Messianic movement or tool for Jewish survival?

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg of Englewood died 10 years ago, during Pesach 2006. (We at the Jewish Standard knew him well; here’s a personal tribute to him.) The author of the seminal work “The Zionist Idea,” a man whose first trip to Israel was taken very soon after it became a state in 1948, Rabbi Hertzberg was deeply connected to the country.

He wrote this essay for us in 2001; the week that it was to be published was the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He opens the essay with an acknowledgment of that atrocity.

We found this piece as we looked back through our archives, and we invite you to read it and see what has changed and what has not — and to join us in remembering Rabbi Hertzberg. –JP

How should we react to the unspeakable horrors of Tuesday, September 11?

We must not declare war, not even in our hearts, on another people or another religion. This horror was perpetrated by an angry and hating minority. The angry haters must be isolated and punished, but we must make every effort to keep lines of communication open with all those who want to live in peace, regardless, as we Jews are so often fond of saying, of ethnic identity and of religion. We have been for too many centuries the victim of indiscriminate hatred to want to inflict it on others.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

I once heard a very great man, Dr. Joseph B. Soloveichik, declare that the essence of Jewish identity is not anti-anti-Semitism. He insisted that being Jewish meant that we were utterly devoted to affirming the values that our religious tradition has taught us. There is a great danger now to the inner soul of the Jewish people that we shall make the war with our enemies into the central purpose of Jewish existence. We dare not do this. Yes, we must resist and fight back, and bring the wicked to justice, but we must remember that the people from whom they come are as much Godʼs children as we are. Did not Amos tell us that in the sight of God we are as much his children as the Ethiopians, and, even, the Philistines?

The consistent Jewish teaching throughout all the centuries is that after every disaster we do Godʼs work by having the courage to rebuild. We have never taught hatred as the answer to hatred. We continue to try to change the world by learning and relearning from our religious tradition that God wants us to redeem the world through lovingkindness. The force of the essay to which I have written this sad but hopeful introduction is to insist that those who are on the side of decency might have to keep a sword in one hand but they must never forget that they are rebuilding a temple with the other.

September 13, 2001


The fundamental question before the Jewish people today, both in Israel and in all the diasporas, is: where are we in Jewish history? Are we experiencing the pains of the wars of Gog and Magog, the inevitable disturbances that are the preamble to the glory of the coming of the messiah, or are we in another replay of difficult times? Shall we bet the future of our people on the belief that the history of the Jews is now reaching its appointed end, or do we think that we are living through another era of trouble in which our greatest victory can only be our survival, and the strength that we muster to carry on as a people?

The choice between these two options is not an abstract matter. It is not a subject for discussion only for those who spin out theories about history. The basic choice that we make has profound and irretrievable consequences, now, for the life of Israel and of the diaspora. If we are living in messianic times, then the diaspora, and even some of the people who dwell in Zion, are expendable, because whatever is lost will soon be retrieved, and more besides, in the great glory that is to come. But if we are again, as so long before, fighting the war of survival, to find the will and create the conditions to go on as a people, then no part of ourselves anywhere, in Israel or in the diasporas, is expendable. Our task is not to force the hand of the messiah but to find ways of being Jews in a new time.

What is Zionism? Is it a messianic movement to bring redemption now, or is it a new tool to help us survive until God redeems us?

These questions did not begin today. They already existed at the very beginnings of modern Zionism; they will inevitably become more complicated, and often more desperate, in the years to come. The question of Israel-diaspora relations can be analyzed only in the light of a much more fundamental issue. Can we really bring the messianic end of Jewish history? I am tempted to use the cliché, let us begin at the beginning, but the beginning is to be found some twenty-six hundred years ago in the interchange between the prophet Jeremiah and some of the exiles who had lost hope immediately after the destruction of the First Temple and the end of the kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE. Many Jews were sure that Jewish history was now at an end. The prophet Jeremiah commanded them to build houses and plant vineyards, to settle down wherever they were to await the unknown day when God would permit them to return to their land.

