Happy Birthday to a Great Country: Haaretz vs. the Meshech Chochmah

I still don’t understand why my friends at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles urged me some time ago to attend a small reception for Avi Shavit and his then-current book, My Promised Land. Even one of my colleagues on this blog recommended going to the reception. The book had succeeded in generating much discussion. Its author, a veteran Haaretz journalist, was amply credentialed to write an update on the Jewish State, its successes, failures, and challenges. In person, he demonstrated that he knew his material, and was personally engaging, fair-minded, and accessible. At the time, participating seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Over the next months, I slowly read the book. Then I changed my mind.

My Promised Land reads like a tell-all expose – for a nation, rather than an individual. Shavit takes aim at a slew of impressions we grew up with about the vastly outnumbered innocent good guys prevailing over the demonic bad guys. He destroys their innocence – and ours. People liked the book for one of two reasons. Critics of Israel loved it for exposing the warts, bursting the bubbles, and taking Israel down a few notches, gleefully using the material to delegitimize her. Israel’s supporters – at least some of them – liked the book because in Shavit’s retelling of her story, she survives the honesty, the balance, and the nuance and still emerges as something of which we can be proud.

I disagree. In my reading, Israel does not emerge walking resolutely with her head held high, but wobbling erratically. To me it reads like one of the most damaging assaults on Israel that I have seen. It will take the rest of us, with some assistance from Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, to restore confidence to her stride.

Shavit is clearly a supporter of the State, not a detractor. Like the rest of us, however, he has an agenda, and it is pretty transparent. Shavit wants to come clean of the sins of the fathers (and sons), and at the same time win forgiveness and approval. He wants us to peer intently at the kind of behavior that generates guilt for his generation (especially the treatment of Palestinians, beginning before 1948), but then look up and tell him, “Not exemplary behavior, but quite within the bounds of acceptability. You had no choice. It was the only way to build your homeland – which is admirable – and those nation-building things are always messy affairs.” (His portrayal of the darker side of Israel – more accurately, some Israelis – in war makes painful reading. Not all of it, however, needs to be accepted at face value. Some of his harshest criticism concerns events in Lydda in the War of Independence, which he sees as nothing less than a massacre. Others, however, tell a very different story.)

There is a limit to Shavit’s generosity of spirit, however. He restricts it to his generation and those who came before, and comes to a screeching halt in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967. He praises the accomplishments of modern Israel, and lavishes attention on them. But he is harsh about the shallowness of many Israelis, and the aimlessness of governmental leadership. The new generation lost its moorings, its drive, is either hedonistic and Bohemian, or near-fascist in its nationalism. The Occupation will eat away at whatever substance remains.

He lists the external and internal challenges. While taking note of Israel’s capacity to do the impossible, he cannot find a way out of the multiple dilemmas that it faces.

Briefly put, the new generation has squandered, devalued, and lost the dream of the old-school Zionism with which he grew up, whose aspirations were pure and holy and could justify the human toll they exacted. What was is no longer, and a post-Zionist Israel finds itself hopelessly mired in the polar opposite of classic Zionism: mindless self-indulgence.

I think of the mental challenge facing Israel in the 21st century. What enabled the defenders of Degania to fend off the Syrian army at such human cost was the conviction they had. The dream of utopia and the burgeoning reality of the commune gave them the mental strength to withstand challenges such as the war of 1948. But contemporary Israel has no utopia and no commune and only a semblance of the resolve and commitment it once had. Can we we survive here without them?…Might it be that Israel’s collective psyche is no longer suited to Israel’s tragic circumstances?…As individuals, we have all of these traits of the “yes-we-can” ethos; this is why our start-ups are so remarkable and our ingenuity unique. But as a collective, we seem to have lost what we once had. This is why our nation-state is dysfunctional and our politics dire.

Shavit may be right about Zionism, but dead wrong about Israel.

