We have introduced the idea of mythical and real pictures of Israel and Jerusalem in general terms. We have seen how people in each generation have constructed their own images that often have little - or nothing - to do with the concrete reality prevailing at that particular time.
Before we proceed to the reality of contemporary Israel, we wish to introduce a related and relevant subject: the idealized and partly mythical view of the Land of Israel developed by classic Zionism. The fact is that the early Zionist movement performed its own process of mythologization, presenting the physical land and its past in a way that suited the ideological messages that the movement wished to develop. Moreover, different streams within Zionism created their own idealized visions of what the new Jewish society or state should be like in the future. In other words the past, the present and the future were all seen in mythical or idealized terms that distorted reality, and set up a series of expectations about the future that were, perhaps, impossible to realize.
Let us examine both of these subjects.
How did Zionism envisage the past of the land?
Zionism saw the land as a wilderness. Eretz Israel was seen as a land that belonged to the Jews, which - through an accident of history or through Divine decree (depending on the religious orientation of the Zionist stream in question) - was emptied of its Jewish population. At that point, according to many Zionist thinkers, the land started to disintegrate and lose its fruitfulness, turning into a virtual wilderness. The reason for this, according to some of the main Zionist thinkers, was that there existed between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel a relationship of love that could never be equaled by any other people’s feeling for the land. In the past, the Jewish people had showed their special relationship with the land by investing enormous effort and energy in it, creating something of a paradise of fruit and crops. Since no other people could feel the same for the land, the decline in the physical condition of the land began simultaneously with the Jews’ departure. According to some, the land played a part in the process. In an almost mystical manner, the land languished for its beloved people: it did not respond to the touch of other peoples but rather awaited for the return of its lover, Israel.
The truth is that there were many historical errors in this view of the country. The land was certainly in a bad physical state: it was a poor and neglected outpost of a distant foreign empire (the Ottoman Empire) based in Constantinople. Nevertheless it experienced many fruitful periods after the departure of the majority of the Jewish population in the early centuries of the Common Era. However, in this instance the past was seen in ideological terms and there was relatively little research - at that time - into the real history of the land. In this way, the Zionist view developed apace.
How did Zionism envisage the present of the land?
Most Zionists’ view of the land in its present state was conditioned by the previously-mentioned view of the past. The early Zionist movement tended to present the physical land as one of historical ruins, waiting for the Jews to return and fill it, making the wilderness fruitful once again, after thousands of years of neglect. It was clear to them that the land was essentially empty: it was full of sand dunes and swamps where the majority of the people who were there, Arabs, were basically nomadic Bedouin who had put down few roots and who, as a result, had little stake in or concern for the land’s future.
The historical ruins that most of the Zionists saw were, of course, Jewish ruins: the remains of old synagogues and Jewish tombs littered the landscape. They saw it as a Jewish land, and sought to reconnect to it by seeking out the old Biblical names, many of which were disguised under the names that Arabs or other residents had given the places over the centuries. What Zionism tended to ignore was the reality of the large Arab population living in the towns and villages, whose families had lived in the land for centuries. They were by no means all Bedouin, transient nomads. There was a whole history to the land - a non-Jewish history - that had been created over thousands of years. It was not only a land of destroyed ancient synagogues: it was also a land of living churches and mosques.
How did Zionism envisage the future of the land?
All streams of the Zionist movement were united in the idea that the future of the land would - and should - be Jewish. However, the specific way in which the future was envisaged depended on the ideological orientation of each particular stream. Let us examine this through the eyes of three main streams of Zionism: socialist or labor Zionism, cultural Zionism and religious Zionism. There were other important schools of Zionism such as political Zionism (Herzl) and revisionist Zionism (Jabotinsky), but the three streams of socialist (labor), cultural and religious Zionism had perhaps the clearest and most distinct visions of the future of the land. Let us now see who the groups were, and examine their visions of the future of the Jewish people in its own land.
THE VISION OF LEFT-WING ZIONISM.
