Josh Glancy

We should not expect Israel to be a light unto the nations

Relinquishing this idea might help put an end to so many of us projecting our preferences and assumptions onto this troubled corner of the Levant

March 09, 2023 13:49

When you choose to study history in Britain, what you really end up learning is the story of Christianity. That, after all, is what most of this country’s past was about.

So after a full decade of learning about the Reformation, which all hinged on magic wafers as far as I can remember, when I was finally let off the leash to choose my undergraduate thesis aged 21, I obviously went Jewish.

“A Light Unto the Nations” was the rather grand title of my investigation into the Manchester School of Zionism that grew up around founding father Chaim Weizmann. A light unto the nations, or la-goyim.

This famous phrase is taken from the book of Isaiah, in which God tells the prophet: “I shall submit you as a light unto the nations, to be my salvation until the end of the earth.”

That’s who the Jews are, or have believed of ourselves. A special people. A people chosen by God and history to survive, to be an example to the Gentiles, showing them how to pray, how to laugh, how to write and how to die.

Everyone from David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu to me as a student has harnessed the power of this messianic idea to portray Israel as a country with a unique moral mission. But it’s an illusion and a damaging one at that. It is long past time we let or la-goyim go.

I came to this realisation on a recent trip to Israel, reporting for The Sunday Times. It was my first visit to Israel for seven years and my first ever as a journalist.

And so instead of eating sushi and smoking grape and mint nargilah in Herzliya, I found myself touring hilltop settlements in the West Bank, interviewing would-be martyrs in the Jenin refugee camp and attending post-terror shivas in east Jerusalem. I went to the hard places and lost my last remaining illusions.

These were the beautiful visions I grew up with. My parents are the 1967 generation. To them Israel’s very existence is a wonder, its survival a kind of semi-secular miracle. In our kitchen we have the famous print of the paratroopers who retook the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War.

I was raised on stories of kibbutzim making the desert bloom. My parents’ wedding took place in 1976, during the famous commando raid on Entebbe, which became part of the foundation myth of our family. Yoni Netanyahu had died so that we could all live safely as Jews.

Whatever disappointments they feel in Israel always exist within this framework of wonder. The light unto the nations may flicker at times, but it is never extinguished. It is a ner tamid.

And yet for me I think the light has dimmed. Not because I think Israel is uniquely bad or evil, nor because I’ve developed a sudden loyalty towards the Palestinians.

But because I can simply no longer sustain the utopian ideals that underpinned my feelings towards Israel for so long. It is a country, broken and beautiful. It is no longer a neo-messianic deliverance project, nor a morality play upon which to project my own longings.

From now on I will endeavour to treat it as such.

The lights went out for me quite literally when I visited the West Bank settlement of Eli, as a biblical storm ripped through the Judean hills, knocking out the electricity and blotting out the landscape. In Eli, I heard the residents talk callously about the Palestinian future, as if their own presence in those hills wasn’t part of the problem.

The lights went out for me in a freezing house in Neve Yaakov, as I saw a family of dirt-poor Haredim mourn their lost 14-year-old boy. “Jewish Blood Will not be Spilled in Vain” read the poster in the living room, under which far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir gave a menacing speech.

I knew all these places existed, but I had never smelt the aroma of olive and cheese pizza as it is delivered to the shiva of a murdered boy, nor looked into the eyes of the teenage IDF soldiers doing guard duty in the rain at the Tapuah Junction, where two of their comrades had just been rammed by a homicidal driver. It’s hard to keep dreaming after so much reality.

During the early years of Zionism, the concept of being a light unto the nations was often considered a piece of flimsy diaspora idealism.

But, as I wrote about in my horribly pretentious and long-forgotten undergraduate thesis, the utopian thinking of Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am and others brought Isaiah’s prophecy into the fold. Later, through the speeches of Ben-Gurion, it became central to the Zionist mission, a way of convincing the world that Israel would be a force for good.

I fear Ha’am would be disappointed by Israel today, as it strays from the high-minded socialism and idealism of its youth. He would be dismayed by the recent images of settler violence we’ve seen in Huwara and by the presence of racist demagogues such as Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in the government.

Ha’am once asked the question: “Have we really come just to add a small nation of new ‘Levantines’ in a corner of the east that will compete with the Levantines who are already there in all their corrupt attributes — murder, revenge, competition, etc?”

The answer is yes, we have. I’m not sure there was any other way. Israel has some exceptional qualities and freedoms, and it has staggering achievements to its name. But the longer it exists, the more it begins to resemble other Middle Eastern countries, most of which are basket cases.

The soil in this region has not generally proven fertile for liberal democracy. Israel has bucked this trend so far, but it may not do so indefinitely, however hard the flag wavers of Tel Aviv fight their corner. It is time for the rest of us to accept this possibility.

Relinquishing the idea of or la-goyim doesn’t mean relinquishing a belief in Israel’s right to exist.

Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s an acknowledgement that Israel doesn’t need to be good or exceptional to have a right to exist. In fact it doesn’t need to be good at all.

It would be nice if it was, but that’s a bonus, a moral and political goal rather than an existential one. Most countries are not good: why should Israel be different?

Relinquishing this idea might help put an end to so many of us projecting our preferences and assumptions onto this troubled corner of the Levant. Because those who still cleave to or la-goyim are setting themselves up for persistent disappointment.

They are raising the bar impossibly high and letting an ideal obscure reality. It is time to let go of being special.

I’m not advocating nihilism or simply giving up on Israel and the better angels of its nature. I support those on the streets of Tel Aviv each Saturday night, fighting for their liberal institutions. I dearly hope they prevail.

But I also believe we must accept this country as it is, not as we would like it to be. The force and passion required to establish and maintain a Jewish state in Palestine have turned Ahad Ha’am’s idealistic vision into a fiendishly complex reality.

Israel is an extraordinary country that does many admirable things. It is also a brutal country that does many troubling things. But it is not a light unto the nations. And that’s OK.

March 09, 2023 13:49

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