A fight to save Israel's soul


IS IT POSSIBLE to imagine an Israel without the Law of Return, the cherished right of every Jew to return to the biblical homeland?

Is it possible to conceive of the Israeli flag absent the Star of David? Or that Israel might drop its evocative national anthem, "Hatikva," which proclaims: "In the Jewish heart a Jewish spirit still sings, and the eyes look east toward Zion" ?

Is it possible to imagine an Israel without a Jewish identity?

Such a scenario is not only possible but likely, if Israel continues on its present course, says Yoram Hazony, author of "The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul."

"Then we're going to end up with ... a Hebrew-speaking Albania or Bulgaria on the shores of the Mediterranean. Other than the language, there won't be any of the original mission, which is what brought all of our fathers and our mothers to do this," says Hazony, 35, adding:

"And the state will act like a small, unintelligent, corrupt kind of a society. And it will keep doing that until it finds its end, like all other such things do eventually."

Hazony recently visited Baltimore as part of his U.S. book tour. His book has been published in English in the United States and it will be published in Hebrew later this year.

Hazony is president of the Israeli public policy think tank Shalem Institute and a one-time adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argues that anti-Zionist sentiments that were prominent before the founding of Israel, held by people who for a variety of reasons were opposed to the founding of a Jewish state, have re-emerged in the guise of what he calls "post-Zionism."

The most prominent proponents of anti-Zionism were Western European intellectuals, particularly the German members of the Reform movement, who felt that the notion of a Jewish state was antithetical to Jewish ideals, and who were suspicious of the corrupting influences such a political structure might entail.

With the founding of Israel after the tragedy of the Holocaust, sentiment shifted to the viewpoint that there was a need for a Jewish homeland, particularly for the refugees from Europe, many of them survivors of the horrors of the concentration camps.

Hazony, who was born in Israel but raised in the United States, says it was the Labor Zionist vision of Israel's founders, the vision of David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister and considered by many the father of the country, that has sustained Israel in its half-century of existence. And it is the same vision that has inspired American Jews in their support of Israel."

[Israeli novelist] Amos Oz is the most eloquent at expressing this," he says. "He called it the Great Drama. Ben-Gurion was the representative in the minds of Israelis of the Great Drama, of the exile from the land, of the destruction, of the suffering, of the wandering, of holding out, of the praying and working to return and fighting. That entire saga is associated with this image of Ben-Gurion.

"But it turns out that people are getting tired of the vision of the Jewish state the way Ben-Gurion saw it," Hazony says. "People are getting tired of thinking of Ben-Gurion as a founding father."

Hazony argues that this discontent is rooted in anti-Zionism that never really died. Instead, he says, it went to school.

Some of its most prominent proponents founded and taught at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, including the philosopher Martin Buber. The philosophers, historians, sociologists and literature professors who trained succeeding generations of Israel's intellectual elite have succeeded in passing down this hostility to the Jewish state that Hazony calls "post-Zionism."

And now that Hebrew University-trained graduates are assuming positions of power in Israel, post-Zionist ideology has broken out of its academic ivory tower.

"It's definitely broken out. It's far, far beyond an enclave," Hazony says. "In part because of the media, to take one very important example. The Education Ministry is another. The Supreme Court is another. All of these are institutions that have been molded to a very large degree by the universities in Israel."

Hazony points to some prominent Hebrew University classmates. "Aharon Barak, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, he's the same age as Yossi Sarid, education minister. And they're both the same age as Amos Oz, who is the leading novelist in the country. All of them were there at that time," he points out, and participated in a protest movement against Ben-Gurion that eventually led to his resignation as prime minister.

"By now it's not an intellectual thing anymore," he says. "Now, these ideas are in a very, very commanding position in Israeli public life,."

One example Hazony trumpets is the recent revisions to textbooks used in the Israeli school system. These changes were telegraphed in an interview published in 1994 with Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmermann, who at the time was chairman of the committee revising the history curriculum.

"He was talking about some pretty dramatic things: that the new curriculum would deal with Israel and the Jewish people, but certainly not as a subject of primary importance," Hazony says. "That the emancipation of the Jews would, of course, be taught, but not as something more important than the emancipation of the blacks in America. A series of, within the Israeli context, provocative statements."

In an article published recently in New Republic magazine, Hazony asks: "Who Removed Zionism from Israel's Textbooks?" In the article, Hazony decries attempts to "de-Judaicize" the school curriculum in favor of creating a "universal" curriculum in the interests of equality for all Israeli citizens -- Jewish, Arab, Druse or whatever. During his book tour, Hazony carries examples of the old and new textbooks to hammer home his point.

Equally disturbing, Hazony says, is a March ruling by Israel's Supreme Court that ended the half-century-old practice of designating land for Jewish settlement while restricting where Arabs can live.

"The Supreme Court is obviously taking a position that has a lot of sense to it," Hazony says. "Israel is a liberal democracy. There is something clearly grating and problematic when you have a country that is a liberal democracy and at the same time it has this policy of setting up Jewish settlements to counter an Arab majority in a given area."

But Hazony adds that the decision gives no weight to the importance of national security interests, which he believes outweigh the argument for equality.

"The principle where you say it's just not legitimate to distinguish between Jews and Druse and Arabs, each group has its own relationship to the state and we don't allow distinctions in policies. That is a very, very dramatic step. There's no clear way to see where that principle will stop," he says.

Robert O. Freedman, an expert in Middle East politics who will step down as president of Baltimore Hebrew University at the end of this academic year, takes issue with Hazony's contentions.

"The textbooks were very unbalanced before. Now, they're becoming more balanced," Freedman says. "The decision of the Supreme Court was for democracy, that Arabs have equal rights ... There's no contradiction between being for a democratic state and being for a Jewish state.

His problem with Hazony, Freedman says, "is he tends to confuse Jewish power and Jewish values. He writes from a very right-wing perspective, although he claims he doesn't."

Hazony says he welcomes such reaction; in fact, it was his purpose in writing the book. It is being released in the United States before Israel because he thought it would get a bigger reaction in the Jewish community here.

"Here, it was very, very likely that the Jewish community, even if they split badly on it, even if the majority disliked the book and the ideas in it, still there would be a much, much greater chance of a significant public debate" than in the Israeli media, Hazony says, which he feels is dominated by post-Zionist elite.

"If that happens -- almost like dominos -- it will force a response in Israel."

John Rivera is The Sun's religion reporter.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad