David P. Gushee
All Things Jewish
The Jews. For Christians, the name of no other people on the face of the earth carries the resonance that this one does. Due to a fateful history together that resonance is charged, in both positive and negative polarities. Toward the Jews, the church has never been neutral.
A spate of recent books as well as a pregnant historical moment give us occasion to rethink all things Jewish. None of the works to be reviewed in this essay offers such a rethinking from a Christian perspective. That is precisely why these books are valuable for Christians to consider. For the entirety of Christian history we have viewed the Jewish people from within a theological perspective that makes it nearly impossible for us to enter into their self-understanding as a people; or for that matter, simply to read their history and understand their politics in a way like unto how we would consider the history and politics of any other people.
For Christians, the Jews are the chosen people of God, born out of the call of God to Abraham, distinct from the nations and unlike any other people on earth. In the mystery of biblical inspiration, they are both the authors and the subjects of the Holy Bible—all of the first two-thirds we Christians call the Old Testament and almost all of the New Testament. Jesus, the One we adore as Son of God and Savior of the world, was Jewish. All of his original apostles were Jewish. The most important of the first-century converts to Christianity, Saul of Tarsus, was a "Hebrew of the Hebrews." Christianity began as a Messianic splinter movement within Judaism, and its convictions are impossible to understand apart from these origins. As well, most Christian eschatologies hold out a significant role for the Jewish people as a way of tying up the most unsettling loose end in the Christian schema of salvation history.
How that loose end, that "Jewish question," has bedeviled Christian thought and besmirched Christian behavior for these 2000 years! God took human form in Jesus, we believe. But "He came to his own, and his own received him not." Jewish religious leaders, our four Gospels seem to tell us, were among the least responsive of all flesh to the coming of the Incarnate One. The Passion narratives depict them as at least complicit in his death. The Book of Acts generally portrays them as foes of the apostolic evangelistic mission. Yet as the New Testament era closes, the Gospel is progressing, despite the efforts of its most committed opponents in Jerusalem, or for that matter, in Rome.
Synagogue and church, portrayed as estranged in the New Testament, have remained estranged for most of these two millennia.1 And in these two millennia the church has wrestled with its ultimate theological loose end both through an array of frequently spiteful theological writings and through the incarnation of Christian frustration in a shameful variety of forms: suppression of Jewish religion and practice, coerced Christianity and conversion at pain of death, discrimination and ghettoization, forced emigration and deportation, pogroms, Crusades and massacres. This horrible history culminated in the twentieth century with the mass murder of the European Jews, at the hands of baptized Christians, in the heart of formerly Christian Europe, serving an anti-Christian idolatry called Nazism.
The Holocaust, once its horror was fully recognized, seemed to break the power of Christian anti-Semitism. Much of the Western Christian world, recoiling at the shock of what had occurred in its midst, eventually sought means of atonement. Politically, that atonement primarily took the form of the Western powers permitting and to a certain extent enabling the birth of the nation of Israel in 1948—an in dependent Jewish homeland for the first time since the Maccabean era. Theologically, the Holocaust led some Christians to undertake theological reflections with the aim of removing the cancer of anti-Semitism.
The recent emergence of this bookshelf's worth of volumes on Jewish life and identity is significant. These works indicate both by their existence and in their content that the early stages of shock, anger, and grief about the Holocaust are now behind the Jewish people. It has been just over one hundred years since the inception of the modern Zionist movement, over 50 years since the end of the Holocaust and World War II and, soon after, the shocking birth of the modern state of Israel. A time of reassessment and evaluation seems to be upon both the Jewish people and scholars of Jewish history. Two of these works offer searching reflections on Jewish thought, faith, and tradition. The other five reflect on the history of the geographic region some still call Palestine, on Jewish nationalism, and on the actions and character of the modern state of Israel.
The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill, is an effort to assess the contribution of Jewish thought to Western (and by now, world) civilization. Cahill, former director of religious publishing at Doubleday in New York, is currently engaged in a broad publishing project he calls "the hinges of history." The purpose of the seven-volume series: "to re tell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West." This is history as good news, or better, history as cultural retrieval in an era of historical amnesia and cultural rootlessness.
