Sixty years on, the shock of Israel’s foundation is still impacting on Christian, Muslim and Jewish thought
From time to time, certain events “shock” history, bring about a rupture in continuity, and throw the future on to a radically new trajectory. This event can be short or stretch over generations, random and accidental or built into the very dynamics of historic processes, sometimes taking the form of an extraordinary person and other times an aggregation of events.
Illustrations include the so-called Axial Age from 800 BCE to 200 BCE, during which revolutionary thinking in China, India, the Middle East and the Occident created a new human self-understanding and perception of its place in the cosmos; Napoleon Bonaparte; the founding of the United States of America; Sigmund Freud; and many more. Such shocks to history take a long time to work themselves out, but they do constitute foundational phenomena, with the more extreme ones inaugurating new eras.
The founding of the state of Israel 60 years ago, against the background of the European Enlightenment and the Jewish Haskalah (Enlightenment) and soon after the Shoah, clearly constitutes such a shock to history, the more profound and long-term consequences of which are not yet clear. The main dimensions of this shock, which interact and re-enforce one another, include a shock to Christianity, a shock to Islam and shocks to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Sixty years is much too short a time for the meanings and the historic significance of the shock to become understandable; this requires generations. But some conclusions can already be drawn, and add up to the conclusion that the futures of Israel and of the diaspora will be shrouded in deep uncertainty for at least another 60 years, with both thriving and collapse distinct possibilities.
To explain this conjecture and explore its radical implications, the nature of the shock and its main dimensions must be understood. Let me start with the shock to Christianity, which is profound though in part obscured by the decreasing importance of religion in public and private affairs, which itself may well be temporary.
Christian theology, in all its versions, until recently regarded the Jews as guilty of killing God in its human incarnation and therefore condemned them to exile and suffering until they convert to Christianity or they are sent to hell — unless saved by the mercy of Christ — on judgment day. This dogma was a main basis for persecution, until the Enlightenment reduced the significance of religion and provided some basis for tolerance.
But the superficiality of that partial acceptance was demonstrated by widespread participation in Nazi Jew-cleansing in occupied countries, which should be mainly explained in terms of deeply held beliefs about the guilt of the Jews and their consequent inferiority.
Then came Zionism and its triumph, the establishment of the state of Israel. Paradoxically, Christian beliefs in England aided this success by providing an alternative scenario, according to which the return of the Jews to the Promised Land realises the will of God and will ultimately lead to their acceptance of Christianity.
But this was a minority view which does not dilute the overall shock effect on Christianity of the Jewish people suddenly succeeding in overcoming their condemnation to eternal punishment and establishing a thriving state of their own in the Promised Land, where Jesus and his Apostles had founded the “true religion” superseding Judaism.
Parts of Christianity overcame the shock, thanks to feelings of guilt for the Shoah and for not having done more to save Jews; the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, which enabled willing Popes to reverse long-held dogmas; and the further decline of the importance of religion. However, this is only part of the narrative. It is hard to explain current antisemitism and militant anti-Israelism in Europe other than as deep-rooted reactions to the success of the Jews and Israel in debunking the belief that they are condemned to eternal punishment for having murdered God.
The future of Christian reactions to the shock is wide open. Some streams, especially in the USA, follow the pro-Zionist views of some British statesmen and strongly support Israel, probably with the conviction in mind that this is all part of God’s plan to bring about the redemption of Jews by becoming believers in Christ.
However, if Christianity becomes again more influential in public affairs and private life, which is a distinct possibility, new waves of hostility to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state are very likely, as foreshadowed by widespread negative feelings towards Israel in Europe which cannot be fully explained in terms of humanitarian pro-Palestinian values or real political interests.
The situation with Islam is different, in part better and in part worse. Islamic theology always accepted the Jews as “People of the Book” and regarded them all-in-all with less hostility than did Christianity — which was regarded as semi-pagan because of its belief that God became a Man.
But Jews were regarded as treacherous and as sinful for rejecting Islam and condemned to inferior status — and were treated accordingly. At the same time, the areas of historic Israel were viewed as part of the Land of Islam. The condition of exile was seen as the just punishment of the Jews, as well as a result of their incapacity to maintain a state and defend it.
