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Galilee Diary: Different lenses III

Galilee Diary: Different lenses III

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

If you will it, it will not remain a fantasy.
-Theodore Herzl, Altneuland

In addition to The Jewish State, the manifesto that sort of kicked off the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl also wrote a novel, Altneuland ("old-new land") describing a fictitious tour of the future state of Israel in the 1920s (Herzl died in 1904).  The Hebrew translation of the book was titled Tel Aviv ("ancient mound of springtime"), and the city was named after it.  Herzl's Zionist utopia was a peaceful, liberal, democratic, pluralistic European welfare state, with freedom of religion.  It was inhabited by smart, cultured, self-reliant, generous, Jews, and cosmopolitan, well-integrated, respectable Arabs.  He didn't seem to have struggled too much with the definition of the Jewishness of the state - in 1902, the idea of a world made up of peacefully-coexisting, gently ethnic nation states had not yet crashed and burned.  A sort of vaguely Jewish national identity was enough for him.

This semester I was assigned to teach a course in the Israel Rabbinic Program at HUC, and decided to revisit Herzl's vision; the assignment for the semester was for each student to write his/her own Altneuland.  A novel was not required, just an outline of the main points of the writer's own vision of the ideal Jewish state.  It occurred to me that we complain a lot about the reality of the state, but we rarely articulate what it would look like if we could get it right.  And it turns out, when you sit down to spell out your vision, that you suddenly develop more respect for Herzl's efforts, unsatisfying as they may have been.  At least he took on the challenge, and tried to sketch the outlines of the Jewish state as he envisioned it, attending to politics, culture, industry, and economics.  But in a way, those are the easy questions.  The topic Herzl fudged is the one we struggle with - and all of my students who have made their presentations so far have really struggled with it - the Jewishness of the state. 

We all pretty much agree that the present model, in which the Orthodox rabbinate is part of the apparatus of government, is unacceptable; generally, this leads to a call for separation of religion and state.  OK, so the state would not be officially, religiously Jewish.  This generally leads to the position that the state will be Jewish in that the majority of its population will be Jews - which in turn leads to two questions: who gets to define "Jewish;" and what means are morally acceptable to preserve a Jewish majority.  And if we propose that the Jewishness of the state not be determined by any special status of the Jewish religion, but is purely cultural, we are left with the question of what is Jewish culture that is not religious?  Shabbat?  Calendar?  Social welfare legislation? Language?  Food?   Alternatively, we could try to propose a Jewish state in which the laws of the land are based on Jewish values; but then we have to argue over just what are Jewish values, and what determines them - the religion?  And if so, the religion according to whose interpretation?  Moreover, it turns out that this discussion is complicated further when we try to define the ideal long-term relationship of the Jewish state to the Jewish people in the rest of the world.  Should Diaspora (or are they exilic?) Jews have a vote?  Should they just be cheerleaders?  Do they have any obligation to the state?  Does the state have any obligation to or responsibility for them?  And if the Jewish state has a large population of non-Jewish citizens, what should be the connection of these citizens to the Jewish people outside the state?

My students are finding these questions dizzying and our discussions are often frustrating.  But I believe that most of us (Jews everywhere), daunted by this frustration, have backed away from this discussion for too long - and that it is our mission as liberal Jews and Zionists to lead it thoughtfully and positively.  It turns out that will is not enough.  We also have to struggle with the details.

Published: 6/22/2010

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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