Friday, July 9, 2010

Israel is not normal

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 8th about the declaration of a minyan of former legislators, executives and ambassadors who call themselves The Friends of Israel Initiative. Their claim, that Israel is a normal country. Of course, this is not new. David Ben Gurion declared it after the first rape occurred in Israel, or so the historical myth factory has it. In any case, both Ben Gurion and The Friends of Israel Initiative have it wrong. Israel is not a normal country, and this is its blessing and its curse.

Why a curse? Because statehood forces us to confront anti-Semitism differently. We now have a law on our books that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew who wants to become a citizen, regardless of belief of political inclination. In some ways, this is the same type of racial definition of Judaism that Hitler proposed. Dealing with anti-Semitism is not a normal problem and it is one Jews, as wanderers among nations, never had to confront as a nation-state with borders. In essence, the practical solution to anti-Semitism, the Israeli Law of Return, makes the country a refuge for almost anyone who had a Jewish grandparent with the exception of Al Capone's accountant, Meir Lansky, and a Catholic Monk named Brother Daniel who was converted to Catholicism to save his life during the Holocaust but was refused Israeli citizenship in the 1950's because of his beliefs.

Today, however, we have thousands of Jewish Israelis who profess beliefs in any number of religions, including Jews for Jesus, Buddhism and Islam. Likewise, with the establishment of an official Judaism in Israel – orthodoxy – many Jewish citizens now see their religion in conflict with their Israeli identity. These are not the problems of a normal nation.

Why is abnormality a blessing? Because it is our difference that gives purpose to our existence.

I believe that I live in Israel wherever I make my home, because being in Israel is not just the geographical designation most people give to the Jewish project taking place in the Land of Israel. Living in Israel is part of living in a grand old myth that believes the world is redeemable and that we have to pursue justice to redeem it. How, exactly, we pursue justice is a uniquely Jewish. Part of it is in our beliefs, much in our ritual. We believe that we are a nation that was oppressed and found salvation in freedom and obligation. We left Egypt to become a free nation and chose to live within a covenant.

If there were no anti-Semitism, being Jewish would only be about choosing to live within the covenant, and our biggest concern would be how we interpret that covenant. Without anti-Semitism, we would be equal but different from other nations. But we live with anti-Semitism, thus we are forced to have a balance between a state of Jews, as defined from the outside, and a Jewish state, which we constantly redefine from within.

If the State of Israel were not to aspire to synchronize itself with the covenant of Israel, I would not support it. But we declare ourselves to "be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." Everything else we declare is frosting on the cake of Western Democracy; to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all [our] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [to] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; [to] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and [to] be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

The meeting point of Israel, the people, with the modern realities of nation states and continued anti-Semitism force us to live in a balance between secular, Western democratic values and Jewish values. The nexus of many of these values is quite clear. How we Jews get there is uniquely Jewish, and I wouldn't trade that for all the normality in the world.

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