In the first volume of this series, Cahill claimed that "the Irish saved civilization." In this work, he argues that the Jews invented it. His story opens with a gripping depiction of primeval human religious consciousness. He takes the reader to the top of a Sumerian ziggurat and narrates for us a moonlit cult prostitution ritual both alien and titillating. His goal, not only in this imaginative reconstruction but throughout the opening chapter of the work, is to demonstrate how fundamentally different was the primitive religious consciousness from that introduced by the Jews beginning with the call of Abram.
Thereafter Cahill simply tells the story of the Jewish pilgrimage through biblical history, beginning with Abram. He revisits in a most engaging manner all major elements of the biblical narrative of the Jewish people: the call of Abram (the patriarchal narratives), Egypt (slavery, Moses, and Exodus), Sinai (the Law), Canaan (Conquest, David, and kingship), and Babylon (kingly corruption, the prophets, and the later writings). The book is comprehensive enough to serve as supplementary reading for an Old Testament survey class.
Not that Cahill's ambitions are trained on the classroom: on the contrary! He has written a book that people will read of their own free will, not be cause it is assigned. He wants to retell the story of the Hebrew Bible in a way that can win the hearts of the jaded post-Christian or post-Jew or, for that matter, one with no exposure to this literature whatsoever. His goal is not conversion or orthodox religious faith but simply appreciation, in at least two senses. First, he wants his readers to appreciate the beauty and depth of the writings found in the Hebrew Bible. More important, he wants to make the historical/intellectual argument that Western civilization is inconceivable apart from the Jewish contribution to it.
Cahill claims that the Jews "invented" all of the following: real history with real historical personages, a linear rather than cyclical understanding of time, goal-directed action and choice-making, a sense of purpose and the freedom to affect the direction of events, the concept of a personal relationship with God, the notion of an individual self and the value of such selves, the collapse of the concepts of sacred and profane into a unified whole under a sovereign God, a sense of moral responsibility and moral obligation, fully reciprocal romantic/sexual relationships, the concept of justice and especially its application to the vulnerable and powerless, and the dream of a utopian future in which all wrongs are made right. His climactic claim is that "the Jews gave us … our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning … without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes."
Frankly celebratory, at times indulging in flights of hyperbole, Cahill's book is badly in need of a critical edge. So intent is he on lauding a cultural patrimony that he fails to wrestle with the troubling aspects of the Hebrew Bible, such as the annihilationist motif in the Joshua narratives and the marginal role generally given to women.
Nor does Cahill emphasize strongly enough that the linear, goal-oriented, utopian strand of Jewish thought has dangerous possibilities when untethered from the high moral demands of the God of the Bible. Both of the past century's most hateful ideologies—fascism and Communism—were utopian schemes rooted in a linear view of history and the role of decisive action to make that history come out right. Ca hill calls capitalism and Communism "bastard children" of the Bible's "processive faith," but doesn't mention Nazism or any number of dangerous Christian or cult-type variations of the same basic problem. A careful consideration of the evils done by men and women seeking to bring in their utopia almost makes one long at times for the passive, complacent, cyclical view of history that the Jewish perspective displaced.
Where Cahill looks back to biblical history for an appreciative rendering, Arthur Hertzberg (together with his collaborator Aron Hirt-Manheimer) offers his own summing up of "all things Jewish" in a book bluntly titled Jews. The purpose of this book is to "define the lasting Jewish character." Hertzberg, one of the lions of contemporary American Jewish life, remarks that for a Jew to even undertake such a task is "scandalous" and decidedly not "politically correct." For centuries, the Jewish people have been labeled and caricatured, and the last thing a Jewish leader normally has wanted to do is to offer any ammunition for further labeling and caricature. Thus the tendency in the Jewish establishment has been to resist any effort to describe a distinctive Jewish character. Just call us human beings like all other human beings, and leave it at that.
But Hertzberg (and his co-author, whose own voice, they tell us, is subsumed by Hertzberg's here) won't leave it at that, and the very fact that he won't is a remarkable sign of a new Jewish confidence. The existence of this work signals the easing of that dread of the non-Jew that has characterized the Jewish people for two millennia. Howard Thurman, the great mid-twentieth century black theologian, in his work Jesus and the Disinherited, powerfully articulated the distorting effect of oppression on the self-presentation and thus the inner lives of all members of oppressed groups. Living in fear, the oppressed present whatever face to the world that they think is most likely to get them through another day in one piece. They learn the art of deception. But the internal price of doing so is grievous.