The old, Haaretz Zionism may have been forcibly retired. I have long argued that the charedi community perhaps should reevaluate its stance regarding the State, since so much has changed since the pitched battles with some Zionists of the past who were militantly anti-religious and bent on the eradication of the traditional Jew they despised. I’ve argued that, first of all, those Zionists lost their battle, and secondly, they have been replaced by a new Zionism whose basic and only tenet was that the largest Jewish community in the world ought to be given the safety and security in which to survive and thrive. This is a position with which we should have little problem identifying.

Some argued that my depiction of the demise or at least marginalizing of those elements of the old Zionism was premature. They pointed to the campaign strategy of the united front of Livni and Herzog, marching under the banner of authentic Zionism. Clearly, their was life left in the old dream.

In case people didn’t notice, however, the standard-bearers of the old Zionism were effectively trounced. What emerged from the election, I would argue, was not the replacement of the old Zionism with a vacuum, but with a new Zionism that is more practical, less ideological, and more acceptable to us Torah ideologues.

Shavit is entirely wrong about the content of that new Zionism. Despite all the wrinkles and worry lines, Israel displays a beautiful face. We saw it in the reactions last summer of an entire nation to the capture of the three teen kedoshim. We saw it in the resolve of a country under fire during the Gaza War.

We see it in a country that, while far from where we would like it to be religiously (and how much of that is our own fault?), is far more traditional than any non-Orthodox community in the Diaspora, whose members are all in terminal free-fall. We see it in the only place on earth where Jews can identify as non-Orthodox and remain committed to Jewish survival across generations.

We see it in the devotion of the vast majority who choose to stay, rather than abandon Israel for Goa or Tarzana, of those who devote their energies and their lives to their people.

I don’t blame Shavit for not seeing all of this. I blame ourselves for not celebrating it enough. We ought to dwell on the words of Rav Meir Simcha in Meshech Chochmah (Devarim 30:2), paraphrased here:

[“You will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem your G-d has dispersed you. You will return unto Hashem your G-d and listen to His voice.” How can the Torah speak of this as an absolute fact? What guarantee is there of this national teshuvah?] Ahavas Yisrael is etched in to the Jewish heart. When a Jew hearkens to what was fixed into his heart at Sinai, he remembers from where he was hewn. This will lead inexorably to the “return unto Hashem.” It is a certainty that when a Jew returns to his people, he will return to Hashem!

It is still Sinai that binds the majority of us. Some of us know it consciously; others are tied through a subliminal connection to Hashem that is a concomitant of serving His people. B’ezras Hashem, this connection will continue to give us strength and provide the key to our survival against all our enemies, and purpose and direction to our future growth.

Happy Birthday, Israel! You/we have much to celebrate.

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13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Israel will be much better able to maintain itself and grow if its advocates don’t thoughtlessly champion the values, attitudes and prejudices of the world at large. We don’t need to ignore all the world’s input or its reactions, but we surely need to view and treat people and events from a Torah perspective.

  2. Shmuel says:

    Ashrecha, Rabbi. Thank you.

  3. shaul shapira says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein: This post demonstrated perfectly what I call my own ‘fanatical ambivalence’ about the state of Israel. I would love for you (or some other like minded person) to explain why I should see “Start Up nation”‘s successes as qualitatively different from say, than that of Singapore’s? For that matter, is Teva Pharmaceuticals so much more wondrous than Google?

    (Just to be clear, I’m not a Satmar Chussid; I have no problem in principle whatsoever with a State of Israel just because it’s the state of Israel. But equally, I’m not a R TY Kook’nik who sees the medinah as being atchalta de’geulah and therefore of necessity, a glorious paradise on earth just waiting to be actualized. I would love to hear a clear minded exposition- not a paean- detailing just what it is that makes the founding of the State of Israel so worthy of having Hallel said about 65+ years later)

    What makes the place that brags about how their products are ‘K’mo B’America,’ so much better than, well, America?

