scholar Edward Said has called "Orientalism": the demeaning of the East in favor of a Western hegemony.

The inability of Zionism to integrate the traditional culture of the Middle East into its national program has led to an endless series of conflicts with the Arabs. According to the standard Hasbarah narrative, it was the Arabs who did not accept the existence of Israel, rather than Israel rejecting coexistence with the Arabs. And by and large it is this narrative that has been accepted due to the inability of the Arab-Muslim world to properly deal with the emergence of a Jewish state in its midst. Using violence rather than diplomacy, the Arab-Muslim world has often suppressed its own liberal tendencies and given the Israelis reason to think that violence is the only possible option to ensure its security.

The matter of co-existence between Jews and Arabs is a very complicated one that has many aspects. One of the aspects ordinarily ignored in our discussions is the complete alienation of Israel from the indigenous culture of the region. The suppression and cultural persecution of the Arab Jews in Israel began with their immigration to the country and continues to varying degrees to this day. Israeli Ashkenazim, the ruling class in political and social terms, have harbored a mistrust and disdain for the Arab that extends even to Jews who practice the Arab culture.

This brings us back to the proper role of ecumenism within the Jewish tradition.

As we have seen, there is a model of Judaism that marks Jews as outside the realm of the family of nations. This is the model Zionism has adopted. Rejecting entente with the other nations of the world, this model has led to an endless string of violent engagements. Israel asserts that there has never been a Palestinian partner as there has only been rejection from the other Arab states. Yet while the parameters of a peace agreement have gradually emerged since the June 1967 War, Israel has continued to dwell on past conflicts and refused to bring itself up to speed with the possibility of peace based on a return to those 1967 borders. It has increasingly come to see itself as besieged even as its military and economic might have grown considerably over time and as the Arab world has accepted the reality of its existence.

Politics is a fluid thing: situations change. Judaism throughout its history has continually adapted to circumstances, successfully enabling its own survival against some very daunting odds. The voices of the Prophets and Sages of Israel, those who took the peaceful vision enunciated by Zechariah that we cited earlier, have stood as the eternal rock of Jewish self-understanding. These visions nourished the Jewish soul.

With the advent of statist Zionism, Jews have lost sight of the truths of their own past. Many Jews have forgotten the basic values of their traditional faith and instead have fallen into a sense of paranoia and despondency that has been made more complicated by the military might of Israel and the bullying aspects that it often takes.

Rabbi Sacks explains the matter in the following way:

"Jews have lost touch with their soul. When Jews are in the news today it is almost invariably because of anti-Semitism, or some Holocaust-related issue, or the politics of the Middle East. I want to say to my fellow Jews with all the passion I can muster: Judaism is bigger than this. A people that has survived, its identity intact, for four thousand years, that reaffirmed its life after the Holocaust, that rebuilt its ancestral home after two thousand years of exile and oppression, has more to say to the world than that it has enemies. Everyone has enemies. It has more to its identity than ethnicity. Judaism is the sustained attempt to make real in life the transformative power of hope. And the world, in the twenty-first century, needs hope."

As we witness the ongoing marginalization of Israel and its supporters after the Gaza flotilla debacle, we must consider the place of Judaism in the larger Zionist project. Rejecting the ethical traditions of Judaism as it has evolved over time, Zionism fixed its sights solely on recapturing an aggressive ethno-national identity. This identity has now become frozen by its use of power and violence to address all of its problems. It has rejected the indigenous culture of the region it lives in as it has rejected the Jewish representatives of that indigenous culture.

In the end, there will be an acrimonious debate over the legality of Israel's actions and whether or not those actions made any logical sense. Largely absent from the discussion will be analysis of Israel's Jewish identity and sense of itself. Israel can remain alienated and paranoid, or it can come to understand its power and its ability to reach out to the other side in order to settle its conflicts. Remaining convinced that it has pursued peace unilaterally and done everything in its power to deal with its problems will only continue to perpetuate its own paranoia and delusion.

As the priests of the world, Jews have always taken on the role of teachers and mediators of God's word. Disengaging from the world has only led Israel to failure and national dysfunction.