NEW YORK (Apr. 27)
Forty nine years ago, the Jewish people joined in the great adventure of the past two centuries in world history — creating a nation state.
Nationalism has been a continuing, explosive force in this century — for better and for worse. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Jews must stop and savor the miracle wrought in these decades.
World Jewry and Israel have worked out a unique set of interrelationships which can uplift Jewry’s future, even as they show how the nation-state can be channeled into being a blessing, not a curse.
The blessing in nationalism has been to serve as a vehicle of personal identity for the masses. Hitherto nameless and faceless individuals felt empowered by becoming part of a meaningful group larger than themselves.
The creation — or the reassertion — of a distinctive national culture, which reflected their memory and values, embedded in a political structure which they chose became the expression of their newly emerging dignity for peoples around the world. This dignity was so compelling that nationalism broke down tribal attachments and international empires alike.
The sting in nationalism’s tail was embedded in the totalizing nature of national loyalties. The circle of significance was drawn around the central group and there was pressure on minorities — even by exclusion, discrimination and genocidal violence — to conform to the national model. Too often, moral obligations and the sense of caring stopped at a country’s borders.
The Jewish state was born in a similar cauldron of ethnic conflict and religious clashes. It would have been the path of least resistance to enclose all loyalties within the country’s boundaries.
But Israel saw itself as the state of the Jewish people worldwide and felt an obligation to them. It took on responsibilities that transcended national boundaries.
Under the Law of Return, hundreds of thousands of individuals — even those handicapped or penniless — who would have been excluded from other countries, were admitted, taken care of and fully integrated.
Israel also acted as guardian of persecuted Jews and, in effect, intervened in domestic politics of other states in order to do so.
In turn, Israel was caught in a cross-fire. It drew the wrath of Stalin for undermining the monolithic Soviet empire. Third world movements, or American radical blacks, attacked the Jewish state as a way of attacking the westernized white world of which world Jewry was a part.
For their part, Jews worldwide gradually overcame their fear of being tarred with the brush of dual loyalty.
Jews sang Hatikvah as their people’s anthem, not stopping to get permission from their home countries of which they were citizens. They undertook to lobby national policies on Israel. They raised substantial funds to build Israel and they created a powerful network of links to Jews all over the world.
As an outgrowth of the pro-Israel policies, American Jews eventually became leading supporters of foreign aid.
Similarly, the demand to intervene in oppressor countries to help suffering Jewish communities turned into disproportionate Jewish support for pro- democratic and interventionist foreign policies. No wonder the International Campaign for Tibet and, recently, the nascent movement to check persecution of Christians worldwide, turned to the Jewish community for help.
Out of deep attachments to fellow Jews and an almost inchoate theological memory — Judaism’s classic teaching that no loyalty, other than to God, should be absolute — Jewry has developed a model to take the poison out of nationhood.
The vaccine against virulent nationalism is multiple loyalties. By their behavior, Jews teach the world that moral obligations do not stop at national borders. Every community and every nation must develop powerful attachments and identifications that will lead them to share the pain and respond to the needs of others, thousands of miles away.
Jews must reject the concept of dual loyalties. Morally, the idea would open the door to traitorous behavior; internally, the concept intimidates and prevents the exercise of genuine moral responsibility to others.
Instead, the teaching of multiple loyalties reminds us that the nation is only one focus of our obligation. Family, voluntary associations, religious groupings and regional identity create healthy cross-currents of moral attachment and personal identification. These check the growth of excessive national government and of chauvinism. Similarly, connections and attachments abroad help prevent national policy from becoming purely selfish. This checks the buildup of aggressive cultures which set the nations of the world at each other’s throats.
This model is also good for the internal life of Jews. Ten years ago, the `Who Is A Jew’ controversy erupted. In defiance of the logic that democratic politicians must serve only their voters, Israel’s political leadership derailed a law that was backed by local voters in favor of the counter needs and feelings of Diaspora Jews who had no vote in Israel.
Even now when the new law disqualifying non-Orthodox conversions in Israel appears to be irresistible due to the makeup of the ruling coalition, the objections of Diaspora Jews have exerted their pull. Many Knesset members are uneasy. A national unity government would likely stop the legislation.
American Jews must bear down not only to affect this legislation but to build multiple loyalties in Israel that will help it be a better democracy. These cross-current loyalties — reenforced by concerns of Diaspora Jews — have helped Israel check extremism in its policies vis-a-vis Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians and Arab countries.
The concept of multiple loyalties also has helped make Israel the most magnetic, vibrant total Jewish environment in the world today.
The sense of profound intertwining of destiny remains one of the deep structures of Jewish identity. Therefore, study and living experiences in Israel are among the most powerful Jewish identity affirming mechanisms.
American Jews should reject the policies that use Israel’s ox to gore American Jewish denominations. They should equally resist calls to distance from Israel over these issues. Instead, American Jews should determine how U.S. communal funds can underwrite a massive upgrade of American Jewish identity through the Israel experience.
When every Jewish child is connected to Israel through living and study, they will be permanently connected to the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition as well. Thus, the next Jewish generation will be a force for internationalism and humane American foreign policy even as it links America and Israel — and Israelis and American Jews — in unbreakable bond.