    [YA – I’m all in favor of perfection, but I’m puzzled as to why my piece should be considered a perfect specimen of a topic I did not write about. Nor was it a major part of Shavit’s thesis. Unless I was WUI (writing under the influence), what I thought I said is that to us Torah Jews Israel has to be, in part, a source of delight because it allows for the Jewish connection to Am Yisrael to flourish like it does no place else in the world, and that according to R Meir Simcha, that connection ultimately means connection with HKBH.

    Having said that, for the record I do give thanks to HKBH every day for the gift of a Jewish state for many reasons, including accomplishing in the space of a few decades (under extremely hostile conditions) what took others centuries or longer to accomplish. (I’m sure that in the run-up to Yom HaAtzmaut you will have no trouble finding elegant paeans to the State, some of which should address your point.) For centuries intelligent people believed that the Jews were incapable of producing anything of value in the sciences or arts ( ע”ש Voltaire). The fact that this canard has been erased should be a source of pride to Jews who believe that HKBH’s honor is linked to ours. But to go even further – and I could be hugely wrong about this – it always seemed to me that when the gemara Sanhedrin 98A wrote that the reappearance of agricultural productivity to the Land constituted “ein ketz megulah mi-zu,” that it was not limited to green sprouts poking out of the topsoil. The nexus of Jewish presence and Jewish productivity in the Land elicits reactions of awe in non-Jews who are Bible believers – something which I think is also valuable.]

  4. Raymond says:

    My response to this article was actually going to be what Rabbi Adlerstein eventually said, namely that the key to Israel surviving, is that it must be motivated by Torah Judaism. Not only does secular Zionism have no chance of surviving, but in all honesty, I never quite understood what that phrase even means. How can there be an Israel without the Torah to guide it? That is the only way that it can make any sense, which is also why I find it maddening when some Orthodox Jews find some way to reject the State of Israel. As I have long maintained, Israel may not be perfect, but it is a cop-out to reject it in response. Rather, religious Jews must fully embrace our return to our Jewish land, and make it have at least the flavor of Torah Judaism as much as possible. I suspect that the nature of the Jewish State of Israel has also been compromised by having too many foreign influences in it. We did not return to our Jewish homeland in order to imitate gentile cultures. We are there to create a Jewish State, run according to Torah law as much as possible. We cannot be a light unto the nations if we do not proudly shine that Jewish light in our own Jewish country, for all of the world to see.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    The religious dimension of Israel has been corrupted by the lack of separation between synagogue and state. It more than anything has turned off millions of Israelis to Judaism. The sooner enough Israelis of all stripes can unite on this issue to change the status quo we will see much healthier attitudes towards religious institutions rabbis and most importantly Judaism itself within israel

  6. mb says:

    Like Voltaire, Heinrich(Chaim) Heine also thought the Jews were incapable of creating, producing or building anything of value. He did teshuva.
    “…….formerly I could not pardon the legislator of the Jews his hatred of the plastic arts.I did not see that,notwithstanding his hostility to art, Moses was a great artist, and possessed the true artistic spirit. He built human pyramids carved human obelisks, he took a poor shepherd family and created a nation from it, a great, eternal people. A people of God destined to outlive the centuries, and to serve as a pattern to all other nations, as a prototype to all other nations. He created Israel
    As the master builder, so of his work, the Jews,I did not speak with sufficient reverence. I see now that the Greeks were only handsome youths, whilst the Jews were always men, powerful indomitable men, who have fought and suffered on every battlefield of human thought.”

  7. Ben Bradley says:

    Having read the dissenting article about the events at Lod which is linked above, together with the response there from other historians, I don’t understand how this book as a whole would be considered anything other than left wing propagnada in the first place. The extent of the distortion of the presentation of the ‘massacre’ makes clear that this is indeed an intentional assault on the country as a whole with little regard for objectivity, despite protestations to the contrary. It’s really another manifestation of the old zionist ethos of ‘my way or the highway’. The presentation of the meshech chochma is appreciated but does he need to be placed in such proximity to this?