For centuries, Jews in the Diaspora had to do the same thing. They quite realistically feared the wrath of their gentile/Christian neighbors. But now, with the Jewish state strong and relatively secure, and Jews in most lands also secure and at peace with their neighbors, authenticity and honest speech can be attempted. That's progress.
Hertzberg's 17-chapter discussion of "the essence and character" of the Jewish people hits the mark most of the time—that is to say, on the basis of my own limited experience I find his description to be recognizable and defensible. Among the key defining characteristics of the Jewish people, for Hertzberg, are a (religious or secular) sense of chosenness, a tendency toward division and factionalism, a mix of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and nomadism, and a defiant and stubborn "wild streak" that has ex pressed itself, among other things, in rebellion and martyrdom. Generally implicit in Hertzberg's discussion, and well worthy of making explicit, are such characteristics as the distinctive Jewish commitment to study and scholarship, a pattern of hard work and considerable drive, intellectual independence, and great intelligence and accomplishment.
From the title and early chapters of the book, one expects Hertzberg to spend the entire volume thematically exploring these and other elements of "the" Jewish character. But he surprises us early into the work by instead moving into a chapter-by-chapter summary of the high and low points of Jewish history, from Abraham to the present moment. Nothing in the title or introduction prepares the reader for this shift from a thematic to a historical account, and perhaps Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer can be faulted for that. But maybe the very lack of comment reveals a key assumption on their part: if you want to understand the Jewish people, you must understand our history.
The "essence and character" of the Jewish people are both revealed in, and worked out through, their melancholy pilgrimage through history. Most Christian readers know little or nothing about the rich history and the great figures described in these chapters. Our knowledge of Jewish history ends with the vision of that history offered in the New Testament, with a renewed spike of interest in the Holocaust and the modern state of Israel. Thus Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva, Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, Shabbetai Zvi and the Baal Shem Tov, Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn, Disraeli and Herzl, Kafka and Heine, Rosenzweig and Buber, are all strangers to us. We may have heard of Hasidism and the Kabbalah, or of Judaism's own "denominationalism"—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist—but nothing of the essence of these particular movements.
As a minority in a hostile culture, Jews have needed to know what is going on in the gentile world; but, Hertzberg argues, Jews have had no real theological reason to deal with Christianity. "There is absolutely nothing in Judaism, in its own terms, that requires it to have an opinion or a theology of Jesus."2 Meanwhile, in a fascinating and fateful reversal, the Christian majority has not needed to know Jewish history or thought but has found it impossible to offer a coherent theology that does not deal with Jews and Judaism. Indeed, Hertzberg contends, "there is a fundamental lack of symmetry between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity is inconceivable without its relationship to Judaism"—but Judaism is not inconceivable without its relationship to Christianity, be cause Judaism was here first. And Christians have in many times and places hated Jews for that inescapable fact.
The culmination of Jew-hatred in the Holocaust receives just nine pages in this important book. That fact in itself is a sign of the subtle receding of the Holocaust into a place in the broader history of the Jewish people. Increasingly, Jewish leaders and thinkers are unwilling to allow the Holocaust to dominate the landscape of Jewish thought. And yet these nine pages are heartbreaking, stunning. Hertzberg barely mentions in passing that he lost his grandfather and all of his mother's brothers and sisters and their children in concentration camps. He tells of a Polish rabbi he knew who lost every single member of his family and re fused to speak of it or to participate in any public ritual in their memory. The man's grief was beyond words and signs. Every Jew knows that but for an accident of geography, time, or circumstance he or she would have died at Hitler's hands. And even now there are men and women walking among us who still carry the personal marks of suffering under Hitler. The Holocaust is living memory, not ancient history. But it is "only" one part of the entire living memory of a 4000-year-old people, whose full history all Christians should be required to consider.
The 50-year anniversary of the birth of Israel in 1948 occasioned a burst of new books attempting to take stock of this unique modern-yet-ancient nation. Here we consider several of these in tandem.