Judah Alkalai
Judah Alkalai

For our present purpose, it will be enough to begin one hundred seventy years ago with the first stirring towards modern Zionism. The movement began near the dawn of the age of nationalism in Europe. Two rabbis, Yehudah Alkalai (a Sephardi) and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (an Ashkenazi) asserted in the 1830s that the Jews, the oldest of all the nations in the world, should certainly become part of the revival of nations which was then sweeping Europe. Alkalai and Kalischer were very careful to hold on to their religious Orthodoxy by denying vehemently that they intended to begin an action by the Jewish people to reconstitute themselves by their own strength in the Holy Land. That could come only through divine miracles, but the Jews could at least prepare for such a possibility by bestirring themselves towards reviving their own national consciousness.

More than a half-century later, around 1900, the movement for religious Zionism defined itself as the heir to the spirit of Alkalai and Kalischer. This element allied itself within the political movement that Theodor Herzl had just founded, but, unlike him, the religious Zionists did not seek to lead a total revolution within the Jewish community. The religious Zionists were largely a defensive, conservative group; they fought for a decent respect for the inherited religious tradition among the Zionists and, later, in the State of Israel. To be sure, after the creation of the State of Israel this element did include in its prayers the phrase describing the new State of Israel as “the first root of our redemption,” but this faith remained a pious hope and not a call to active politics until after the Six Day War of June 1967. The earliest root of religious Zionism was a tactful spirit which wanted to do for the Jewish religion among the Jews, and for the Jews among the Gentiles, the best that was possible without provoking bitter conflict.

The counter-theme, that ours is the time of messianic redemption, appeared among the religious Zionists in the early years of the twentieth century in the mystical, ecstatic writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He had no doubt whatsoever that the First World War, in which the nations of Europe were slaughtering each other, was the war of Gog and Magog. He was certain that the secular Zionists, some of whom were creating antireligious farming communities, were instruments in Godʼs hands. They were preparing the Holy Land for its divinely appointed future that would soon become manifest. Thus, whatever was happening, or might happen, to Jews in contemporary times belonged to the drama of redemption. Kook was personally a holy man and a man of peace, but his basic assertion, that Jewish time is to be measured not in ordinary human numbers but on a messianic clock, is the single most explosive Jewish religious doctrine to appear in the last hundred years. Some of his disciples learnt lessons from him that he almost certainly did not intend, but these lessons are very much alive: we no longer need to measure our actions by the consequences that they are likely to have in the world as it is, for that world is being swept away. So, for example, we have no right to assess with human prudence the cost of maintaining and defending an island of some five hundred Jews in the hostile city of Hebron. The only true measure of this effort is what it contributes to the ultimate redemption by Jews of all of the Holy Land. The messianists insist that no political power has any right to obstruct and deny their purposes, because they, and they alone, are the bearers of Jewish history.

Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl

The founders of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl and his most famous disciple and colleague, Max Nordau, agreed that they wanted to make an end of the Jewish exile, and to do it dramatically and immediately, but even so there were deep differences between them. Herzl was sure that the normalization of which he dreamt would take no more than fifty years to create. He foresaw that all Jews who wanted to belong to their Jewishness would come to the Jewish state, but he also expected, and even urged, those who wanted to live in the diaspora to assimilate, totally and quickly, to the majority cultures in the lands in which they chose to remain. The “Jewish question,” the eternal hatred that an eternal minority attracts, would come to an end. Nonetheless, Herzl had no illusions that the Zionists would turn militant and warlike to force the desired end. Herzl spent his life teaching a new assessment of anti-Semitism, that it was forever a problem to the gentile world as a whole. The political powers that dominate Europe and world politics could, therefore, be persuaded to help the Jews be “normalized” in their own country. The gentile states would avoid the tensions that hatred of Jews created for all of society. But Herzl never had any illusion that he could create the Jewish state by defying the world. On the contrary, even on a seemingly small mater, of getting Jewish settlements built without any real agreement by the Turkish authorities, he was unhappy that some of his followers disobeyed him and proceeded without permission.