By World War I, socialist Zionists or labor Zionists had become the leading activists in the Zionist world and in Palestine. A host of settlements had been set up on a communal basis, and thousands of workers were beginning to work the land and to build up its infrastructure. The significance of these workers - from the viewpoint of our program - is that they consciously took upon themselves the task of changing the reality of the Jewish people. As far as this can be said of secularists, it seems no exaggeration to state that these people saw that their work as having almost cosmic implications. They considered themselves revolutionaries: they had not come here just to change the condition of the land, but also to change themselves. In so doing, they were aiming for a revolution in the character of the entire Jewish people. (we have come to the land to build and to be built) was one of their slogans. It is strong and meaningful: we have come to this country to transform it, but in so doing we will transform ourselves.
They had a vision of a new Jew, diametrically opposed to the old ghetto Jew bowed down by millennia of living in galut. This new Jew would be a type never before seen in Jewish history: he/she would be strong rather than weak; brave rather than cowardly; active rather than passive; rooted in nature rather than alienated from it. In addition to all of these things, the new Jew would not be a slave of the Halacha, of the old theological form of Judaism: the new Jew would be free, relying only on his/her own abilities or strengths.
By their own strength and work they would bring their own salvation. The concept is Utopian, but it is a Utopia that would be created by the efforts of the people themselves. They took the activist tradition in messianic thought - the concept that believed that Jewish actions themselves could hasten the coming of the Messiah - and secularized it. They would be responsible for bringing about a better world for themselves, for the Jewish people and even perhaps for the wider world. They would be their own Messiah.
Perhaps the greatest of all the labor or socialist thinkers of the time was A.D. Gordon. He rejected the label ‘socialist’ because it smacked too much of the cold ‘scientific’ socialism of Marx. Marx had believed that the world was moving in the direction of socialism because of its own economic tensions. Gordon rejected this, but his ideas put him right at the center of the camp of the labor Zionists. The new society, the new world, could only be built up by the efforts of the people within it. He saw the basis of the great society of the future in the relationships and the way of life created by the workers. In laboring to build up their society, they would create the foundations of the new way of life. Gordon was a moralist. He saw all people as being endowed with potential for good. In the service of the nation, in their work on the land, this potential would be realized. The power of the land would work on the soul of the individual Jew. A moral society would come into being.
Many of the pioneers saw the settlements that they created as the seeds from which would grow the better future that they envisaged. The new society of equality and morality would spread out from the settlements and would ultimately encompass the whole of the country. There were those who dreamed of turning the country into one big communal enterprise, one whole kibbutz. Indeed when it became clear to many in the late 1920s that this would not happen, some socialist-Zionists left the country and returned to Stalin’s Russia believing that this would prove a more viable road to Utopia.
THE VISION OF CULTURAL ZIONISM.
The second group are the cultural-Zionists, traditionally associated with their great intellectual leader, the fascinating Ahad Ha’am. A deeply learned Jew from a Hassidic family, he left the religious framework and became completely secular. Of all the thinkers of the Zionist movement, he perhaps represents the best model of secularization of traditional Jewish thought.
Ahad Ha’am used religious language and injected it with secular content. He believed that there was a unique Jewish concept of values that had developed throughout Jewish history. For the religious these values were, of course, transcendent: that is to say, the source of the values was God. It was hard for Ahad Ha’am, without a concept of an external transcendental source of values (God), to explain where these values had come from, how they had actually arisen; but he was sure that they existed.
When thinking of the autonomous society that he hoped would be established in Eretz Israel, he thought, first and foremost, of a society based on these values. The state as a political framework had no value for him: a state was a neutral organism. If it had value, it was in its ability to safeguard culture and the way of life of a particular society. What was important to him was the way of life lived within the framework of the society or state. For him, there could be no compromise here: if the new Jewish society in Eretz Israel had any value, any raison d’être, it could only come from the moral value of the life that would be lived within that social framework.
It was from the Prophets, those moral geniuses with their extraordinary sensitivity to the human condition, that he derived his yardstick for the social value of a society. His aim was no less than a perfect moral society based on their moral values: the aim of Zionism - the only conceivable aim of Zionism for him - was the creation of a society of total righteousness. Political power was not a value. He looked back to the past, to the time that the Jews had political power and he saw the corruption, the power politics, that had consumed the nation like a disease. This was not what the Jews needed.