Perhaps the first overall impression one gains from reading these works is that nothing has come easily for the modern state of Israel. It was born in blood and conflict in 1948, after some 50 years of strenuous Zionist effort. Its enemies sought to strangle it in the proverbial delivery room and nearly succeeded. For 30 years it fought major wars against the several Arab states that opposed its very existence. For 20 years, having proven indefatigable in large-scale conflict, Israel has slowly made a cool peace with two of its four bordering enemies—Egypt and Jordan—and a partial peace with its Palestinian neighbors, a people that has never given up on its own national dreams. Throughout this process, and even today, Israel has faced periodic terrorist at tacks on its civilian population that have claimed thousands of lives and remain a daily possibility.
Thomas Idinopulos's Weathered by Miracles offers an excellent background account of what might be called the prehistory of modern Israel. He picks up his story with the invasion of Palestine by Napoleon in 1798. At the time of Napoleon's at tack, Palestine was a "wasted" land, Idinopulos argues, suffering under the exploitative and neglectful rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Though Napoleon himself was repulsed by an Anglo-Turkish force, over the next 150 years Europeans in general rediscovered what even then was called the "Holy Land." This was the colonial era, after all, and nearly every major European power sought influence or control of a swath of land that was both strategically and theologically precious: Prussia, France, Russia, Austria, and England all got in the game, with England finally prevailing after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The period of British rule lasted from 1917 until May 14, 1948. The structure under which Britain officially ruled Palestine was the "mandate," agreed to at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The "mandate" concept authorized powers such as Britain and France to rule as benign trustees over former Ottoman territories until such time as the peoples of these lands were politically prepared for self-rule. Mandatory government was intended to be an in-between step bridging European colonialism and national self-determination.
Idinopulos, in a generally quite re strained account, offers considerable critique of these crucial 30 years of British rule. His thesis is that Britain was far more interested in Palestine's strategic significance and the colonial gains it could offer than it was in providing a disinterested trusteeship. He documents the twists and turns in British policy toward Palestine, beginning with the crucial Balfour Declaration of 1917, which declared Great Britain's support for a "Jewish national home" in Palestine. These shifts in policy, this tacking between Arab and Jewish interests and demands, exacerbated the political tensions that ultimately tore the land apart. Yet it could also be argued, as most of the works considered here do argue, that a bitter clash between Jews and Arabs was a nearly inevitable outcome of the historical forces converging in Palestine.
Some key numbers in Weathered by Miracles help tell the story. In 1800, there were approximately 300,000 people in Palestine, more than 90 percent of them Muslim Arabs, most of the rest Christian Arabs, and only 5,000 Jewish. By 1900 the number of Jews in Palestine had risen to 50,000, with the population 85 percent Muslim, 11 percent Christian, and 4 percent Jewish. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, there were roughly 700,000 inhabitants, with the Jews numbering 80,000 to 90,000 or 11-14 percent. Finally, in 1948, when a Jewish state was declared, there were 1.5 million inhabitants of this contested land, with fully 600,000, or 40 percent, Jewish.
The settlement of the land by Jews from all over the world had changed the "facts on the ground" in Palestine. What prior to 1850 had been only a trickle of devout traditionalist Jews be came in the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century a determined flood of Jews fleeing the persecutions of Russia, Poland, and elsewhere and/or acting on the basis of Zionist ideology. They came and came and kept coming, whether legally or illegally, buying Arab-owned lands (usually at inflated prices), establishing agricultural settlements, all along slowly but surely establishing a tentative foothold in their ancient homeland. The flow of Jews into Palestine then spiked again in the 1930s and 1940s as Jews sought to flee Nazism and later the Holocaust, or came as displaced persons after the six million were murdered during World War II. Well be fore the Holocaust, Jews had come to Palestine in the conviction that Jewish survival ultimately required emigration from hostile European lands. This was the central belief of Theodor Herzl's Zionist vision. Horribly, history proved this belief to be exceedingly well-founded.
As Benny Morris documents in Righteous Victims, the Arab peoples of Palestine and surrounding regions were not unaware of the steady flow of Jews into what Arabs had considered their land for many centuries, a land which contained several key Muslim holy sites, especially in the highly contested city of Jerusalem. With special intensity beginning in the years immediately after the Balfour Declaration, Arab leaders expressed alarm at the growing Jewish presence in Palestine. They were (quite reasonably) concerned that the Zionists intended to take Palestine away from them, and that Great Britain and other world powers were going to help sponsor the take over. Anti-Zionism, some of it religiously tinged, became a source of badly needed Arab unity. A new Palestinian nationalism arose as a response to Zionist/Jewish nationalism, but it was ineffective and disorganized.
