“The eternal people are not afraid of a long road.” That was the theme song of the protestors from the national Orthodox right, who opposed the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, 13 years ago this week. It’s fitting to reflect on the deeper meaning of these lyrics – and on exile — on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the fast day (July 22 this year) marking the destruction of the Holy Temple.
The younger generation of the national Orthodox right continued to sing this song in all the battles it has waged since then. What is this “long road”? Some say it refers to the future: the long road that the Jewish people must travel to complete the return to Zion—the return of all the Jews to all the Land of Israel.
Even if we assume that this interpretation is correct, the question still remains as to how we can be sure that the “eternal people” is not afraid of a long road; and where did the expression “eternal people” come from in the first place? The inevitable answer is that the expression refers to the past. The designation “eternal people” was coined for a people that managed to survive 2,000 years in exile, and return to its homeland after the long and arduous road it traveled in exile.
There is a paradox here: in the name of an ultra-Zionist ethos– the full redemption of the people and the land– what emerges is pride in, if not nostalgia for, our past in exile, since it was only the experience of exile that won us the title of “eternal people” and demonstrated that we are not afraid of the long road. At the same time, the paradox in the song is really not so astonishing if you think about how strong a presence exile has had throughout the Jewish experience. At first glance, the protracted and painful exile should be a terrible, bloody wound in the Jewish consciousness. And yet, in fact, it is the greatest source of pride in what is makes the Jews unique, the main source of our sense of being the “chosen people.” Without it, we would simply be one more ethnic group trying to cope with life’s trials and tribulations.
This is the source of the surprising common denominator among all those Jews who are opposed to Zionism—the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform movement in its early years, and the Jewish intellectuals who espouse universalism. Despite the many differences among them, all these groups assailed Zionism in the name of a shared feeling, albeit expressed in different ways: a fierce opposition to giving up on the uniqueness of the Jews’ experience and a tremendous fear that this exceptional “eternal people” might be transformed into just one more nation — and not a particularly large one at that. Hermann Cohen, the German Jewish philosopher and one of the fiercest opponents of Zionism in its early decades, put this in particularly sharp terms: “Was it in order to establish another tiny and nationalistic Albania in the Middle East that we endured the great suffering of Jewish history?”
The greatest Jewish paradox of all is that those who would take the unique history of the Jewish people in exile as a model for a sovereign “Jewish uniqueness” will find themselves endangering that sovereignty and returning to exile.
This feeling is so intense that even many of those who opted for Zionism nevertheless want to hold on to the sense of uniqueness at the same time. Ideologues of the religious right believe it is possible to deny the obligations inherent in membership in the “family of nations” given that we have already proven our ability to exist “outside history” and in violation of its usual rules. Ideologues of the humanist left believe that it is possible to impose restrictions on our conflict with our neighbors that no other nation even comes close to doing, in the name of the unique “Jewish morality.”
But both of them are mistaken. The choice of Zionism means, first of all, setting the Jews’ physical survival above any consideration of identity. The price of the alternative, which we tried for two millennia, proved to be too heavy. It is indeed easier to preserve a totally unique identity in the conditions of ghettos and exile; and, by contrast, sovereignty may put that identity at risk. Sovereignty comes with a price: a system of international commitments; exposure to cultural influences– both homegrown and foreign; a need for coexistence and cooperation among diverse Jewish groups even though their concepts of identity are poles apart.
“The price of Zionism” is acceptance of these risks.
It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to try to reduce them. However, the pretentious ambition of “destroying them” is liable to turn out to be the destruction of Zionism as well. Those who allow themselves to be seduced by this scenario, rather than accepting the risks to their unique identity, should remember that nonsovereign Jewish existence today, after the process of secularization, would in effect, mean the loss of the non-Orthodox majority of the Jewish people, who will prefer assimilation over a regression to rigid norms of self-segregation.
The greatest Jewish paradox of all is that those who would take the unique history of the Jewish people in exile as a model for a sovereign “Jewish uniqueness” will find themselves endangering that sovereignty and returning to exile; or what is worse (and Heaven forbid), vanishing completely. This does not imply a total waiver of the Jewish identity component. It does mean that the unique identity (“the covenant of vocation”) can exist only when compatible with the criterion of existence (“the covenant of fate”). It is possible and essential to foster our bond to Judea and Samaria, to the Temple Mount, and every other element of our identity. But it is absolutely forbidden to foster bonds of this nature if they stand to jeopardize our very existence. It is possible and essential to set unique moral boundaries. But it is absolutely forbidden to do so if they endanger our very existence.
In the present context, the “long road” has two connotations: a stubbornness to preserve the dream, rooted in an exile mentality and a stubbornness to live a difficult, Sisyphean, and complex situation—a situation in which compromise, internal and external, is an imperative, –rooted in a sovereignty mentality. The two interpretations are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist. Those who try to take a shortcut around the “long road” of sovereignty will find themselves, at best, in another cycle of the “long road” of exile. This is yet another reason why Tisha B’Av, when we mark the exile of the Jewish People from the Land of Israel, is so relevant today and must never be forgotten.
Yair Sheleg is a research fellow in the Center for Religion, Nation and State in the Israel Democracy Institute.