Only a restoration of values at the heart of a reborn culture could possibly deal with the contemporary sickness of the Jewish people. He believed, moreover, that any Herzlian hope of bringing the majority of the world’s Jews to the new Jewish center was foolish and unrealistic: the country would only attract - could only attract - a minority of Jews. He called instead for a small group of dedicated Jews to come to the new society and to dedicate themselves towards the most important task that they could possibly take on. They should see it as their mission to build the essence of the new Jewish culture based on the prophetic ideas of righteousness. He believed that, having established its base in its own soil, the new society could then start to radiate out its effect on the Jewish communities of the world. This he felt was realistic.
The idealized conception of a society based on justice and righteousness recalls a secularized version of the Prophets themselves. Heaven on earth - without the theological framework of traditional messianic thought - was the aim here. This is clearly a secularization of the traditional messianic idea in its prophetic incarnation. Once again, as in the case of the socialist-Zionists, the work of creating the messianic society would be taken on by the Jews themselves, or to be more precise, by a small elite within the Jewish people. Again, the Jews would be their own Messiah.
THE VISION OF RELIGIOUS ZIONISM.
The third group is the religious-Zionists, and we will represent them here through their greatest thinker, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. Rav Kook is unquestionably one of the most challenging and deep of all Zionist thinkers. Indeed to call him a Zionist thinker is to do him a certain injustice for, in truth, he was far more than that. Nevertheless, for our purposes here, we will regard him as such. From one point of view, he needs to be put on the opposite side of the spectrum from Ahad Ha’am or the labor-Zionists. He was, of course, a religious thinker whose understanding of the world was deeply religious. Nevertheless, certain of his ideas echo aspects of the thinking of the deeper Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon.
Rav Kook was a messianist and had a very conscious idea of the redemption of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. To him, such a redemption was part of the divine plan - not just for the Jews but for the whole world. Indeed, he saw that, ultimately, there could be no redemption for the Jewish people without redemption for the entire world. The converse was also true. World redemption depended on the redemption of the Jews.
It was clear to Rav Kook that such redemption could only be carried out within the framework of a Jewish state. The Jewish people needed a state of their own, for only there could they return to the divine and national way of life that God had willed to them. The true glory of God’s name could not be expressed when it was confined to the study houses and synagogues of the Diaspora and limited to the world of the spirit: it needed to expand to the full dimensions of national life.
Moreover, Judaism itself needed to reflect every corner of that national life. Rav Kook’s Judaism was not one that was limited to prayer and study: it was a fully three-dimensional way of life that would penetrate to every corner of national existence, the physical and the spiritual together, as one. He emphasized the need for religious youth to develop their bodies physically. It was a perversion of Judaism to limit Judaism to the world of study. Judaism should be unlimited in the world of life: this, he believe, could only happen in a Jewish state.
However, there are dangers inherent in a Jewish state: political life leads easily to all the abuses that come from using power. The Jewish people are not immune from this descent into the world of political dirt and corruption. The two previous attempts by the Jews to live a fully political life within their own state had ended in failure. In both instances, various abuses had crept into the lives of the people, causing a perversion of the healthy national life that the Torah demands. The second Jewish state had fallen because the Jews had not learnt how to use power responsibly without its corrupting the fabric of relationships within the country. According to Rav Kook, this was why the exile had lasted so long: the Jews had to be purified from the influence of the abuses of power and cured of their lust for power. Only when they had become an ethical people once again, had the national impulse arisen in the people. For Rav Kook, this was tantamount to a sign from God.
The need for the exile had finished: the time for the beginning of redemption was at hand. Now was the time for Jews to leave the lands of exile as quickly as possible, lands which were by their very nature ‘unclean’, unholy. It was time for Jews to take themselves to the only land that was intrinsically holy, the land in which they could build their holy national life once again. Here they would be free of the limitations and of the ‘uncleanness’ of life in exile. Here, too, they would be free of the need for power for power’s sake which had characterized them in their previous state in Eretz Israel.
What was the pure, holy national life that they were called on to lead in their own state? We have already stressed that it must be a fully three-dimensional life, one in which all aspects of Torah in the widest sense would be expressed. Now we must emphasize the implications of this idea.
Just as Ahad Ha’am had believed, Rav Kook believed that the Jews’ life in the Jewish state must be one of the highest standards of morality. The same obligations that bound the Jewish individual in his/her relations with the world around - both people and things - also obligated the Jewish national state. Other nations and states were not obligated in the same way, however, and this was a source of great concern to Rav Kook. He knew well that it would be impossible, in reality, for a Jewish state to behave in a substantially different manner from other states. He thus linked the fate of the Jewish state to that of other countries.
The Jewish state could only exist in the way that God demanded if it was part of a world which God was redeeming. Jewish redemption, which could only occur in the framework of a Jewish state, was part of universal redemption: the two could not be separated. They were both part of God’s plan. God had given the Jews the task of redeeming the world, of guiding the rest of the world towards righteousness and the acceptance of God: it was this that would lead to their redemption by God.
Unlike the Reform movement, however, which also stressed the mission of the Jews in the world, Rav Kook was certain that the Jews needed to separate themselves from the other nations in order to do so. They must turn themselves and their state into a stage for God’s glory and for God’s rule on earth. This was the path that would ultimately lead to world redemption. In this version of messianism, the Jews themselves had a vital role: they must show the will, resolve and ability to rebuild their national life. This was part of God’s plan; this was what He was waiting for. He would bring redemption but it was up to the Jews to supply the pre-conditions.
It is not for nothing that the secular streams of Zionism - ultimately the dominant streams --were often called messianic. No less than religious Zionism, although in a very different way, they created ideas of the future that flew in the face of reality. All of these Zionist streams had strong, distinct visions of what should happen to the country and of the society that should be established there.
Perhaps strong Utopian visions were needed to galvanize the Jewish masses, both religious and non-religious, into supporting the Zionist movement and finding the determination to move to a new country and trying to develop a new life in very difficult circumstances. Perhaps without such glorious visions of the future, the whole Zionist enterprise would have come to nothing and we would be living today without a Jewish state. Nevertheless, we must ask today if those visions were realistic and if we are not paying a high price for holding on to them.
One contemporary Israeli thinker who thinks that the latter is the case is novelist Amos Oz. In 1982, a time when Israeli society was under severe stress partly because of the difficult Lebanon war in which Israel was engaged, Oz traveled to different parts of the country to talk to a variety of different Israelis; he tried to put his finger on the pulse of what was happening in Israeli society. He turned the results into a series of newspaper articles that ultimately became a book, - [in English, In the Land of Israel].
Perhaps predictably, he started off in Jerusalem, examining the dynamics of Haredi society, which thrives in the area of Jerusalem where Oz was born. In subsequent chapters he proceeded to examine many other aspects of Israeli society, each from a different physical place in Israel. When he reached the last chapter, he made what seemed to be a very surprising and perhaps anti-climactic choice: instead of coming back to Jerusalem in order to bring things full-circle, he chose to finish in Ashdod, a small town on the coast. Having described a number of scenes and conversations there, he showed what that city represented for him, thus explaining his choice of ending for the book.
Perhaps it was a lunatic promise: to turn, in the space of two or three generations, masses of Jews, persecuted, frightened, full of love-hate toward their countries of origin, into a nation that would be an example for the Arab community, a model of salvation for the entire world. Perhaps we bit off too much. Perhaps there was, on all sides, a latent messianism. A messiah complex. Perhaps we should have aimed for less. Perhaps there was a wild pretension here, beyond our capabilities - beyond human capabilities…
Are we gradually learning, or perhaps not? But we should learn.
And what is, at best, is the city of Ashdod.
A pretty city and to my mind a good one, this Ashdod. And she is all we have that is our own. Even in culture and in literature: Ashdod. All those who secretly long for the charms of Paris or Vienna, for the Jewish shtetl, or for heavenly Jerusalem; do not cut loose from those longings - for what are we without our longings? But let’s remember that Ashdod is what there is. And she is not quite the grandiose fulfillment of the vision of the Prophets and of the dream of generations; not quite a world premiere, but simply a city on a human scale. If only we try to look at her with a calm eye, we will surely not be shamed or disappointed.
Ashdod is a city on a human scale on the Mediterranean cost. And from her we shall see what will flower when peace and a little repose finally come. Patience, I say. There is no shortcut.
For Oz, Ashdod - “a city on a human scale” - is what is attainable. Israel and Zionism need to cut down the size of the dream and learn to settle for a human-sized reality. Dreams and utopias are good - “for what are we without our longings” - but it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the most practical program for building a society. This is a concept that needs to be considered.
Let us now examine all of these ideas together with our students.