The anti-Zionist movement turned increasingly violent, instigating many bloody attacks both on the British and on Jews. A 1936-1939 revolt against the British, as Morris puts it, "unsuccessfully and prematurely expend[ed] what little resources, energy, and unity they had." Violence begot violence, as increasingly well-armed and effective Jewish paramilitary forces and even terrorist groups also swung into action. This period also helped intensify Zionist preparations for full-blown military action when the time came, as it soon did.
In the midst of the deteriorating situation, as Idinopulos documents, several promising Arab-Jewish and multilateral diplomatic efforts were contemplated in the hope of finding a political arrangement in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs could share the land. All failed, including the last best hope, the 1947 UN Partition Plan. The fighting began in late 1947 as a local Jewish-Palestinian conflict that emerged against the backdrop of Great Britain's announcement of its departure from Palestine in May 1948. It became an international conflict when the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq joined the Palestinian side the day after Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a state: May 14, 1948.
To the surprise of a great many observers, the Israelis prevailed, in what they proudly call their War of Independence—and Palestinians call al-naqba, the Catastrophe. The war produced a massive Palestinian refugee crisis. Morris claims that some 700,000 Palestinians "fled or were ejected from the areas that became the Jewish state," and documents with searing honesty the sporadic massacres and expulsionist tactics sometimes used by the Israeli army. This refugee crisis has yet to be re solved and has been a major source of grievance and tension in the region for 50 years. Meanwhile, some 350,000 Jews (according to Idinopulous) left Arab lands and fled to Israel within two years of the war. These two population shifts decisively reshaped the land's demographic mix. And the groundwork was laid for the next 50 years of struggle, pitting the fledgling Jewish state against its en raged, aggrieved, but increasingly ineffectual Palestinian and Arab neighbors.
The vigilance and seemingly permanent adrenaline rush that characterize Israelis is certainly attributable, at least in part, to this immense, century-long, nation-building effort, this extraordinary struggle for ethnic survival and then for acceptance in a hostile neighborhood. But whatever its source, as several of these works document, Israel is well de scribed as a "quarrelsome" democracy, to quote the journalist John Hohenberg's not very impressive work, Israel at 50. Hertzberg describes this argumentativeness, or quarrelsomeness, as a part of the broader Jewish character. Hohenberg, on the other hand, is impressed with the structural difficulties built into Israel's fragmented multi-party parliamentary system, in which most Israeli governments have had to cobble together fragile and tenuous majorities.
But as Hertzberg, Hohenberg, Alan Dowty, and Zeev Sternhell also note, there is more than quarrelsomeness or political structure problems at work in Israel. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli extremist in November 1995 was a disastrous moment in Israel's history. It revealed that internal social, religious, and political divisions may pose a greater threat to Israel in the next 50 years than her external enemies do. Starkly differing visions of what it means to be Jewish and to live in a modern Jewish democratic state roil Israeli culture and politics. Inflaming these issues is the omnipresent question of how, or whether, to make a final peace with the Palestinians (not to mention the Syrians) whose land has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war.
Sternhell's provocative scholarly treatise, The Founding Myths of Israel, reminds us that questions concerning the nature and character of the Jewish state have actually been in play ever since the emergence of Zionism in the late nineteenth century. Sternhell, a leading "revisionist" Israeli historian, argues that Israel's founders actually offered an organic nationalist ideology of "blood and soil"—he dares to say "blood and soil," a key Nazi phrase—drawn from the same ideological cauldron as other late 19th century "volkisch" European nationalisms. His primary thesis is that although Israel's pre-state and then national leaders all claimed to offer a socialist vision, that vision has always been more nationalist than socialist, with traditional religiosity (among many Jews, anyway) a component of that nationalism.
This has been a poor foundation either for genuine democracy or for a broad-minded concern for Israel's people, whether Jew or Arab. Hence, Sternhell argues, Israel has never developed many of the institutions of the liberal state, such as separation of religion and state, a written constitution, and an emphasis on individual and minority rights. And hence also it has proven very difficult for Israel to let loose of territories it conquered during the Six-Day War of 1967, the third of Israel's four wars with its Arab neighbors.