Then came Zionism and the establishment and thriving of Israel as a Jewish state. And, still more of a shock, the Jews won war after war against the Arabs and conquered Jerusalem with its Islamic holy places, thus reversing Islam’s successes in defying the Christian Crusaders. All this as Islam continues to play a major and increasing role in public and private life and in large parts becomes more and more fundamentalist.
The results are obvious: states which follow raison d’etat interests can accept Israel, at least as a temporary fact, and even sign peace agreements with it. But religious leaders and masses cannot do so, other than perhaps as a temporary expedience until Muslims become strong enough to expel the Jewish infidels from the Land of Islam.
Again, the future depends on developments concerning the importance of religion in public affairs together with possible changes in religious dogmas. However, not sharing in any way feelings of guilt for the Shoah, regarding the West as an adversary, striving to regain the past glory of Islamic states as global powers, and widespread doubts about Western-type modernity — all add up to a long-term future of hostility towards the state of Israel and efforts to undo the shock of its successes.
This outlook is dismal and requires Israel and the Jewish people to adopt a grand-strategy of trying to reduce Islamic hostility, through compromises on Jerusalem for example, while maintaining the capacity to deter, and if necessary defeat, any Islamic hostility.
But things may change: humanity as a whole is moving into a new era with many shocks sure to come; and dogmas of the past may become nothing more than artifacts of history in the future. However, at best, this will take one or two generations at least, making the next 60 years extremely dangerous for Israel. Even if optimistic scenarios on peace agreements become reality, their superficial grounding makes them provisional, requiring Israel to maintain a honed sword ready for action.
Quite different but even more complex is the shock effect on the Jewish people itself. Having existed and occasionally thrived locally for about 2,000 years, getting a state — quite suddenly in terms of historic time — is a quantum leap into unknown dimensions.
Critical are at least three open-ended questions: What does it mean to be a modern democratic Jewish state? What will and should be the nature of relations between Israel and the diaspora? And what will be the impacts on Judaism and the Jewish people as a whole of having again, after a hiatus of 2,000 years, a Jewish state and of not being a people in exile — for instance, on Jewish identity and identification, demography, security and creativity?
It is not difficult to construct scenarios of thriving and decline for Israel and the diaspora, and — with very low but not zero probability — also collapse, in the 21st century. But the actual trajectory of Israel and the Jewish people into the future is wide open.
Much depends on global and regional developments on which the Jewish people has little influence. More depends on the Jewish people itself. But in order to achieve a real impact for the better on the future after the historic discontinuities, a number of requirements must be satisfied, including: unprecedented levels of cultural, spiritual and religious creativity; outstanding Jewish-people and Israeli statecraft; excellent grand-policy crafting and implementation; and a multitude of spiritual, organisational and political leaders of the highest quality, sorely missing at present.
Also needed is a lot of constructive destruction of behaviour patterns, beliefs, structures and self-understandings which fitted the conditions of exile and in part the first 60 years of the state of Israel, but which become increasingly dysfunctional and endanger the future instead of assuring long-term thriving.
Thus, clearly in need of restructuring are Israel-diaspora relations — so that they become more of a partnership between equals, a new synthesis between a Jewish state and a democratic one while having a large Arab minority — and developing Jewish-people statecraft so that if fits the realities of having a powerful state faced by dangerous long-term threats and complex opportunities. All these are demanding and also painful tasks which are just starting to be faced, and their success requires critical masses of creativity and wisdom which cannot be taken for granted.
However, first of all we must realise that the heroic successes of the Jewish people in state-building during the last 60 years (and also in building thriving diaspora communities) cannot be relied upon by themselves to guarantee a thriving future. Negative surface phenomena indicate some of the dangers, such as assimilation, demographic problems in Israel and leadership weaknesses.
But the crucial consideration is that the shock effects of establishing the state of Israel can produce deep and long-lasting boomerang-effects. These require urgent and massive counter-measures grounded in an understanding of the historic processes produced by that shock. Such insights are lacking in contemporary Jewish people and Israeli discourse, which is dominated by current events and therefore lacks the penetration, understanding and long-term vision needed for ensuring a thriving future.
Professor Yehezkel Dror is the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a member of the Winograd Commission which investigated the Second Lebanon War