Max Nordau
Max Nordau

Max Nordau had a more dramatic vision of the direction that Zionism ought to take. He was not willing to beg for approval from the powers of the world; the Jews could not afford to wait to be transformed into a respectable, bourgeois European-style nation. At the end of the First World War, mass pogroms were taking place during the border war between Poland and the Ukraine. Nordau proposed the immediate evacuation of hundreds of thousands, or even more, to Palestine. Preparation for the arrival of these masses, even food and shelter, was unimportant. This flood of people should move without regard to the wishes of any of the governments that might want to stop this exodus. This should overwhelm the restraints that the new British government might try to impose. Many of these Jews might not survive on the beaches, but they would have transformed the population of Palestine by creating an instant Jewish majority. Nordauʼs proposal was not followed –- it could not be –- but in its melodramatic way it represented an element in Zionist thought and feeling. The leader of the next generation who expressed this emotion –- that Zionism was militancy, resistance, and national transformation by all the necessary force –- was Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, left, posed with a Jewish officer in the French army in 1918
Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, left, posed with a Jewish officer in the French army in 1918

Nordau and Jabotinsky were both very secular men who could not imagine that messianic miracles sent by heaven were about to appear. They believed that the Jews had to push, violently if necessary, for themselves. A normal people does not depend on others to hand it equality as a nation; it takes the lead in fighting its own battles and it makes others listen to the cadence of its own music. No people has ever arisen, or regained what it has lost, by behaving with gracious manners. Jabotinsky taught his followers to sing the hymn of his Zionist party, the Revisionists, with great fervor: “Judah fell in blood and fire; it will arise again in blood and fire.”

But what if such a messianic uprising, whether religious or secular, fails? Perhaps worse still, what if it neither fails nor succeeds, but must muddle along in a painful world of no conclusion? There is a precedent in the history of the Jews of such a problem. It occurred nearly two thousand years ago among those Jews who chose to follow Jesus of Nazareth. They were assured that he would reappear soon and usher in the glorious age of peace and love, but the years went by and he did not come back to transform society. His disciples, and their disciples, explained to the believers that he had indeed changed the world by proclaiming his vision and that mankind would have to wait indefinitely until his teaching ruled over all of humanity. I have no doubt that the messianic Jewish believers today will offer an answer to doubters that resembles the theology of the early Christians. They will tell us that their insistence that all the Holy Land must be redeemed for the Jews is an activist faith that they cannot relinquish, no matter what it costs every day in the lives of Jews and in their quality of life. Whether the victory comes now or generations later is unimportant. The struggle must continue and its costs must to be borne.

This activist, and warlike, vision can be defended by evoking other long-standing ethnic quarrels. Why cannot the Jews and the Palestinians continue to skirmish in guerrilla warfare as the Protestants and Catholics continue to assault each other in Northern Ireland? Must there necessarily be more peace between the Jewish and the Arab worlds than the Hindus in India and the Muslims in Pakistan can find? A long, drawn out, and even nasty war in and around the Holy Land should not be unthinkable, especially if you hold before you a glorious vision and insist that it cannot be achieved without a long preamble of militancy and sacrifice.

The trouble with this vision is that a drawn out and inconclusive war can lead only to the gravest disaster. It is most obvious that the seemingly endless supply of young men who are willing to blow themselves up in order to kill or harm Jews will not always be limited to conventional weapons. Does anyone know, with any semblance of certainty, when the baggage that such a suicide bomber will tie around his body will become much deadlier? Biological or atomic weapons, miniaturized into suicide vests, are technically feasible. Can anyone be certain that they will never be used? Not much more is required than a few madmen with degrees in physics or in biochemistry. This is, of course, an assessment based on fear. But perhaps such disasters will not happen because perpetrators of such outrages cannot be certain that the atomic fires or the diseases that they spread about will harm only Jews and not invade their own centers. Those who send such young men certainly know that in the balance of terror, the Israeli response would be devastating to much of the Arab world.

