Op-Ed: Israel: From elusive Utopia to inspired reality

Rabbi Alan Silverstein ()

Rabbi Alan Silverstein ()

WEST CALDWELL, N.J. (JTA) — During the recent World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Professor Micah Goodman of the Hebrew University presented an illuminating assessment of post-Zionism and anti-Zionism. Goodman observed that the second generation of classic Zionist thinkers — from the socialist Zionist Yosef Haim Brenner to the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’Am to the religious Zionist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — envisioned a future Jewish state in Utopian terms.

Utopian thinking offers a fantasy, a hope that all of life’s problems will disappear. Utopianism secularizes messianic expectations for the end of human history and imagines a world devoid of any imperfections.

Yet as noted at the congress by Israeli historian Yaakov Talmon, the danger of Utopian political thinking is that if only the perfect is worthwhile, then anything that is imperfect — such as the modern-day State of Israel — is worthless.

Measured against the dream of a Jewish state in which there are no criminals, no corrupt politicians, no unethical soldiers and no political compromises, the real Israel will always fail.

By contrast, other nations are not held to high standards at all. While Israel is condemned for its “occupation” of Gaza, strategy on dealing with the Gaza-bound flotilla, defense against Palestinian terrorism and reticence toward Palestinian statehood, Turkey is given a free pass for its occupation of northern Cyprus, its opposition to an independent Kurdistan for 25 million Kurds and its military approach toward the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. In the past month alone, Turkey has killed more than 100 members of this separatist group.

The world’s lack of interest in Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policies assumes that Turkey is entitled to a military defense against threats to national security. By contrast, Israel was condemned immediately when nine militant members of the Turkish IHH group were killed aboard one of the boats in the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Israel is judged not merely by a double standard but by the Utopian standards of the early Zionist thinkers. In this view, Israel is entitled to defend the lives of citizens only without the use of military force.

Goodman urges that contemporary Zionists replace the Utopian thinking of the 1920s with the kind of moral realism that can be found in, of all places, the Bible. The Bible envisions a just society within the Holy Land, but not a perfect society. It mandates court systems to protect the vulnerable and punish the criminal. Its heroes are not paragons of perfection. Moses, David and Solomon sin; their greatness reflects ethical growth, repentance and renewal. The ethos of America captures this with its aspiration toward “a more perfect union,” not "the perfect union.”

Zionism should not see Israel as the total solution for all Jewish problems. Instead, it offers a healthy change in the status of the Jews. In Goodman’s formulation, we were transformed from being chased by genocidal murderers to not being chased, from having no power in determining our own lives to having power.

We should help the world see the beauty of the real Israel, even with its imperfections. Maybe then they will also see its accomplishments: the thousands of Third World engineers trained by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to make their deserts bloom; the unparalleled medical, agricultural and scientific advances forged by the Israeli technology industry; the human miracle of absorbing and integrating immigrants of all races from more than 120 nations; and much more.

Israel is no Utopia, but it is a remarkably inspirational modern state.

(Rabbi Alan Silverstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in West Caldwell, N.J., chairman of the Masorti Israel Foundation, and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly and the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues.)

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