An Exegetical Challenge
In the town where I grew up, there was a synagogue that had the distinction of having hired the first woman rabbi in the United States. I grew up with friends who spoke openly of their affection for Israel, and I absorbed from this environment a strong belief in the necessity of its existence.
As I grew older, I came to recognize a measure of justice in the Palestinian cause. But it was hard for me to separate the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people from the venality of the PLO, which I associated with acts like the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
While the demographics of my hometown may have been somewhat unique, I think that my viewpoint was relatively common among Americans who grew up in the last third of the 20th century. Israel was seen as an ally in the struggle against communism and a country that shared the liberal democratic values of the West.
Much has changed since that time.
The collapse of communism and the rise of Islamic radicalism have altered the way that Western leaders assess the importance of their relationship with Israel. The growing military strength of Israel and the waning of pan-Arabism have weakened the case that Israel faces an existential threat from its immediate neighbors. While the tactics of the Palestinians have often done as much harm as good to their cause, few question that their suffering is an injustice that requires a remedy. All of this has served to weaken Israel’s historic ties with the West.
I want to suggest, though, that Israel’s dilemma is also exegetical and theological. The country’s recent history reflects an underlying tension between two traditions in the Jewish scriptures. The first tradition, rooted in Israel’s early history, emphasizes the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants and God’s promise of the land (cf. Deu 9:5; 34:4). Israel is a people chosen from among the nations to be God’s own.
The second tradition—influenced both by the emergence of the monarchy and the later influence of Hellenism—places more emphasis on the Davidic covenant, the promise of kingship to David and his descendants. During and after the exile, this promise was increasingly viewed eschatologically, with the restoration of the Davidic monarchy tied to a future where all nations would come to worship the God of Israel (cf Isa 2:2-5). In this tradition, Israel exists not only for itself but also to be a light to the nations.
The redactors of the Jewish scriptures have skillfully woven these two traditions together and a faithful reading of these texts requires that they both be honored. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is wrong to suggest that Israel’s historic ties with the West are more bound up with the second tradition. Particularly in its early years, Israel’s nation-building efforts had identifiable connections to the post-war reconstruction of Europe. The later emergence of the Cold War reinforced the idea that Israel was part of a broader movement to defend and extend the global reach of liberal democracy.
The causes of Israel’s embrace of its more “particularist” traditions are complex. Much of it has to do with the resources that tradition provides for maintaining unity in the face of an external threat. Some of it has to do with Europe’s increasing secularism, making it harder for Israel to appear to a shared religious tradition when seeking allies there. Perhaps the greatest problem is that the “universalist” tradition, precisely because of its connections with modern liberalism, has always co-existed uneasily with the idea of an ethno-religious state.
The problem that Israel faces, though, is that the “particularlist” tradition comes with serious risks. To the extent that it isolates Israel from any project larger than its own survival, its conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors becomes just another zero-sum ethnic conflict of which the world has no shortage.
This is not to say that Americans will abandon Israel in the sense of becoming strong partisans of the Palestinian cause. They may well, though, increasingly regard it as another faraway place with intractable problems that the United States has neither the time nor the resources to solve.
There are times when I think that Israel has gone too far to come back, that its political institutions simply won’t allow it to make the internal changes it needs to make peace and survive in a form that its founders would recognize. My hope is that Israel will prove me wrong and that it will find the resources in its own tradition to chart a new path for its future.