Indeed, Israel has not been at all sure it wanted to resist the temptation of holding onto land that, the international community agrees, does not be long to it. This has been the case, so Sternhell argues, because nationalist ideologies tend toward imperialism, expansion, and a celebration of raw power. Add that to a religious understanding of Israel's divine right to the whole of historic Eretz Israel and one has a recipe for intransigence. That is Sternhell's striking interpretation of why Israel did not rapidly move to disgorge itself of occupied territory but instead took steps to incorporate the West Bank and Golan Heights into a Greater Israel—at least until the hotly contested Oslo agreements of 1995.
Sternhell is a committed secularist, and his perspective is clear as he weighs in on the religious/secularist schism that is the most fundamental social division in Israeli society. His own conviction is that "a liberal state can only be a secular state … a state cannot be liberal as long as religion plays a major role in governing society and politics." The enormous role of religious parties in Israel, as well as religious Jews in general, in his view undermines the very possibility of a successful liberal democracy that can live at peace with its own Arab minority or other Arab peoples and states.
For Sternhell, Israel must look forward rather than back, not defining its identity by biblical understandings of the divinely ordained territory of Israel but instead by a pragmatic, democratic, and just consideration of the rights and needs of all affected parties. Sternhell believes that the tension between these two different visions of Israeli identity—the pragmatic/liberal and the nationalist/religious—by now is nearly unbearable. It cost the life of Rabin and may make peace with the Arabs impossible.
Sternhell's critique of extreme religio-nationalism hits the mark. Yet one sees here no mention of the positive moral possibilities available in the best of the Jewish religious tradition. It is possible to "look back" at religious sources in a way that brings life rather than death. Religion does not always equal religio-nationalism. Secularists rarely acknowledge this.
For a fairer, less ideological, and somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the same history, a better source is Alan Dowty's The Jewish State Dowty's intention is to consider the extent to which the modern state of Israel functions as a Jewish democracy. Both terms are important. To what extent and in what ways is Israel both Jewish and democratic? Sternhell doubts whether it is possible to synthesize the two, and opts for a purely secular vision of Israel's future. Dowty's analysis of the evidence leads him to conclude that a genuine synthesis is possible and, indeed, is in process even now.
Dowty argues that four threads together constitute the forces that have shaped the modern Jewish experiment with democracy: Jewish traditions, secular ideologies, objective conditions in Palestine/Israel, and more recently the force of modernization. He traces Jewish traditions of self-government back to the experience of Jewish ke-hillot (organs of Jewish self-government) in Eastern Europe prior to the destruction of that civilization in the twentieth century. Jews were forcibly cut off from the dominant Christian culture, but were permitted, most of the time, a large measure of autonomy to govern their own internal affairs. This was not Western liberal democracy, but it did include the development of many skills of democratic life and a way of running a democratic polity that have clearly been important in post-1948 Israel.
Like Sternhell, Dowty acknowledges that both nationalism and socialism were at work in the ideological development of Zionism. But his depiction of these strands also indicates nuances within the Zionist camp; exclusive or atavistic nationalism, according to Dowty, was only one strand of Zionist thought and not the dominant one. As well, most early Zionists were secularists, and most religious Jews were not Zionist. Meanwhile, he notes that immigrants to Israel from western Europe and the US brought the influence of the western liberal tradition, and that this tradition—together with 30 years of British rule—did leave a mark on Israeli democracy.
Dowty claims that the early twentieth-century Zionist pioneers were unique in their aggressive rejection of Diaspora-style Jewish existence and their desire to create a new secular nationalist Jewish "self." It might be said that like Communism, an ideology emerging at roughly the same time, this strand of Zionism dreamed not just of political goals but of remaking Jewish peoplehood—the dream of a new Communist "man" is something of a parallel. Later immigrants to Israel, including many from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, have been more comfortable in their Jewish and religious "skin" and have not shared the original Zionist vision at this point. Any fair-minded observer of Israel must take into account this very real diversity of Jewish identities.
These different kinds of Jews, while being melded uneasily and under extreme crisis into a new Jewish state, were also faced with the reality of an Arab minority already present. Dowty is clear, though in a restrained fashion, in arguing that the "acid test" of Israeli democracy is how it treats its Arab minority. He fully acknowledges, like Sternhell and Morris, that Israel has generally failed that test so far. But he is more sympathetic in noting a lack of any preparation in history or tradition for managing a rather large (19 percent!) ethnic minority under Jewish sovereignty. He is hopeful that an easing of Israeli-Arab tensions generally, as is already beginning to take place, will make possible the normalization of relations between predominantly Jewish Israel and its permanent ethnic Arab minority. Part of making this happen is the negotiation of a permanent peace with the Palestinians and a withdrawal from/ partition of the West Bank, which Dowty clearly considers both morally and politically imperative.
Dowty is especially persuasive about the force of modernization. Traditional, religious, and communitarian/ethnic Israel is a part of the population and is here to stay. Unlike Sternhell, Dowty does not see that part of the Israeli population as a problem per se, though its extremist fringe is certainly problematic. But a more modern and secular type of Israeli, resembling the population of most of the developed world, is also growing in influence. Israel's future, according to Dowty, will require a balance of Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism, both of which can fairly be retrieved from the rich and broad moral tradition of the Jewish people: "When tradition offers contradictory messages, why choose limited visions of the past rather than the timeless truths of the Hebrew prophets?" Israel can be both Jewish and democratic; it need not abandon one to achieve the other.
Thoughtful and fair-minded reevaluation of Israel's history is a process Christians should applaud. We do our unique friend no favor when we offer uncritical support. Unquestioning advocacy of whatever Israel is doing at any given time does not actually advance its true interests. Any Christian with a lively doctrine of sin ought to assent readily to this proposition, which applies equally well to any nation or context. Precisely because we "pray for the peace of Jerusalem," we ought to be free to engage critically with its policies.
But we can only do so if, as Christians, we are able to hold in tension the Israel of our theological consciousness and the Israel of contemporary history. The dilemma which Sternhell raises as an Israeli/Jewish problem is also a Christian problem—in particular, an evangelical problem. For we too tend to interpret modern Israel and its claims on the basis of our theological categories, including a variety of dubious eschatological frameworks, and have done so for centuries. This distorts our political thinking and public witness.
Contemporary Jews often find themselves bemused by the enthusiastic support Israel receives from its evangelical Christian friends. They're certainly glad for the help, especially the exertion of our influence in our own politically strategic nation, but they find the theological underpinnings of that support nearly incomprehensible. In any case, it is not at all clear that this theologically driven pro-Israelism really does twenty-first-century Israel much of a service. It helped motivate British pro-Zionism, helped the state of Israel get up and running, helped it gain an extra measure of US support when that was badly needed—but it cannot help Israel mature into the kind of humane liberal-while-Jewish democracy it must be to flourish over the long term.
Christians must acknowledge that modern Israel, and modern Jews in general, cannot neatly be identified with the "Israel" of our theological categories or even of our Western religious and cultural heritage. We do well to acknowledge a level of mystery here. We do not know for certain what plans God has for wrapping up the threads of human history and what role the extra ordinary Jewish people or the Jewish state will play in those culminating events of this aeon. For now, while we pray and ponder such mysteries, we should urge our government to relate to the modern state of Israel in essentially the same way we relate to other valued national friends and allies. Meanwhile, as Christians, we must continue to participate in a repentant and respectful dialogue with our much-abused Elder Brother in the family of biblical faith.
David P. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation (Fortress Press).
1. Recently a number of scholars have begun to suggest that in the first centuries after Christ—the formative period of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism alike—the lines between church and synagogue were not so clearly drawn as both Christians and Jews have tended to suppose, and that the mutual influence between the two remained strong even as late as the seventh century. See for example Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), and Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (Yale Univ. Press, 2000).
2. Hertzberg's view that Judaism has no reason theologically, "in its own terms," to reckon with Christianity perhaps still represents the majority of contemporary Jewish thinkers, but there are significant dissenting voices. See for example "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," which appeared in the New York Times (September 10, 2000), and a collection of essays edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview Press, 2000).
Books Considered in this essay
Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (Doubleday, 1998). 291 pp.; $14, paper.
Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). 294 pp.; $16, paper.
John Hohenberg, Israel at 50 (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1998). 356 pp.; $29.95, paper.
Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997). 419 pp; $18.95, paper.
Thomas A. Idinopulos, Weathered by Miracles (Ivan R. Dee, 1998). 283 pp; $16.95, paper.
Alan Dowty, The Jewish State (Univ. of California Press, 1998). 337 pp; $35.
Benny Morris, Righteous Victims (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). 751 pp; $40.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments