Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Today is 27 Rajab

It’s been a hard, tense summer and many of us share a lingering feeling that our troubles are not over yet. The indecisive war with Hizbullah has revived existential worries that are never far from the surface.

It doesn’t help that the renowned Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis recently raised the possibility that Shi’ite Islamists in Iran will do something nasty on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Rajab – which this year falls on August 22 – because the date is religiously propitious in the struggle against infidels.

While I’m hopeful we’ll all make it to August 23, this sort of gloomy talk makes me think maybe we Jews shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Maybe – for lots of reasons – Theodor Herzl was wrong in advocating the negation of the Diaspora.

The longer I’m in Israel, the more appreciative I become of the Diaspora. It’s not just the extraordinary outpouring of emotional and financial support we’ve received in the course of the war with Hizbullah; it’s also a recognition that Israeli society needs the cross-pollination offered by a healthy relationship with a pluralistic Jewish world.

And it’s not just the warning from Bernard Lewis that got me thinking along these lines. This week also marks the first Jewish settlement in Manhattan, in 1654, as well as Herzl’s arrival in Basle to prepare for the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The Diaspora came to North America when Jacob Barsimson of Holland arrived on the Pear Tree precisely 352 years ago tomorrow, August 22. In September 1654 an additional 23 Jewish settlers arrived in New Netherlands, probably from the West Indies, on a ship called the Saint Catarina.

The “diversification” of Jewish civilization to the New World had begun in earnest, and a golden era of American Jewry was on the horizon. Whatever the many challenges faced by US Jews today, they do not detract from the community’s unique contribution to the larger Jewish narrative.


AS FOR Theodor Herzl, he arrived in Basle on August 25 to prepare for the Congress (which opened on August 29) and brought together some 200 delegates from 20 countries, including the United States. The Congress proclaimed that “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured, home in Palestine.”

It is sobering that 58 years after Israeli independence what we thought was “publicly recognized” and “legally secured” apparently isn’t; that assurances offered by the “international community” don’t seem to have much of a shelf-life.

In his address to the Congress, Herzl forecast that once the Jewish state was established world Jewry would be transplanted to Israel, and the Diaspora would wither away: “Those who are able or who wish to be assimilated will remain behind and be absorbed.”

In this way, anti-Semitism (caused, Herzl was certain, by Jewish statelessness) would gradually decrease as Jews either assimilated or immigrated to Palestine.
“Thus it is,” he said, “that we understand and anticipate the solution of the Jewish problem.”

Not quite.

Far from putting an end to Jew-hatred, Israel has tragically – and metaphysically – become a lightening-rod for Jew-haters.

Over the years we’ve had no luck in fighting – or talking – our way out of the existential conundrum we find ourselves in. And all the while, an amalgamation of well-meaning friends, deceitful allies and intransigent enemies urge us to withdraw to vulnerable armistice lines that are even more dangerous today than they were when established in 1949.


ALL THIS makes it hard to be sanguine about Israel’s future. Herzl, for all his genius, misjudged the nature of the Jewish problem as well as the utility of the Diaspora.
It turns out that one of his critics, Asher Zvi Ginsberg – better known as Ahad Ha’am – was in some respects a better prognosticator than Herzl.

Ahad Ha’am, the father of “cultural Zionism,” envisioned the Zionist state as the spiritual home of Jewish civilization. But he accepted that there would always be a Diaspora, which was fine by him so long as it maintained firm Jewish values.

Ahad Ha’am was no wimp. He favored Jewish self-defense and actively opposed efforts to establish the Jewish homeland in any place but Zion. Yet he was by nature a pragmatic pessimist with little faith in the political promises of the international
community.

Moreover, where Herzl was oblivious, Ahad Ha’am anticipated that the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs would have to be addressed.

In a sense, the man was also an elitist. He didn’t want just anybody making aliya. He wanted immigrants to be adequately prepared intellectually for the sacrifices life in the Jewish state would demand. He himself came here in 1922.

For him, creating a Jewish state was not an end in itself. He expected it would help Judaism in its encounter with modernity. As opposed to the Jewishly illiterate Herzl, Ahad Ha’am was identified with Jewish tradition, though also ambivalent about it.


I’M STILL sentimentally attached to Herzl. But especially after the summer we’ve been through, and the likely troubles ahead, don’t we Jews need to reduce our risk and diversify – demographically, culturally and politically? After all, ideological purity isn’t much use to a country at risk of annihilation.

Looking beyond Rajab 27, the pragmatic pessimism championed by Ahad Ha’am may well serve strategic Jewish interests better than the messianic optimism of Herzl.

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