What’s the point of Israel?

Few countries have achieved what Israel has in its first 65 years.

From a war-torn desert has sprung a land of prosperity and innovation; from the brutalities of successive colonial impositions a thriving polity, democratic and disputatious; and from a desperate immigrant refuge a proud Jewish homeland.

Achievements, the gleaming medals of past endeavor and sacrifice, were the talk of Independence Day 2013 and Israelis deserve to congratulate themselves and their parents and grandparents on the successes of the Zionist project. But we should remember that Tuesday marked merely the 65th anniversary of the re-establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael. The Nation of Israel reaches back almost 4,000 years to the covenant between God and Abraham; 65 years is a grain of sand in the hourglass.

The issues that drive debate in the Knesset and the coffee shops – the housing crisis, the burden of service – are important but there are bigger questions about Israel’s historic role that must be addressed. Because we take Israel’s existence for granted we have stopped thinking of Zionism as an active project and come to see it as a historical event. We must stop and ask: What is the point of Israel – and what does it mean to be a Jew, a Zionist, an Israeli in 2013?

The man who has come closest to articulating a contemporary Zionism is Naftali Bennett. Beyond the inspirational campaign videos and his tic of referring to everyone as “brother”, the Bayit Yehudi chairman captured a theme during the run-up to the January election. He spoke of an Israel united by shared Jewish values and carrying forward the pioneering spirit of the ’48 Generation in its attitude towards innovation, education, and national self-improvement.

Bennett is a new kind of right-winger for whom the struggle for Eretz Yisrael HaShlema (the Whole Land of Israel) has been replaced by a commitment to Am Yisrael HaShlema (the Whole Nation of Israel). He describes an Israel for all the Israelis, secular and religious, left and right, Jew and Arab. He has taken the old Mizrachi ideology – “Am Yisrael b’Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael” – and universalized it.

Bennett, though, is a religious man of the right and Israel sorely needs left-wing and secular leaders to start tackling these questions with a similar energy and alacrity. For some on the left, the purpose of Israel is peace in a narrow sense of military accord and political coexistence. But peace with the Palestinians, while a fetish for the international community, is a relatively minor issue in the long term. A just solution to the conflict is a moral imperative, of course, and in my view Israel should return the dowry or marry the bride, but the struggle to which Israel must dedicate itself is the struggle for a deeper peace, of the kind Jabotinsky envisioned when he wrote: “From the wealth of our land there shall prosper / The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew.”

Israelis would have every right to rest on their laurels. No one could blame them for turning inwards, away from a world that has done precious little for and wreaked volumes of bloody history against the Jewish people. Or Israel could look outwards and forge a path of purpose that helps transform the world for the better. Zionism is not merely a historical struggle that rested at the return of the exiles to their homeland. It is a living, breathing philosophy of Jewish faith, values and promise. Zionism is chosenness in action.

Israel needs political leaders equal to the challenges it faces, men and women who can lead Israel to new feats of greatness, who can unleash the dynamism and creativity of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland. Israel needs a vision for 21st century Zionism, a purpose that will convince Jews around the world to climb aboard a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Will this mission come from science and technology or something older, the redemption of religion as a vital force in the public square? Will Israel feed the world’s hungry or nourish the souls of young Diaspora Jews who struggle to reconcile Judaism and universalism, Israel and liberalism? Or will it help shape a generation of Arab and Muslim Zionists who come to speak of “al-Nakba” as Yom Ha’atzmaut?

Israel must decide what it is, what it’s for, where its borders lie, and where it is going. Perhaps Israel needs a new holiday: “Yom Ha’atid”, a day to look to the future and choose what that future will be.

Originally published in the Times of Israel. Feature image © Oren Peles by Creative Commons 2.5.

צילום: אורן פלס

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