Sleepless in Jerusalem over whether Israel is becoming as bad as any other nation
By Rabbi Dow Marmur
JERUSALEM–When the early Zionists wanted to turn the Jews into a people like all other peoples, they didn’t dream that it would mean that the Jewish national home which became the State of Israel would treat other people in the way other people treated Jews. But that’s what’s happening nowadays, not because Jews are evil but because being like everybody else seems to force you to do evil things.
This appears to be the price of what Emil Fackenheim called the Jews’ return to history. His was a post-Holocaust response to the oft quoted statement by Franz Rosenzweig, who died four years before Hitler came to power, that Jews live outside of history. Being outsiders and on God’s side enabled us to be exponents of the moral teachings of the Prophets and critics of the immoral acts of the leaders of other nations.
Having realized the Zionist dream, leaders of the State of Israel act as if they’re imitating the leaders of other nations. Though like others, Israelis can plead the demands of expediency rather than the urge to harm, the effect may still be the same.
Of the too many examples at hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pronouncement about the need to protect Israel against the influx of hapless refugees is a case in point. Visiting the border with Egypt and surrounded by army officers, he told journalists that the influx of African immigrants (about 1000 a month) is a demographic (they aren’t Jewish), cultural (they’re aliens) and security (some may be terrorists, others drug smugglers) threat to Israel. The imperative of defense must override everything else.
For all I know, he may be right. But I also know what they used to say, e.g., in Britain, when Jews were fleeing pogroms to seek refuge and were said to constitute a danger to the indigenous population. None of the refugees may have been terrorists, but some were subversive revolutionaries. Nobody may have been a drug smuggler, but some were or became criminals. Virtually all were hapless men, women and children who needed to be admitted in order to survive. And think what happened to Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and sought refuge, say in Canada (“none is too many”), and elsewhere!
Of course, Jews were by no means the only ones to be stopped at the borders then or since. The list is seemingly endless. But shouldn’t Jews have higher standards?
I shudder when I think how Jews have been treated throughout history when they were outside it. And I shuddered when I heard Netanyahu yesterday speak on the subject to the assembled journalists. Is that’s what being like other nations is all about? Is that the fulfillment of the Zionist dream? Are these the words of a Jewish Prime Minister?
No, I don’t agree with Jewish intellectuals like George Steiner or Tony Judt who believes that statehood is yet another indignity that the nations have inflicted on the Jewish people and that Diaspora is where we should be for our moral sanity and physical safety. Nor do I side with Rosenzweig against Fackenheim about the Jews’ place in history. I’m a Zionist who firmly believes that the future of the Jewish people would be infinitely more precarious had there been no Israel. Nevertheless, I’m worried about the future of Judaism in the Jewish state. Physical survival isn’t enough.
So I agonize: Is there really no way of celebrating sovereignty and affirming morality? Can’t we imitate God who, our Sages teach us, exercises justice and mercy at the same time? These and many similar questions give me sleepless nights.
Rabbi Marmur is the spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He now divides his time between Canada and Israel