But I have even deeper fears. Because I am writing for Jews, let me largely lay aside what this continuing war is doing to the feeling and mentality of the Palestinians and of the Arab world as a whole, but one cost is obvious and it must be mentioned. Zionism came into the world to make the Jews into a normal people by ending European anti-Semitism. The duration and growing intensity of the Jewish-Arab conflict has translated anti-Semitism into a new venue, the Arab-Muslim world. It has also decreased the admiration for Israel in the West. Many of its admirers still hold, firmly, to the assessment of Israel as the “only democracy” in the Middle East, but the numbers are increasing of those who see Israel as a military power that dominates the area and uses some of its capacity to punish its enemies “with unnecessary force.” The support for Israel is still very strong in the United States, in large measure because the Jews of America are a significant power in American public life, but Israel is much less secure in the hearts and minds of the Europeans, in the very societies that owe the largest debts to the Jewish people because they were the breeding ground of anti-Semitism through the centuries, and of the Holocaust. One can imagine that these problems will lessen and even disappear if a decent peace, or at least a set of arrangements to make it possible to live together without killing each other, somehow does appear in the Middle East.

But, while the violence continues, we Jews have to ask the question: what is this doing to ourselves, what change is this making in our character and in the life of our people as a whole, both in Israel and in the diaspora? The answer that comes to mind quickly is that the exercise of violence hardens hearts. It becomes more matter of fact to shoot at the next group of stone-throwers, even if they are young teenagers who have been pushed forward by older militants who are daring Israeli defenders to use force –- but this is only the most obvious part of the problem.

The much more fundamental affect on the Jewish people as a whole is that this ongoing war has polarized us, both in Israel and in the diaspora, as never before. We are today a sullen people with angers at each other on the surface of our consciousness, or very near it, because so many of us are angry with ourselves. Many of us are wrestling with moral dilemmas for which we have no easy answers, or we are making moral choices that often sound more shrill than convincing. Some in the “peace camp” have been recanting their “previous sins” and proclaiming themselves converts to the notion that the Arabs will never let us live in peace, and that they will back down only when confronted by great force. Others think now that we should be withdrawing into a kind of fortress Israel, locking the gates of the borders on all the Palestinians and replacing the workers who will no longer come across the border by importing them from Romania, the Philippines and Thailand, and other reservoirs of cheap labor. A minority remains committed, with some desperation, to the idea that if Israel behaved better toward the Palestinians, beginning with those inside Israel who are citizens and have been long neglected, the Jews and Arabs would move toward more peaceful paths, but there are critics of this notion who insist that it is now too late for an approach that should have been tried, seriously and consistently, years ago.

To be utterly blunt with ourselves, the notion that today is on a messianic clock is not uniting the Jewish people but dividing it into more and more factions. I write with great pain as I remember that this has, alas, been the recurrent response of our people to great crisis: not unity but factionalism. In the cellars of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, those who made the final desperate revolt were fighting with one another to the very end over who should lead and which faction should occupy which position. When the Romans were besieging Jerusalem in the year 70, the turmoil within the walls of the city that was about to fall was such that the zealots could not be trusted even to let a moderate, like Johanan ben Zakkai, the leading rabbi of that day, remain alive. For his safety, he had to be sneaked out of Jerusalem. The assassination, in our time, of Itzhak Rabin was prefigured 26 centuries ago by the murder of Gedaliah, the governor of Judea, who has been appointed by the Babylonian conquerors. Armed zealots, today as in ancient times, will kill other Jews, “for the sake of God,” and the longer they must wait for the messiah who tarries, the more violent they are likely to become. It is no accident that when the rabbis of the Talmud heard of the “pains of the messiah,” the disorder and the terror that would supposedly precede his advent, they responded by saying: “Let him come, but we will not receive him.”

This divisiveness is having different effects in the Jewish communities of Israel and of the diaspora. In Israel the political and the moral discourse has become ever more embittered, but this is the bitterness of a people with no options but to remain in place. Individuals may be deserting by leaving the land but this has not become a large wave of defection. Never mind the messianic theories of religious or ultranationalist ideologues; the mainstream of Jewish society in Israel is living out a decision to suffer the troubles and to survive, for a better day.

