Sometimes following in the footsteps, real or imagined, of a nation’s founding father can be a very poor idea. Events in Israel are proving that true in a number of ways.
The Israeli government-sponsored ad campaign abruptly canceled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was problematic enough. When combined however, with a talk with veiled references to Iran given by the leader at the annual memorial event for Israel’s first Prime Minister, the iconic David Ben Gurion, “problematic” may have shifted to potentially apocalyptic.
Both the ad campaign and Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks reflect an understanding of Israel as not only isolated, but of actually feeling proud of the isolation and willing to use that perceived isolation as justification for an attack on Iran. In each case, ideas taken from perhaps the greatest of Israel’s founding fathers are used, though not necessarily for the good.
It is as if the ads were scripted by Ben Gurion himself. Speaking to the 25th Zionist Congress in 1961, Ben Gurion declared, “Those who are devoted to Judaism must see the danger facing Diaspora Jewry courageously and with open eyes. In the free and prosperous countries, it faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.” Ben Gurion was right about many things, but about this he was wrong, and so were the ads.
The ads appeared both throughout Israel and in major American cities with significant Israeli ex-pat communities. They presented a grim reality in which Israeli Jews living in America face either loss of Jewish and/or Israeli identity through assimilation, or feeling tragically isolated living amidst a non-Jewish majority which is sympathetic to neither the Jewish nor the Israeli narrative.
Not only do the ads portray an ugly and inaccurate understanding of American culture and its remarkable openness to the particular needs of its many religious and ethnic minorities, they demonstrate the ignorance of the producers regarding the unprecedented success of Jews, including Israeli Jews, in America.
To be sure, how Jews experience and express their Jewishness in contemporary America is changing. Rising rates of marriage between Jews and non-Jews and sinking rates of affiliation with traditional Jewish communal institutions raise questions about where Jewish life in America is headed. But to assume that these changes signal the end of Jewishness in America is absurd.
Ironically, the claim made by many European Jewish leaders in the last century–that Jewish life could not be sustained in America–convinced many Jews to remain in those countries which ultimately, tragically, became their graveyards. Jewish life in America is changing, and far more quickly than it is in Israel, but it may be that those very changes which some bemoan, are the first harbingers of unprecedented, if sometimes uncomfortable, cultural renewal.
This is actually an old fight in Jewish life – one going back for millennia. It is a fight about the ability of the Jewish people to sustain itself in the Diaspora, the amount of religious and cultural change that is required for any group to remain viable, how much tradition must be a part of that mix, etc.
These old questions would have rendered the tension created by the Israeli ad campaign a largely internal Jewish issue, were it not for one more premise about Jewish life which animated the campaign – a premise going back not only to Ben Gurion, but to the Bible itself – one which may point to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. That additional premise is that Israel is meant to be isolated, should be proud of its isolation and that the isolation is a necessary ingredient for the success of the Jewish People.
Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded his audience at the Ben Gurion memorial of the “Old Man’s” willingness to buck public opinion, even if that meant paying a heavy price, including war. He spoke about the history of Israel’s founding as a story of refusing the counsel of even many of its friends and allies regarding the timing of the declaration of the state.
The parallel to current tensions raised by the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites is obvious, and of no small concern to the United States. Secretary of State Leon Panetta commented that such action could be “an escalation” that could “consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret.”
Perhaps Panetta is right, perhaps not. Perhaps an Israeli strike would be useful, perhaps not. Whatever one thinks about that question, the conclusion should not be reached as a result of self-servingly wrapping one’s self in the deeds of long-dead heroes.
In retrospect, it surely seems that Ben Gurion was right about pushing for statehood. But celebrating his maverick spirit as a model for Israeli policy today, as if the world of 1948 and the world of 2011 are identical, is dicey at best and dangerous at worst. As with the ads, this is about a narrative of isolation- one in which the less attention paid to the larger world, the stronger Israel and Jewish people are thought to be.
In the Bible, that teaching is found in Numbers 23:9 which teaches that Israel is “a nation that dwells apart, and pays no attention to the other nations” among whom they live. There is no doubt that maintaining a sense of its own uniqueness has been a key ingredient in the 3,000 year long success story of the Jewish People.
It is at least as true however, that the success of the Jewish People has been maintained by balancing a sense of uniqueness with an equally powerful understanding of the Jewish people as a people that live among, and in the service of, humankind as a whole. Never has the need to balance these competing impulses been more crucial. Knowing that could not only spare us foolish ads, but potentially catastrophic wars. That too could be heroic.