For the past few weeks, the State of Israel has been experiencing a deep crisis. Left wing demonstrations against the right wing government’s proposed judicial reforms have often paralyzed many parts of the country. The growing divide between Israel’s largely secular left wing and more traditional and religious right wing is alarming, with some even warning of possible civil war.
Though the issues at stake in the debate over judicial reform are important, it seems clear that something far more significant divides the left and right wing in Israel. It is a battle that began thousands of years before the current crisis, a battle which finds its roots in the Bible itself.
When God blessed Abraham in Genesis 12, His revelation conveyed two distinct objectives. First, God tells Abraham “And I will make you a great nation,” that He will be the father of a great nation, a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Second, God tells Abraham “And all the families of the earth will be blessed in you”, that Abraham and his descendants must serve as a light unto all the nations of the world. Throughout Jewish history, Abraham’s descendants have sought and struggled to fulfill both of these goals.
Ideally, these two missions, the national and the universal, are not meant to conflict with one another. They are meant to occur in stages. In the first stage, the people of Israel must reestablish their national independence and create a society that is grounded in holiness, truth, kindness, and honesty. When this is accomplished, Abraham’s descendents will serve as a model for the rest of the world, demonstrating that striving for justice and love for all is not a utopian ideal.
In actuality, however, these two goals can come into conflict with one another. At the very beginning of Jewish history, the sons of Jacob clashed over precisely this issue. Joseph dreamed of gaining control over Egypt, the superpower of that time, and using that power to spread belief in God to all humanity. Some commentators explain that when Joseph was appointed ruler of Egypt, he demanded that all the Egyptians be circumcised and “convert” to monotheism by accepting the belief in one true God. Joseph’s brothers, however, were suspicious of Joseph’s efforts, focusing their efforts on establishing the distinctive character of the people of Israel.
The tragic dispute between the brothers remained unresolved as they only repented of their behavior towards each other but not of their differing methods of correcting the world. This tension between the two goals of the people of Israel persisted over time. At times, the inward focused desire of the Jewish people to create a particularistic Jewish society grew stronger, while at other times, the goal of serving as a light unto the nations grew stronger. Each impulse, taken to an extreme, can be damaging. If the Jewish people are solely focused on themselves, to the exclusion of the outside world, they will become self absorbed and lose sight of God’s greater goal for the world. On the other hand, if the Jewish people are solely focused on being a light unto the nations and lose sight of their uniqueness and distinctiveness, they will assimilate among the gentiles and disappear, a tragedy that has occurred many times throughout history.
This division ultimately tore apart the kingdom of David and Solomon, which split into two rival kingdoms, Judea and Israel. The people of Judea, whose capital was in Jerusalem, remained dedicated to the Temple service and their unique, Jewish identity. The ten northern tribes, however, turned away from Jerusalem and followed the ways of their pagan neighbors, seeking universalism and acceptance in the broader world.
In modern times, the secular Zionists who played a leading role in the establishment of the State of Israel tried to combine both of these goals. They established a Jewish state, where all Jews could immigrate, but also sought to become a “normal” nation like any other. Secular Zionism tried to create something new that had ever before existed: a Jewish state without religion.
Ultimately, however, this combination was doomed to fail. Without religion, without the Bible, it is impossible for the Jewish State to remain unique and distinct. Little by little, like the ten tribes of old, secular Israelis have drifted ever further from their unique Jewish identity. In recent years, thousands of non-Jews have immigrated to Israel, and intermarriage among the secular Israeli community is growing. Sadly, some of these Israelis no longer feel any attachment to tradition or to the land of Israel and prefer to form political coalitions with Arab parties that support terrorism!
In parallel, the religious and traditional Jews of Israel have grown in strength and numbers. Disturbed by many of the trends among Israel’s secular community, they have pushed back, politically and culturally, with the goal of making Israel a distinctly Jewish State. In Israel’s most recent election, conservative religious and traditional Jews won a clear majority of the Knesset, and have begun efforts to weaken the secular community’s grasp on power. This is the root of the right wing’s current efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary, an institution completely dominated by secular leftists with little regard for Jewish tradition and distinctiveness.
I am proudly religious and unequivocally believe that the State of Israel must return to its unique and distinctive roots. I didn’t move to Israel to help create a “normal” secular country like Switzerland or Belgium! As God’s chosen nation in God’s holy land, Israel must remain true to its unique and particular destiny.
At the same time, I also recognize that Israel must be a light unto the nations – but not by assimilating and losing our identity, as Israel’s secular left wing has done. Rather, even as we strengthen our uniquely Jewish identity, we must never lose sight of our ultimate goal – to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and create a house of prayer where all of humanity can serve God together. As God promised Abraham at the very beginning of our history, we can and must be a great and holy nation and a blessing to the entire world, all at the same time.
Rabbi Elie Mischel serves as marketing and content manager at Israel365.