The divisiveness that is really dangerous to the future of the Jewish community is in the diaspora. To be sure, it does not look that way, because the largest noises are being made by those who support Israelʼs right-wing movement. Israelʼs present government can keep assuring itself that “the Jewish world is with us.” This does not begin to be true. The majority of the Jews in the United States (it is the largest diaspora community by far, and the one I know best) are liberal in their politics. They are very concerned that their commitments to Israel and their belonging to a “politically correct” universalist moral outlook not be in conflict. To put it even more pointedly, the mainstream of American Jews gloried in their connection with the cause of Israel when it was accepted almost universally as a democracy without moral blemish. The erosion of this image, as the media in America is making ever fewer distinctions between armed settlers firing at Arabs and Arabs firing at the settlers, and at all the Jews in Israel, has created great upset.

It is important to understand that there is a critical difference in the form and the intensity of the expressions of this deep division in the diaspora. The minority that supports the Israeli hardliners is an intense, one-issue community. It engages in no other task but to defend whatever the Israeli hardliners might want to do. Those who dissent, and every poll has shown us that they are the majority, are not spending all of their time in defending their various versions of “moderation.” These are people who also belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, are feminists (the bulk of that movementʼs leading figures are Jews) and have time and deep concern for the defense of the environment. They are Jews, and Israel is very much on their agenda, but they can think of it only in the spirit and rhetoric of all their other commitments.

This division is caused, in large part, because of a deep sociological factor. Many of the supporters in the diaspora of the Israeli hard line are Holocaust survivors — themselves or their children — but the bulk of the American Jewish community now consists of the grandchildren, and increasingly of the adult great grandchildren, of those who came to the United States as immigrants a century or so ago. This third and fourth generation of American Jews is not breeding many people who will choose to die for the sake of messianic principal on the road between some isolated settlements in Gaza or Samaria. The proof of what I am saying is that that movement within the spectrum of American Jewish life, the Reform Jews, which is most “Americanized” had so many individual cancellations in their summer programs in Israel this year that its leaders had no choice but to cancel. This action created an outcry, but, to my certain knowledge, a number of summer programs sponsored by the Jewish establishments on major campuses were quietly abandoned because the young people, fourth-generation Americans and children of third-generation Americans, were ever more hesitant to join the battles in Israel.

These happenings remind the historian in me of the presumption in Judea in the sixties of the first century, when the Zealots forced the revolt against Rome, and again in the next century in the revolutionary actions that culminated in the temporary successes of Bar Kochba, that the Jews of the diasporas would come flocking to Israel to join the fight, but they did not. In our day Jews did come from everywhere during Israelʼs War of Independence, and again in 1967 when Israel seemed in mortal danger, but on both those occasions almost all Jews, from right to left, agreed that these were wars of the entire people. The choices today are factional and the diaspora has voted and is voting that this factional vehemence does not speak for it. It belongs to its ideologues, to a minority, and to them alone.

But the messianists, in all their several varieties, continue to insist with ever-increasing vehemence that they are the only true voice of Zionism — but are they? Theodor Herzl himself never really conquered all or even most of the Zionists. Many of his followers were thrilled to dream of a Jewish people that would bear no resemblance to the one that had been fashioned in the many centuries of the exile, but the mainstream of the Zionist movement, including even many of the believers in Herzlʼs “political Zionism,” knew very well that this was a dream, that the long-existing way of life would not disappear any time soon, and that the millions of Jews in the diaspora would neither move to their old-new homeland or simply vanish.

Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Haʼam)
Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Haʼam)

Theodor Herzlʼs principal opponent among the Zionist leaders of his generation was Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Haʼam) who has usually been identified as the father of “cultural Zionism,” in opposition to Herzlʼs “political Zionism.” Ahad Haʼam regarded the main purpose of Zionism as finding cultural substitutes for the religious faith that was ebbing in the modern era. A contrast between Herzl and Ahad Haʼam still continues to be repeated: Ahad Haʼam was an East European cultural elitist and Herzl was a political visionary. This description misses the point of Ahad Haʼam, and, indeed, of his conflict with Herzl. The new energies that Ahad Haʼam proposed to generate through “cultural Zionism” would be a new support for the Jewish people, the necessary replacement for the inherited Jewish religious faith that had long been the principal prop for its morale and survival. Contrary to what has so often been said or implied, Ahad Haʼam was not opposed to the creation of a Jewish political state. On the contrary, as advisor to Chaim Weizmann as he negotiated with the British about the language of the promise that they would make in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, Ahad Haʼam was unbending in insisting that the British had to be pushed to agreeing to the creation of Palestine as a Jewish state. Even so, Ahad Haʼam saw such a state as the home for a reborn Jewish spirit, not as an end in itself. He did not believe that the history of the Jews could be transformed. He saw only a new stage in the age-old journey of the Jewish people.

Ahad Haʼamʼs Zionism was, thus, “defensive” of the Jews as they are rather than “messianic.” He saw the problems of the present day clearly and he did not brush them aside. Ahad Haʼam was one of the first to insist that the new Zionists could not appear in Palestine in any numbers without quickly encountering angry opposition from the Arabs who were in the land. The Zionists would be able to achieve their minimal and indispensable purpose, to provide a haven for a changing and renascent Jewish culture, only if the Jews found ways of coming to terms with the resident majority.

This concern was taken up by a number of lesser figures who kept telling the Zionist pioneers that the “Arab question” would not go away. This realism was expressed not only by intellectuals and people whom today we would call “bleeding hearts.” It became the political program of the most radical element among the founders of the kibbutzim, the collective farming settlements. These young people were revolutionary socialists and one element even strove in the 1920s to belong to the Comintern, the international Communist movement. Its political program for the future of Palestine was a binatural state, a parity between Jews and Arabs. This complicated doctrine clearly did not imagine that the ingathering of all the Jews and their messianic transformation into a new people could happen within the small borders of a binational Palestine. The rest of the Jewish world was being left to fend for itself. No doubt some of these revolutionary socialists hoped that a glorious success in Palestine would invigorate the Jews of Chicago and Milwaukee, and of Warsaw and Berlin, or at least some of them.

The idea that a visibly moral Zionist settlement, one that took great pains to avoid injury to the Arabs, would be a light to the Jews and to the world was central to the thoughts and feelings of the intellectuals who founded Brit Shalom (the Covenant of Peace) in the 1930s. Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Gershom Scholem were among the most visible leaders. This group had no plans for the diaspora. It wanted to settle the Jews who were already in Palestine into a high moral framework that could bring peace with the Arab. This Zionism did not pretend that it was about to rescue the diaspora from its physical dangers. It offered only the hope that the Jewish people could be recalled to its highest ideals, of peace and justice, which it had once learnt from the prophets in the Bible, and so the Jewish people as a whole would find the courage to continue.

Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Gershom Scholem
Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Gershom Scholem

The crucial turn away from “messianic Zionism” was taken in the very earliest year of the existence of Israel by no less a figure than David Ben-Gurion. To be sure, he continued to speak and write to the very end of his days about the illegitimacy of the diaspora and the moral requirement that all Jews come on aliyah, that is that they “ascend” to Israel — but in the early 1950s David Ben-Gurion pacified Jacob Blaustine, the leader of the “non-Zionist” American Jewish Committee, by agreeing to stop badgering the Jews of America to pack up and come to Israel. Ben-Gurion made the bargain in return for the promise of enough financial and political support to help establish the new Jewish state on firm foundations. No matter that Ben-Gurion kept saying to the Israeli community — and to his own “messianic” Jewish conscience — that he was making only a contemporary tactical concession: the Jews of the world would inevitably come to the Jewish state or they would disappear as Jews. He had done more than that; he had agreed that the main task of emissaries of the Zionist state, especially in the West where Jews lived in democratic societies, was not to lead them out of Exile; it was to gather as much support as could be found for Israel.

David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion

With this step the transformation of the mainstream of Zionism was not yet complete. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, Israel was still, for Zionists, the center of the Jewish world, and its purposes were predominant in establishing the agenda of all the Jews in the world. Israelʼs centrality meant that the diaspora would derive its strength and its will to live on by contemplating and sharing the glories of Israelʼs army and the creativity of its society. The labors for Israel were seen as the guarantee of the Jewish life and Jewish continuity of the diaspora.

