Internal Conflict in Israel

Internal Conflict in Israel

Rabbi Michael Graetz

Unfortunately, reality falls short of the ideal, and Jewish history shows a recurring pattern of internal division and internecine violence.  Jacob’s family born of two wives and their maidservants is long riven by bitter antagonism.  The Israelite kingdom established by David and Solomon with Jerusalem as its capital lasts less than a century before it breaks apart irremediably into two often hostile realms. And the festival of Hanukkah which we are about to celebrate commemorates the end of a civil war in which the Syrians were induced to enter on the side of the Hellenistic Jews who had gained control of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Indeed, rabbinic Judaism did not prevail without stubborn resistance from the Sadducees before the fall of the Second Temple and from the Karaites after the rise of Islam.

I recite this history of internal conflict, which could easily be lengthened, to dispel the naive notion that unity is the norm of our experience.  What appears time and again is deep discord over specific issues.  When contained you have diversity within a common framework.  When out of control, rupture ensues.  Clearly, the challenge of the moment is immense.

To my mind, the root cause of the assassination of Mr. Rabin was not Orthodoxy or verbal violence, but messianism.  The Six Day War demonstrated that the active quest for national redemption does not spring only from persecution, as Jewish historians are wont to tell us, but also from the euphoria of unexpected achievement.  Both the messianism of Gush Emunim and the Lubavitch, though very different, erupted from a triumphalism spawned by success, the victory of Zahal on the one hand and the worldwide advances of Zivos ha-Shem on the other.  Nor is it an accident that the Rebbe was a hard liner on land for peace.  His minions picketed the White House on September 13, 1993, when Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat signed the Declaration of Principles.

Of no practical consequence in America, the messianism of the Lubavitch simply amused incredulous onlookers.  Not so in the sovereign State of Israel.  The messianic temper which increasingly infected the yeshivot of religious Zionism bred a right wing nationalism that perverted both Judaism and Zionism.  Joshua suddenly became the most sacred book of the Bible and settling the land, the supreme mitzvah of Judaism.  Palestinians were recast into Amalekites, halakha superseded human rights and Judaism suddenly became incompatible with democracy.

It is from this overheated atmosphere that Yigul Amir burst forth and his assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister will one day be universally deemed no less a betrayal of Judaism than the conversion of Shabbtai Zvi to Islam in 1666.  Like nuclear energy, Jewish messianism is a force for good only under carefully regulated conditions.  Amir’s insane act is a religious meltdown.

Mr. Rabin infuriated the messianists because he was so utterly non-apocalyptic.  Unlike them, he did not turn the Holocaust from a singular and horrific historical event into a deep-seated world view that colored everything he saw.  He refused to countenance every gentile as a potential anti-Semite or every clash of national interests as but another

instance of Jew-hatred.  His sober disposition remained immune to the sirens of redemptive triumphalism or paranoid despair. [The same is true of Moshe Dayyan, note his speech after the 6 Day War about acknowledging the loss of lands by the Arabs.]

What made Mr. Rabin a Sabra, the finest embodiment of Zionism’s new Jew, was this pervasive lack of fear.  He knew that no combination of Arab armies could defeat the military machine he had helped to solidify and that this vast edge enabled Israel to take risks for peace.  As Minister of Defense under Likud, he had also learned first-hand the limits of Israel’s power.  And so, when he moved decisively after 1992 to disentangle Israel from its entrapment, he abruptly threatened to reverse the messianists march to redemption.  In retrospect, the suicide mission of Baruch Goldstein offered an early warning of what havoc messianists could wreak.

Given the above analysis, I would recommend the following course of action.  First, the peace process must continue with undiminished vigor, in part because Israel has no viable alternative, in part because of the added support it has gained through Mr. Rabin’s martyred death and in part because in the long run that is the only way to eliminate the reason for our escalating disunity.  Hollow appeals for a rhetoric of unity cannot paper over the divide that separates us.  Regrettably, that political division serves to exasperate the already strained relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and America.  To achieve a lasting peace would hopefully at least temper the national extremism that has corrupted religious Zionism, setting Jew against Jew.

Second, it is critical that North American Jews begin to hold yeshivot in Israel accountable before they continue to fund them.  The economic base of much of that world is to be found on this continent.  Yet not all yeshivot are alike. Many are bitterly anti-Zionist and many suffer from a surfeit of Zionism.  All benefit from a muddled nostalgia that prompts donors to give to institutions they would not like to see their children attend.  We should be wary of people who peddle a pablum of absolutes to adolescents and adults who have stopped thinking.

Third, the conviction that Judaism and democracy are compatible must be loudly reaffirmed, both in Israel and America.  The canard that they are not was first raised in recent memory by Meir Kahane, whose rage and vulgarity even disqualified him from the Knesset.  One can trace the drift to the right of religious Zionism by the degree to which it has embraced this and other planks of his poisonous legacy.  Right-wing extremism should not be countered by legal restrictions on free speech, but by a resounding consensus articulated in resolution that Israel’s democracy is firmly rooted in the millennial experience of Jewish self-government and in the history of Zionism.

Fourth, and no less urgent, the moment calls for a reassertion of the validity of liberal Zionism.  Its principles were sufficient to found the most dynamic, durable and democratic nation to be created after the Second World War and they retain the power to sustain it in its time of testing. The twentieth century has seen enough instances of right wing nationalism that sacrificed life and liberty on the altar of territory and ideology.  It was not for nought that Abraham’s descendants were fated to endure the trauma of slavery before they were permitted to settle the promised land.

And finally, if Israel is ever to moderate the religious excesses to which life in the land of our ancestors is prone, it must find the political will to introduce an equitable form of religious pluralism.  The irony of the monopoly now enjoyed by the Orthodox, which the Knesset will soon expand to include conversion, is that the state of Judaism in the Diaspora is far healthier than in the Jewish state.  The absence of religious choices has estranged the majority of Israelis from any meaningful relationship to the history and culture of the Jewish people, a condition which is not only a national tragedy but also a source of growing alienation between Israel and the Diaspora.  Peace between Jews and Palestinians must lead to the correction of this structural flaw that so grievously impedes mutual respect and social harmony among Jews.

Israel has not come this far to founder on internal discord. The unimagined outpouring of national grief at Mr. Rabin’s assassination is proof positive that the collective will of Israel remains strong and resilient.  We shall not do unto ourselves what our enemies could not achieve.  But decisive action is surely called for and I am confident that we will muster the wisdom and courage to take it.