  8. DF says:

    It’s not the old Zionism you’re marginalizing, it’s the new one. You describe it – that is, current Zionism – as a movement “whose basic and only tenet [i]s that the largest Jewish community in the world ought to be given the safety and security in which to survive and thrive.” That is very, very far from accurate. To the contrary, if anything, THAT is what sounds like Old Zionism, at least Herzl’s one-time vision thereof, in which Uganda would have been just as good a place as any. Why not, if Zionism means nothing more than providing a safe haven for Jews?

    Obviously, Zionism is about the inherent value of the land itself. As a necessary corollary to that comes the inherent value of citizenship, the feeling one gets when he has ownership in something, and is not merely a temporary ger toshav. That, in turn, leads inexorably to renewed emphasis on some things, and less of an emphasis on others. It has to, necessarily. All of this is part of Zionism. Not adjuncts to it, but part of it. It is exactly what one sees when he reads the pages of Tanach straightforward, without any derush. One can attempt to make portray in a way that makes it “more acceptable”, as you write with charedi Jewry. One can claim (incorrectly) that Zionism today is “less ideological”, or that it’s nothing more than a safe haven for Jews. But that is every bit a distortion as Shavit’s and other writers before him.

  9. shaul shapira says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein-
    You’re right. My comment was off topic. I have what to say, but I guess I’ll save for it for one of the paeans to the State of Israel that I come across.

  10. mb says:

    Df said
    ” sounds like Old Zionism, at least Herzl’s one-time vision thereof, in which Uganda would have been just as good a place as any.”

    Sorry, but this is not correct. Herzl was adamant that this was to be a temporary measure, only. Life for Jews in 1903 Eastern Europe was brutal The long term goal was always establishing the homeland in EY.

  11. lacosta says:

    while RYA may find it convenient to downplay the darker side of the 48 war, i don’t think that one must be beholden to foundational mythologies [eg land without a people, the arabs ran away temporarily waiting to take the whole of palestine after the war,etc]. certainly coming from a haredi perspective , which saw the whole zionist adventure as treyf as best , and realizing that the founding generation was responsible for the spiritual demise of 10’s of thousands of arab-nation jews, why should it not be obvious that the armed forces of that era found it expedient to change the demographics of the land, to put it euphemistically…

    [YA – The obvious response to this is that even if one were to accept that perspective (which I do not), it would not be “obvious” at all that the armed forces acted that way. In fact, they didn’t. There were episodes of officers acting on their own, in contravention of orders of their superiors. There were strategic areas from which Arabs were moved – a practice followed by many armies of the past. But the overall game plan for the war did not include ethnic cleansing. Implying otherwise is the equivalent of looking at the entire conduct of US soldiers in Vietnam from the perspective of My Lai.

  12. DF says:

    mb – that’s not accurate. Hillel Halkin’s recent (great) book on Jabotinsky has a nice discussion about it. Herzl thought Uganda would be just fine. It is true he tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the idea to the Zionists as being a temporary measure. But that was just marketing. For him, the Zionist dream was about safety for Jews and building a utopian society, not about the Biblical land. (Later in his short life he began to explore his Judaism a little more, and possibly he may have thought differently by then.)

  13. mb says:

    DF said
    “Later in his short life he began to explore his Judaism a little more, and possibly he may have thought differently by then”

    The Uganda plan was formulated in 1903. Herzl died in 1904, before the Uganda proposition went to vote and was rejected.
    I’ll repeat Herzl would have taken anything as a short term solution, even Argentina, but he never changed his long term goal.Read Altneuland, or his diaries. The Russian government was very anti-Zionist.there was a real danger.
    As for his exploration of Judaism, you are correct, but you have the dates wrong. Read his essay “The Menorah.” Probably written in 1898 after a visit by the CR of Vienna.

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