This broke down in the 1970s, when the rate of intermarriage, and of attrition from Jewishness, rose radically in the western diaspora. The labors for Israel were not, in themselves, enough to preserve the continuing Jewishness of the diaspora. In those years, the 1970s, the balance between Israel and its supporters and admirers all over the Jewish world changed radically. Increasingly, and ever more insistently, the root question in the Jewish world was: How can the diaspora be preserved? Israel could no longer simply look to the diaspora to keep helping the Jewish state. It was now being asked to become the chief rescuer of the very diaspora that Herzlʼs political Zionism, in all its variations, had come to help die, quickly, and decently.

Let it be made very clear that the central question for the bulk of the Jews of the diaspora, as they think of Israel now, is: How can Israel be enlisted to help Jews all over the world, wherever they choose to be? This present question has its deepest roots in many centuries of Jewish defensive posture. It presumes that messianic visions and messianic certainties cannot protect us: we must be guided by human prudence and human wisdom. We must live by the time that we see on the age-old sober Jewish clock. The Jewish agenda for this day must be determined, as it always has been, except when we have gone off on messianic adventures, by prudence.

In our external politics, there is almost no possibility that Israel and the Palestinians can agree to a formal peace that will end the century of war between them. Israel cannot commit suicide by offering to take in millions of refugees, or the children and grandchildren of refugees, but prudence commands that Israel must also stop all of its contributions to provocation. It must stop absolutely the creation of more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or of thickening the population of the settlement blocs that already exist. Such decisions on the part of Israel will anger many Jews, and it will not bring peace with the Palestinians, but it might offer the possibility for some pragmatic détente. Such a policy could be announced and followed only if there were assent by the bulk of Israelʼs Jews that we are not living in a messianic era and that any effort to act on the contrary can only backfire disastrously. It might bring again the heroic glory of Masada, but we who are alive today as Jews are the descendants of those who chose not to die

The other fundamental change in our agenda must be a clear redefinition of our central Jewish purpose. We are here not to make holy wars, but to continue, and to keep rethinking, our Jewish heritage. Fundamental to this endeavor is a program of education in which we insist, with all the influence that the Jewish world can muster, that all parts of the Jewish people share again in some common education in the fundamental texts of our traditions, and in some awareness of the tension between the teaching of these texts and the problems that we must confront in the larger world as it is and as it is becoming. Factionalism, of which we are, unfortunately, past masters, breeds isolation from each other. The future of the Jewish people commands us to breach the walls of these various sub-ghettos. Let Jews cease being strangers in each otherʼs enclaves.

Many people of good intention have become increasingly aware of this central problem and they have created innumerable institutes and study programs to try to bridge the gaps. What we need as a people is not more of the same. The problem will not be cured by another institute or another non-denominational study center. At the very root, we need a turning of the heart. The increasing poverty in the ultra-Orthodox community and the increasing ignorance of the classic texts of our heritage in the secular community are not two separate problems. Each of these difficulties affects the other; unless they are solved, together, we are deeply diminished as a people. The Orthodox poor must be led and taught to cease living on a national dole and to start earning their living in the very secular world that they keep far away. The secularists must acquire respect for the faith of their ancestors, whose courage has kept alive the Jewishness of which they now know much too little.

The mode of Jewish leadership must change, radically, at the top. A central overarching organization of the world Jewish community, to set the tone and policy for Israel and the Jewish world as a whole, has to be created as a plans board to ensure our spiritual survival. It is no longer enough for Jewish communal careers, not only in Israel but even in the diaspora, to be made in political bodies. Our external affairs will continue to be important but fundamentally they are now a holding action. We are not going to conquer the Palestinians and they are not going to push us out of the land. It may take a long, and bloody, wait, but pragmatic compromise will inevitably be found. What is in our own hands is the inner life of our people. This is the time for such a policy if we look at the true clock of our people.

read more: